May 26, 2005

The Question of God

A recent four part PBS documentary called "The Question of God" examines the lives and teachings of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis in regards to how they've influenced both the secular and spiritual world view. Based on Dr. Armand Nicholi's book of the same title and a course he teaches at Harvard, the series contrasts the ideas of the two historical men and brings a panel of 7 diverse people (mostly upper class western intellectuals) together to share their ideas and debate.

Included in the panel are Dr. Michael Shermer, an author and publisher of Skeptic Magazine; Louis Massiah, an independent filmmaker; J. Douglas Holladay, a Park Avenue Equity Partner; Maragaret Klenck, a Jungian Analysis; Winifred Gallagher, an author and journalist; Jeremy Fraiberg, a lawyer; and Dr. Frederick Lee, a Harvard University Physician & Scientist.

The series wanders through the lives of Lewis and Freud, who are shown as played by actors. Freud, the Jewish turned atheist, represents the modern secular world view of humanism and Darwinism, along with his own at the time controversial views of human behavior. Lewis, the atheist turned Christian, recounts his struggle with the existence of God and his concept of joy.

While the contrast is interesting and the panel discussion more than invigorating, I found myself siding with Dr. Shermer, the skeptic, who offered logical insights towards a lot of the redundant issues that come up during debates on God and spirituality. Because eventually what these discussions have to come down to is the question of faith; whether you are willing to 'believe' in something that is not empirically proven or testable.

Lewis' conversion came with a realization that he should stop fighting God and simply surrender to his creator who gave him the free will to do so. It came from an emotional epiphany he had while out on a picnic with his brother, a faith-based decision that would influence his insight of reality. Though from this it seems that Lewis wasn't the most avid atheist to begin with. Influence came from his Christian friends in whom he had more interest with than his fellow atheists, so he saw a spark of the joy he had once experienced as a child and followed where it might lead. Atheism may be a stereotypically lifeless and negative world view, but Lewis' convictions were obviously elsewhere if he was so easily swayed into abandoning is own reason for an emotional fulfillment. Not to say that atheism doesn't provide that fulfillment, but he was also relieved of the intellectual burden that fueled his reasoning into the unknown.

Freud, on the other hand, realized the flaws of religion from a young age. However, he mistakenly denied the existence of spirituality based on its unprovable nature. A lot of his points rang true to me regarding his view of religion as a projection of the ego and a way to defer guilt and responsibility. Most of his theories come from only his own experience, though, and to this day are seen as influential. There may be many truths in his work, but I simply find it hard to rationalize one person's experience and observations as representing the whole of human psychology. Perhaps his flaw was also in his own ego.

The question of God is beaten only with a one sided stick of Christian or Western perspective in this documentary, so it's not surprising that progress is hardly made apart from the sharing of ideas and defining concepts. One of the more sincere moments, however, was the argument that without Jesus, or a faith in God, or the hope of heaven, true happiness is unattainable. This is surely a mass of ignorant and intellectual laziness. If true happiness means giving up on the search for truth because you've already decided to wager your bets on a hope that your own intuitions are right and true, then lets all close down the schools, libraries and laboratories and die already.

In an infinite world, true happiness may be attainable, but perhaps not as eternal as most would hope. There's always the old dualism of light existing without darkness to come back to. Does God exist? That's the question of the masses. What is God? That's the question of the truth seeker


hollis said...

i think i saw some of this once. my impression of it was a panel of christians talking down to a panel of scientists and came away thinking it was something of a sneakier alpha program for intellectuals..

Derek said...

I always understood Lewis' conversion as a result of his Christian friends (and Tolkien in particular) convincing him that the Christ event was the event toward which all other earlier religious ideas in the west pointed. Lewis loved the classics so deeply that, when he was convinced that Christianity was the finest and (perhaps) ultimate expression of the finest of them, he became a Christian.

He could therefore move from atheism to Christianity with joy, because Christianity was even MORE of what he loved in the first place...kind of like when Interpol fans discover Joy Division, or vice versa, I guess, for some.

But I didn't see this program.