Posted by: Catholic of Thule | June 15, 2011

Sheed on the ‘incredible folly’ which is sin.

It may be worth pausing at this first and most catastrophic of all sins to consider the nature of sin. In angels or men sin is always an effort to gain something against the will of God. Thus for angels and men sin is essentially ludicrous. All alike are made by God of nothing; all alike are held in existence by nothing save the continuing will of God to hold them so. To think that we can gain anything by hacking or biting or furtively nibbling at the Will which alone holds us in existence at all is a kind of incredible folly. It is precisely because apart from God we should be nothing, that Pride is the worst of all sins, for it is the direct assertion of self as against God. It is sin in its nakedness: all other sins are sin dressed up a little. Other sins are an effort to gain something against the will of God, pride is the claim to be something apart from the will of God.

I have said that sin is incredible folly. But it is made to look credible by the ease and frequency with which we do it. Sin is madness, but it is possible. Why? There is a profound mystery here: a mystery at its very darkest when we ask how pure spirits could have been guilty of a folly so monstrous, but a mystery still even when any of us considers his own most recent effort to gain something against god’s will. The rebellious angels must have known that it was madness, yet they did it; but after all, any instructed Catholic knows that it is madness, yet he does it. Sin, in fact, is not simply a matter of knowledge, mysterious as knowledge is; it is a matter of that far more mysterious thing, will, at the very ultimate point of its mysteriousness,  its freedom of choice. The will, if it wants intensely enough, can ignore the intellect’s information and go for what it wants. Even if the intellect knows that the thing will bring disaster, the will can choose it; even if it knows that the thing cannot be had at all, the will can still fix itself upon it. Not even by the intellect is the will coerced. Created beings are the resultant of infinite power working upon nothingness, and they are free to fix their choice anywhere between those two extremes. To choose anything at all as apart from God is quite literally to choose nothingness, for apart from God everything is nothing. To choose God is to choose the infinite. Either way, whether we choose nothing or the infinte, we cannot be either, but we can possess either. We are free to choose.

…But freedom to choose does not mean freedom to choose the consequences of our choice, for we are living in a universe, not a chaos: we can choose to do this or that, but the consequences of our choice will be governed by the laws of the universe in which we are. It is only when we use our freedom of choice (that is our freedom to choose without coercion) to make choices in harmony with the reality of things – in harmony with what God is, with what we are and with what all other things are – that we achieve freedom in its second sense, namely fullness of being, the act of being all that by nature we are and doing all that by nature we are meant to do.

F.J. Sheed, Theology and Sanity.

If the above is not recommendation enough, may I add that I cannot possibly recommend Theology and Sanity enough. It is still under copyright, or I would probably quote from it more often, but as quotations must then be restrictive, I thought the above not a bad choice.  The book  is available from, among other places, the bookdepository, which offers free postage with no minimum purchase.

Sheed  makes difficult topics more available to those without theological training (but without a distortive dumbing down of the material!) in a style which is lucid, elegant and, I would say, joy-filled and imbued with a becoming sense of humour tastefully applied. His work solidly refutes the odd notion that the study of theology is by nature and necessity a dry and sterile exercise, almost divorced from and even at odds with a personal growth in holiness. This notion is also directly addressed by Sheed:

All this is so crammed with fallacy as to be hardly worth refuting. A man may be learned in dogma, and at the same time proud or greedy or cruel: knowledge does not supply for love if love is absent. Similarly a virtuous man may be ignorant, but ignorance is not a virtue. It would be a strange God who could be loved better by being known less. Love of God is not the same thing as knowledge of God; love of God is immeasurably more important than knowledge of God; but if a man loves God knowing a little about Him, he should love God more from knowing more about Him: for every new thing known about God is a new reason for loving Him. It is true that some get vast love from lesser knowledge: it is true also that some get vast light from lesser knowledge: for love helps sight. But sight helps love too.

In his foreword, Sheed identifies the target audience for his book:

There are thousands who know more theology than I, and for them I have no message: they must teach me. But there are thousands who know less, and less is not enough: I must try to teach them. This book contains theology, not the great mass of it that theologians need, but the indispensable minimum that every man needs in order that he may be living mentally in the real world – which is what the word Sanity means in my title.

Sanity, remember, does not mean living in the same world as everyone else; it means living in the real world. But some of the most important elements in the real world can be known only by the revelation of God which it is theology’s business to study. Lacking this knowledge, the mind must live a half-blind life, trying to cope with a reality most of which it does not know is there. This is a wretched state for an immortal spirit, and pretty certain to disaster. There is a good deal of disaster around at this moment.

Now, I can vouch for the usefulness of this book for those who know less theology than Sheed. It is useful both for the instruction of things hitherto not known at all or things not understood or seen as clearly as it is after reading Sheed. And, while he supplies what he deems a minimum, he awakens the taste for further study. However, I should think that Sheed is too modest, even though no dobut entirely sincere, in his assessment that the book is of no use for those who know more.  I should imagine his clear and engaging presentations might be of use in helping some of those who know more to communicate some of what they know to those who would fall within the avowed target audience of the book.

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