November 16, 2005

God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life

Recently, Nicholi published a book called The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. In it, he provides a new dimension to the argument by adding “a third voice … in the form of their biographies.” We know what the two men believed — but how did those beliefs shape who they were? by Gina R. Dalfonzo
Sigmund Freud was an atheist nearly all his life. Lewis too was attracted to a materialistic explanation of the universe, perhaps even more than Freud. The scientist, drawing on what he believed to be a universal ambivalence about father figures, tried to explain religion as “wishful thinking” about a supernatural father. But Lewis didn’t wish religion was true; he wanted no divine figure interfering in his life. It wasn’t until his early 30s, after several of his friends had become Christians, that he decided to examine the evidence — to actually read the Bible. To his shock and dismay, he realized that story had all the elements of truth. He became a “reluctant convert” to theism, or belief in God, and eventually to faith in Jesus Christ.
Freud also owned a Bible, observed by Nicholi on a visit to Freud’s daughter Anna. And he often thought and spoke in religious terms, quoted religious authors, and admitted the truth of certain theological concepts such as sin and guilt. But he wanted nothing to do with a personal faith. His wife, raised like him in an Orthodox Jewish family, once wrote, “Not being allowed to light the Sabbath lights on the first Friday night after my marriage was one of the most upsetting experiences of my life.” (Incidentally, I’ve read a good deal by and about Lewis, and there appears to be no evidence of that staunch traditionalist either ordering or forbidding his wife to do anything.)
Nicholi writes, “Both Freud’s and Lewis’s views have existed since the beginning of recorded history — the spiritual worldview, rooted primarily in ancient Israel, with its emphasis on moral truth and right conduct and its motto Thus Saith the Lord; and the materialist or ‘scientific’ worldview, rooted in ancient Greece, with its emphasis on reason and acquisition of knowledge and its motto What Says Nature?”
It’s interesting that Lewis always acknowledged that psychiatry was a useful tool, even though it often led people to believe that “the sense of Shame is . . . dangerous.” It’s also interesting that Freud himself believed in the validity of shame and guilt. Yet his closed universe, with no authority higher than science, contained few tools for dealing with good and evil. So he fell back on education. People must be taught that ethical behavior was in their own best interest, he stated; once they became well educated, they naturally would behave ethically. As Nicholi notes, “Freud wrote this in 1927 before the Nazi rise in educated Germany.” Yet even before that — as far back as 1913 — Freud confessed to a friend, “That psychoanalysis has not made the analysts themselves better, nobler, or of stronger character remains a disappointment to me.”
Lewis would not have been surprised. Where Freud proposed “a dictatorship of reason,” Lewis saw the danger of “a dictatorship of Pride.” Because Freud acknowledged no universal moral law, and thus no Lawmaker, he and his followers could only compare themselves to people around them — a practice, Lewis warned, that invariably leads to pride, “the utmost evil.” Whereas Freud’s philosophy of good and evil dealt only with the intellect, Lewis saw beyond that to the fatal flaw — the sin nature — in all human beings. Yet Freud, ironically, believed wholeheartedly in that flaw. Although he considered himself a moral person, he couldn’t understand why “other people are brutal and untrustworthy.” To a pastor friend, he wrote, “I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found very little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash.”
By contrast, Lewis’s conversion greatly expanded his capacity for love and friendship. “To believe and to pray were the beginning of extroversion,” Lewis wrote. “I had been, as they say, ‘taken out of myself.’” The self-centered misanthrope became a man who, according to his friend and biographer George Sayer, was “great fun, an extremely witty and amusing companion . . . considerate.”
Lewis, while agreeing that sexual love was greatly important, refused to see it as the only kind of love or even as the greatest. He identified four types of love: affection, friendship, sexual love and the love of one’s neighbor. The last type, which the Greeks called agape, is “a state of the will, which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people.” Although this kind of love does not always come easily, it has the power to transform relationships and lives. As Nicholi writes, “As a clinician, I have observed that Agape is the key to all successful relationships, even those within groups and organizations. . . . If Agape determined how we related to others, we could save ourselves and those around us a lot of unnecessary pain.”
This giving of oneself carries over into the other types of love as well. For example, in Eros, or sexual love, even though the lover is seeking pleasure, real love helps him see the beloved as a person instead of a sexual object. (That concept could certainly revolutionize a number of relationships today.) So for Lewis, love was based ultimately on giving pleasure and happiness to others, not in seeking it for oneself. And there was not only one kind of love, but a wide and enjoyable variety.

To both men, Nicholi writes, “the question of God” was the question that made all the difference. Both men were preoccupied with it throughout their lives, but each answered it differently. Everyone’s life is different, and it’s undoubtedly true that not all atheists are gloomy and not all Christians are cheerful. But Lewis and Freud serve as excellent prototypes of their worldviews, because each not only followed his beliefs as faithfully as he could, but spent a lifetime thinking about them, speaking on them, and writing to defend them. “Perhaps Freud and Lewis represent conflicting parts of ourselves,” Nicholi says. “One part raises its voice in defiance of authority, and says with Freud, ‘I will not surrender’; another part, like Lewis, recognizes within ourselves a deep-seated yearning for a relationship with the Creator.”

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