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Sunday, October 16, 2005

From Freud to Faith

I'm reading an interesting little book by called The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life. The author is a clinical psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard. The premise is pretty straightforward: how do Freud (atheist) and Lewis (atheist-turned-Christian) see life differently? How is it that both look at the same data and come to remarkably different conclusions?

I've found the description of Lewis' conversion particularly interesting. For starters, Lewis begins as a committed atheist:
Beforehand, Lewis had been even more certain of his atheism than was Freud. Freud wavered in his atheism as an undergraduate at the University of Vienna. Lewis, at Oxford, never wavered. He met and liked people in the clergy, but writes, "Though I liked clergyman as I liked bears, I had as little wish to be in the church as in the zoo."

The notion of an Ultimate Authority who might interfere in his life made him feel nauseated... [This is] what I wanted: some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, 'This is my business and mine only.'" Lewis recognized in himself a deep-seated wish that God not exist. (81)
Lewis is pretty clear - he didn't go looking for God. So what brought about the change? Lewis is great in this regard, because he's so introspective (he's just as interested in understanding it himself). In his own case, he describes his conversion as lengthy, gradual, and primarily intellectual.
Lewis became aware that all the authors he most admired, both ancient and modern, embraced the spiritual worldview - Plato, Virgil, Dante, Johnson, Spense, Milton, and more modern writers like George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton. That materialists he read seemed by comparison "a little thin." ...

Then two events happened in quick succession. First, Lewis read G. K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man, a book that profoundly impressed him with the arguments he later used in his own writings. ... Lewis could not understand his positive reaction to Chesterton's spiritualism. He notes: "My pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors ... It would almost seem that Providence ... quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring two minds together ... A young man who wishes to remain a sounds Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."

Then a second event happened that had "a shattering impact." One of the most militant atheists among the Oxford faculty [where Lewis himself was teaching], T. D. Weldon, sat in Lewis's room one evening and remarked that the historical authenticity of the Gospels was surprisingly sound. This deeply disturbed Lewis. He immediately understood the implications...

Lewis remembered an incident that happened several years earlier - on the first day he had arrived at Oxford as a teenager. He left the train station carrying his bags and began to walkin gin the direction of the college, antiticipating his first glimpse of the "fabled cluster of spires and towers" he had heard and dreamed of for so many years.

As he walked and headed out into open country, he could see no signs of the great university. When he turned around, he noticed the majestic college spires and towers on the opposite side of the town and realized he was headed in the wrong direction. Lewis write many years later in his authobiography, "I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life."

Lewis writes that he began to feel his "Adversary" - the One he wanted desperately not to exist - closing in on him. He felt hounded. Most of the great writers he admired and many of his closest friends were believers... Lewis wondered if they might be right. He realized he could use his will to "open the door or keep it shut."

He made one of the most fateful decisions in his life. Lewis decided to open his mind and examine the evidence... (83-84)
Lewis quickly realized he knew very little about Christianity, because he knew very little about the Christian Scriptures.
"What I couldn't understand was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) 2000 years ago could help us in the here and now... My puzzle was the whole doctrine of redemption." So he began reading the New Testament in Greek.
One of the things that always amazes me is how few unbelievers who say they are looking for truth are actually willing to take the time to read the Bible (even in English). Is this just 'intellectual laziness'? Or is it something else? Is this unique to American postmodernism? Or is it simply representative of humanity. I don't know. Lewis, however, was certainly no mental slouch:
As he read the New Testament, he was struck by it. Lewis had spent his life reading ancient manuscripts. As an atheist, he like Freud, considered the New Testament story simply another of the great myths. He knew well the ancient myths and legends - especially Norse mythology - and they moved him deeply. ...

But the Gospels, Lewis noted, did not contain the rich, imaginative writings of these talented, ancient writings. They appeared to be simple eyewitness accounts of historical events, primarily by Jews who were clearly unfamiliar with the great myths of the pagan world around them. Lewis writes, "I was now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste." He observes that they were different from anything else in literature. "If ever myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this."

In his book Miracles, Lewis explains that God sometimes uses myth to foretell what will eventuall occur in history: "...the truth first appears in mythical form, and then by a long process of condensing or focusing finally becomes incarnate in history." (86)
Very, very interesting. I suspect that not only do many of us not know the Biblical story, but we are frightenly illiterate of the great secular stories as well. We betray our ignorance when we ascribe mythic status to pop culture cotton candy like Star Wars and The Matrix.

Is it any wonder that our hyper consumer-oriented culture has produced a people who are increasingly materialistic, hedonistic, relativistic. I'm afraid that I myself fall into this category more than I'd like to admit. Disciplined thinkers like Lewis seem increasingly alien to our generation.

This post is getting long, so I'll end with Lewis's conclusion:
Lewis noticed that this Person also claimed to forgive sins, to forgive what people did to others. ... "Unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic." ... Even Freud seemed to recognize the uniqueness of this claim... Chesterton pointed out that no great moral teacher ever claimed to be God - not Mohammed, not Micah, not Malachi, or Confucius, or Plato, or Buddha: "Not one of them ever made that claim... and the greater the man is, the less likely he is to make the greatest claim."

Lewis himself expands on Chesterton's point... "If you had gone to Buddha and asked him, 'Are you the son of Bramah?' he would have said, 'My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.' If you had gone to Socrates and asked, 'Are you Zeus?' he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, 'Are you Allah?' he world first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off... The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question."

[We are left with] only one of three possibilities: he was either deluded, or deliberately attempting to deceive his followers for some ulterior motive, or he was who he claimed to be...

"A man who was merely a man and said the things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic... or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice... You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to." (88-89)
Ah, that's what I love about Lewis. He sees the heart of the issue clearly and cuts to the chase. May we strive to do likewise...


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