Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By Armand M. Nicholi
Free Press, 304 pages, $15
Is there proof for the existence of God?

C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate the question


Although Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis never met while traipsing our spinning globe, they are brought into conversation in The Question of God, as they are in Dr. Armand Nicholi’s course at Harvard University on the same subject. What do Freud and Lewis have to say to us about what human beings should believe and how they ought to live and behave? These are the two questions governing Nicholi’s book.

But the book really seems to be about the discovery that G.K. Chesterton proclaimed in his wonderful little book Orthodoxy: that Christianity is “the best root of energy and sound ethics.” Chesterton argues that for a life to have romance and practicality, “to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome,” it must embrace the Apostles’ Creed, nothing more and nothing less. Christianity (or a life-enhancing faith of some kind?), says Chesterton, is the common ground of all human beings: “the desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of poetical curiosity.”

The Question of God appears to argue a similar point -- but less bracingly, sharply or charmingly, and much too narrowly for the Christian creed and its rich tradition of commentary.

Freud and Lewis lived at approximately the same time, and they both began their adult lives similarly as unbelievers. Both had troubled relationships with their fathers that influenced their early views of life. Their lives ended differently. Nicholi begins his narrative with a sketch of the funeral of each.

Nicholi had his reasons for choosing these two men to demonstrate diametrically opposed views of life, but there are others who could have examined the question in a more compelling way. Flannery O’ Connor, arguably the most powerful Christian writer in American literature, thought Jung more a threat to Christian belief than Freud. And although Lewis is a brilliant literary critic and the author of delightful Christian allegories, as an apologist, he is flat.

Nicholi presents Freud and Lewis as “protagonists,” though they were never such in the real way that George Bernard Shaw and Chesterton were in England. But in his imagination and on the syllabus of his Harvard course, he pits them against each other on such important issues as the existence of a loving intelligence (God) beyond existence, the role of “reality” in human affairs, and the question of a moral law transcending time. He also runs them through their courses on happiness, sex, love, pain and death.

In each contest, the reader is to applaud Lewis the winner. Lewis always seems happier and more fulfilled. But it is not always clear why Lewis wins. Moreover, the terms of the debate -- “happiness,” for instance -- are not carefully defined. Freud is gloomy because he is an atheist; Lewis is joyful because he found Christ. Chesterton observed that joy “is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Nicholi leads the reader to believe that Lewis found this secret. And I don’t doubt it. But it seems an easy joy. Many “gloomy” people are believers in Christ and charitable in their works and lives, and many “joyful” people are slapdash, reckless and deep down gloomy.

Think of Evelyn Waugh, author of one of the best Catholic novels of the last century, Brideshead Revisited. He was ornery and cruelly snobbish, and his outlook on life grew blacker and bitterer as he grew older. For him, Catholicism equaled aristocracy, which fueled his hatred of change and reform in the church. O’Connor was only a little bit better, and all of her fiction is populated by Christ-haunted weirdoes, some of them murdering ones.

These observations point to Nicholi’s principal weakness. He sets up the debate, and he culls evidence for each “debater” from their lives and writings. The project is too spiritually sanitary; the approach is entirely too tit for tat. Life and belief are not like that. The reader has to trust that Nicholi is not taking statements from the writings out of context, or suppressing nuances, or ignoring what does not fit his dichotomy.

Theodicy -- the justification of an omnipotent, all-loving God who nonetheless permits suffering and evil -- is notoriously difficult, as are biographies and justifications of faith. Nicholi mixes all three of these genres in his comparison of Freud and Lewis. I am uneasy about his method; in fact, I was uncomfortable (felt voyeuristic, actually) reading the account of Freud’s bout with cancer of the palate and didn’t know really what to conclude. I dislike being nudged to consign Freud to an “Inferno” of intellectual history and Lewis to a “Paradiso.” The book is too decidedly dichotomous. In matters of Christian faith, arguments and dichotomies rarely help.

The word “God,” which Karl Rahner says “confronts us with ourselves and with reality as a whole,” is too fundamental to be treated as inexpertly as Nicholi does. “God” is not a game, or a fiction, or a pedagogical technique -- or even a topic that can be legitimately debated.

The bottom line is that Lewis probably does trump Freud because in the end Freud could only analyze. He could not cross over, as did Lewis, to the kingdom of healing -- to the realms of poetry and mysticism. And if we know anything about God (which we don’t, really), God is a rare poet. Ironically, Lewis may have realized, more than Freud, Prospero’s wisdom in “The Tempest”: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” In the final analysis, for which Rahner serves best of all, we are symbol-mongering creatures incapable of escaping that word “God.”

Michael Allen Mikolajczak is chair of the English department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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