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The Faith Is Exciting If You Present It Right

The classic works of apologist Frank Sheed reveal how beginning with the basics can be like sharing the most hidden secrets of the universe.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the author’s new book, Booked for Life: The Bibliographic Memoir of an Accidental Apologist, wherein he discusses the works that were most influential his development as an apologist. Frank Sheed was a convert who became a leading figure in the London Catholic Evidence Guild’s evangelizing efforts in Hyde Park in the 1920s. He went on to write a dozen masterful apologetic works. In this excerpt, Karl considers Sheed’s Theology and Sanity (1947).


If there is a chief fault of Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity, it is its title. At first glance—and at second glance, for that matter—it suggests itself to be a book about psychology and its relation to religion. Sheed gets past that in the first few pages.

By sanity he means recognizing that God is and that he is everywhere; insanity is the denial of God and his omnipresence—it’s the denial of half of reality and the more important half at that:

My concern in this book is not with the will but with the intellect, not with sanctity but with sanity. The difference is too often overlooked in the practice of religion. The soul has two faculties, and they should be clearly distinguished. There is the will: its work is to love—and so to choose, to decide, to act. There is the intellect: its work is to know, to understand, to see. To see what? To see what’s there.

I learned early on that, to many people, this is a revolutionary idea: that the human soul has two faculties, intellect and will, and that their functions are distinct yet complementary. Few people think about thinking as distinguished from willing. The distinction just never occurs to them. They find themselves stymied when trying to understand what the human person is and how he operates.

I learned that beginning with the basics can be like sharing the most hidden secrets of the universe. Once people grasp such elementary distinctions, whole worlds open up to them.

The late Fr. Ray Ryland, our longtime chaplain at Catholic Answers, told a story about a fellow priest-professor who taught at a nominally Catholic college. That professor wanted to attract students to his new class and decided to title it “Underground Catholicism.” In the class description he promised to reveal the deepest secrets of the Catholic religion.

The labeling worked, and the class was over-subscribed. Week after week the professor regaled students with unimaginable tidbits about Catholicism. They delighted in what he revealed to them, and he delighted in never revealing to them that all he was doing was teaching from the Baltimore Catechism.

As Sheed writes:

God is not only a fact of religion. He is a fact. Not to see him is to be wrong about everything, which includes being wrong about one’s self. It does not require any extreme of religious fanaticism for a man to want to know what he is, and this he cannot know without some study of the Being who alone brought him into existence and holds him there….

The first difficulty in the way of the intellect’s functioning well is that it hates to function at all, at any rate beyond the point where functioning begins to require effort. The result is that when any matter arises which is properly the job of the intellect, then either nothing gets done at all, or else the imagination leaps in and does it instead. There is nothing to be done with the intellect until imagination has been put firmly in its place. And this is extraordinarily difficult….

The imagination acts as censor upon what the intellect shall accept. Tell a man, for instance, that his soul has no shape or size or color or weight, and the chances are that he will retort that such a thing is inconceivable. If we reply that it is not inconceivable but only unimaginable, he will consider that we have conceded his case—and will proceed to use the word “unimaginable” with the same happy finality as the word “inconceivable.” For indeed in the usage of our day, the two words have become interchangeable. That they are thus interchangeable is a measure of the decay of thinking, and to sort them out and see them as distinct is an essential first step in the mind’s movement toward health.

Soul and spirit

Words are a problem, particularly for those unskilled in making distinctions. Just as unimaginable and inconceivable are taken to mean the same thing, so with inerrant and infallible when the topic is Scripture, and so with other pairs of words that impede useful discussion because many discussants don’t know how to distinguish between them.

Consider soul and spirit. Every living thing has a soul, which is its life-giving principle. The souls of animals and plants are material principles; they die when the animals and plants die. (Rocks have no life and so have no souls.) The human soul differs markedly from the souls of the lower orders because it is spiritual, not material. It is a spirit, not matter. When a human body dies, the human soul perdures because spirits can’t die.

This seems commonsensical enough when stated this way, but it generally is not something listeners have given thought to. This can generate confusion when an apologist speaks on the assumption that his terms are understood.

Sheed:

Spirit, we say, is the being that knows and loves, and this is a positive statement of its activity, what it does. But we can say something also of its nature, what it is. Briefly, spirit is the being which has its own nature so firmly in its grasp that it can never become some other thing. Any material thing is in the constant peril of becoming something else: wood is burned and becomes ash, oxygen meets hydrogen and becomes water, hay is eaten and becomes cow. In short any material thing is what it is, but tenaciously. My body, being material, might be eaten by a cannibal, and some of my body would be absorbed to become his body. But my soul can never thus be made into something else. The reason is bound up with a truth we have already mentioned—that material things have constituent parts, and spiritual things have not. What has parts can be taken apart. Because material things have parts, molecules and such, these parts can be separated from one another and made to enter into new alliances with other parts similarly separated from the company they had, until that moment, been keeping. But a spirit has no parts; therefore it cannot be taken apart. It can exist only as a whole. God might annihilate it, but, while it exists, it can only be what it is. It can never be anything else.

This is simple philosophy, but it is simply marvelous to those who hear it for the first time. Few people ever give much thought to what spirit is. For that matter, they don’t give much thought to matter’s underlying nature either. Aquinas tells us that a spirit is a simple thing, simple in the sense of not being made of parts. If spirit is simple, matter is complex. Just to say that goes against common experience: what we see around us seems comfortable to us. A mountain is large, but we can grasp it in our minds. But spirit? We accept that spirit exists—that spirits exist—but most of us are at a loss to say much about spirit, precisely because it seems difficult.

Our perception, then, is that the simple thing is difficult and the complex thing is easy—which is true to an extent, if by that we mean that the easy thing is something we don’t have to apply mental labor to and the difficult thing is something our mind has trouble mastering. All that said, the distinction Sheed makes between matter and spirit is a revelation to people who never thought about the question.

The Trinity

Until I read Frank Sheed on the Trinity, I don’t think I ever found an explanation that could be transferred usefully to an audience. When I first read Sheed’s claim that, of all the topics handled at Catholic Evidence Guild open-air meetings in London’s Hyde Park, the Trinity was the one that consistently drew the largest and most interested crowds, I momentarily balked. The Trinity is the root doctrine of Christianity because it concerns the inner nature of God himself. Everything else is subsidiary to that; everything else flows from that.

But since the doctrine of the Trinity is, in a way, the doctrine furthest from us, with all the distance that lies between a creature and his Creator, it strikes one at first as too ethereal to grasp and, frankly, a bit boring because abstract. Why should a crowd be drawn to this belief above all others? What was the fascination? Sheed:

The notion is unfortunately widespread that the mystery of the Blessed Trinity is a mystery of mathematics, that is to say, of how one can equal three. The plain Christian accepts the doctrine of the Trinity; the “advanced” Christian rejects it; but too often what is being accepted by the one and rejected by the other is that one equals three. The believer argues that God has said it, therefore it must be true; the rejecter argues that it cannot be true, therefore God has not said it….

Consider what happens when a believer in the doctrine is suddenly called upon to explain it—and note that unless he is forced to, he will not talk about it at all. There is no likelihood of his being so much in love with the principal doctrine of the Faith that he will want to tell people about it. Anyhow, here he is: he has been challenged and must say something. The dialogue runs something like this:

Believer: Well, you see, there are three persons in one nature.
Questioner: Tell me more.
Believer: Well, there is God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
Questioner: Ah, I see, three gods.
Believer: Oh, no! Only one God.
Questioner: But you said three: you called the Father God, which is one; and you called the Son God, which makes two; and you called the Holy Spirit God, which makes three.

Here the dialogue breaks down. From the believer’s mouth there emerges what can only be called a soup of words, sentences that begin and do not end, words that change into something else halfway. This goes on for a longer or shorter time. But finally there comes something like: “Thus, you see, three is one and one is three.” The questioner naturally retorts that three is not one nor one three. Then comes the believer’s great moment. With his eyes fairly gleaming he cries: “Ah, that is the mystery. You have to have faith.”

“It’s a mystery to me”—which means about the same as “It’s Greek to me”—indicates that there is something we know nothing about. The sentence is a verbal shrug. That may be the colloquial use of mystery, but it is not the theological use. A mystery is not something about which we can know nothing; it is something about which we would not know anything had the fact of the mystery not been given to us through revelation.
Once it has been given—once we have been told of its existence and of some of its attributes—we have information to go on. However much or little is revealed to us, our minds will set to work drawing out the implications. Sheed:

Now it is true that the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity is a mystery and that we can know it only by faith. But what we have just been hearing is not the mystery of the Trinity; it is not the mystery of anything. It is wretched nonsense. It may be heroic faith to believe like the man who “wished there were four of ’em that he might believe more of ’em” or it may be total intellectual unconcern—God has revealed things about himself, we accept the fact that he has done so but find in ourselves no particular inclination to follow it up. God has told us that he is three persons in one divine nature, and we say “Quite so” and proceed to think about other matters—last week’s retreat or next week’s confession or Lent or Lourdes or the Church’s social teaching or foreign missions….

We have seen that the imagination cannot help here. Comparisons drawn from the material universe are a hindrance and no help….And for the intellect, the way into the mystery lies, as we have already suggested, in the meaning of the words person and nature. There is no question of arithmetic involved. We are not saying three persons in one person or three natures in one nature; we are saying three persons in one nature.

There is not even the appearance of an arithmetical problem. It is for us to see what person is and what nature is and then to consider what meaning there can be in a nature totally possessed by three distinct persons….

One distinction we see instantly. Nature answers the question what we are; person answers the question who we are. Every being has a nature; of every being we may properly ask, What is it? But not every being is a person; only rational beings are persons. We could not properly ask of a stone or a potato or an oyster, Who is it?

By our nature, then, we are what we are. It follows that by our nature we do what we do, for every being acts according to what it is. Applying this to ourselves, we come upon another distinction between person and nature.

We find that there are many things, countless things, we can do. We can laugh and cry and walk and talk and sleep and think and love. All these and other things we can do because as human beings we have a nature that makes them possible. A snake could do only one of them—sleep. A stone could do none of them. Nature, then, is to be seen not only as what we are but as the source of what we can do.

But although my nature is the source of all my actions, although my nature decides what kind of operations are possible for me, it is not my nature that does them. I do them, I the person. Thus both person and nature may be considered sources of action, but in a different sense. The person is that which does the actions; the nature is that by which the actions are done or, better, that from which the actions are drawn…..

With all the light we can get on the meaning of person and of nature even in ourselves, we have seen that there is still much that is dark to us. Both concepts plunge away to a depth where the eye cannot follow them. Even of our own finite natures, it would be rash to affirm that the only possible relation is one person to one nature.

But of an infinite nature, we have no experience at all. If God tells us that his own infinite nature is totally possessed by three persons, we can have no grounds for doubting the statement, although we may find it almost immeasurably difficult to make any meaning of it. There is no difficulty in accepting it as true, given our own inexperience of what it is to have an infinite nature and God’s statement on the subject; there is no difficulty, I say, in accepting it as true. The difficulty lies in seeing what it means. Yet short of seeing some meaning in it, there is no point in having it revealed to us; indeed, a revelation that is only darkness is a kind of contradiction in terms.

Summarizing thus far, we may state the doctrine in this way: the Father possesses the whole nature of God as his own, the Son possesses the whole nature of God as his own, the Holy Spirit possesses the whole nature of God as his own. Thus, since the nature of any being decides what the being is, each person is God, wholly and therefore equally with the others. Further, the nature decides what the person can do; therefore, each of the three persons who then totally possess the divine nature can do all the things that go with being God.

This excerpt shows well Sheed’s skill as an apologist: clarity, precision, winsomeness. In his lengthy 1929 essay on Dante, T.S. Eliot said, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” If I were to venture something similar about Catholic apologetics, at least in the English-speaking world, I would say that Sheed and Arnold Lunn divide the modern apologetics world between them. Their books are worth reading repeatedly. Whenever I take them down from the shelf and flip the pages, I come to penciled marks in the margins, my way of indicating something worth recapturing: a puissant argument, a memorable locution, a way of conveying Catholic truth that always seems fresh and compelling.

Sidebar:

Rejecters of Mystery

Like most Americans, I have had rejecters of divine mysteries come to my door: Jehovah’s Witnesses. They hold to a unitarian position, saying that in God there is only one person, not three. The faith of the Watchtower is a simplification of authentic Christianity, and simplification appeals to many people. It has some awkward consequences, though, if one tries to account for the whole of Scripture.

I recall once when two women Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. I told them that I was familiar with the history of the Watchtower, that I had read its magazines, and that I had a copy of Reasoning from the Scriptures, a book used to train its door-to-door missionaries. Before my visitors could commandeer the conversation, I suggested we read through John 6 in the Watchtower’s New World translation.

As we did so, I focused on Christ’s eucharistic discourse and its literalness, how he repeatedly said that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, how those who took his words metaphorically turned away from him—first the Jews who were listening, then some of his own disciples who until then had accepted all that he had taught. I noted that in John 6 we find the only instance in Scripture in which anyone leaves Christ for a doctrinal reason.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that John 6 is a great example of symbolic teaching, but I said to the women that a fresh reading of the text shows that this couldn’t be so. Christ’s listeners understood him to be speaking literally—because that is how he spoke—and that is why they turned from following him. He was revealing what could not have been learned through human ratiocination alone: the mystery of the Real Presence.

It is no accident that those who reject one mystery tend to reject others. It is no surprise that the Jehovah’s Witnesses reject not only the Trinity (and thus the Incarnation) but the Eucharist as well.

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