Sanity and Society | Frank Sheed | From Knowing God: God and the Human Condition (Ignatius Press, 2012; originally 1966. Also available in electronic book format)
Insanity is all about us. I do not mean that men individually are madmen, but they add up to a society which is not truly sane. Sanity means seeing what’s there and planning life accordingly. And as a society ours does not see the major part of reality at all, therefore does not see aright the minor part that it is aware of, shapes its activities as though the mis-seen fraction of reality were the whole of it. Secular ethics means deciding our actions as though there were no God, while not settling the question whether there is or not. I do not mean that men of this mind are acting evilly; they may act nobly (as believers may act appallingly).
But they would add a fuller rationality to their nobility if they knew the true order of reality. To act without full vision is a formula for chaos. And in a chaos we live, exhibited to us by every newspaper we read, yet disguised from us by the care and intelligence and goodwill expended upon the understanding and ordering of the fraction—disguised again by the mental muscularity, the almost blinding scientific and technological brilliance, with which the seen part of reality is analyzed, is formulated and systematized, packaged, and offered for acceptance. The chaos is amiable so far; but chaos cannot be relied on to stay amiable—there are parts of the world in which it has not.
Even short of some such catastrophe befalling our own part of the world, it is not good to be the sane minority in a society that has lost contact with God. We hold our own mental health precariously when sanity so partial and defective is accepted as the norm. Insanity is catching: we grow uncertain of the cadences of normal speech when all around us men are gibbering, and gibbering so learnedly and so gravely and so confidently. Our world at its best has all the airs and graces, the rationalizations and courtesies and card indexes of sanity, so that the notion that it might not be sane may not occur to us. The card indexes especially, so tidy, so efficient, so inclusive—only a fanatic would question the rationality of the mind that produces them.
“Fanatic” is the word. We can frighten ourselves with it. I have talked of assumptions and seepage that we are mystery unaware of. But there is something else: the Catholic can be consciously embarrassed at his difference. There are those who feel out of step, self-conscious because out of step, self-questioning because out of step. If they have not made the mysteries of revelation truly their own, they may see life fluid and free, theology all bones. There is great psychological value in a strong affirmation, said Hilaire Belloc. No affirmation was ever stronger than our world makes of its own rightness.
The temptation is to try to get into step with everybody else, while somehow hanging on to the truths. Short of denying them, there is a kind of scaling down and shading off, a resolute switching of the mind away from doctrines at which the world would raise an eyebrow. At all costs, one must not be a fanatic. Saint Paul had met this attitude, right at our beginnings: “Be not conformed to this world, but be re-formed in the newness of your mind” (Rom 12:2).
It is not only faith that demands this, but sheerest common sense. One remembers a stock joke of the last fifty years—the old lady watching a line of soldiers on parade and saying proudly, “They’re all out of step except my George.” We all smile, we all assume without the shadow of a second thought that it is George who is out of step. But if everybody else in the battalion happened to be deaf, then George might well be the only one marching in time to the music of the band.
The parallel is exact. The follower of Christ does hear a music which does not reach the ears of other men; he is bound to be out of step with them, for they are out of step with it. But in our world we must listen to that music with unflagging attention—partly that it may not be drowned out of our own ears by all the tom-toms of chaos, partly that others may begin to catch from us first some hint of the rhythm, then some hint of the tune. Unflagging attention, I say. Few of us can give it that. We catch strains of the music tossed on the winds of the spirit—but how fitfully that wind can blow for us, how fitfully we listen for it.
by Frank Sheed
Atheists deny we can know God because they deny there is a God to know. But even believers who affirm God's existence sometimes don't know him. They don't know much about God because they neglect to think much about God and what God has revealed about himself. They accept that there is a God but they don't give much thought to what God is like. And even if they know a great deal about God in the sense of being able to state truths about him, they don't necessarily know him personally and intimately.
In Knowing God (previously titled God and the Human Mind)
the great Catholic writer, teacher, and publisher Frank Sheed helps
readers to know that God exists, to think about who and what God is, and
to know God personally. He clears away popular misunderstandings of
God, often held by otherwise knowledgeable people. A masterful, lucid
writer, Sheed is not timid about tackling the most challenging questions
the human mind can pose about God, yet he does not reduce divine
mystery to dry propositions or neglect the necessity of faith.
Sheed acknowledges the limits of human words and human minds when it comes to God. At the same time, he carefully explains the meaning of Spirit, the role of theology and revelation, including the place of the Bible in the Church, and the experience of God in mysticism. In the final section, Sheed goes into the heart of the mystery of God, exploring God as the Trinity and the difference the Trinity should make in understanding God and ourselves.
Frank Sheed had a very distinguished career as a publisher, lecturer, street-corner evangelist, and popular writer. He and his wife Maisie Ward were the founders of the major publishing house Sheed & Ward. His many popular books include To Know Christ Jesus, Theology and Sanity, Society and Sanity, and A Map of Life.
"This book is vintage Sheed: clear, commonsensical, and convincing. This is the Sheed of the two masterpieces of apologetics Theology and Sanity and Society and Sanity.
But this is also a new Sheed: older and wiser, more practical and
human--the post-Vatican II Sheed. I mean this in all the good senses,
the John Paul II senses: he is sensitive to the dangers of "the good old
days": verbalism, "dead orthodoxy," rationalism, deism, what Sheed
calls "theometry" instead of theology: an abstract, formal theological
geometry that only wants to define terms and win debating points.
Instead, this book is a kind of theological midrash, a deepening, a
spelunking in the caves of the deepest mysteries with the clear light of
honest words--honest with heart as well as head. It unites dogmatic
theology with lived religion. It is precisely the breath of fresh air
that Pope John XXIII opened the windows for, and in terms the layman can
- Peter Kreeft, Author, Because God is Real