Once Upon a Time

Reflections on “The Question of God,” Part 1

Repetition is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the teaching life. If your subject area remains the same for many consecutive years, you find things that work well and use them, with careful tune-ups and adjustments–year after year.  I always approached teaching as a narrative process.  Each year I was telling a story, and–like in any good story–there were always my favorite parts.  I found particular joy and comfort in reaching the same place each year with different students in the seats getting different things out of the same lesson.

Every year since it was first broadcast on PBS in 2004, I used a wonderful video series, “The Question of God,” in my Senior Worldviews class.  Tonight I wrap up the nine week program for the first time with college students.  Based on a popular Harvard course taught by Dr. Armand Nicholi, this series examines the formation and implications of two contrasting worldviews through the lives of Sigmund Freud, life-long critic of religious belief, and C.S. Lewis, celebrated Oxford don, literary critic, and perhaps this century’s most influential and popular proponent of faith based on reason (learn more at the Question of God website pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/program/index.html).  I thought I’d share some highlights from the guiding narrative I’ve created (with some help from the Q.O.G. website) to go along with each week’s viewing and discussion.

From the outset, I think it important to look back to the very different paths in the Human Story that brought Freud and Lewis to the same cultural moment in Western History.  That “moment” is generally called “modernity,” and it is characterized by a marked decline in Classical and Christian influences in Western culture.   Science and Reason had risen to intellectual and cultural prominence during the 17th-19th Centuries, and while religion was still an important cultural presence in Europe, its influence was waning.

Freud’s path to modernity is rooted in the story of European Judaism.  This tale of cultural marginalization, persecution, perseverance, and the ultimate achievement of a measure of prosperity weaves from ancient through medieval times.  The Jewish story is the story of a Transcendent God whose chosen people are called to faithfully represent His Reality through story, ritual, tradition, and the fulfillment of sacred obligations (mitzvot).  After the Enlightenment (17th/18th C.), many Jewish intellectual elites embraced a secularized Judaism that preserved cultural identity and marginalized religious observances.

As part of his intellectual legacy, Freud strongly advocated an atheistic philosophy of life. Freud’s philosophical writings, more widely read than his expository or scientific works, have played a significant role in the secularization of our culture. In the 17th century people turned to the discoveries of astronomy to demonstrate what they considered the irreconcilable conflict between science and faith; in the 18th century, to Newtonian physics; in the 19th century, to Darwin; in the 20th century and still today, Freud is the atheist’s touchstone.

Lewis was the product of Anglo-Irish Protestantism and a traditional Classical Education.  The Anglican Church of his upbringing was as much a cultural institution as a spiritual one, one which the educated Lewis (like many “moderns” of his time) would eventually find irrelevant and unnecessary.  His desire for “enchantment” in the world was initially fueled by encounters with the natural world around him and the literary canon of Classical Antiquity and Medieval Christendom.

But Lewis embraced an atheistic worldview for the first half of his life and used Freud’s reasoning to defend his atheism. Lewis then rejected his atheism and became a believer. In subsequent writings, he provides cogent responses to Freud’s arguments against the spiritual worldview. Wherever Freud raises an argument, Lewis attempts to answer it. Their writings possess a striking parallelism. If Freud still serves as a primary spokesman for materialism, Lewis serves as a primary spokesman for the spiritual view that Freud attacked.

Armand Nicholi, host and panel moderator for The Question of God, nicely sums up the focus of the series:  “Whether we realize it or not, all of us possess a worldview. A few years after birth, we all gradually formulate our philosophy of life. We make one of two basic assumptions: we view the universe as a result of random events and life on this planet a matter of chance; or we assume an Intelligence beyond the universe who gives the universe order, and life meaning. So each of us embraces some form of either Freud’s secular worldview or Lewis’s spiritual worldview.”

Next time we’ll take a look back at the Classical foundations of these two worldviews.

Learn more about the “story” of the lives of Freud & Lewis—

Alan Jacobs, The Narnian:  The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Harper One, 2005)

Phillip Rief, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Viking Press, 1959)

About Rick D. Williams

Teaching and writing have been my life's work for over two decades as a journalist and educator. My degrees in History were earned at Illinois State University, and I've done additional graduate work at Lincoln Christian Seminary and Urbana Theological Seminary. Over the years I’ve led conference workshops and authored articles and book chapters on topics ranging from religious education and international student ministry to state and local history.
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