The Question of God

"For more than twenty-five years, Armand Nicholi has taught a course at Harvard that compares the philosophical arguments of [Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis]. In The Question of God, Dr. Nicholi presents the writings and letters of Lewis and Freud, allowing them to 'speak' for themselves on the subject of belief and disbelief. Both men considered the problem of pain and suffering, the nature of love and sex, and the ultimate meaning of life and death--and each of them thought carefully about the alternatives to their positions."

--From the back cover

In this surprisingly accessible and page-turning book, Armond Nicholi apparently condenses and popularizes the material from a course he has been teaching for years at Harvard. I can only say it certainly makes me wish I could audit the entire class!

--From the back cover

To accurately summarize the life's work and worldview of two such prolific thinkers and authors is a tremendous task in itself. But to then organize the material cohesively around particular topics in a way that allows the pupil/reader to compare and process each perspective is quite a feat and is a service in itself.

In case the subject matter of The Question of God does not immediately strike you as interesting or important, Nicholi well expresses the worth of such a work in his preface:

"Whether we realize it or not, all of us possess a worldview. A few years after birth, we all gradually formulate our philosophy of life. Most of us make one of two basic assumptions: we view the universe as a result of random events and life on this planet a matter of chance; or we assume an Intelligence beyond the universe who gives the universe order and life meaning. Our worldview informs our personal, social, and political lives. It influences how we perceive ourselves, how we relate to others, how we adjust to adversity, and what we understand to be our purpose. Our worldview helps determine our values, our ethics, and our capacity for happiness. It helps us understand where we come from, our heritage; who we are, our identity; why we exist on this planet, our purpose; what drives us, our motivation; and where we are going, our destiny. Some historians of science such as Thomas Kuhn point out that even a scientist's worldview influences not only what he investigates but also how he interprets what he investigates. Our worldview tells more about us perhaps than any other aspect of our personal history."

(If you are interested in learning more about worldviews, be sure to check out our upcoming Worldview Weekend, July 17-19).

By juxtaposing the writings of Freud and Lewis on similar topics, Nicholi creates a kind of "debate" between the atheist Freud and the Christian Lewis that is fascinating in its intensity, clarity, and relevance.The two "debaters" tackle subjects such as "Is there an Intelligence beyond the Universe?"; "What is the source of our greatest enjoyment in life?"; "How can we resolve the problem of suffering?"; and "Is death our only destiny?" Nicholi not only draws from the books and letters of both writers, but also fills in complimentary biographical information which helps to understand the author's meaning and how each one came to his particular set of conclusions.

Many common misconceptions are clarified by Nicholi's careful research and explanations, especially in regard to Freud's view of sexuality and Lewis' transformation from atheism to Christianity.

Trying to summarize material that is itself such an enormous summary of material is difficult, but here are a few of my observations:

Sigmund Freud

It is impossible not to admire both the intellect and discipline of Freud in relation, not only to his work, but even to his life. He seems to have been thoughtful and purposeful in almost every step he took, whether in a relationship or in his career.

While many of his teachings were obviously new and revolutionary in his time, Freud practiced purposeful restraint both in his private life and in his psychiatric practice. Many of Freud's observations have been used to support all kinds of sexual promiscuity, for instance, and yet he was faithful to his wife his whole life. In addition, there were many practitioners of psychiatry, even in his day, that tried to take his methods to further extremes and yet he resisted revolution for revolutions sake. He observes to one colleague:

"There is no revolutionary who is not driven out of the field by a still more radical one."

This observation is actually quite sage and our culture in particular would do well to take it to heart (especially the "New Atheists"). When we celebrate radicalism simply because it goes further than the previous generation or point of reference, we will find ourselves in the continual, downward spiral of a society that is basing its decisions, not on what is wise or prudent, but what is newest or most different from the past.

However, it is also revealing and sobering to see how that Freud's personal worldview affected his work and his private life. There can be no doubt that much of what he -- and we still today -- called "science" was actually postulations founded on a preexisting atheistic mindset. Freud himself came to realize that "our intellect is a feeble and dependent thing, a play thing and tool of our impulses and emotions."

And there perhaps never was a man who was more in need of psychological help than Sigmund Freud himself. There is a certain sadness in observing how the stern pessimism of his atheism affected his friendships, his professional life, his marriage, and every other aspect of his existence.

In his atheism, as all atheists must, he argued against a universal moral law, contending that "our moral sense of guilt is the expression of the tension between the ego and the super-ego." And Freud resorted to all sorts of wild historical and cultural explanations to explain the sense of guilt that he recognized was present in everyone.

In the end, Freud's life is a sad tale of the sobering reality without God. Commenting on how elusive real and lasting happiness proved to be for him, he said: "you think you already have it in your grasp and it is always gone again."

C.S. Lewis

Lewis' story is perhaps all the more remarkable because of the way its first several decades mirror the atheism of Freud, and were in fact influenced by it (he being a late contemporary of Freud). It is striking to observe the personal, happy transformation that paralleled his ideological transformation. As an atheist Lewis was an introverted and generally miserable individual; but through his Christian conversion he discovered heights of joy, of productivity, and of enlightenment that he had never before known.

In addition to the powerful arguments by which he addresses the atheistic worldview he once clung to, C.S. Lewis is himself a powerful illustration of one of the great truth-pointers of Christianity: it is livable. No matter how much so-called science or psycho-babble others might bring to the table, the fact is, as Lewis discovered and observed,

"God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on...God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such think."

Through his surprisingly unemotional conversion to Christianity, Lewis found a clarity of thinking and a framework for living that proved on its own grounds the truth of what he had embraced. He then proceeded from that ground to argue for the reasonableness, usefulness, and wisdom of the Christian claims.

To anyone who might be tempted, then, to pick up a copy of Armand Nicholi's The Question of God, I suppose I should add this warning, echoing Lewis' discovery: "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."(NOTE: to use a trite-but-true observation, while PBS has made a movie based on The Question of God, which goes by the same title, the movie is no where near as good as the book.)