Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Book review- A Question of God

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Many of history's greatest thinkers have wrestled with the ultimate question of belief and nonbelief in God. Though it seemed unlikely that any new arguments could possibly be raised on either side, the twentieth century produced two men who each made brilliant arguments, one in favor of belief and one opposed -- Sigmund Freud and C. S.

Many of history's greatest thinkers have wrestled with the ultimate question of belief and nonbelief in God. Though it might seem unlikely that any new arguments could possibly be raised on either side, the twentieth century managed to produce two men who each made brilliant, new, and lasting arguments, one in favor of belief and one opposed. Few spokesmen have ever championed their respective positions better than Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. Sadly, as far as we know, they never met or debated each other directly. In The Question of God their arguments are placed side by side, as if they were standing at podiums in a shared room. Both thought carefully about the flaws and alternatives to their positions; each considered the other's views. Both men considered the problem of pain and suffering, the nature of love and sex, and the ultimate meaning of life and death. Here, with their debate made explicit, we can take ringside seats at one of history's most profound encounters. For more than twenty-five years Armand Nicholi has studied the philosophical writings of both men, and has taught a popular course at Harvard that compares the two worldviews. In The Question of God he presents the fruits of years of labor among the published and unpublished writings of Lewis and Freud, including an extensive exploration of their private letters. He allows them to speak for themselves on every major question of belief and nonbelief, but also skillfully draws conclusions from their own lives. Why did Freud have such difficulty maintaining lifelong friendships? How did Lewis's friendships change after his transition from atheism to belief? Why was Freud unable to willfully ignore his own internal moral sense, even though he believed it to be purely a product of socialization and not in any way eternally "true"? The Question of God may be the best book about belief and nonbelief ever written, since it does not presuppose which answer is correct. Instead, it uses two of history

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Library Journal
Over the years, a number of good biographies of Lewis, the perennially popular Christian apologist, have been published. George Sayer's Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis is probably the least controversial of them, while A.N. Wilson's C.S. Lewis: A Biography is likely the most. This portrait by Downing (English, Elizabethtown Coll.; Planets in Peril) is unique in that it treats one aspect of Lewis's life: his conversion from atheism to Christianity. Focusing on his subject's inner journey, Downing considers the effect on Lewis of his mother's death; his estrangement from his father; the influence of a rationalist, atheistic, but well-loved mentor; his early interest in the occult and paranormal; and the trench warfare he experienced in World War I. Making use of both published and unpublished writings, Downing shows a deep understanding of Lewis and writes in a flowing style. For more than 25 years, Nicholi (psychiatry, Harvard Medical Sch.) has offered a course in which he compares the thought and life of the atheist Freud with that of Lewis as a way to consider questions about the existence of God, love, sex, and the meaning of life. Nicholi generally maintains a balanced view, letting Freud's and Lewis's words and actions speak for themselves. He examines why Freud remained an unbeliever (though not an unthinking one) and why Lewis accepted Christianity. While his sympathies obviously lie on the side of faith, Nicholi nevertheless offers a balanced view of Freud. Both books are well written and worthy additions to the rapidly growing literature on Lewis, although Nicholi's will probably appeal to a broader audience. Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
A careful examination of two major, and conflicting, currents of modern thought. Those currents, in the view of Nicholi (Psychiatry/Harvard Medical School), turn on the question of whether God exists. The founder of modern psychotherapy thought not; Sigmund Freud held that the belief in an "idealized Superman" is "so patently infantile and so foreign to reality that . . . it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never rise above this view of life," asserting that only scientific education could turn people away from "the fairy tales of religion." British writer and popular theologian C.S. Lewis argued in the affirmative, having turned from youthful atheism to a more or less orthodox Christianity in middle life and becoming preoccupied thereafter with the "questions of how to escape corruption in living and how in death to give meaning to life." Setting these thinkers in opposition is admittedly an artificial construct; it can be objected that Freud (1856-1939) and Lewis (1898-1963) were two generations apart and did not publicly debate each other. (Although Nicholi speculates that they might have met briefly at the very end of Freud's life.) Einstein and Muggeridge, Bohr and Schweitzer, or even Sagan and Tolkien might have done just as well in serving as spokesmen for their respective causes and in making the author's point. Yet Nicholi ably makes his case for pairing Freud with Lewis, and his essay takes inspired turns as he examines how believers and nonbelievers think about such thorny matters as forgiving those who have trespassed against us, dealing with the pain the world deals us, and even loving ourselves. Palatable food for thought for readers preoccupiedwith life's big, ultimately insoluble questions.

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