Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Question of God; C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

For over half a century, the work of these two pioneers has influenced millions. Yet their ideologies were diametrically opposed. Freud assumed the Judeo-Christian God didn't exist. He based his entire life's work on the premise that the supernatural was at best untenable; until Lewis' conversion, he too held that belief. Then he became a Christian. This changed his worldview. He embraced God's love, meaning, hope, ideas and values Freud, incidentally, regarded as delusional.

The Prologue opens with their funerals – a couple of quotes from attendees, snippets and summaries from their obituaries, and a brief montage of their accomplishments. A tasty appetizer to prime the palate for the entrĂ©e to come.

The lives of these two intellectual icons overlapped in both space and time: Freud lived “not far from Oxford” where, and while, Lewis was a young professor, and the two were separated only by a generation; Lewis' body was buried just 24 years after Freud's was cremated. Both wrote passionately and extensively about their philosophies, and the two shared an interest in literature and psychoanalysis. They published several books, including autobiographies.

Nicholi sets out to address two fundamental questions “What should we believe?” and “How should we live?” He examines Freud's and Lewis' childhoods, their relationships with their families, the historical events that impacted their personal and professional lives, and the philosophies they espoused based not only on their published works but on the less public thoughts contained in the journals they kept and the hundreds of letters they wrote to friends and family. More (maybe most) importantly, the writer explores whether these men practiced what they preached, and, subsequently, whether their lives were enriched.

Both Freud and Lewis experienced heart wrenching tragedies and deep sorrows. Nicholi draws from their letters to expose these wounds. Their deaths near the close of the work, though anticipated, came too soon and made me scrunch my face and clumsily wipe my cheeks.

Detractors have expressed displeasure with Nicholi's conclusions. Some insist the pairing of the two men is unfair to Freud, that Nicholi stacks the deck against atheism, that instead Lewis should've been pitted against the likes of Sam Harris or Carl Sagan.

These objections ignore several factors, some I've already mentioned. Maybe most relevant is what Nicholi says in the Prologue:
Wherever Freud raises an argument, Lewis attempts to answer it.
Thirty years before the publication of this book in 2003, Harvard invited Nicholi to teach a course on Freud. He has been teaching the undergraduates there ever since, as well as the Harvard Medical School students for at least a decade. Initially, the course consisted exclusively of Freud's philosophical views, but as Nicholi writes:
Roughly half my students agreed with him, the other half strongly disagreed. When the course evolved into a comparison of Freud and Lewis, it became much more engaging, and the discussions ignited.
We should also remember that Freud gave us “terms such as ego, repression, complex, projection, inhibition, neurosis, psychosis, resistance, sibling rivalry, and Freudian slip.” Lewis was “perhaps the 20th century's most popular proponent of faith based on reason” and inspired a “vast number of ... societies in colleges and universities”.
During World War II his Broadcast talks made his voice second only to Churchill's as the most recognized on the BBC.
It's difficult to downplay “the sheer quantity of personal, biographical, and literary books and articles on Lewis” published since his passing.

Despite Sagan's highly entertaining Cosmos series, his important work in astronomy and astrophysics, as well as his compelling commentary as it pertains to cosmology, his influence doesn't compare. As for Harris' haphazard reasoning and saccharin science, anyone who believes this atheist would stand a chance against the likes of Lewis is engaged in wishful thinking. A brief sampling of online video or audio debates between Harris and a number of theist philosophers and scientists confirms this. Critical thinking is not his forte.

I can't imagine a skeptic coming away from this work still convinced atheism has anything attractive to offer. Freud's philosophy led to fits of depression and repeated thoughts of suicide; Lewis' faith resulted in personal fulfillment so that even at his most desperate and lonesome hour, he discovered not only an alternative to despair but a joy that surpassed his expectation.

A compelling account of two legends, their legacies, and the implication and consequence of their philosophies. Well written and researched (40 pages of notes and bibliography).

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