The Question of God: Sigmund Freud & C. S. Lewis, with Dr. Armand Nicholi

[31 March 2005]

By Todd R. Ramlow

No Question

The Question of God presumes the answer to its titular “question” to be yes. This despite the query that opens each of its two parts: “No matter what your faith, or what you believe, how each of us understands the meaning of life comes down to how we answer one ultimate question: Does God really exist?” And so the film appears immediately more tied to rising Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., than to any serious philosophical interrogation of the possibility of supra-human agency.

The documentary is based on a book of the same name by Dr. Armand Nicholi, itself based on a course Nicholi taught at Harvard University for many years. Premiering in the fall of 2004 on PBS, it is reproduced here in its entirety, with the only extra being a “Printable Discussion Guide,” which I haven’t had the courage to print. Nicoli’s conceit was to get at the question of God through the lives and writings of two of the most significant thinkers on religion of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. The film proceeds through reenactments of each author’s life and intellectual and spiritual development, with Peter Eyre playing Freud and Simon Jones playing Lewis. Interspersed with these reenactments are nine roundtable discussions, moderated by Nicholi, among a “small group of thoughtful people” on topics such as “Science or Revelation?” “Why Believe?” and “The Human Condition.”

The most immediate problem with this setup is, despite Nicholi’s obvious breadth of knowledge concerning his subjects, Freud and Lewis are not the most exciting or even the most intellectually stimulating modern thinkers on religion and spirituality. Kant, Kierkegaarde, and Spinoza spring immediately to mind.

The more specious political problem is the film’s obvious sympathy for Lewis over Freud. Throughout the film, nearly everyone involved is in Lewis’ corner. The film celebrates young Lewis’ ability to be “Surprised by Joy” (as the segment on his boyhood is titled), with “joy” understood as the experience of a godly sublime, just as it agonizes with him over his early adulthood rejection of God out of allegiance to modern intellectual faddishness. And we are encouraged to appreciate his damning of “fashion” as an adult, when he embraces God (and J.R.R. Tolkein) to become the West’s preeminent Christian apologist.

Oppositely, The Question of God implies that the great tragedy of Freud’s life was his obstinate atheism. Despite his brilliance, the documentary suggests that Freud might have found, if not understanding, at least solace for the many miseries of his life if he would have been open to even the possibility of the Divine. Of course, this would have been nigh on impossible for a man who held to his conviction, to the end of his life, that religion was the “universal obsessional neurosis of mankind.”

The pro-God position of The Question of God is made all the clearer in the round table discussions throughout the documentary. Of the seven “thoughtful” people brought together (eight, including Nicholi), only two are self-professed atheists, Dr. Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, and Jeremy Fraiburg, a Toronto lawyer. (How these seven individuals were chosen for the panel is a “question” in itself.) There are one or two others that might qualify as agnostic, but they often get on the bandwagon to shut down Shermer and Fraiburg. Routinely, panelist Margaret Klenck, Jungian analyst, attacks the skeptical position based on empiricism by asserting that just because you can’t “scientifically” prove something like the existence of God to be true, doesn’t mean it isn’t.

Agreed, there are more “truths” out there than science can account for. But insisting that something is true, or believing it to be so, does not make it universal and eternal. But perhaps that’s the point the documentary misses; the “question of God” can never be answered because that answer relies on individual belief, which is idiosyncratic in the extreme. Even when an individual professes allegiance to the strict tenets of one organized religion, their individual interpretations and practices will vary greatly.

The most philosophically complicated part of The Question of God comes in the final round table discussion, “Suffering and Death,” which takes up the obvious question of God’s beneficence considering human misery. Here Dr. Frederic Lee (Harvard University Hospital MD) struggles to express how it is that he can continue to believe despite the torment he encounters on a daily basis, and which has nothing to do with free will. Some of the other panelists had tried to skirt the issue of “suffering and death” by recourse to free will; if you act against “moral law,” any pain you suffer as a result is your own fault.

Lee ultimately can’t say exactly how his belief in this context is possible, and is reduced to some sputtering, mumbling, and rubbing of his head. Nothing better demonstrates Søren Kierkegaarde’s assertion of the insuperability of silence in matters of faith. It’s the inarticulateness of the sublime, something so large and abstract that we can imagine it inside our minds, but cannot put it into coherent language. But if the question of God is the experience of the sublime, this whole discursive affair is a joke. The only possible answer is the one we can imagine individually, conceive inside our own minds, beyond our ability to express it. This is an answer The Question of God refuses, as it tries to prove there is no question at all.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/question-of-god-dvd/