FRANK SHEED’S book Theology and Sanity has long been a favourite of mine and one I return to frequently for inspiration. His premise is simple: the more you can learn about God, the better you come to know Him, the more you will love Him and that, in essence, is the basis of his theology.
At the same time he has a high regard for the faith of those perhaps not intellectually equipped to study their religion deeply but whose devotion to God is every bit as great and in its way perfect as anybody’s. The peasant woman (always a woman in these examples!) who goes to Mass most mornings and says her rosary every day will probably, Sheed says, end up in heaven before he will. Unmoved by doubts she simply takes her faith as she was taught it and believes it implicitly.
Which does not mean, he says, that learning more about God and listening to His teachings with an open ear and a receptive mind will not be profoundly beneficial to those who choose to follow that road.
In last Tuesday’s gospel the Pharisees expressed themselves shocked that Jesus’ followers did not wash their hands before they sat down to eat. Mark was evidently not amused because he adds his own editorial comment at this point about rituals that had been handed down regarding not just hand-washing but how to deal with all the crockery and cutlery as well. Nor was Jesus who picked out one example of how the Pharisees had perverted God’s teaching for their own benefit and quoted Isaiah (ch 29):
… this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips glorify me, but their heart is far from me, and they have feared me with the commandment and doctrines of men
He elaborates further and the gospel for last Wednesday tells us what it is that truly makes a man unclean:
the things which come out from a man, they defile a man for from out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.
In those three verses of Mark’s gospel (ch 7 vv 20-22) it seems to me we have the essence of Jesus’ teaching. If we were to stop there and go no further with the gospels we would still have the core of Christian teaching, simple guidance in 25 words. Avoid these things and you will be OK!
There is of course a lot more to Christianity than that — the Passion and Death of Our Lord, the Resurrection, the Mass and the Sacraments, all essential to our salvation — but if we also recall Jesus’ words that “unless you become as little children you cannot enter the kingdom” we can perhaps come to realise that we do not need to seek beyond the simple teachings. If there is greater understanding for us there, as Sheed would argue that there is, then well and good; we should not be discouraged from looking further into our faith but it is to be done with care and humility. In the words of Psalm 131:
O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me. Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so is my soul.