Monday, July 30, 2012

C. S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud, and the Question of God

A few days ago, I saw the play Freud's Last Session at the Mercury Theater in Chicago.  This play by Mark St. Germain presents C. S. Lewis meeting Sigmund Freud at Freud's home in London on the day that England entered World War Two.  They argue over their contrasting views of love, sex, the meaning of life and death, and the existence of God. 

In writing the dialogue, St. Germain drew all of his ideas from Armand Nicholi's book The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (Free Press, 2002).  Nicholi is a psychiatrist who has taught a popular course at Harvard University on "The Question of God" that centers on comparing the "materialist worldview" of Freud and the "spiritual worldview" of Lewis.  His book is based on his lectures for that course.

St. Germain's play differs from Nicholi's book on only one important point.  The play hints that Lewis had had a sexual affair with Mrs. Janie Moore--the mother of his friend Paddy, who died in World War Two.  Nicholi dismisses this possibility in one sentence (34).

This play is one of the most intellectually stimulating stage dramas I have ever seen.  It is rare to see such an effective and engaging dramatization of intellectual debate about the most important questions that human beings can ask themselves.  It is like a staging of a Socratic dialogue.  The script is wonderfully witty, thoughtful, and moving.  The acting by Mike Nussbaum (Freud) and Coburn Goss (Lewis) is excellent.

Performances will continue through September 23 at the Mercury Theater.  More information can be found at the website for the play.

Lewis is one of my favorite authors.  From my reading of both Lewis and Freud, I would say that both this play and Nicholi's book captures the essence of both men's lives and thoughts.  I also think both the play and the book provide a good start in thinking about the questions Lewis and Freud struggled over, and particularly the question of God.

I do have one reservation, however.  Both St. Germain's play and Nicholi's book are presented as if they were even-handed depictions of the debate between Lewis and Freud.  And yet to me it's clear that there's a clear bias in favor of Lewis.

The disingenuousness of Nicholi was suggested in an interview with the Harvard Gazette about his book.  He remarked:
Students always ask me, which side are you on? Half of them assume that because I'm a psychiatrist I must be a materialist. Others who embrace a spiritual perspective may make the opposite assumption. What I do is try to present an objective, dispassionate, critical assessment of both worldviews.
But then the author of the article observes:  "Nicholi's book, however, tells another story. In response to the question of happiness, the evidence is clear: Lewis wins, hands down."

I agree.  Both the book and the play are written so as to favor Lewis's position over Freud's.  It would have been more honest for Nicholi to begin his book by saying that his aim is to persuade the reader that Lewis's position is superior to Freud's.  (For some of the many examples in the book of Nicholi's taking the side of Lewis, see pp. 45, 50-51, 53-56, 66-72, 75, 77-79, 80, 92-94, 114-16, 123-25, 141-51, 157-59, 177-86, 188, 208-209, 218-25, 227-30, 242-44, 251-52.)

Nicholi explains that like his course, his book combines the writings of Lewis and Freud with their biographies.  "Their arguments can never prove or disprove the existence of God.  Their lives, however, offer sharp commentary on the truth, believability, and utility of their views" (5).  He invites his reader to "see if their biographies--how they actually lived their lives--strengthen or weaken their arguments and tell us more than their words convey" (9).  "Which one was right?  Their biographies shed light on this question" (107).

I don't object to combining arguments and biographies.  After all, that's exactly what is done in the Socratic dialogues of Plato and Xenophon.

My complaint, however, is that by choosing these two men for the debate, Nicholi and St. Germain have stacked the deck in favor of Lewis's argument, because Lewis was both morally and intellectually superior to Freud.  Regardless of what one thinks about the issues they debated, most people will--or should--see that while Lewis was a good human being, Freud was despicable.  (I first saw Freud's poor character years ago when I was reading both Freud and C. G. Jung, and I became disgusted with Freud's treatment of Jung.)

The title of the play--Freud's Last Session--is ambiguous.  Lewis jokes about being put on Freud's couch.  But by the end of the play, it's clear that Lewis has become the psychoanalyst and Freud the patient, and Freud has revealed the ugly depths of his character--arrogance, pettiness, shallowness, narcissism, and refusal to face up to his paralysing anger and fear.

The audience of St. Germain's play and the readers of Nicholi's book are meant to draw the conclusion that this proves the practical truth of Christianity, because a Christian like Lewis lives a happy, healthy life, while an atheist like Freud lives an unhappy, unhealthy life.

But notice the unexamined assumption:  there are only two choices--Christianity or atheism--and choosing Christianity means choosing the life of Lewis, while choosing atheism means choosing the life of Freud.

This is a false assumption because it ignores alternatives.  Consider how different the debate would look if we introduced a third character--for example, Aristotle, Montaigne, Hume, or Darwin--someone who would represent thoughtful skepticism, and who apparently lived a happy, healthy life.  Now we might have an alternative to Lewis who is far more attractive morally and intellectually than Freud.

Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion would be an example of a philosophical dialogue that presents Lewis's arguments while also challenging them more persuasively than Freud can.  In fact, many of Lewis's writings--like his Miracles book--are attempts to respond to Hume.

For example, a reasonable skeptic like Hume or Darwin might point out that while religious belief can reinforce morality, there is a natural morality rooted in human nature that can stand on its own even without religious belief.  In fact, this skeptic might observe, Lewis himself seems to acknowledge this when he speaks about the Tao as that universal, natural morality that is comprehensible to all human beings based on their natural experience of what is required to live a good life on earth.  And while that common morality is sometimes expressed in religious texts like the Bible, that common morality is independent of the Bible and other religious texts.  We can see that even in Lewis's "Illustrations of the Tao" in The Abolition of Man.  He selects some Biblical verses as illustrations of this morality, but he excludes those Biblical verses that would offend our moral sensibility--for example, Moses' brutal slaughter of the Midianites (Numbers 31) or the many verses supporting slavery--because he is passing the Bible through a moral filter that serves as a standard outside the Bible itself.

The reasonable skeptic might also question Lewis's beliefs about the afterlife.  The orthodox Christian tradition teaches that a few human beings will be rewarded with eternal happiness in Heaven, while most human beings will be punished with eternal torment in Hell.  Is this reasonable?  Does Lewis really think it is reasonable?  In his chapter on Hell in The Problem of Pain, Lewis tries to defend the traditional doctrine of Hell, but he clearly has doubts.  "Some will not be redeemed.  There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power" (118).  "We are told that it is a detestable doctrine--and indeed, I too detest it from the bottom of my heart--and are reminded of the tragedies in human life which have come from believing it" (119).  Does this suggest that Lewis agreed with Darwin about the teaching of Hell as a "damnable doctrine"?  Don't most Christians today doubt this teaching, because they assume that everyone goes to Heaven?

Nicholi reports that in the last days of his life, Lewis spent his time reading his favorite books--including Dante's Divine Comedy.  In Dante's Inferno, the virtuous pagans--those like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle--are in Limbo, which seems to be a rather pleasant place to be, even though it's on the top edge of Hell.  Would Lewis agree that virtuous pagans lived good and happy lives, because they understood the natural grounds of the human good even without the benefit of Christian revelation?  If so, does that mean that Christian faith is not necessary for happiness?  These kinds of questions are not asked in Nicholi's book or St. Germain's play.

In Nicholi's book, there is one passage where he quotes from Lewis as recognizing the "lofty view" of death taken by the Stoics who thought death need not be feared (231).  But Lewis doesn't elaborate on this possibility.  Is this the philosopher's position, as manifest in the lives of skeptics like Socrates, Hume, and Darwin?

Finally, if it is true, as Nicholi says, that "their arguments can never prove or disprove the existence of God" (5), does this point to the irresolvability of the reason/revelation debate?  Would it be reasonable for the skeptical philosopher to recognize the inescapable tension between faith and reason--between the desire for religious understanding and the desire for intellectual understanding?   If so, then it might be reasonable to respect the dignified faith of a man like Lewis and to scorn the shallow atheism of a man like Freud, while refusing to make any dogmatic commitment to either faith or atheism.

Some of my posts on Lewis and related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

"My complaint, however, is that by choosing these two men for the debate, Nicholi and St. Germain have stacked the deck in favor of Lewis's argument, because Lewis was both morally and intellectually superior to Freud. Regardless of what one thinks about the issues they debated, most people will--or should--see that while Lewis was a good human being, Freud was despicable. (I first saw Freud's poor character years ago when I was reading both Freud and C. G. Jung, and I became disgusted with Freud's treatment of Jung.)"

Freud may have been a louse but an intellectual inferior to Lewis?

And Jung was a jerk too. And given his penchant for occultism, wasn't Freud right to grow impatient with him? Not that Freud was very scientific in his own approach, but I'm just saying...

Anonymous said...

Unless you assume there to be intrinsic good and evil, how can you call Lewis "good" and Freud "bad." Again, you are assuming that there can be values derived from a strictly Darwinisitic point of view reality. If there is no God, there is no "good or bad" by which you can call these men's lives. That is my biggest problem with Enlightenment and modern atheists when they talk about morality. They adopt the values and standards of Christianity (which they despise) and apply those values of good and bad to character and actions while at the same time denouncing the source of these values. They are like children who believe that all their achievement was self-made and had nothing to do with the contributions of people who came before them. With out thier "moral ancestors," Hume, Freud, and Darwin could not make arguments for "good" and "evil". Nietzchse was much more honest then these when he said we must go beyond good and evil. And his results were horrid.