Theology and Sanity: Book Recommendation

As I write this, I’m in the final chapters of reading Frank Sheed’s 1947 book Theology and Sanity. With all of the books out there that I could be reading, I went out of my way to get a copy of this one… and I’m extremely glad that I did.

I got it thanks to Dr. Peter Kreeft’s recommendation that he made during his talk entitled “Seven Reasons to be Catholic” (available through Lighthouse Catholic Media). Kreeft is a Catholic philosopher who has written over 50 books. He’s a super smart guy. He said, “Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity is probably the best single work of Catholic apologetics in the 20th century. It contains, for instance, the clearest explanation of the Trinity that I’ve ever read. He writes with clarity, and power…” So yeah with a description like that I knew I needed to add it to the list. I made the mistake, however, of ordering a recent edition from Catholic Way Publishing which turned out to be rife with typos. Bummer. I’ve gone through my copy with a pencil making basic corrections as I read. Hopefully future editions from that publisher will have corrected the errors, but I recommend the reliable Ignatius Press edition.

Many of my fellow Christians are familiar with the excitement one gets from reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity for the first time. It’s the experience of seeing your own faith articulated in such a way that you want to share it with everyone. This book is like that, but for Catholics it not only explores the faith in a general way, it also dives into some extremely deep subjects with the sort of clarity that we laymen require. Sheed writes to the average person, making use of accumulated knowledge that has taken theologians centuries to carefully unpack.

As I tend to like orderly ways of doing things, I appreciate how Sheed starts with the necessary basics (such as the importance of theology and the proper mindset with which to approach it), and builds upon each subject as he progresses. We often struggle in understanding God simply because we haven’t been taught certain understandable truths about Him. Sheed explains how God transcends time and space, and how He is essential to the existence of everything. This book confidently tackles difficult questions about God that I would have assumed were best avoided. The Trinity is explained very carefully yet understandably. This alone is worth the price of the book, as it is very easy to stumble into heresy when not properly educated on the subject. The Trinity is an essential aspect of Christian beliefs that is not easy to explain, so make sure you’re getting it right. But Sheed goes further, explaining creation, angels, the fall of man, the story of salvation history, Jesus’ teachings and sacrifice, and His establishment of the Church and what that means for us. The more we understand these things, the better sense we can make of our existence. The better we understand real theology, the saner we are as human beings.

By the way, Sheed isn’t just relying on logic and tradition; he also bases his statements on Scripture and the writings of great men from Church history like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He writes about life as part of the Body of Christ, and life after death; the end of the world, and what a life of grace looks like. Although this book was written decades ago, his insight into modern society may as well have been written yesterday. We see the hopelessness of atheism (nisi Dominus frustra: without God there is only frustration), and we see the slide toward sin (even among Christians) apart from well-established expectations, and we see the general unhappiness and spiritual sloth that develop apart from the Church.

What’s very satisfying about this book is how Sheed manages to tie these various subjects together in such a way that they build upon each other, so he can keep his explanations brief and flowing logically. It’s all basically intertwined, but it takes someone with an overall understanding to explain it properly.

Disclaimer: as easy as this book is to understand compared to many others like it, I still had to digest it in small doses (sometimes reading out loud while pacing with coffee) because it’s deep stuff. Our minds today are not conditioned to delve deeply… we lack the mental muscle so to speak. However, having said that, if you want to understand the Christian faith in a way that can weather storms, I highly recommend this book. Many people have their faith established in their hearts, but I encourage you to also have it established in your head. It’s worth your time.

-Ben 6/14/15

“This book contains theology, not the great mass of it that theologians need, but the indispensable minimum that every man needs…” –Frank Sheed

Advertisements

A Case for the Sign of the Cross: St. Francis de Sales and his Defense of a Christian Practice

On January 24th, Christians around the world honor the memory of St. Francis de Sales, who is remembered for his bold yet graceful defense of the Faith in the 16th century area of Switzerland. Before January 24th came along this year, I had the opportunity to read a copy of St. Francis’ book, The Sign of the Cross, in which he defends the practice of making the Sign of the Cross by referring not only to the historic traditions of Christianity, but also relating powerful stories of its use, and the biblical roots of its importance.

The Sign of the Cross can be made over the forehead or mouth, but the most familiar method is touching the fingers of the right hand to the forehead, followed by the lower/center chest, left shoulder and then right shoulder. This is done while saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, which some consider to be “the fifteen most powerful words in the English language”. St. Francis is decidedly Catholic, as are his apologetics, but non-Catholics should not be too quick to dismiss the Sign of the Cross simply because Catholics have gotten the most use out of it. My question is whether all Christians should be using it, and I’ll cut to the chase for a moment: if the Sign of the Cross is inherently (and historically) Christian, and does indeed stand against both evil and false doctrine, then it seems to me that all followers of Christ should be identifying themselves with the Sign of the Cross. Because I prefer to examine Christianity in its full historical context, I am willing to think outside the box on this, even though I’m still technically classified as an “Evangelical Protestant”.

St. Francis’ chapter titles offer some insight into his approach to the subject: “A Public Profession of Faith”, “The Use of the Sign of the Cross in the Church of the Fathers”, “A Reproof to the Antichrist”, “A Defense against Demons”, etc.

Along with scripture references to explain to people why they should not assail such a wonderful Christian practice, St. Francis also quoted many important people from Christian history, such as St. Athanasius: “Every magical art is rebuffed by the Sign of the Cross, and by it every spell is broken”. Or St. Antony: “The demons come in the night pretending to be angels of God. Seeing them, arm yourselves and your homes with the Sign of the Cross, and immediately they will be reduced to nothing, for they fear this victory sign by which the Savior despoiled the powers of the air and made them laughable.” And St. John Chrysostom: “St. Paul calls the Cross a prize, and it should not only be made with the hand on the body, but, in truth, first in the soul. For if in this way you impress it upon your face, not one of the demons will dare attack you, seeing the lance by which they received the mortal blow.”

St. Francis de Sales himself was a very interesting guy. Particularly interesting to me, he is the patron saint of writers, and known for his stand against the harmful ideas of his time that posed a real threat to him personally and caused great spiritual damage to the region in which he lived. According to the biographical note at the end of the book, “…St. Francis’ unflagging poise and kindness in [his] mission led to its eventual success. By the turn of the century, the majority of the area’s inhabitants had returned to the Catholic faith.”

In closing, the description on the back cover of the book is worth quoting at length:

Embodying the zeal of youth and the wisdom of age, this gentle jewel of Catholic apologetics traces the origins of the Sign of the Cross back to the Fathers of the Church, to the Apostles before them, and finally to our Lord Himself…

Outside the Creed itself, there are few topics to which the Fathers testify as universally and unanimously as the pious practice of making, frequently and well, the Sign of the Cross…”

I would be curious to hear the thoughts of my fellow Christians on this matter. Why are so many of us not making the Sign of the Cross? As a Christian, I have been longing for a way to identify myself boldly with Christ, express spiritual feelings outwardly, bless and be blessed, and separate myself from heretical versions of the faith. History and Christian tradition may have provided the answer. What do you think?

-Ben 1/23/14

If this sign were not applied to the forehead of believers, or to the water with which they are regenerated, or to the chrism oil with which they are anointed, or to the sacrifice by which they are nourished, none of these would be as perfect as they should be.”
–St. Augustine