A Man Obsessed With Sanity

Author and apologist Frank Sheed, once introduced as "Aquinas in a Collar and Tie", was a master of precision and clarity

This is the second part of an interview with Dr. Joseph F. Martin, professor of Communication and Rhetoric at Hampton University in Virginia, about author, apologist, and publisher Frank Sheed (1897-1981). (Part one, “The Evangelistic Brilliance of Frank Sheed”, was published on Sunday, February 9th.) Dr. Martin is the former art director of re:generation quarterly and his artwork has been commissioned by numerous national clients. He has also written essays and reviews for Word, Books and Culture, and other publications. In 2012, Martin was awarded his doctorate from Regent University, receiving honors for his dissertation, “Lingua Franka: An Examination of the Frank Sheed’s Rhetorical Achievement”, which examined closely the unique qualities Sheed employed as speaker, apologist, author, and communicator.

Dr. Joseph Martin

The first part of this interview focuses on how Sheed helped Martin (a former Evangelical) journey into the Catholic Church, Sheed’s background, Sheed’s skills as a communicator, and what distinguished Sheed as an apologist. This second part examines Sheed’s focus on “sanity”, compares him to G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, and highlight his key books.

CWR: Sheed once said that he was “obsessed with sanity”. What did he mean by that? How did he go about articulating this obsession? 

Martin: Sheed’s apologetic anthem was animated by a counter-rhetoric of Christian Realism, one he grounded in a bass line of “Sanity.” With the onset of modernity Christians were faced with the accusation they dealt in an unreal idealism – pie-in-the-sky sentimentalism, versus real life. Sheed cried “foul”, turning the charge on its head. Christian Faith isn’t escapism: it provides the one alternative that conveys a convincing narrative. And it is the Catholic Church, he maintained, despite centuries of hypocrisies and failings, that remains the custodian of the Christian Gospel, and is thus the rightful home of the “honest lover of truth.”

“Nothing is rightly seen save in the totality to which it belongs; no part of the universe is rightly seen save in relation to the whole,” Sheed explained. “But the universe cannot be seen as a whole unless one sees God as the source of the existence of every part of it… The man who does not see God may have vast knowledge of this or that section of being, but he is like a man who should know all about the eye never having seen a face. His knowledge is of items in a list, not of features in a face. The shape of things, the proportion of things, the totality of things, are unseen by him, indeed unsuspected by him.”

It was this “shape and totality” of things to which Sheed gave his life to understanding and unfolding. His entire apologetic was what G. K. Chesterton called “The Outline of Sanity.” Theology and Sanity came out in 1946, and seven years later another book called Society and Sanity, “but before writing the first of them I had been – so to speak –obsessed with sanity.” In The Church & I, Sheed concluded, “[Sanity] has been the key to all my lecturing, it at is the center of the ‘I’ who is half of this book’s title, the ‘I’ whose experience of the Church the book records.

Friends of mine, who had not read either [book]—friends don’t—were a little concerned for my mental state…They assumed I was writing about insanity—who writes whole books about sanity? I do. … By sanity I mean seeing what’s there. Who doesn’t? you ask. Who does? I answer.

I think Theology and Sanity deserves wider recognition as a minor Christian classic. Sheed’s prose achievement scores. To engage in some cross-confessional borrowing of lines (from J.I. Packer’s description of Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor), Sheed’s words there “have hands and feet. They climb all over you. They work their way into your conscience.” The lover of words suffused his book’s doctrinal content with style to make it sing. An example is his explanation of the place of reason in belief. Remarking on “the extraordinary compliment that the Vatican Council paid to human reason in the year 1870,” he writes:

 It defined that the existence of God can be known by the human reason without the aid of revelation. This is the mightiest compliment ever paid the human reason, and it is of faith.…What the Vatican Council put in its carefully measured words, the Holy Spirit had said a good deal more abruptly three thousand years before – ‘The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.’ Both, as you see, come to the same thing, that the existence of God can be known by reason; therefore if you do not know it, your reasoning is defective, suggests the Vatican Council; you are a fool, cries the Psalmist under the inspiration of God.

And diffusing the most commonly heard argument from atheists, Sheed squared the case with these words:

A four-sided triangle… is in sense inconceivable. It is a contradiction in terms, because a triangle is a three-sided figure; and a four-sided three-sided figure cannot be conceived and cannot be. The less-instructed atheist will ask whether God can make a weight so heavy that He cannot lift it, in the happy belief that, whichever answer we give, we shall admit that there is something God cannot do. But the question is literally meaningless: a weight that an omnipotent Being cannot lift is as complete a contradiction in terms as a four-sided triangle. In either case the words are English, but do not mean anything because they cancel each other out. There is no point in piling together a lot of words, regardless of their meaning, and then asking triumphantly “Can God make that?” God can do anything, but a contradiction in terms is not a thing at all. It is nothing. God Himself could not make a four sided triangle or a weight that Almighty power could not lift. They are inconceivable, they are nothing; and nothing, to give a slightly different emphasis to Scripture, is impossible to God.

Such flights of exposition departed from traditional manuals of the Schoolmen and related a theology that was proposed — and not simply pronounced a la the declarative style represented by proof-texting of older dogmatic texts. The message wasn’t new, just amplified. It was like Sheed started serving up Cherry Vanilla, where for centuries prior all that had been offered in the older scholastic parlors was a recipe of classic French Vanilla. His mix reflected an exposure to the Fathers and an extra-heavy helping of Scripture. “So Augustine and Aquinas both went into it,” he recounted, “in what proportion I could not tell… and Matthew and Mark and Luke and John and Paul…” On top of those, another unfamiliar ingredient he added to the mix was audience feedback: “Every paragraph had been tried out on forty to fifty outdoor audiences.” Of the new taste some would say, “More please.”

But a few members of the Old Guard winced: one Catholic professor complained, “I teach my young men theology and they go out and preach Theology and Sanity.”Another – I don’t agree but it made me laugh – asked his opinion of Theology and Sanity, quipped, “It has not much of one and none of the other”! But Sheed was the first layman to be awarded the Doctorate of Sacred Theology honoris causa from Rome, so someone pretty high up seems to have approved.

Frank Sheed made dry-sounding dogma “snap to” for his audiences. His treatment of creation ex nihilo is a nice demonstration of this feat, where he used “Vital Equivalents” to imbue an academic topic with a sense of immediacy. A comparison of his treatment to an earlier one by C. H. Spurgeon in 1908 is revealing. Spurgeon’s Baptist heritage had steeped him in pulpit theatrics marked by highly stylized delivery. And on the doctrine of Creation from Nothing, the Victorian Protestant pulpiteer did not disappoint. Here are some of his soaring lines:

I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam
does not move an atom more or less than God wishes –
That every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit,
as well as the sun in the heavens –
That the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered
as the stars in their courses.
The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed
as the march of the devastating pestilence –
The fall of sere leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained
as the tumbling of an avalanche.

Sheed’s Catholic heritage, on the other hand, presented him with a more difficult task – popularizing a scholastic tradition prone to articulating ideas with scientific specificity. In Theology and Sanity he’d parsed the topic of Creation with exacting detail; elsewhere he had praised Cardinal Newman’s “magisterial” summary statement of it: “There is no reality without God, who has put into creation whatever reality it possesses.” But in God and the Human Condition, he finally connected these dots with a touch of pedagogical bravado: 

If we take the truth which most of us learned in our catechisms that God made us of nothing, and examine those [persons] who rest in the terms and go no further, we shall find… They either attach no meaning at all to the words … [or] they see “nothing” as a kind of material that God used in the making of things, as though there were a vast reservoir of nothing on which he was able to draw. But if the terms are given mental equivalents, we have a doctrine superbly coherent: that whereas all other makers use some material, it goes with God’s omnipotence that He made without material.

There was nothing: there is something.

And this something owes the whole of its being to the creative act of God… [It] needs the continuing act of that same will to hold it inexistence from moment to moment. So that the formula for every being from electron to archangel is nothingness made into something by the will of God, and by him held continuously in existence. To this statement, nothing is contributed by will or emotion or imagination. But once [realized, it] should have the most profound effect upon all [three]. Emotion, to begin with, feels shattered by… the realization that …we are made of nothing, that we have therefore no hold of our own upon existence. Imagination is stimulated to produce pictures, analogous instances of dependence in the created universe. And though none of these instances can be total, they do develop our awareness of what dependence can mean, and this reflects back on the intellect’s understanding. The Will can accept the truth, try to live by it, come to love it, come to better control of itself in the awareness that some of its own movements are the effect in us of a kind of nostalgia for original nothingness. Then feeling can enter again. We come to feel more secure when thus totally dependent on God. At a different angle, we find ourselves feeling fools when we sin, because sin is an effort to gain something against the will of God – that Will which alone stands between us and annihilation!

You’ll find similar flashes of precision scattered throughout Sheed’s corpus. He was a discursive thinker and a cumulative case maker, so his books don’t abbreviate easily or make for short excerpting. Still, they reward careful reading and show that what biographer Sean O’Faolain judged the case for Newman’s rhetoric holds true for Sheeds’ as well: “If anybody feels this is a dull adventure he can never have experienced the ecstasies of applying language to the refinement of thought in the effort to capture some philosophical concept at once abstract and material, evanescent and permanent…”

But for Sheed, the adventure, however fun, was never for its own sake. “Even honest eloquence can be dangerous,” he thought. “The great orator probably has his function in religion. As it happens I have never heard one… [And] the feeling grows in me that it would have been better for the world if all the born orators had been born dead.” This was no irony. Time after time he stressed that, “The way of it is the presentation of the truth – not the case for it or the beauty of it, but the truth itself…. The truth is a more powerful argument for itself than any case we can make for it.” As a practitioner of rational metaphysics, his idol was “precision, not variety.” When he described the devotional author Fr. Edward Leen as “a man who could write all the fundamentals of Scholasticism on the back of a postage stamp,” he meant it as a compliment. Precision, clarity, and an animating energy — these were the distinguishing marks of his rhetoric.

CWR: G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis are widely seen as two of the most popular and wide-ranging Christians authors and apologists of the past century. How does Sheed and his work compare to their work? Why is Sheed not nearly as widely known or read as Chesterton
and Lewis?

Martin: Sheed’s first love wasn’t writing. It was speaking and lecturing. He and his wife would trudge off, religiously, every weekend to speak in public parks, rain or shine. When he began his publishing house, it was really in support of that same effort of evangelization originating with his Catholic Evidence Guild work. And in that context he saw himself as a leader and organizer as much as an original voice. “I’d rather lead an orchestra than play a flute,” he said of his endless solicitation of authors for Sheed & Ward. Writing was a laborious exercise for him, and he viewed it as an unavoidable if subsidiary extension of the live group engagements with audiences he preferred.

So his corpus simply does not exude the same seamless literary quality quality you get in the Inklings (his wife Maisie Ward’s work is an entirely different story). But the more you factor in the context of his public oratory – the more you sense his conversational cadence – the more his written style begins to click with you. A style is there, but in the final analysis it is more rhetorical than literary. It’s unmannered and transparent. So clarity is one trademark of his delivery. Another one is vitality. Jack London, one of his heroes, wrote, “All things interest me – the world is so very good.” No statement could be truer of Sheed himself, and a robust affection shows through the deliberate, clear-eyed syntax of his prose. What he wrote about Catholic author Ross Hoffman could be said of his own style: “What gives [him] his special appeal as a writer is his eloquence… [There is] a lift and a drive in it, rare in the rather nerveless writing of the present day.”

Two of Sheed’s other literary idols were Horace and Chesterton. Their passion for verse must have been at least partial inspiration for the skill he could demonstrate by marking a beat-driven explanation’s end with the lean flourish or verbal twist. He gave writing students two pieces of advice: study Latin, and read poetry. He said Latin teaches economy, and poetry shows how to use not only the meaning of words but their energies. That sort of convergence of influences gave him a manner all his own, one both unmistakable and unclassifiable: His son Wilfrid Sheed called him The Whistling Theologia”; someone else introduced him as Aquinas in a Collar and Tie. Both appellations fit. Sheed’s rhetoric managed to reach a kind of noble negligence. His style was expressive, but also artfully controlled: truth was always the main show.

I should point out that unlike Chesterton and Lewis, Sheed’s apologetic writings are also matter-of-factly and unapologetically Catholic. Writing of the Guild’s activity he disclosed, “We discovered early on that our main work [would not be] in the making of converts [but] in the bringing back of former Catholics.” He is still irenic, and most often on ecumenically-acceptable ground, but he also veers into specifically Catholic references of the sort you simply don’t find as often in Chesterton, for example. It’s interesting that Sheed was a contemporary of both famous writers. Chesterton was intimately involved with him: Sheed published Chesterton, Maisie Ward ended up writing the journalist’s authorized biography, and Sheed’s son called GKC godfather. It’s harder to nail the extent of Sheed’s involvement with Lewis, although Sheed & Ward did publish a version of Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress, and Sheed on occasion spoke of Lewis.

CWR: What are some of Sheed’s most important books in general? Do you have a personal favorite?

Martin: You cannot go wrong with The Church and I. It gives a terrific glimpse into the author’s wit and personality. It also serves up a collection of snapshots of his endless globetrotting and mind-boggling network of relationships with a veritable Whos Who of Catholic literati. If there is any justice left in publishing, we’ll see a reprint someday. Another out-of-print title that holds personal pride of place is Christ In Eclipse, a slim volume (its jacket snapshot makes Sheed look like a double for WC Fields) that at a crucial time proved for me that Catholics can be every bit as pastorally on point as Protestants.

But a few titles stand out in terms of general importance. Theology and Sanity is his most enduring book for good reason. It’s a perfectly-realized layman’s systematic theology. The last section, especially, also reveals him to be an author who has a lived on a devotional level some degree of what he there teaches. A close second that translates theory into portraiture is To Know Christ Jesus. Though not quite as stylistically impressive an achievement, it communicates his passion for the New Testament and gives striking testament to the primary position of Scripture in Catholicism. “The teacher of Religion should be absolutely soaked in the New Testament,” Sheed wrote, “so that she knows what every key chapter in it is about; knows the line of thought of every book of it, could find her way about it blindfold.”

A last larger work is God and The Human Condition, a book he planned as Sanity’s post-conciliar successor. It finds Sheed dialoging with some pretty cerebral Vatican II theologians like Karl Rahner, so it’s not one of his easier reads. Given my own past I was struck by the fact Ignatius Press, when it decided to republish it, chose to call it Knowing God. That title also happens to belong to the premiere Evangelical devotional work of the last century, J.I. Packer’s oft-recommended Knowing God. Those who read both will see that while Packer quotes the Puritans and Sheed quotes Vatican pereti, there’s a discernible common core despite dissimilarities.

With Packer the money quote is “Knowing God is a relationship calculated to thrill a man’s heart.” Sheed’s variation on the same is, “Knowledge serves love, each new truth learnt is a new reason for loving God.” Even as he tackles hard concepts, he reminds you, “No doctrine is merely academic; that anybody should think it is suggests that he must have been taught it very badly.” (Maisie Ward has this memorable line: “There must be something fantastically bad in teaching that makes dull the most thrilling subject in the world”). His material on the Trinity in this book’s second half may awe you a bit in its method of approach as well as its Object.

That makes four. I’ll toss out two more. An easy entry point is Sidelights on the Catholic Revival. A collection of small reviews Sheed wrote for Sheed & Ward books, this one is an obscure but fun read that gives a feel for the dizzying galaxy of authors that contributed to his thought and style. Lastly there is Are We Really Teaching Religion? It’s a small pamphlet he wrote early on, but its answer was the energizing refrain of his entire career. If there has ever someone who personified what a teacher of religion, not too mention a good communicator, was meant to be, it was Frank Sheed.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.