Dr. Armand Nicholi has served on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School for over 20 years. He also teaches a popular course at Harvard College on the contrasting worldviews of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis
The following is the second part of a speech which Dr. Nicholi delivered at Southern Methodist University on September 23, 1997, hosted by Dallas Christian Leadership. In part one (The Real Issue, January 1998), Nicholi explained Freud's views on God and suffering.
How do people change their worldviews from one to another that is dramatically different? With C.S. Lewis, this transformation happened over a long period of time. Nevertheless, his conversion was no less dramatic than Paul, Augustine, Tolstoy, Pascal, or many others.
These are some of the influences that stirred Lewis to change his worldview: First, Lewis gradually became aware that most of the great writers he had been reading for years were believers. This began to make him think. Then re-reading Euripides and Samuel Alexander's Space, Time and Deity, Lewis was forced to think about a deep yearning in himself; he recognized that it was a kind of yearning he experienced periodically but did not quite understand. He called it "joy" and he wrote a great deal about it. He realized that this joy was not an end in itself, but a reminder of something or someone else. Eventually, he came to believe that this someone is the Creator.
Second, Lewis was shocked during a conversation with some of his Oxford faculty colleagues to hear one of them, an avowed atheist, state that the evidence for the historical authenticity of the gospels was very good. The evidence was sound and the gospel stories actually appeared to be true. Lewis said one cannot understand the impact that had on him coming from this particular faculty member.
Third, he read G.K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man and finally arrived at a belief in God. He writes about it very briefly this way in Surprised by Joy,
You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalene, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
At this point Lewis was a theist, not a Christian. He struggled for many long months to understand the Gospel story and the doctrines of redemption and resurrection. He read the Gospel of John in Greek.
Then, in the fall of 1931, he had dinner with two faculty members, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and Hugo Dyson, a professor of English literature. After dinner, the three of them talked about the great question concerning the truth of the Gospels and asked the question that one of Lewis' pupils referred to as, "And is it true, and is it true, this most amazing tale of all?" They talked and walked for hours along a path called Addison's Walk. The clock in Magdalene Tower struck three in the morning before they parted. This talk had a profound effect on Lewis. Nine days later, Lewis took a trip by motorcycle with his brother. He wrote, "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did." Later, Lewis wrote: "My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it."
Lewis' conversion revolutionized his life. He became a prolific author, selling millions of copies of books and influencing many people in universities, especially in this country and in Europe. Because he himself embraced atheism the first half of his life, he knew the arguments well. For example, Lewis agreed with Freud that we do indeed possess a deep-seated wish for God. But he disagreed with Freud's notion
that God therefore is nothing but a product of wish fulfillment. What we wish for, Lewis pointed out, has nothing to do with whether or not God exists. According to Freud's theory, the wish that God not exist would be as strong as the wish that He does exist. Lewis therefore said that all of this tells us something about our feelings, but very little about whether or not God exists. So Lewis tended to answer most of the arguments raised by Freud.
Let us move to our second theme, the question of mortality, which Freud referred to as "the painful riddle of death." Socrates said the true philosopher is always pursing death and dying. And indeed most of the great writers write about it continually.
A fundamental fact of our existence, one that we learn very early in life, is that we're on this earth for a very short time. We are the only creatures on earth that can foresee our own death. At the same time, we have a deep yearning for permanence and a pervasive, deep-seated fear of being separated from those we loveof being abandoned. The fear of abandonment is the first fear we experience as a young childa baby screams when its mother walks out of the room. Research at the Massachusetts General Hospital has shown that, in terminally ill patients, this is what they fear mostthe fear of being left alone, of being abandoned. It's a fear we harbor all of our life. Yet we cannot escape the harsh reality that every breath we breathe, every heartbeat, every hour of every day brings us nearer to the time when we will leave those we love.
Now, how do you process that information? How do you come to terms with this? Psychiatrists say this issue is so important that you can't really live your life until you do come to terms with it. But how do you process it without being filled with anxiety or filled with fear? That is what Freud called "the painful riddle of death."
Freud often wrote about death. I'll mention only a few comments he wrote and how he frequently confronted his own death.
In 1932, in a work called Totem and Taboo, Freud made the interesting observation that death does not exist in our unconscious mind: "Our unconscious then does not believe in its own death. It behaves as if it were immortal. We cannot imagine our own death and when we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still spectators, hence, no one believes in his own death." Freud avoided giving any philosophical interpretation of his rather provocative observation that in the deepest recesses of our mind, "everyone of us is convinced of our own immortality."
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud spoke often of the painful riddle of death. He closed one essay with the curious suggestion that if you want to endure life you must prepare yourself for death. He seemed to realize what people in my field have been talking about for years and that is we cannot really begin to live this life until we have somehow resolved the problem of our own death. And when left unresolved, one spends excessive energy denying it or becoming obsessed with it.
Freud left no doubt as to how he handled the problem. He became utterly obsessed with death. His colleague Ernst Jones, his official biographer, wrote:
As far back as we know anything about Freud's life, he seems to have been prepossessed with thoughts about death. More so than any great man I can think of. Even in the early years of our acquaintance he had the disconcerting habit of parting with the words, 'Good-bye. You may never see me again.' And then there were the repeated attacks of what he called 'the dread of death.' He hated growing old. Even as early as his forties and with each passing year, thoughts of death became increasingly tyrants. He once said he thought of it every day of his life, which is really unusual.
Freud dreamed about death continually, and from early in his life he was obsessed about prospective death rates. Freud's physician described his preoccupation with death as superstitious and obsessive. Freud was certain he was going to die at 41, then at 51, then at 61, then at 62, then at 70. He would check into a hotel and be given the room number 63. He would leave that room and for months be absolutely convinced that he was going to die at age 63. When Freud lost a loved one through death, he felt utterly hopeless. In a letter to Jones, he wrote, "I was about your age when my father died and it revolutionized my soul. Can you remember a time so full of death as this?"
When 64, Freud lost a young and beautiful daughter, and he wondered when his time would come. He wished it would be soon. He said, "I do not know what there is to say in such a paralyzing event which can stir no afterthoughts when one is not a believer." In another letter he wrote, "As a confirmed unbeliever, I have no one to accuse and realize there's no place I can lodge a complaint." Three years later Freud's favorite grandson died of tuberculosis. To a friend he wrote, "I find this hard to bear. I don't think I've ever experienced such grief. Perhaps my own sickness contributes to this shock. I work out of sheer necessity. Fundamentally everything has lost its meaning to me." And in another letter he stated, "To me, this child has taken the place of all my children and all my grandchildren and since then I don't care for any of my grandchildren. I can find no joy in life."
Freud died at the age of 83 after a sixteen-year battle with cancer. His favorite book was Goethe's Faust, the story of Faust making a pact with the devil. Just before Freud died, he walked to a library shelf and took down a book by Bolzac entitled The Fatal Skin, in which the main character also makes a pact with the devil. The book ends when the hero cannot master his fear of death and dies in a state of panic. How strange, as his last book. After reading the book, Freud reminded his physician of a promise he had made to help ease his passing when the time came. His doctor injected two centigrams of morphine that caused him to fall asleep, then after 12 hours he injected two more centigrams. Freud died at 3 a.m. on September 12, 1939.
C. S. Lewis also wrote about mortality. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis described how as an atheist the problem of human suffering
especially the capacity of man to foresee his death while keenly desiring permanencemade it difficult for him to believe in an all-loving, all-powerful God. After his conversion, he understood death as the result of the fall, a transgression of God's laws, and that death was not part of the original plan. (Perhaps that is the reason we have no symbol for death in our unconscious, and have such difficulty accepting our mortality.)
Lewis made frequent reference to the basic principle that death illustrates. When 31 years old, before his conversion, Lewis wrote a letter that stated, "I think almost more every year in autumn I get the sense, just as the mere nature and voluptuous life of the world is dying, of something else coming awake. I wonder if it's significant? Does the death of a natural man always mean the birth of a spiritual; does one thing never sleep, except to let something awake?"
Then a couple of years later in another letter he wrote, "Can one believe that there was just nothing in that persistent motif of blood, death, and resurrection which runs like a black and scarlet cord through all the great myths?" He was beginning to notice as he studied all the ancient literature that even in the pagan cultures there were these strange stories of a god someday coming to earth and dying and rising again. He wondered what it meant. And when you look at nature, indeed you see things even in vegetative life where a seed drops to the ground and dies and then comes to life in the form of a plant or great tree. Could this be pointing to what he eventually called "the grand miracle," the resurrection? He said, "Surely the history of the human mind hangs together better if you suppose that all this was the first shadowy approach of something whose reality came with Christ even if we cannot at present fully understand that something."
In his personal life, C. S. Lewis was confronted with death as a young child. At nine years of age he lost within a few months a paternal grandfather, an uncle, and his beautiful mother. In an autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he recalls being confined to his room, ill with a headache and a toothache. He was distressed that his mother failed to come and see him. He didn't understand the reason:
That was because she was ill, too; and what was odd was that there were several doctors in her room, and voices and comings and goings all over the house and doors shutting and opening. It seemed to last for hours. And then my father, in tears, came into my room and began to try to convey to my terrified mind things it had never conceived before.
He was told that his mother was dying of cancer. He recalled that his "whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, as the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations."
"My father never fully recovered from this loss," he noted. Perhaps Lewis didn't either in the sense that he was sent away to boarding school because his father was too full of grief to take care of him. At a very early age, he lost both mother and father.
When 18 years old and a student at Oxford, Lewis joined the army. He suffered wounds during action in France and, in a lecture given at Oxford many years later, he made the interesting observation that war does not make death more frequent"100 percent of us die and the percentage cannot be increased." He stated that war puts several deaths earlier and that one of the few positive aspects of war is that it makes us aware of our mortality. When he was 23 years old he wrote a letter to his father on the death of an old teacher who was a friend to both of them. He stated:
I have seen death fairly often [in the war] and never yet been able to find it anything but extraordinary and rather incredible. A real person is so very real and so obviously living and different from what is left. And one cannot believe that something has turned into nothing, that one could suddenly turn into nothing.
This reminds me of my medical students just beginning to practice medicine; very often they will call me to tell me their experiences on the ward. One of the things the students often mention is how different a person is before and after deathhow different the body is from a living person. They sense there is something that disappearsthat is not there after deathand that we are so much more than our bodies. Lewis seemed to realize that at a very young age.
In A Grief Observed, Lewis wrote about the death of his wife who was to him everything worthwhile. As I mentioned, many psychiatrists consider this book a classic in terms of understanding grief. Lewis makes you feel the anger, resentment, loneliness, and fear. His anger becomes palpable when he wonders if God is "the cosmic sadist; the spiteful imbecile." He wrote, "It is hard to have patience with people who say there is no death or that death doesn't matter. There is death," he continued, "and whatever is matters. We might as well say birth doesn't matter."
Lewis never lost his sense of humor. When he was 59 years old, a lady wrote to him and said how terrible it was that she had just lost a friend. Lewis wrote back, "There is nothing discreditable in dying. I've known the most respectable people to do it." In another letter a couple of years later he wrote, "What a state we've gotten into when we can't say, 'I'll be happy when God calls me,' without being afraid one will be thought morbid. After all, Saint Paul said just the same. Why should we not look forward to the arrival?"
Lewis concluded that we can do only three things about death: desire it, fear it, or ignore it. He claimed the third alternative, which is the one the modern world calls healthy, is surely the most uneasy and precarious of all.
Lewis suffered a heart attack on June 15, 1963, and lapsed into a coma. He recovered, however, and lived the next few months quietly and happily. His lat-est biographer notes that before his conversion, Lewis was extraordinarily anxious about death and dying, but after his conversion he seemed to have a wonderful calmness about it, and even an anticipation. Records of his last days attest to a calmness and inner peace.
During this time, he wrote to a lifelong friend stating, "Though I am by no means unhappy, I can't help feeling it rather a pity that
I did revive in July." He went on, "I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the gate, it seems hard to have it shut in one's face and know that the whole process must someday be gone through again. Poor Lazarus." And to another friend he asked, "One ought to honor Lazarus rather than Stephen as a proto-martyr. To be brought back and have all one's dying to do again was rather hard." And then he said, "When you die, look me up. It's all rather fun, solemn fun, isn't it?"
Two weeks before his death, Lewis had lunch with a faculty colleague. He said Lewis was aware the end was near and that never was a man better pre-pared. On November 22, 1963, Lewis' brother brought Lewis his 4 p.m. tea. He noted that Lewis was drowsy, but calm and cheerful. At 5:30, he was dead.
We have considered the contrasting worldviews of two prolific minds. One view claims that the universe is an accident and our existence a matter of chance. The other sees the universe a result of design and our existence a part of that design. One view sees death as a painful riddle that causes great anxiety and despair and bitterness. The other views death as the final step in the design for one's life, a step that one can experience with a degree of calmness and even anticipation because of what Lewis called "that grand miracle," the resurrection.