129 The Question of God

 

                For more than two decades Armand M. Nicholi Jr. a psychiatrist and professor at HarvardMedicalSchool, has taught a course at HarvardCollege and MedicalSchool.  Through assigned readings, lectures and class discussions, he engaged students in a dialogue between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis.  Freud, thought his luster has dimmed considerably as his theories seem increasingly suspect, certainly helped shape the “therapeutic culture” which now reigns in throughout the West.  Lewis, resolutely defending the “permanent things” at the heart of classical Christian culture, stands permanently enshrined as their great apologist.  The core of his course at Harvard has been put in print by Professor Nicholi in The Question of God:  C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (New York:  The Free Press, 2002).  He tries to present both men’s views on important subjects, accurately portraying both men, interjecting his own explanations and interpretations and final evaluations in the process. 

                After short biographical introductions to the two men, Nicholi presents their views on “The Creator.”  Freud, who emphatically embraced philosophical materialism, acknowledged no Creator and judged all religions illusionary.  Reworking Feuerbach’s famous thesis, Freud thought that “believers” simply project deeply-held desires into outer space and fantasize, like children, notions such as a loving Heavenly Father.  He did, however, at times admit to a deep longing–a Sehnsucht, a hunger for something beyond earthly things–that haunted him all his life.  He attributed it to memories of long-lost days when he escaped from his father, finding solace in some woods near his boyhood home. 

                Lewis, on the other hand, after espousing atheism for more than 15 years, underwent a profound conversion at age of 31 and defended theism for the rest of his life.  Believing in a Creator, he insisted, brought one into contact with the ultimate Reality of the universe, morally demanding and fearsomely holy–hardly the kind of “god” we would conjure up if we wanted to comfort ourselves.  Still more, perhaps our inner longings (for which he used the same German word that Freud used, Sehnsucht), our hungers, accurately orient us to realities that will satisfy the.  Lewis said:  “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world” (p. 47).    Lewis’s conversion, those how knew him testified, wrought deeply rooted changes in him.  “A buoyant cheerfulness replaced his pessimism and despair.   On the last days before he died, those who were with Lewis spoke of his ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘calmness'” (p. 77).  Freud, conversely, though he often cited Scripture in his letters and dealt with spiritual themes in his books, apparently never tasted a religious experience.  Styling himself an “infidel Jew,” he discounted reports detailing life-changing spiritual break through, judging them a form of  “hallucinatory psychosis.”                  

                Both men sought to understand and explain man’s “Conscience,” wondering if any Universal Moral Law existed.  No! said Freud.  One’s conscience, engrafted into him by parents and culture as a “superego,” obviously regulates behavior.  But it certainly contains no timeless truths.  Behavioral rules are crafted to lubricate social relationships and change continually as cultures evolve.  This position enabled Freud to consider himself  “very moral person” who compared favorably with the rest of mankind.  Yet, paradoxically, in one of his letters Freud claimed to “subscribe to the excellent maxim of Th. Visher:  ‘What is moral is self-evident.'”  (p. 66). 

                Freud’s admission that there is “self-evident” truth that gives moral guidance would have pleased C.S. Lewis.  Such an admission, he reasoned, ultimately leads one too acknowledge an ultimate Source, a Lawgiver, who prescribes righteous behavior for us.  Moral laws, like mathematical laws, Lewis believed, are discovered when we honestly investigate the manifold structures of the cosmos.  They reveal themselves to us.  We cannot “create” them.  Consequently, as he noted in Mere Christianity, two phenomena stand out in human history:  “First . . . human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.  Secondly . . . they do not in fact behave in that way. . .  These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in” (p. 61). 

                To live well, Lewis thought (sharing Aristotle’s view), makes one happy.  Freud also noted that one can hardly deny that most everyone, seeks “happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so” (p. 99).  Nevertheless, he despaired of its attainment.  Imbibing early of Schopenhauer’s pessimism, he apparently believed that “‘Man is never happy, but spends his whole life striving after something he thinks will make him so,” as Schopenhauer said (p. 98).  What satisfaction there is, he thought, comes from control of things, much as Friedrich Nietzsche, another of Freud’s mentors, insisted.  To Nietzsche one answers the “happiness” question by defining it as:  “The feeling that power increases–that resistance is overcome” (p. 98).  Nevertheless, Freud was frequently depressed, resorted to drugs like cocaine to numb his mind to his despair, and declared that as soon as you think happiness is “in your grasp” it slips away” (p. 109). 

                In his atheist years, Lewis shared Freud’s morose assessment of life.  “I was at that time living, like so many Atheists,” he wrote, “in a whirl of contradictions.  I maintained God did not exist.  I was also angry with God for not existing.  I was equally angry with Him for creating a world” (p. 113).  With his conversion, however, came unexpected happiness, pure joy.  Conversion turned his attention from himself to God and others, and he began to take delight in the good times he enjoyed with his friends and, late in life, with his wife.  One of his best friends for 40 years, Owen Barfield, remembered Lewis as “unusually cheerful,” taking “an almost boyish delight in life” (p. 115).  Miraculously, Nicholi says, following his conversion, Lewis “changed from an introvert who, like Freud, was highly critical and distrustful of others, to a person who reached out and appeared to value every human being” (p. 185). 

                Turning to the topic of sex, Nicholi stresses its centrality in the thought of Freud.  Unfortunately, popular misrepresentations have portrayed him as an advocate of libertine “free love.”  What he wanted to do freely was talk about sex and understand its importance.  “To believe that psycho-analysis seeks a cure for neurotic disorders by giving a free rein to sexuality,” he wrote, “is a serious misunderstanding which can only be excused by ignorance.  The making conscious of repressed sexual desires in analysis makes it possible, on the contrary, to obtain mastery over them which the previous repression had been unable to achieve.  It can be more truly said that analysis sets the neurotic free from the chains of his sexuality” (p. 132).   Freud himself apparently lived according to the restrained “Victorian” ethos of his era.  He (at the age of 30) and his wife were virgins when they married.  They had six children in the next eight years, whereafter he apparently discontinued sexual relations with his wife.  Amazingly enough, to those who see him as a libertine, he said, in a 1916 lecture:  “We . . . describe a sexual activity as perverse if it has given up the aim of reproduction and pursues the attainment of pleasure as an aim independent of it” (p. 149). 

                Lewis, though he married quite late in life, thought much about sex as part of the human condition.  Contrary to Freud, Lewis found “love” to be vaster than “sex.”  Rooted in the great works of literature, he “thought Freud’s understanding of love and relationships was incomplete” (p. 165).  Couples in love certainly taste the delights of “Eros,” but this must not be reduced to “Venus,” the sex act itself.  “Perhaps the greatest contribution Lewis makes to understanding sexuality and love,” Nicholi says, “is his clear distinction between being in love and love in its deeper, more mature form” (p. 141).  Love, even love between the sexes, is more than sublimated sexual desire. 

In a profound analysis, The Four Loves, Lewis distinguished between “Gift-love” and “Need-love.”  In Lewis’s words:  “Need-love says of a woman ‘I cannot live without her’; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection–if possible, wealth” (pp. 165-166).  Still more, Lewis utilized four Greek terms to indicate more fully the ramifications of love:  “(1) Storge, affection between members of a family; (2) Philia, friendship; (3) Eros, romantic love between people ‘in love’; and (4) Agape, the love one has toward God and one’s neighbor” (p. 166).  As Nicholi discusses these distinctions, he clearly prefers Lewis to Freud who scoffed at the biblical injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself” and rejected the possibility of loving one’s enemy.  Speaking personally, Nicholi writes, “As a clinician, I have observed that Agape is the key to all successful relationships, even those within groups and organizations” (p. 177).  Importantly, as Lewis clarified the meaning of Agape, he insisted that “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.”  This is because “love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved” whereas “mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love” (p. 211).   This enabled him to deal effectively with another of life’s great questions:  the reality of pain and suffering. 

                Both Freud and Lewis personally suffered, and both thought deeply about it.  Freud, the atheist, routinely railed against God for making an anguished world, though a consistent atheist, of course, can hardly complain about pain since there is only a deaf, irrational, unfeeling cosmos responsible for it. Lewis, on the other hand, set forth, in one of his early books, The Problem of Pain, persuasive intellectual reasons as to how a good God could allow suffering:  it “is not good in itself.  What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads” (p. 203).  Though intellectually persuasive, however, such words failed to fully comfort Lewis in the midst of his wife’s dying.  Here we read, in A Grief Observed, the heart cry of a broken man at a loss for answers.  He raged and he doubted.  But (contrary to the impression left by the movie Shadowlands) he emerged from his sorrow with an even deeper faith, knowing that even death cannot destroy the soul that trusts in God. 

                Dealing with death further polarizes the two thinkers.  Agreeing with Schopenhauer, Freud quoted him to the effect that “the problem of death stands at the outset of every philosophy.”  Freud feared it all his life, finding each birthday a painful event, reminded thereby of his mortality.  When his own mother died he refused to attend her funeral.  When possible, he seemed to avoid thinking about it!  During his final days, he read and pondered Balzac’s The Fatal Skin, a story (much like Faust, Goethe’s classic that often cited) about a “young scientific man” selling his soul to the devil.  Then, asking his doctor to follow instructions, Freud was injected with a lethal dose of morphine, dying a (physician-assisted) suicide. 

                But Lewis, sustained by his Christian faith, believed, Nicholi says, that “the only person do decide the time of one’s death was the Person who gave one life” (p. 230).  He fully enjoyed each passing year, apparently relishing the very process of aging.  “Yes,” he wrote, “autumn is the best of the seasons; and I’m not sure that old age isn’t the best part of life” (p. 232).  He spent his final days contentedly, reading favorite authors, including Homer (n Greek), Virgil (in Latin), and other classic works of literature.  “Never was a man better prepared” to die, said a man who lunched with Lewis shortly before his death.  His brother, Warren, reported that Lewis said to him, a week before he died:  “I have done all that I was sent into the world to do, and I am ready to go.”  To his brother, “I have never seen death looked in the face so tranquilly” (p. 239). 

                Two men.  Two ways to live.  In his Epilogue, Nicholi emphasizes that the great difference between Freud and Lewis was God.  The book’s final paragraph merits repeating as Nicholi’s position:  “The answer to the question of God has profound implications for our lives here on earth, both Freud and Lewis agree.  So we owe it to ourselves to look at the evidence, perhaps beginning with the Old and New Testaments.  Lewis also reminds us, however, that the evidence lies all around us:  ‘We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God.  The world is crowded with Him.  He walks everywhere incognito.  And the incognito is not always easy to penetrate.  The real labor is to remember to attend.  In fact to come awake.  Still more to remain awake'” (p. 244).  Looking for some direction in life?  Try Lewis, says Nicholi!


                In God the Evidence:  The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World (Rocklin, CA:  Forum, c. 1997, 1999), Patrick Glynn explains how he recently came to believe in God and the immortality of the soul.  In the book’s first chapter, “The Making and Unmaking of an Atheist,” he explains his early embrace of atheism.  Attending a Catholic grade school, he encountered Darwin’s theory of evolution.  “It immediately occurred to me,” he says, “that either Darwin’s theory was true or the creation story in the Book of Genesis was true” (p. 3).  Siding with Darwin, he declared his position by standing up in class and making his case.  Though still a child, Glynn saw clearly the ultimate import of Darwin, for his theory “breathed fresh life into the atheist position–a fact immediately recognized across the globe.  Notably, that other famous nineteenth-century atheist, Karl Marx, asked Darwin if he could dedicate the English translation of Capital to the great naturalist” (p. 37).  Darwin demurred, but Marx rightly saw Darwin as an asset to his agenda. 

                Entering Harvard in 1969, Glynn fell in with the “New Left” and its Marxist views, solidifying his adolescent agnosticism.  Ultimately earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, he settled into a deeply-entrenched atheism.  “Ironically,” he writes, “at the very time I was plumbing the depths of philosophical nihilism, science itself, unbeknownst to me and to many other people, was taking a surprising new turn” (pp. 6-7).  Physicists, acknowledging the reality of the “Big Bang,” were working out some of its implications, including the “anthropic principle,” the notion “that all the myriad laws of physics were fine-tuned from the very beginning of the universe for the creation of man” (pp. 22-23).  Rightly understood, this involves “a refutation of the original premise of the overarching modern philosophical idea:  that of the ‘random universe'” (p. 7).  Dealing honestly with this new evidence, Glynn began to ponder the implications of “A Not-So-Random Universe.”  Amazingly enough, “the picture of the universe bequeathed to us by the most advanced twentieth-century science is closer in spirit to the vision presented in the Book of Genesis than anything offered by science since Copernicus” (p. 26).  Design, not random material developments, better explains the way things really are!  Glynn laces his discussion with clear explanations of the most recent scientific discoveries, further indicating their philosophical importance by placing them within a historical framework.  Cracks are appearing in the foundations of the scientific-secularism that has reigned in the West for more than two centuries.

                Something similar, Glynn says, is transpiring in the inner world.  In a chapter entitled “Psyche and Soul:  Postsecularism in Psychology,” he documents the ebbing away of Freud’s substitute religion, psycho-analysis.  Awakening from its naturalistic slumbers, “Slowly but surely, modern psychology is belatedly rediscovering the soul” (p. 63).  Spirituality seems resurgent.  Witness the massive success of books such as Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled!  “It is more than a little ironic,” Glynn says, “that after its long odyssey into the unconscious and its multiplication of dark modernistic concepts of mental life, modern psychology at the end of the twentieth century should have arrived at a formula for mental well-being and happiness hardly distinguishable from that of traditional religion–faith, hope, love, self-discipline, and a life lived in conformity with solid, traditional moral principles” (p. 74).  The Ten Commandments make more sense than the Oedipus Complex!   

                In yet another realm, Glynn finds a growing bond between “faith and the physicians.”  In the words of a Harvard Medical School professor, Herbert Benson, we’re “wired for God” (p. 80).  With that comes some “intimations of immortality,” the accumulating data from near-death testimonials that something at the heart of us survives the body’s demise.  Careful studies indicate that people see out of body details, while apparently “dead,” that cannot be naturalistically explained apart from the reality of a “spirit.”  Indeed, Glynn holds that the ancient view, preeminently the New Testament view, that we by nature are primarily spiritual, still holds.  This means that the Enlightenment apotheosis of Reason must dissolve.  For centuries men have sought to replace God with human Reason, with dismal results, including what Martin Buber perceptively called the “deactualized self.”  Discarding God, man debases himself in the process.  Glynn argues:  “Reason, freed from divine guidance, originally promised humanity freedom; but its culmination in the moral realm is postmodernism, and the spirit of postmodern thought is nothing if not the spirit of [what Buber called] ‘caprice'” (p. 146).  Taking nothing seriously, postmodern man does whatever appeals him for a moment, taking not thought for eternity.  The chaos consequent upon the Sexual Revolution of the ’60s illustrates this pattern. 

                “What I am suggesting,” Glynn writes, with reference to these recent developments, “and what it seems to me history tends to corroborate, is this:  The knowledge of the Spirit is prior to the knowledge of reason.  Where reason follows Spirit, the results are good; where it rejects or parts ways with the Spirit, the results are invariably disastrous, whether one speaks of the political, societal, or personal spheres” (p. 166).  Indeed, he writes in his final sentence:  “If the history of this century offers any lesson, it is that goodness–and a relationship to God, to the Absolute by whatever name He is called–is not only the beginning of wisdom but the only path by which it can be attained” (p. 169). 

                Scholarly in its depth, popular in its presentation, God:  The Evidence makes a strong case, giving us a treatise ideally suited for those serious thinkers who wonder if there is, in fact, views worth considering.

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