It is amazing how much I do not know. I came back to the Church seven years ago tomorrow (which was Ash Wednesday that year, too). I am a joiner by nature, so when I decided to become a practicing adult Catholic, I went in full-tilt. That led me to my current lifestyle, where I write book reviews for a Catholic blog and work full-time with the Pope only three bosses away from me. Since I came back to the Church, I have learned a lot about Catholicism, but I’ve learned it haphazardly. Reading Theology for Beginners is rapidly curing that problem.
Theology for Beginners, by Frank J. Sheed, is one of those books. It’s like Mere Christianity, True Devotion to Mary, and The Story of a Soul: spiritual classics that people rave about but that seem intimidating. Even their titles seem weighty. If they have that kind of influence on people’s lives, don’t you half expect them to be about rocket science? I can honestly say, though, after having tackled a few spiritual classics myself, there is so much to be learned that you can’t help but dive in and splash around.
As its title would suggest, Theology for Beginners is written for the average reader. It’s not for someone who is studying for an M.A. in systematic theology, but it’s not for absolute beginners, either. It is straightforward and precise, but profound and sophisticated. Last summer, I read an old out-of-print apologetics book I found at work (genuinely and simply titled College Apologetics), and what I loved most about it was that it was simple, but not easy. It began with a basic question (how we can know that God exists), and built upon that all the way to the truth of the Catholic Church. Theology for Beginners similarly begins at the beginning, with a chapter on why it is worthwhile to study theology at all, and works its way toward the end of the world (eschatology). Unfortunately, Sheed starts with a complex discussion of the concept of spirit, and that might turn away the casual reader. I must confess to being confused after what I thought might be an easy book started with such an abstract topic. But as I read on, things became clearer, closer to what I already knew by living and learning by faith, and more elegantly elaborate.
Sheed’s greatest strength is his writing style. He is aware that most readers will start at page one and continue straight through, but he directly encourages the reader to review previous sections (by helpfully giving page numbers), pause to reflect, or step away from the book and back to the Gospels and prayer. He adds humor and connects theological topics to his experiences as a street-corner evangelist. For example, he states that true freedom is not freedom from the law, but freedom within the law, and then he connects it with the miracle of airplane flight. People cannot fly. We know this, so we have invented machines that use electricity and physics to temporarily force people into the air, yet we never try to make them stay there. This relates to life in Christ, but if you’re not quite ready to accept the God part, planes still make sense.
Most of all, Sheed believes in what he is writing about and does not waver. The insistence that truth is absolute and subsists in its fullness in the Catholic Church is missing from much Catholic writing these days. I hesitate to point to the book’s original publication date (1958) as the answer to where all the good writers went, but it remains true that the modern world is not as kind to doctrine as earlier ages were. These days, we need more writers and speakers like Frank Sheed who are willing to speak the truth as Truth. Theology for Beginners may not be quite the right book for those who have never met God and want to find him, but it is an incredible foundation for those who know there must be more to being Catholic than just “pay, pray, and obey.”
Will this be the Lent that you dust the cobwebs off your faith formation and learn a little theology? This might be just the book to guide you along your way.
Next time: No Man Is an Island: essays by Thomas Merton