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Tuesday, September 21 2004 19:00
Does belief in God make sense in an age when science has a growing capacity to explain the universe and human beings?  How can one maintain such belief when the world groans under so much evil and individuals suffer such intense grief?

For some 30 years, questions like these have intrigued Armand Nicholi, a psychiatrist and scholar. In a course at Harvard, Dr. Nicholi has approached such issues by contrasting the careers and teaching of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis.

Now the Harvard professor’s work has inspired a four-hour series for public television. Entitled “The Question of God,” this program focuses on the lives of the two influential opposites as they wrestle with the possibility of faith. Through the use of historical footage and dramatizations of incidents in the lives of Freud and Lewis, the makers of the film have crafted a convincing portrayal of the belief/unbelief struggle.

Glimpses into the lives of the two principal figures in this documentary are interspersed with an ongoing discussion led by Dr. Nicholi. Bringing together a small group of people from various professional fields, he gets them to talk about their personal approaches to the great questions of belief and unbelief.

Freud was brought up religiously in a family that valued the Jewish tradition. By the time of his university studies, however, he had come to look upon this heritage skeptically. As he plunged deeply into medical science, he looked to such investigation rather than to the Bible and religion as the source of reliable knowledge. Ultimately, he came to reject belief in God as a human fantasy.

Lewis also grew up religiously, though his faith suffered an early blow at age nine when his mother died, despite his prayers for her survival. Later, the impact of the First World War, which wiped out a whole generation of young men, also made faith in God seem unreasonable.

Only after he became a professor at Oxford did Lewis gradually become convinced that God was the source of his own life and its sustainer.

Pairing Freud and Lewis may seem strange, if only because their place in history is so disproportionate. The Viennese doctor’s investigations into the unconscious make him a force to be reckoned with in modern life, whereas Lewis has a lesser influence through his religious, humanistic, and imaginative writings.

The Harvard professor Nicholi makes perhaps his most significant contribution to the discussion when he proposes that the two contrasted figures represent two different and conflicting sides of every person. Inside us is the double impulse both to believe and not to believe, the professor suggests.

This view can seem threatening to many religious people for whom it is important to think of themselves as solid in their belief. And yet, throughout the great tradition of saints and other great believers, there has always been a recognition that the belief/unbelief tendencies are not as far apart as some would like to think.

Experiencing the death of those we love, and encounters with other kinds of evil in the world, can shake the faith of the most robust believer. For Freud, the death of his dear daughter Sophie and, fours years later that of her son, along with the horrors of world war were enough to solidify his view of God as a purely human invention.

For Lewis, a second crisis happened late in his life with the death of his wife Helen Joy Davidman. This loss plunged him into a depression that, for a time, made him again doubt the reality of a loving God.

When they came to die, Freud in 1939, Lewis in 1963, each man remained convinced of his position about God. To Freud, God was an illusion; to Lewis, he was the source of all life and goodness.

Unfortunately, preview materials for the television program discussed here arrived too late for this column. Interested readers who may have missed seeing it broadcast can purchase the program in DVD or VHS format from WGBH in Boston, or wait for possible rebroadcast.

Unless they take an interest in philosophical and theological discussion, however, many viewers may find the discussion periods heavy going. The lives of Freud and C.S. Lewis are more likely to hold such viewers, because their triumphs and their crises are portrayed in often fascinating detail.

Richard Griffin