The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, by Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.
Dr Nicholi is a psychiatrist at Harvard and has been teaching a course on Freud and Lewis there for decades – a course on which this book is based. In the epilogue Nicholi paints a tantalising scenario in which Freud and Lewis may have met, but this is far more conjecture than certainty. However, from their respective writings Nicholi has stitched together this fascinating dialogue between the two men.
Lewis is of course a Christian hero. While not an Evangelical himself, he has been adopted by much of evangelicalism as the model par excellence of intelligent Christian interaction with the wider world. Freud, on the other hand is “the atheist’s touchstone,” and along with the likes of Darwin, Nietzsche and Marx one of the true giants of intellectual and social thought of the modern era. Lewis was an atheist until his conversion in his thirties; Freud remained an atheist until his death, though fixated on the concept of God.
Freud built on foundations laid by Feuerbach and claimed belief in God to be an illusion and infantile. For Freud, faith is a fairytale. Yet he was preoccupied with faith throughout his life, quoted liberally from the Bible, and his favourite books had “Christian” themes. He also regarded believers as intellectually weak. In all this it is easy to see a prefiguring of our own dear Dr Dawkins, and indeed Lewis’ rebuff of Freud is very similar to the one many have made of Dawkins, “When he goes on to talk general philosophy he is speaking as an amateur… I have found that when he is talking off his own subject and on a subject I do know something about… he is very ignorant.”
In discussing the question of conscience, Nicholi exposes the weaknesses of both mens approach. Freud justifies himself by comparing his own behaviour with that of others and concluding, “I can measure myself with the best people I have known.” Lewis does not make this mistake, but does appeal to a universal or natural law – something innate to all humans. While this is consistent with Roman Catholic moral teaching, it fails to do justice to our need of revelation in Christ to truly understand what is pleasing to God. This is why Lewis is of more use to Christian apologists than to systematic theology!
An intriguing chapter is that in which Nicholi assesses happiness. The evidence indicates that Freud was not a happy man, whereas – after his conversion – Lewis was transformed into an optimist, quick to laugh, and generally at peace with life. Lewis’ generally more cheery attitude is seen in his approach to that most Freudian of subjects – sex. Lewis sees the innate comedy in sex, as well as its incredible seriousness, and enjoyed a robust sex life when he married Joy Davidman, relatively late in life. Intriguingly, Freud had no sexual experience until in his thirties, was sexually faithful in his marriage, and ceased having sex even with his wife after his last child was born. As Nicholi observes, “Sometimes it is hard to fathom how Freud became an international symbol of sexual freedom.”
Freud saw all love as sublimated sex, whereas Lewis makes the classic distinction between the four loves, of which only Eros is sexual. Freud’s narrow view means he is unable to comprehend the biblical commands to love our enemies and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
As well as sex and religion, Freud also obsessed about death, and approached it in a very superstitious way. Freud feared death and ageing, while Lewis “appeared to enjoy the process.” This contrast was exemplified in how the two men died – Lewis peacefully shuffling off this mortal coil while at home; Freud requesting his doctor to euthanize him.
I do not know what Dr Nicholi’s personal beliefs are, but by the end of this book it is fairly clear his sympathies lie more with Lewis than Freud. And while “he would say that wouldn’t he” Lewis also makes a more appealing case to me than does Freud. Freud comes across as a restless, unhappy man, whereas Lewis displays a greater contentment and joy. Meeting Freud would have been fascinating, but I think Lewis would have been more fun. In the end, Freud’s lifelong fight against God seems to only have left him exhausted and bitter. His influence on the development of contemporary culture might be considerably greater than that of Lewis, but it is built on a very shallow foundation compared with Lewis’ hope in Christ.