Freud, Lewis & God on PBS

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."

Cliffs notes for confession

It's time for the Catholic bishops to go to confession.

It's time for all of the Catholic priests to go to confession.

Actually, with Easter a few weeks away, this is a time when all Catholics are supposed to go to confession.

But most of America's 65 million Catholics no longer know or no longer care that their church requires them to go to confession at least once a year in order to receive Holy Communion. Confession is especially important during this season of Lent.

If bishops and priests want Catholics to go to confession, they must demonstrate that the Sacrament of Penance still matters, said Msgr. James Moroney, who leads the U.S. bishops' liturgy office. The shepherds could, for example, start leading public rites that end with opportunities for private confession -- including their own.

"Our bishops and our priests have to preach the practice of penance," he said. "But they are also have to participate in the practice of penance. Then they have to make the practice of penance available to their people in a variety of ways. ...

"We know that our people need this. Everybody in our culture is bleeding from the eyes. Everybody has pain they need to get rid of and wounds that need to be healed. Well, we know how to do that. We have the tools and we need to use them."

Thus, the U.S. liturgy office has published a new brochure to teach Catholics how to do something that once was as familiar as breathing -- confess their sins to a priest. The back page is perforated, so penitents can tear off an eight-step "How to Go to Confession" list and carry it with them.

Catholics used to line up for confession on Saturdays. But by the mid-1970s, surveys found that monthly confession among American Catholics had fallen from 38 to 17 percent in a decade, while those who never or rarely went rose from 18 to 38 percent. In the mid-1980s, a University of Notre Dame study found that 26 percent of active, "core Catholics" never went to confession and another 35 percent went once a year.

It's hard to know how many confessions priests hear these days, said Moroney. Confession is a private matter. No one likes to discuss statistics.

But bishops and priests know that more Catholics need to go to confession. They know "The Catechism of the Catholic Church" still teaches "having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year."

This may come as news to millions of Catholics.

"This Easter will mark my 10th year as a Catholic," noted one convert, in an online discussion. "I have very rarely missed Sunday mass or a holy day of obligation. Sometimes I've even gone to daily mass. Point is, I've heard well over 500 sermons. Not once -- not once -- do I recall having heard confession mentioned. ... For most American Catholics today, confession is almost as rare and exotic a devotional practice as donning a hair shirt."

Sadly, these words ring true, said Moroney. Many priests feel overwhelmed and have fallen silent. Many doubt their parishioners will accept the need for confession. But clergy must grasp that there is no shortage of sin and guilt in the pews. The problem is that Catholics are "surrounded 24/7 by a culture that teaches them to either deny their pain or to wallow in it as victims," he said.

Someone must take the time -- Sunday after Sunday -- to remind Catholics of the teachings of their church. Silence will not work.

"In some of our parishes there are enormous numbers of people who are going to confession. ... Then there are many parishes where we're talking about four or five people on a typical Saturday afternoon," said Moroney.

"So what's the difference? It's like that movie says, 'If you build it, they will come.' If priests constantly preach this and if they offer a variety of times and ways for people to celebrate the sacrament, then you're going to see people come to confession. But you have to give people a chance. You have to help them get over their fears."