God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life: An Interview with Dr. Armand Nicholi

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Since it began 35 years ago, Harvard University's legendary course on Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis perennially draws students' top ratings. Some cite it as a turning point in their lives: "my most redeeming intellectual experience" . . . "an oasis" . . . "what I was starved for."

Then in 2002, from decades of probing the question of God with sharp young minds and from his own rich database, Dr. Armand Nicholi wrote the book on the ultimate parlor game. In conversational, nontheological language, he placed two of the 20th century's intellectual titans at the table . . .and then he stepped back.

Now The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, pits the father of psychoanalysis and Christianity's leading apologist, both of them atheists in their 20s, regarding life's Big issues—seemingly point for point. Inevitably the two men's beliefs and
rejections play out in their own lives: in certainty of purpose, pleasure in sex . . fear of death. Fascinated readers draw their own conclusions.

In this High Calling interview, Dr. Nicholi discusses the Freud-Lewis face-off and responds to it. He explains why worldview matters and what difference it makes to give our minds fully and openly to the high-stakes question of what we believe.

The obvious first questions, Dr. Nicholi, are why this subject and why these men?

When I finished medical training at Harvard, I was asked to teach a course on Freud. Not having read his philosophical works, which were the more influential, I decided to teach his philosophy as the best way to learn it. Student evaluations came back saying the course was interesting but biased toward the secular worldview and that it was a strong sustained attack against the spiritual worldview. They asked why I presented no counterpoint to Freud.

So I began to think who could define and defend the spiritual worldview that Freud attacked, but could think of no one with the intellectual credentials.

When I was a surgical intern, I encountered real suffering for the first time—children with fatal illness. I was haunted by their cries and the families' pain. I thought, "How could anyone in heaven or on earth permit this suffering if they could prevent it?" Around that time, I saw a small book on a table in the hospital library titled, The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis, and I read it. It didn't answer the problem completely, but it was very helpful. Fast forward a few years and now I thought of Lewis as a counterpoint to Freud. I began to read his works seriously and was astounded by the parallels in Lewis' and Freud's writings. Freud would raise a question and Lewis would answer—as if they were at a podium arguing. Freud, then Lewis.

The reason for this stark parallelism was that Lewis was an atheist for the first 30 years of his life and used Freud's argument to defend his atheism. After Lewis found faith, whose arguments did he answer when defending the spiritual worldview but Freud's?

Why do you think the course affects students so strongly?

Most courses taught in college have to do with almost every aspect of our culture and universe except how you live your life. Universities, therefore, turn out people successful in their careers but failures in their lives. This course focuses on how to live life. In addition, I think students find it helpful to understand the arguments for the worldview opposite of what they embrace. Those who embrace a secular worldview understand for the first time the arguments for the spiritual worldview. Likewise believers look at arguments for the secular worldview and broaden
their understanding of people they previously could never understand.

Most readers say the book is unbiased, but a few think you lean toward Lewis . . .

People that share Lewis' worldview almost universally say it's a balanced, fair description. But people that embrace Freud's worldview feel that it's biased. [Lewis' and Freud's] spiritual worldviews come out in how they lived their lives and how they confronted their own deaths, for example, and the differences there are pretty dramatic.

Lewis was quite despondent before [his conversion] and quite cheerful and outgoing afterward. He actually looked forward to the time when he would enter into the life that he felt every believer had waiting. Even until the end, he was cheerful and outgoing, and said, "Why shouldn't we look forward to that time without people thinking we're morbid? St. Paul actually looked forward to it."

Without those spiritual resources, we see in Freud this enormous preoccupation with death and fear of it. He was very superstitious about when he was going to die. He would check into a hotel and be given room 41; after that he was sure that he would die at 41. When he didn't die at 41, he'd come across a new phone number and be absolutely sure he'd die at the year mentioned in the number. His official biographer said when he was still young, he'd shake hands and say, "Goodbye, you may never see me again." We know in psychiatry that unless a person can resolve the problem of his death, he either denies it or becomes obsessed with it. Freud became obsessed with it.

Dr. Nicholi, what is a worldview, and why does it matter?

Everyone has a worldview—whether we realize it or not. Our worldview is simply our philosophy of life, our attempt to make sense of our existence. After we arrive on this earth, we make one of two basic assumptions: we assume that the universe is all there is and that life on this planet is a matter of chance . . . or we assume some intelligence beyond the universe Who gives order to the universe and meaning to our lives. We embrace one or the other, and that worldview influences our motivation, our identity, our relationships, our valuation of people, our purpose in life, our destiny. No part of our personal history tells more about us than our worldview. Modern medicine is just beginning to understand and explore this. Some carefully controlled experiments reported in our most prestigious medical journals show that one's worldview has a profound effect on emotional and physical health, on how one responds to illnesses, on how long one lives. . . . Research shows that with spiritual resources, one seems to fare considerably better.

Thoughtful people that embrace a secular worldview embrace many of Freud's arguments—primarily that belief in God is wish fulfillment—wish for a fatherly figure in heaven looking after you. If you behave well, you're rewarded; if not, you're punished. Freud says this is all nothing but wish fulfillment. Lewis says yes, we do have a strong wish and need for a relationship with a heavenly father, but that's one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God. Lewis points out that all of our wishes, desires and needs have objects to fulfill those needs or desires. We need water, and there's water. We need food, and there's food. We need sex and there's sex. We need God . . .

For many Christians, the decision for faith is purely emotional.

That's unfortunate. It's unfortunate when any believer is wary of an intellectual approach. If something is philosophical or has to do with reason, intellect, or the university, some believers become uncomfortable. Some don't want to read my book because they don't want to be exposed to arguments against the spiritual worldview. They end up talking only to people who share their convictions and avoid interaction with those who don't. But the Great Commission has to do with sharing one's faith with people who don't believe. In the book, I try to show how a mature, highly intelligent adult a professor in the most prestigious university in the world—can change from a militant atheist to a strong personal faith.

How would you say the course and book have affected you personally?

I spent 15 years collecting the database for the book. I have 10,000 to 12,000 quotes on every subject Freud or Lewis wrote about—scholarly works as well as letters. The book is a very small selected segment of that database. I enjoy teaching it and find it gratifying to interact with the students, to get to know them well. We limit the class so they can know one another and know me. I think the most ineffective way to learn is in large classes with the professor lecturing and the student taking notes, and then studying the notes for an exam and regurgitating it all. The best way to learn is within the context of meaningful relationships between students and instructors. Many of the students in the course have also formed lifelong relationships over the years.