Part II - The Consequences of Belief
Few individuals have had as much impact on modern culture as Sigmund Freud.
Freud came at a time when popular sentiment was being shaped by the theories of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx. Materialistic explanations of the universe involving planetary motion, biology, and socio-politics formed the first musical bars of the “God is Dead” elegy penned by Frederick Nietzsche. But it was Freud who completed the score by unpacking the mysteries of the human psyche and behavior.
In the decades that followed, Freud’s influence, notes Dr. Armand Nicholi in The Question of God, expanded beyond psychology and psychotherapy to fields as diverse as literary criticism and ethics.
While Freud is arguably the most significant 20th century scientific materialist, C.S. Lewis is the most influential figure of the last hundred years for the spiritual worldview. Like no other modern thinker, Lewis spoke with clarity to the contemporary truth-seeker. His apologetic writings and Christian fiction communicated theological truths to the “person on the street” without the use of churchspeak or arcane academic jargon.
His was a robust challenge to materialism. With armor-piercing logic, Lewis showed that faith had its reasons and reason had its faith. Religious belief was not a matter of faith versus reason, but a matter of good faith versus bad faith.
Last time we reviewed the worldviews of Lewis and Freud. This week we will examine their lives to determine what practical effect their belief systems had on the way they actually lived.
THEIR APPROACH TO PURPOSE
At the heart of worldview is what one believes about the purpose of life. For Freud, life’s purpose was happiness which he equated with pleasure; particularly that derived from sexual satisfaction. Anything restraining man’s sexual impulse, like religious mores, are harmful because they lead to repression and anxiety which inhibit the experience of pleasure and, hence, happiness.
While Freud’s views adrenalized the sexual revolution and the privacy “rights” evolution of the 20th century, Freud himself remained tethered to a traditional moral code—one that even mystified him. According to his biographers, Freud was a faithful husband and devoted father throughout his life. Freud also expressed a strong inclination to treat others kindly, even when it meant his own discomfort.
As to why he felt bound to a virtuous life, Freud himself was puzzled. “When I ask myself why I have always behaved honorably,” he wrote a colleague, “I have no answer. Sensible it certainly was not.”
Lewis, on the other hand, came to understand that the good life was not one directed toward pleasure, but one directed toward a Person. He acknowledged that while some happiness is permitted us now, our happiness will always be incomplete, because Earth, in its present form, is not our home. How did that translate in the life of Lewis?
In an interview in Christianity Today, Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, said that Lewis gave away about two-thirds of his income, despite having grown up with a “pathological fear” of poverty. In one instance, his friend J.R.R. Tolkien chided him for giving a panhandler all the money in his pocket, insisting the man was only going to spend it on drink. Lewis replied, “Well, if I had kept it, I would have only spent it on drink.” In his yearning for the “yet to come,” Lewis did not neglect needs in the “here and now.”
THEIR VIEW OF MAN
Gresham’s anecdote also reveals Lewis’s high view of humanity. Lewis once said that, “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Lewis observed that while organizations, nations, and civilizations all pass away, people are the only things destined for eternity. Even the lowliest is so glorious that if we were to encounter one in its eternal state, we would be tempted to fall prostrate and worship it. That was a big turnaround for Lewis.
Prior to his conversion, Lewis’s grim views led him to guard the interior of his life: “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” For him, nothing was as risky as a human relationship. His conceit and distrust of others convinced him that “safety” was to be found by turning inward on himself.
After conversion, his outward inclination couldn’t have been starker. Lewis extended himself to an increasing circle of friends. He was one, according to Gresham, who would converse equally with plumbers or professors while drawing a crowd by his infectious laughter and storytelling.
Freud, by comparison, maintained a low valuation of humanity throughout his life: “The unworthiness of human beings . . . has always made a deep impression in me.” This extended to his patients, for whom he maintained a “level of contempt,” according to author Philip Rieff in Freud: The Mind of the Moralist.
This low view of man made the Golden Rule absurd. In Freud’s opinion, love was something to be given only to those worthy of it; in other words, “love my neighbor, as my neighbor loves me.” It is little wonder that Freud experienced a life-long pattern of strained and conflicted relationships.
THEIR VIEWS OF GOD AND BEYOND
Both Freud and Lewis had problems with authority, traceable to the ambivalent relationship each had with his father. While Freud despised his father for weakness, Lewis despised his for capricious behavior and emotional detachment. Paternal ambivalence played a significant role in the negative attitudes both men developed for God. Yet the lives of both men were riddled with contradictions.
Freud considered the Bible a fairy tale full of wishful thinking. But in his autobiography, Freud attributes his understanding of the Bible with the direction of his life. Letters written by this unapologetic atheist are rife with terms like “the good Lord,” “if God so wills,” “with God’s help,” and “my secret prayer.” Freud considered religion a mass delusion accepted by those of “weak intellect,” yet he had the highest praise for Isaac Newton, St. Paul, and Oskar Pfister (a close friend who was a pastor and psychoanalyst)—ironically, all men of faith.
Supposedly, Freud settled the question of God as a young man but, Nicholi observes, Freud “remained preoccupied [with it] throughout his life.” Even the subject of Freud’s last book, Moses and Monotheism, reveals that the question may not have been as settled as Freud would lead us to believe.
Freud criticized the superstitious faith of believers, despite his own superstitious obsession with death. As early as the age of 38, Freud obsessed that certain numbers, like 61 or 62, or time markers, like the age his father or mother died, pointed to when he would die. Dr. Nicholi notes that even at the age of 80, Freud’s superstition about death “gave him no peace.”
After advising others of their need to resolve the question of death in order to endure life, Freud never resolved the issue for himself. Instead, he wrestled with clinical depression for years, seeking relief in prolonged cocaine use.
Lewis also experienced a “whirl of contradictions” during his atheistic period. While denying that God existed, he found himself both mad that God didn’t exist, and angry that he created a sorrowful world in which creatures were forced to exist. But just who was he mad at? As Lewis later realized, it was Him who lived and died and rose again, as foreshadowed in myth, revealed in the Bible, and recounted in Nature’s pattern of life, death and re-birth.
In contrast to Freud, who lived in gloom and pessimism until death, Lewis awakened to a new morning: “How true it is: the SEEING ONE walks out into joy and happiness unthinkable, where the dull, senseless eyes of the world see only death and destruction.”
The lives of Freud and Lewis have much to say about the credibility of their respective worldviews. While Freud’s worldview left him longing for a happiness he never enjoyed, Lewis’s brought him a happiness more desirable than any other longing: joy.
THE POWER OF CONVERSION
Realizing that such anecdotal evidence could be exceptional, Dr. Nicholi included a study of Harvard students having had a “religious conversion”—many of whom, with a history of depression.
Nicholi found a decrease in substance abuse and existential despair in the students after conversion, combined with improved academic performance, enhanced self-image, and increased capacity for satisfying relationships.
His study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, also revealed that the students had a new sense of joy and forgiveness that led to reduced feelings of self-hatred, helping them feel more tolerant and loving toward others.
Freud contended that religious belief was a pathological escape from reality. But as the lives of Lewis and the Harvard students indicate, it is a rational response to what one really knows to be real—a response that results in enhanced, rather than diminished, emotional and social functioning.
It could be argued that it was “escape from reality” that forced Freud to an untenable worldview whose vortex of contradictions pulled him into an emotional darkness that he was never able to resolve. As Lewis came to realize, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God.”
“The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.” (Herbert Agar)
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a Centurion of the Wilberforce Forum. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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