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.
New York: The Free Press, 2002
(295 pages; $25.00, cloth)
reviewed by Preston Jones
Sporting the apparatus of your standard work in pop psychology, this book’s dust cover could turn serious and hurried readers away. First, there’s the obligatory “Dr.” before the author’s name (as in, “Thanks for taking my call, Dr. Laura”). And then there’s the author’s photographed grin that seems to say, “I know what ails you, dysfunctional man.”
But if one looks again at the front cover, what’s to follow in the pages of this surprisingly excellent book comes into view: The photo of C. S. Lewis suggests humble but keen intelligence, concern, and good-heartedness. The mug shot of Freud, on the other hand, is scowling; Freud seems troubled—perhaps because he’s “fixated” in the beloved “anal stage” when, according to the depressed and angry analyst himself, kids are morphed into control freaks or slobs, depending on how the potty training goes. That’s a generalization, yes, but pretty much on the mark. For some years now, it’s been trendy for the uptight to call themselves “anal,” which, if you think about it, is pretty gross. But gross or not, the term is yet another of Sigismund Schlomo Freud’s contributions to the modern vocabulary.
During his life and since (he died in 1939), Freud’s theories were revised or dropped by others in the same way that he himself revised his first name and dropped the middle one. Yet when one wants to make an account of the major streams of thought in the twentieth century, one must take Freud into serious consideration. He is obviously one of the most influential thinkers of modern times, and while it’s clear in The Question of God that Armand Nicholi thinks Freud’s theories are often empty of genuine insight and inadequate to address the most significant questions of life, Nicholi is always civil and fair. He quotes Freud often and lets him speak for his gloomy self.
He also lets C. S. Lewis speak for himself, and while there is a pretense of neutrality in the book, it’s clear from the outset who Nicholi, a Harvard psychiatrist, thinks had a deeper insight into the truth of things. Consequently, this book not only makes for good and edifying reading (in other words, Lewis crushes Freud), but it can also serve as a useful tool for evangelism.
Sigmund Freud was miserable as a young man, and whatever he achieved (despite great hardship) never sated his appetite for something more in life. Nicholi points out that Freud was obsessed with death (particularly after he reached middle age), was tempted by magic, and was also, shall we say, sexually repressed. Two years after the last of his six children was born (after ten years of marriage), Freud ended sexual relations with his wife, and there is no record of extramarital liaisons. (“Sometimes,” says Nicholi, “it is hard to fathom how Freud became an international symbol of sexual freedom.”) Lewis the moralist, on the other hand, married late in life and declared plainly that “no cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.” Nicholi ends his chapter on sex with the suggestion that faith and living within the bounds of biblical principle, as opposed to atheism, make for a better love life.
And the differences between Lewis and Freud multiply. Lewis “dreamed of being famous,” for instance, “but only before his conversion”; once he achieved broad fame after becoming a Christian, he accepted its challenges with equanimity. The Christian Lewis (as opposed to the younger non-Christian Lewis) was, by all accounts, a generally cheerful person. Like Lewis, the young Freud was a “bedlam of ambitions,” but for him, fame led to indifference to others and bitterness toward those who disputed his findings. He had fallings out with many colleagues and students, among them Alfred Adler and Carl Jung. He spent much of his life in a state of depression.
And then there is “Freud’s preoccupation and fascination with the devil.” This fascination is odd, for Freud didn’t believe in the devil. Thus, Nicholi wonders if Freud identified the devil with himself, “not as the embodiment of evil but as the ultimate rebel, defiant and refusing to surrender to Authority,” i.e., God. Lewis, who also spent a lot of time thinking and writing about devils (e.g., The Screwtape Letters), notes somewhere that when he was young and atheistic he was angry at God for not existing. One finishes this book with the sense that Freud could never free himself of anger at the nonexistent deity.
Records of Lewis’s last days “attest to a cheerfulness, a calming, an inner peace, and even anticipation,” Nicholi writes. As for Freud, on his deathbed he told his doctor that what he had left of life was “nothing but torture and makes no sense anymore.” He was soon dispatched by fatal doses of morphine he himself requested.
There are, of course, many things that account for the differences between Freud’s and Lewis’s dispositions: Freud, for example, lived his life in an intensely anti-Semitic environment, where Lewis had to suffer the petty animosities of his jealous university cohorts. But Nicholi also wants to suggest that Lewis was the more functional and adjusted of the two because of his “spiritual worldview.” “A number of recent articles in leading medical journals have researched the effects of worldviews in patients suffering from depression,” Nicholi writes. “They found those with a spiritual worldview responded more quickly to treatment for depression than those with a secular worldview.” (If “spiritual worldview” sounds too wishy-washy, there are many places in Nicholi’s text where it’s clear that he means to suggest the health benefits of Christianity in particular as opposed to “spirituality” in general.)
Nicholi says that one Freudian theory that has proven right is that people tend to think of God as they think of their fathers. Put simply, stern fathers are likely to produce children who perceive a stern God, while loving, approachable fathers raise children who see God as loving and approachable. It is therefore very important, writes Nicholi, to ensure that “our concept of God—whether the God we reject as unbelievers or that we worship as believers—is firmly based on the Creator revealed in history and not on our neurotic distortion of him” (emphasis added). Readers of this book know that Nicholi’s “Creator revealed in history” is the God of Jesus Christ.
Being as openly Christian as it is without actually being a “Christian” book, The Question of God isn’t what one would naturally expect from Harvard or the Free Press. Thus, it serves as a reminder that, for all the pretensions of a largely secular academic world, the claims of the Scriptures and Christian tradition are not close to being undone.
Preston Jones teaches at the Cambridge School of Dallas (formerly Logos Academy) and contributes to, among other publications, Books & Culture, Regeneration Quarterly, Critique, and the Ottawa Citizen.
Preston Jones teaches history at John Brown University.
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