The spark of inspiration came from a “what if” question posed by an academic. In his book “The Question of God,” Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wondered: “Did Freud and Lewis ever meet? The possibility is tantalizing. After Freud immigrated to England … (a) young Oxford professor visited Freud during this time but has not been identified. Might it have been Lewis?”
Someone brought this speculative question to the attention of playwright Mark St. Germain, and the eventual result was the play entitled “Freud’s Last Session.” The work imaginatively creates a hypothetical meeting between Dr. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, and C. S. Lewis, the gifted British author and scholar who was arguably the most popular and widely read apologist for the Christian faith in the twentieth century.
St. Germain’s play has been running off-Broadway (at the West Side YMCA) for just over a year now. In fact, as luck would have it, I happened to catch it on the first anniversary of the New York run during my recent week of relaxation in New York. To celebrate the special anniversary, the performance was followed by a “talk-back” with the two actors, the playwright, and two of the producers – the very sort of thing which energizes and excites your humble drama maven, wordsmith, and armchair theologian.
Anyway, yet again, I experienced an instance of the “secular culture” tackling the “big questions of life” and getting people to pay to “listen in” as entertainment. (The Church should be so successful!) Every night, people are paying New York theatre prices to listen to what is essentially a creatively packaged debate between theism and atheism. Apparently, you can take the modern Westerner out of religion, but it is tougher than some might think to take the religion out of the modern Westerner…
Using poetic license, the playwright sets the “session” between Freud and Lewis on September 3, 1939 – the day that Britain declared war on Germany. This obviously creates a “high stakes” atmosphere where the incentive for truth-telling is enhanced, and where the answers to the questions being discussed take on greater import. Those questions include: What is the meaning and purpose of life? Why are there evil and suffering in the world, and why are they often visited on seemingly innocent people? And what are we to make of the mystery of our own death – is it the end, or is it a passage to something beyond?
At the time of the play’s imagined encounter between Lewis and Freud, Lewis was a young-ish Oxford don, just 41 years of age; and he had yet to write most of his famous masterpieces (e.g., “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “Mere Christianity”). Freud, on the other hand, was 83 and already suffering from an advanced stage of oral cancer, as a result of which he would commit physician-assisted suicide just a few weeks later.
Freud, of course, famously dismissed religion as a “neurosis,” seeing God as a creation of the human mind, a projected “wish fulfillment. He once described himself as “an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as from every other religion,” but who remains “in his essential nature a Jew, and who has no desire to alter that nature.” And as Lewis points out to him in the play, Freud wrote often and at length about religion; and his office was filled with images, icons, and totems of various world religions.
Lewis, on the other hand, abandoned his boyhood faith (Church of Ireland) at the age of 15, although he would later recall that his young self was paradoxically “very angry with God for not existing.” Like many other bright and sensitive souls before and since, Lewis experienced religion as a duty, a kind of rote exercise; and he also struggled with how God could be good when there was so much pain and evil in the world. He went on to serve in the First World War, during which time he was wounded and suffered the loss of several close friends. It wasn’t until he began reading Christian authors like George MacDonald and came under the influence of Oxford friend and colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien (a devout Roman Catholic and author of the epic “Lord of the Rings”) that Lewis gradually re-embraced Christianity “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.”
A committed atheist obsessed with religion and a committed Christian with a long background as an atheist – as you might imagine, in the hands of a skillful playwright, it makes for an interesting conversation. The two men agree on many of the critiques of organized religion; and they are preoccupied with the same cosmic questions. Why did one ultimately choose for faith and God, the other not? For a believer like myself, one is left to suppose that Lewis’ passage back to belief was purely a gift of grace. You might remember that when you have moments of wondering why you still pray, why you still go to church. And if “Freud’s Last Session” comes to Philadelphia, or if you have a free evening in New York, you might want to check it out…
© 2011 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.