a christian perspective on the world today

Freud’s Last Session

Freud’s Last Session is a struggle between two intellects of David and Goliath proportions. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalytic thinking, is the giant—titanic in strength and a Philistine when it comes to belief in God. CS Lewis, the Christian apologist, is the shepherd boy—armed with minimal resources and hopelessly outmatched. They square off in a study on the eve of World War II. At every turn, Freud’s logic has Lewis on the ropes and the mild-mannered Englishman can only defend himself with aphorisms. The film’s creators certainly feel they have the measure of the conflict and award Freud the stronger case. However, there are more and deadlier stones in Lewis’s sling than the producers allow.

Freud’s Last Session opens with Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) in his home in Hampstead, UK, awaiting the arrival of CS Lewis (Matthew Goode). The future author of The Chronicles of Narnia is already becoming a well-known Christian author. His imminent arrival surprises Freud’s daughter and sets the stage for the conversation that follows. “The Christian apologist?” she asks. “Yes,” her father responds. “He has a lot to apologise for.” 

mind versus myth

What follows is an intellectual battle between an ardent atheist and a determined Christian. What prevents it from becoming a dry debate, though, is Lewis’s doubts and the fact that Freud has only weeks to live.

Freud’s Last Session is a thoughtful exploration of some of the key challenges to a belief in God. As such, it’s a worthy watch for any Christian faced with the same arguments today. What sceptics and believers alike need to take into consideration, though, is that this is a work of fiction and the story’s foundation is a fantasy. The film opens with a quote from John Bunyan from Pilgrim’s Progress:

“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream”—and the writers have taken this as grounds for their own excursion. Despite the film’s historical context, there is no evidence that Freud ever met Lewis, only the hint that an unknown Oxford don visited the great neurologist days before his death. Consequently, the conversation they hold is just as fictional and from the outset it is pitched as an unequal battle. Freud is given the privileged status of a superior intellect and extensive life experience. Anthony Hopkins is at times sympathetic but ultimately unassailable as he unravels Christianity. Matthew Goode is silent by comparison. I could not help wondering what might have happened, though, if the real CS Lewis had turned up.

The good doctor asks his guest, “Why would someone of your supreme intellect embrace such a ludicrous lie?” Lewis, Freud explains, has created an approachable Divine Father to replace his own distant father. God, in short, is “wish fulfilment”. But if the real Lewis had been present, he would have pointed out that though wishing for something does not necessarily make it true, neither does it make it false. Hungry people may wish for something to eat but that does not make food unreal. Arthur Lindsley from the CS Lewis Institute says that we daily experience many desires that correspond to real things:

“If you are thirsty, you may desire drink; drink is a reality that corresponds to your desire. Similarly, there is sleep that corresponds to your desire for rest, and sex that corresponds to sexual desire. But what about other desires? Does a desire for meaning point toward a real satisfaction for this desire? What about a desire for dignity, or a desire for immortality or a desire for God? All these deeply human aspirations, Lewis argues, function as cosmic pointers to real satisfaction.”

Freud’s Last Session indulges in a logical fallacy. Freud goes to great lengths to explain to Lewis how he came up with the idea of God, but he does so without dealing with the central question itself: is there a God? The film’s Freud feels no need to think this through and responds blithely, “Why should I take Christ’s claim to be God any more seriously than the dozens of patients I’ve had who claim to be Christ?” At least on this occasion, Goode’s Lewis lives up to his name. He encourages Freud to follow the evidence and asks if any of his patients ever displayed anything like the rationality of Jesus. But the movie moves on without waiting for an answer. The next stop on this whistle-stop tour of objections is the problem of pain.

In summary, Freud raises three objections to the existence of God based on the world’s suffering. The first is the war looming over Europe and the Nazism that has already resulted in widespread persecution of the Jews. He wonders at the goodness of God that would allow such “beasts” to exist and makes the astounding leap that belief systems like religion are responsible. “There is no escaping the beast,” he says, “because our moral certainty is the beast.” Freud then turns his attention inward to the oral cancer that is eating away his mouth. Finally, he considers the untimely death of his daughter and grandson. “There’s so much pain in this world—and it’s God’s plan!”

pain = no God?

Again, there’s a logical fallacy here. Freud’s Last Session presents the idea that since pain exists there is no God, or at least no good God. But the problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes there is no such thing as good pain. A moment’s reflection undermines the argument. We put ourselves through all manner of pain for the sake of greater goals—just ask anyone who has exercised. We subject our children to pain in the hope that they will learn lessons—it’s an irresponsible parent who doesn’t see the need for discipline. Even medical procedures aimed at saving lives and restoring health frequently come with some type of pain. Suffering must be measured against what might be gained.

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world 

CS Lewis

Freud argues that the pain is too extreme; Lewis might have said that humanity’s danger is more extreme than Freud allows. To his credit, though, Goode does manage a rendition of one of Lewis’s more famous quotes: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” 

the weakness of God

It should not surprise us, though, that Christianity doesn’t fare well in Freud’s Last Session. In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote that the “wise” would always look on believers as fools because they could not understand how pain—Jesus’ suffering, in particular—could be a good thing. “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:22–25).

Freud’s Last Session is challenging to view because it asks us to consider the sorts of questions that will have us called fools. I would hope that I could offer better answers, but I will stop short of thinking that I will be able to argue someone into the kingdom of God. The philosophers of this age have stopped their ears. They will only accept a God of their making, which is to say they will only accept themselves as God. Understanding will only come if they can accept that their wisdom pales in comparison to His. Freud’s wisdom (at least Hopkins’ Freud) falls to the ground because he fails to consider that the cross might be necessary. To him, it’s a symbol of an unfeeling God. To us, it’s the sign of a God who feels so much He would rather suffer and die than see us do so for eternity.

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