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Armand Nicholi: The Question of God


Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 2002), 295 pages, ISBN 9780743247856.

On Easter Sunday, 1886, Sigmund Freud began private practice in the area of neuropathology in Vienna, the first step in the creation by Freud and his followers of what could be called “the Psychological Century.” Through his considerable self-promotion skills, writings, and lecture tours, Freud established himself as the leading thinker and theorist in the field of psychology; all others wrote and theorized either within his thought or against it. 65 years after his death in 1939, Freud’s theories and teachings still define both the field and image of psychology.

Some 45 years later after Easter 1886, a young English tutor at Magdalen College in Oxford, England, named Clive Lewis, set out in the side car of his brothers motorcycle to visit Whipsnade Zoo. He was as yet unknown and unpublished, apart from one volume of poetry, and still little more than a theist with serious doubts about the claims of Christ. But somewhere along the route to the Zoo, without having seriously thought about the subject, Lewis crossed the line to put full faith and trust in Jesus Christ. He would go on to write thousands of letters, articles, and books and give dozens of lectures until his death in 1963, becoming in the process the most articulate and convincing apologist for Biblical Christianity in the 20th century—a fact that would have driven Freud to distraction.

Entrance to the Whipsnade Zoo.
Image: Lumos3 / Wikimedia Commons

Both Freud and Lewis had shared the same doubts and arguments against the claims of Jesus Christ, and religion in general, finding both to be irrational and imprisoning to the soul and the intellect of human beings. Both had been comfortably convinced that the path to the happy life and rational existence lay through the uncompromising rejection of foolish religious belief. One died still convinced, the other died converted. Why? And what does their personal story tell us about the general consequences of belief and unbelief, particularly in Jesus Christ?

That is the story that Nicholi tells in his book, presenting a fascinating dual conversation between men who never met, culled from letters, writings and family anecdotes, and pulled together in a compelling way by a master teacher from Harvard. In the US, PBS will be airing a series based on the book this coming October (2004).

Nicholi is well equipped to take us on this journey; a practicing psychiatrist, teacher at Harvard’s Medical School and editor of the Harvard Guide to Psychology, he also spent time personally visiting and talking with Freud’s daughter Anna, and other friends of the great psychologist. The book and the coming PBS series grew out of a seminar on Freud that Nicholi has taught at Harvard’s undergraduate school since 1972, and it is clear that Nicholi has refined the subject matter considerably over the years. The great achievement of the book is that Nicholi has managed to sympathetically present the views of both Freud and Lewis without demeaning either one; such an accomplishment should serve as a model for all apologists for the kingdom of God. Because Nicholi does not interject his own views into the discussion, the reader is left to choose which person’s worldview really did produce a life worth living, and a legacy worth dying for. As Nicholi put it, “Their arguments can never prove or disprove the existence of God. Their lives, however, offer sharp commentary on the truth, believability, and utility of their views” (p.5). It is the lives lived as a result of either the spiritual or the scientific worldview which Nicholi focuses on in the course of the book. “Whether we realize it or not,” Nicholi writes in the prologue, “all of us possess a worldview…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…Our worldview tells more about us perhaps than any other aspect of our personal history” (p.7). How did the worldview of each man affect how they lived their lives, and what does it tell us about each one?


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Category: Fall 2004, In Depth

About the Author: Steven J. Brooks, MA, MDiv (Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN), is the Director of Spiritual Formation at Veritas Academy. He has worked cross-culturally and cross-generationally as a pastor, chaplain and adjunct instructor at several Twin Cities colleges and leads the creation of Veritas Chapel, committed to the belief that a robust faith challenges the soul, the intellect and the emotions through study of the Word to produce fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ.

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