November-December 2004 – In the wake of the huge popular success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it’s probable that religion isn’t likely to get short-shrift in the media for a while. In fact, on PBS in September, the issue of religion came front and center in an outstanding two-part series.
The Question of God: Sigmund Freud & C.S. Lewis, is a superb four-hour journey into the critical distinctions between the competing worldviews which underlie the cultural war currently convulsing Western Civilization.
The fault line of that war lies precisely at the point of collision between forces urging the West to adopt a purely secular public life, and those defending traditional foundations based upon the Judeo-Christian view of nature, man, and society.
As the title implies, these two views of the world are championed in the PBS program by two of the most prominent voices of the last century: Sigmund Freud, the “Father of Psychoanalysis” and a resolute atheist; and Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis, whose writings were arguably the most influential among Western Christians in the 20th century.
The narration in The Question of God is intercut with reenactments by two wonderful actors who portray Freud and Lewis, using only the words written by the actual men in their books.
The program was enhanced by the participation of Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr., a Harvard University professor and practicing psychiatrist. He is also author of the book on which the series is based, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life.
An unexpected pleasure was the round-table discussion, lead by Nicholi, that was interwoven throughout the narrative. The participating individuals enthusiastically debate both sides of the issues raised by The Question of God.
While many evangelical Christians may mistrust PBS when it comes to accurately and respectfully presenting a Christian view on virtually anything, The Question of God treats Lewis’ views with utmost respect, and his beliefs are even portrayed with sympathy in numerous segments.
But the two-part series is not one-sided by any means, as Freud’s argument against the existence of God is laid out as completely as Lewis’ faith in Christ. So, while faint-hearted Christians who dislike any open discussion of contrary viewpoints would be disappointed, those interested in understanding the cultural divisions among us would be thrilled. The program is, as Christianity Today called it, “Think TV.”
All there is?
The Question of God explores in rich fashion the many issues related to this debate, such as the nature of reality and truth, miracles, and whether or not morality is absolute or a purely human invention. The program excels in presenting such concepts in a rich, intriguing manner.
Yet The Question of God moves beyond abstract arguments in its poignant portrayal of the humanity of both Freud and Lewis, especially in its examination of the early and later years of their lives.
As The Question of God begins to unfold, the narrator says of Freud: “The man who would become an atheist was raised in a world steeped in religious belief.” Born in 1856 among a small community of Jews in a primarily Catholic town in Moravia, Freud was raised in a traditional Jewish home, in which his devout father immersed his son in the Hebrew Scriptures.
After Freud’s father lost his business, the family was forced to move to a Jewish ghetto in Vienna, Austria, where they lived in poverty. First under the instruction of a personal tutor – who was a secular Jew – and then after entering into secondary school, Freud began to learn about a world that said it did not need God.
That world, in the latter half of the 19th century, was the secular scientific world, in which life – and all reality – was limited to nature and the material universe.
“The new teaching captivated his imagination,” the narrator says, and, it seems, drove out the earlier Bible lessons about the God of Israel.
“I felt an overpowering need to understand something of the riddles of the world in which we live,” Freud would later say of his youth. “I came to know all the fields of science.”
In a sense, the material world became the limit of existence for Freud. Scientific work, he said in his book, The Future of an Illusion, “is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality.”
Beyond that reality, there is nothing. No God. No soul. No heaven or hell.
“Made for another world”?
C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1898, and although he, too, would eventually grow up to be an atheist, Lewis could not seem to escape the feeling that there was something beyond the natural world.
This belief came in a peculiar way. Lewis relates an occasion from his youth, when his older brother, Warren, showed him something he had made. It was a large box, decorated with moss and flowers, and when it was opened, an awestruck C.S. Lewis marveled over what was inside: a toy garden, containing a small pool of water, surrounded by plants and flowers.
“That was the first beauty I ever knew,” Lewis later recounted, adding, “It was quite different from ordinary life, and even from ordinary pleasure. Something, as they would now say, in another dimension.”
It was, he insisted, “a sensation of desire” that, unfortunately, soon dissipated, and “the world turned commonplace again.”
In that brief moment, Lewis glimpsed something that would haunt him for years to come. He called the sensation of desire for that far-away place beyond this life simply “joy.”
Later in life, he would refer to that moment again and again. “There’s a pang of desire that this garden brings back, as though he once was someplace, which is now beyond his reach. It’s lost to him,” says Professor James Como of York College, City University of New York in The Question of God “And he wants desperately to return to that.”
This is the first hint to Lewis that a realm existed beyond this life. In perhaps his most famous book, Mere Christianity, Lewis would say, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Stricken by suffering and death
However, the suffering of this world struck Lewis as a boy. In The Question of God, we see the young Lewis getting on his knees to pray that God would heal his mother, as she lay dying in her bed. The prayer goes unanswered. Her death starts Lewis on a journey to atheism, which he later, at least intellectually, fully embraced.
But God would not leave Lewis alone. Through nagging doubts about his atheism and discussions with his Christian friends, C.S. Lewis is converted – first to a belief in the existence of God, and later, to Christianity. Over the course of the years of World War II, he writes some of the most powerful and influential books in all of Christian history.
Freud does not escape tragedy, either. As an adult, his beloved daughter dies of influenza, along with her unborn child, and later Freud would lose a favorite grandson as well. He is forced to watch the rise of Nazism in Europe, the conquest of Austria, where he still lived, and the growing horror of anti-Semitism.
Although it was still a time of fruitful writing for Freud, the last 16 years of his life were spent in a struggle against oral cancer, which eventually overcame him.
As he faced death, Freud is shown in The Question of God being forced to deal with his own uncompromising belief that death was the absolute end of a man. One almost watches with bated breath to see if the famous atheist would, perhaps, embrace God at the end. Sadly, he remained defiant. Surrounded by ancient statues of pagan gods that he’d collected over the years, Freud died in 1939, after a physician friend administered a lethal overdose of morphine.
In one of Freud’s works, he had written that “Obscure, unfeeling and unloving powers determine men’s fate.” From the Christian perspective, such sentiments flow from the mournful despair of a soul that does not know God.
Lewis, on the other hand, came to see Divine purpose in suffering. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis says, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
However, despite his relationship with Christ, Lewis would also face the mournful despair of tragedy.
His most difficult time came, oddly enough, through the love of marriage. Lewis remained a bachelor until 1956, when he married Helen Joy Davidman. The two had corresponded by letter, and had struck up a deep friendship that turned into love. But it was expected to be a short marriage. When the two wed, both knew that Joy had bone cancer, and Lewis relates that he expected to be both bridegroom and widower in a relatively short span of time.
Here The Question of God produces its most poignant segment. With Lewis’ earlier, desperate childhood prayer for his mother still vivid in the viewers’ minds, we see him calling for the assistance of a friend, a priest who, the program informs us, has a reputation for having the gift of healing. Lewis, with his friend by his side, kneels at his stricken wife’s bedside and prays that God will heal Joy.
Amazingly, just days away from death, Joy begins to recover. A few months later, doctors report to Lewis that, inexplicably, her pelvis has begun to regenerate. The happy couple, as Lewis puts it, “feast[s] on love” for the next three years.
But the cancer returns, and this time Lewis’ wife succumbs, dying in 1960. It is a blow which threatens to shatter his faith. In A Grief Observed, Lewis plainly writes of his struggle to hold onto his faith through his sorrow and his bitterness toward God.
Yet, he does recover, and he comes to learn a powerful lesson. “Lord, are these your real terms?” he says. “Can I meet Helen again only if I learn to love you so much I don’t care whether I meet her or not?”
Lewis died in 1963, and the viewer is left with the distinct feeling that, in addition to seeing again his beloved Helen Joy, he finally found that true Joy of which he only caught a glimpse as a young boy.
• Order The Question of God: www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod
• Books by C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity; The Problem of Pain; The Screwtape Letters; Miracles; The Chronicles of Narnia; Surprised By Joy; and A Grief Observed.
Christian apologetics Web sites:
• Answers in Action (Gretchen Passantino): www.answers.org
• Answers in Genesis (Ken Ham): www.answersingenesis.org
• Bible Archaeology Search and Exploration Institute (Bob Cornuke): www.baseinstitute.org
• Institute for Christian Defense (Frank Harber): www.gotlife.org
• Josh McDowell Ministries (Josh McDowell): www.josh.org
• Leadership U: www.leaderu.com
• Ravi Zacharias International Ministries: www.rzim.org