Dr. Armand Nicholi of Harvard Medical School was caught off guard as he read evaluations of his first seminar on the life and philosophy of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.
"Several of the students said the same thing," he said, recalling that semester 35 years ago. They thought the class "was good, but that it was totally unbalanced. They said it was one sustained attack on the spiritual world."
Nicholi had a problem. He decided that the students were right, but he knew it would be hard to find another writer with the stature to stand opposite Freud -- perhaps the 20th century's most influential intellectual. Then he remembered a small book he discovered by chance during his internship in a New York City hospital, a time when he wrestled with the agonizing questions of cancer patients and their loved ones.
The book was "The Problem of Pain" by C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don and Christian apologist. Nicholi revamped his seminar, focusing it on the life stories and writings of Freud and Lewis. Rather than back into discussions of spiritual questions, the psychiatrist placed them at the heart of the syllabus. Decades later, Nicholi's classic course became "The Question of God," a book that has inspired a pair of PBS and Walden Media documentaries for television and home video.
The format blends academics and drama. Nicholi presents Freud as a spokesman for the "secular worldview" that denies the existence of any truth or reality outside the material world. Lewis is the champion of a "spiritual worldview" which accepts the reality of God. Seven articulate women and men representing a variety of viewpoints join in the seminar discussions.
Freud and Lewis are represented by their own words, the commentary of experts and actors who dramatize a few episodes from their lives, often seen in counterpoint with archival photographs and film footage.
Nicholi said the goal is the same as in the seminar -- to let these giants grapple with the big questions of life. Is there a God? What is happiness? Why do people suffer? Is death the end? What is the source for morality? It helps that Lewis, before his conversion, was an articulate atheist and familiar with Freud's work.
"I was astonished at how Freud would raise a question and then Lewis would attempt to answer it," said Nicholi. "When you read their work it is almost as if they are standing side by side at podiums, debating one another. It was uncanny."
At the center of the project is a word that is criticized by some scholars -- "worldview." Nicholi said it's impossible to deny that Lewis and Freud had different approaches to life. Each saw the world through filters created by culture, heritage, philosophy, education, experiences, faith and prejudices.
Their actions and writings make no sense when separated from these secular and sacred worldviews, said Nicholi. By studying their worldviews, students can test and refine their own. Many educators seem afraid to even discuss this process, he said. They find it especially hard to discuss questions of faith and morality.
"You can study an opposing worldview and learn everything that you can about it or you can try to ignore it," said Nicholi. "Many religious believers are afraid to take Freud's work seriously. They reject him out of hand. On the other side are the critics of Lewis who say that his traditional Christian beliefs were fitting for the uneducated masses, but not for the classroom. You hear them say, 'I do not consider this is an intelligent point of view and, since I am intelligent, I don't have to pay attention to it.' "
This is education?
Through the years, Nicholi has defended his seminar from critics on both sides. He still finds it hard to believe that people who claim to cherish academic freedom and diversity can question the value of reading and contrasting the works of these two intellectual heavyweights.
"We are supposed to be as critical, as objective and as dispassionate as we can possibly be," said Nicholi. "But if we cannot allow this kind of dialogue between two worldviews to take place in an academic setting, then we are in trouble. Discussing these kinds of questions is what academic life is supposed to be about."