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'Freud's Last Session': If atheist Freud and Christian CS Lewis faced off (movie review)

Hopkins and Goode star in 'Freud's Last Session'
Hopkins and Goode star in "Freud's Last Session" | Sony Pictures

Few people have shaped the 20th century’s understanding of Christianity more than its opponent, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and its advocate C. S. Lewis (1898-1964).

Lewis, an adult convert from atheism, made his career as an Oxford don, but became well-known as a Christian apologist. Freud developed a revolutionary psychological theory (psychoanalysis), which established his career, started a movement, and ensured his titanic influence on Western thought.[1] 

But he employed that theory against religion in general and Christianity in particular, dismissing them as neurotic. In 2003, Armand Nicholi published The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. Alas, the film does not reach its level of fairness or rigor.

How might a film tackle the clash of these two men’s worldviews in a way that does some justice to each man’s life and thought? "Freud’s Last Session" is an ambitious effort to that end. The film is rich in substantial dialogue, and a transcript is available online (but it does not perfectly fit the spoken words of the film).[2] The historical premise of the film is clever, if unlikely. Freud, who had recently escaped to England from Nazi Germany in 1939, summons C. S. Lewis to his apartment, which he shares with his daughter and colleague, Anna. Lewis, who was about 40 at the time, complies, and for most of one day, he and Freud discuss their lives and worldviews. (It is an anachronism that “worldview” is used by Lewis in the film, since that term either did not exist or was not in common usage in 1939; it was popularized by James Sire in his classic 1976 book, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue.)

Before assessing the intellectual arguments of the film (my main concern as a philosopher), a few aesthetic judgments regarding the film qua film are offered. Despite his genius as an actor, I found Anthony Hopkins unconvincing as Sigmund Freud. (Ironically, he played C. S. Lewis in another film, "Shadowlands.") Hopkins played the character of an old, wizened, and grizzled intellectual superbly, but not as Freud. I cannot imagine Freud having a nervous laugh or muttering to himself as much as Hopkins did. Every photo of Freud I have seen shows him serious or even scowling. It is fine that Hopkins did not feign a German accent, but his overall ethos was unconvincing to me.

As for Lewis, Matthew Goode bore little resemblance to him, but that could have been overcome by giving a convincing performance. He did not. The real C. S. Lewis possessed a world-class intellect, a deep and commanding voice, and a strong personality. He could debate ideas with great facility as he demonstrated during the years of holding forth publicly at The Socratic Society, a discussion and debate forum, at Oxford. [3] The Oxford don of this film displayed neither and was often reduced to puzzled silence or a halting reply after an attack by Freud about his religion.

Beyond the dialogue, we gradually discover that Anna, who is fiercely devoted to her father and his ideas, is in a lesbian relationship with her colleague, Dorothy Burlingham. To make the film contemporary, the final scene shows both of them sitting before a dying Freud who beams his approval. In real life, neither Anna nor Dorothy married, and they worked together in psychoanalysis for four decades; but neither discussed any sexual relationship. That is a conjecture. Not a little time is spent with characters psychoanalyzing each other. Freud psychoanalyzes himself by saying that his cigar smoking — even while suffering an open cancer wound in his mouth — is really like a baby sucking the breast of his mother.   

The film centers on the dialogue between the two men, but their conversations allude to events that are recounted, such as Lewis’s injury as a soldier in World War I and his magical experience of joy beholding the little garden that this brother Warnie brought him when they were young children. It was then that a profound longing for the transcendent was kindled in Lewis, a longing that Freud dismissed as “the fairy tale” of religion. Therein lies the crux of the debate. Is all religion merely a projection of human desires or is there some divine reality that exists independently of human desires?

Given the talent on hand, that could have generated rich discussion. Sadly, there isn’t enough of that, but there is much about sex and psychoanalysis.

Since it is 2024, and Sigmund Freud is featured, it is no surprise that much of the film is about sex. Lewis relates to Freud the pact he made with his fellow soldier, Paddy Moore, that if Paddy died in World War I, Lewis would take care of Paddy’s mother. Paddy also promised to take care of Lewis’s widowed father should Lewis be killed. Paddy was killed, and Mrs. Janie Moore, 25 years older than Lewis, was taken into the Lewis household (where she would remain until her death in 1951). Freud presses Lewis on the nature of this relationship, but Lewis nervously says it is a private matter. Freud retorts that Lewis’s conversion, however, is not a private matter, and there is no resolution. Several scenes, however, show Lewis and Mrs. Moore in amorous situations.

C. S. Lewis scholars have disagreed about the Mrs. Moore problem. Some claim the relationship was sexual before Lewis’s conversion, but not after. Others think the romance may have continued after Lewis was “surprised by joy” (as he entitles the memoir of his conversion).[4] I render no judgment, but the film does so, of course, in order to spice things up.[5] Lewis and Freud also discuss homosexuality and lesbianism, but Lewis is not allowed to justify his Christian viewpoint, but only assert it.

Freud’s case against Lewis hinges on two claims. Religion is merely wish-fulfillment that represents one’s inability to face the evils of life without some supernatural consolation. At one point, he says that Lewis should “grow up” and face the horrors of a godless world. He makes his case in The Future of an Illusion. What philosophers call “the problem of evil” looms large throughout the film.

In one exchange, Freud accuses Lewis of believing the absurdity that there is a good God given all the evil in the world. Although he had not yet written The Problem of Pain, which was published in 1940, he had given this a great deal of thought and he believed that Christianity had the best answer to suffering in the world. However, in the film, the Lewis character can only stumble through the difficulty of squaring an all-good and all-powerful God with the evils of the world.

The online screenplay has Lewis say the following after Freud is bothered that Lewis didn’t know why he had jaw cancer:

"And I don’t pretend to. It’s the most difficult question of all, isn’t it? If God is good, He would make His creatures perfectly happy. But we aren’t. So God lacks goodness, or power, or both."

After this, in the film, Lewis says, “I don’t know” — meaning, I don’t know if God lacks goodness or power or both. But this contradicts his argument in The Problem of Pain in which Lewis affirmed both God’s power and goodness. This addition of “I don’t know” is grossly inaccurate to Lewis’s thought and makes him look bad. The online transcript does not contain “I don’t know” at this point.

However, Lewis’s following statement does fit his approach.

What if God wants to perfect us through suffering? Make us realize that real happiness, eternal happiness, can only come through Him? If pleasure is his whisper, pain is his megaphone.

Freud is unimpressed and says that the little churchgoing Hitler would agree, which is no counterargument, but only guilt by incorrect association.

The interaction over religion between Freud and Lewis ends at best as a stalemate. Neither man convinces the other, but both feel the force of the other’s objections. Freud claims that Lewis really lacks trust in God because of the panic attack Lewis experiences with Freud during an air raid drill. Lewis looks ashamed. Freud doesn’t seem to give an inch intellectually, but a scene near the end of film is telling. Freud told Lewis that he did not like the music played on the radio because it reminded him of church music. He would only turn it on to get updates about the war with Germany that was brewing. But after Lewis leaves, we find Freud turning on the radio to hear a report and then leaving on the music, something Lewis notices.

Whatever merits the film might have cinematically, it is, at best, suggestive of a debate between atheism and Christianity. But it does not present a strong debate. The strong-willed and sometimes bombastic Freud comes off stronger than the rather insipid (and unrealistically portrayed) Lewis character. But Freud’s written case against Christianity is weak indeed. Consider his two lines of attack.

First, the idea that Christianity is an “illusion” because it merely projects an idealistic idea of a father onto a godless universe has been refuted repeatedly. Simply because we desire X strongly is no evidence that X does not exist. Rather, it might be evidence that X does exist. In the film, Lewis is not given adequate room to develop the idea.

C. S. Lewis developed his argument from yearning in his famous essay “The Weight of Glory.”  We all experience a deep sense of yearning or longing for something that the present natural world cannot fulfill — something transcendently glorious. In his autobiography he recounts several experiences of this throughout his life, in which he sensed something wonderful beyond his grasp. These were fleeting but invaluable moments, which he called the experience of “joy.” They were not encounters with God and did not directly result in his conversion. Instead, they were indicators that the everyday world was not a self-enclosed system; a light from beyond would sometimes peek through the “shadow lands.” This thirst, which is intensified by small tastes of transcendence, indicates the possibility of fulfillment.[6]

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my early pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly desires were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.[7]

Blaise Pascal further elaborates this theme.

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.[8]

Second, Freud’s attack on Christianity through the problem of evil has been met in various ways by Christian philosophers and apologists over the ages. Lewis’s approach in the film was muted, but a careful reading of The Problem of Pain does much to address the matter rationally, although I part ways with Lewis’s understanding of “free will,” given that I am a compatibilist on human agency — something he did not even consider as a possibility.[9] Nevertheless, a basic argument for Christianity in light of the problem of evil should look something like this. One can construct such an argument by using material only from Lewis, but his can be supplemented by many other sources.[10]

1. There is good evidence for the existence of a personal, moral, and infinite God from natural theology — a God who is a. all-good and b. all-powerful.

2. God’s goodness, specifically, is known through the moral argument for God (a version of which Lewis gave in Mere Christianity) and through God’s saving actions in Jesus Christ (the historical dimension).

3. There is objective evil in the world.

4. Therefore (given 1 and 2), for any evil God allows, there is a sufficient reason for that evil to occur — whether we know what that reason is or not.[11]

Freud’s projection objection to theism fails, not only in its intrinsic logic but because of the objective case for God’s existence based on evidence outside of human desires.

My hope is that "Freud’s Last Session" will spark reasoned discussion about the existence of God, the problem of evil, the identity of Jesus Christ, and the moral evaluation of human sexuality. But as a balanced discussion of these issues, it falls short. The Most Reluctant Convert (2021) is a far better film for understanding the religious ideas of C. S. Lewis and how he came to them through reasoned reflection and life circumstances.[12] 

Better still, simply read Freud’s critique of religion (particularly, The Future of an Illusion) and C. S. Lewis’s defense of Christianity (particularly Mere Christianity) in order to reach a knowledge perspective. And then, keep reading, and refuse to rely on films — however good or bad — to form your basic worldview.

Notes

[1] For Freud’s summary of his basic theories and intellectual development, see Sigmund Freud, An Autobiographical Study, trans. James Stratchey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963). Originally published in 1935.

[2] https://www.sonyclassics.com/assets/screenplays/freudslastsession/freudslastsession-screenplay.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3j1jYskGGdyCd8_gebKeEpS1Ezg8NdhxlNUY3JOh9C-gavopAY0N2gOXQ.

[3] Several of his talks are collected in C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970). Lewis did meet his match—but was not humiliated—in an encounter with philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, which caused him to reformulate his argument from reason given in Miracles. This event is carefully assessed and Lewis’s argument thoroughly defended and extended in Victor Reppert, C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[4] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life (1955; New York: HarperOne, 2017).

[5] On this relationship, see Trevin Wax, “C. S. Lewis and Mrs. Moore: Relationship of Sin or Sanctification?,” Gospel Coalition (January 3, 2024), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/c-s-lewis-and-mrs-moore-a-relationship-of-sin-or-sanctification.

[6] This paragraph is taken from Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (pp. 367-368). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[7] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1944; reprint, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 121. I develop this idea, with help from St. Augustine and Blaise Pascal, in Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 366-368.

[8] Pascal, Blaise. Pensées (Penguin Classics) (p. 45). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

[9] See Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, The Problem of Evil.

[10] See Groothuis, Christian Apologetics.

[11] Thus, an inexplicable evil is not a gratuitous or meaningless evil.

[12] https://cslewismovie.com.


Originally published at The Worldview Bulletin. 

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. (University of Oregon) is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary where he has served since 1993. He is the author of nineteen books, including Unmasking the New Age, Truth Decay, On Jesus, Christian Apologetics, Fire in the Streets, and, most recently, World Religions in Seven Sentences, as well as thirty peer-reviewed papers in journals such as Religious Studies, Academic Questions, Philosophia Christi, and Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.

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