Thursday, October 29, 2009

Questionable

I asked yesterday what was the matter with this question:

Isn't it true, though, that — as [C. S.] Lewis says — that the philosophy that we bring to our experience, to our observations, influences how we interpret them? Now, if we approach a miracle with a philosophy that has ruled out the supernatural, then we have to find some explanation for it.

The problem with the question - posed by Dr. Armand Nicholi in the popular PBS show based on his book The Question of God: Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis - is of course that it presupposes that miracles happen. More, it presupposes that they are clearly and self-evidently inexplicable events which only the dogmatically scientistic will feel a need to try to explain away. The name for this presupposition, especially in 2004 when the PBS series was first screened, is "intelligent design."

Now what was this doing on PBS? There's a sobering story here. But first a few words about the program. It starts in a way you can imagine made me howl: No matter what your faith or what you believe, a generically deep-voiced narrator intones, how each of us understand the meaning of life comes down to one ultimate question: does God really exist? Not only are non-theistic religions ignored, but here too the existence of what's supposedly at question is presupposed. The question is not "is there a God?" but "does God exist?" By not using the indefinite article, the question "does God exist?" lets "God" be a proper name, the name of a particular being, not a concept which may or may not have a corresponding reality. Nicholi (a Harvard professor - of psychiatry - who's taught a seminar on Freud and Lewis for 30 years) in fact has a very particular God in mind, but contrasting Freud and Lewis - picked as the most influential 20th century representatives of the "atheist" and the "spiritual worldview" - lets him be vague about it. Whether we realize it or not, all of us possess a worldview, he says. We make one of two basic assumptions. We view the universe as an accident or we assume an intelligence beyond the universe who gives the universe order, and for some of us, meaning to life. Are those really the only options? (Consider, for instance, emergence.)

The series follows the lives of Freud and Lewis in alternation, in dreadful reenactments with pompous British actors, significant-sounding classical music and Ken Burns-effects, narrated by the generic voice-of-God narrator - not Nicholi - with some distinguished talking heads from the world of scholarship. (That's the dying Freud below.) The rest of the time is devoted to a seminar of "thoughtful men and women" who discuss in interesting and often surprising ways topics Freud's and Lewis' experiences and ideas suggest to Nicholi. These seven panelists are a demographically interesting bunch - a Jungian analyst and a spiritual writer, both using Christian language though in an unorthodox way; a skeptical film-maker mindful of the history of the civil rights movement; a doctor who made the leap of faith to Christianity; an atheistic lawyer from Canada; a distinguished looking partner in a Wall Street firm with a view close to Lewis' own; and Michael Shermer, American skeptic at large. The first two were the panel's only women. The film-maker's African American and the doctor Korean-American. The atheist lawyer is Jewish. Nicholi is - well, a "Harvard University professor," what else need you know? Disinterested and trustworthy, probably liberal and sceptical, surely.

In fact, what the series does, especially effectively in the discussion segments, is suggest that all "thoughtful" people are part of the discussion about God, whether they realize it or not. There is a broad spectrum of views, with atheism at one end. People move around along this spectrum over the course of their lives, as did Freud and Lewis themselves, both raised in moderately religious households and atheists in college, though Lewis converted and Freud did not. Who wouldn't want to be part of a conversation like this? I'm sure a big part of the program's popularity (I think I recall it's being replayed during pledge drives) is its invitation to people to enter free-ranging discussions about spirituality they didn't think were possible.

But if atheism's one end of the spectrum, what's at the other end? Funny you should ask. Sometimes the "spiritual worldview" seems to be anything that's not an atheist nihilism. Other times, notably when the Wall Street guy is talking, it seems to be a very specific Christian view of a world fallen into sin but yearning for redemption: This is not Plan A, I'd say, says the Wall Street guy. This is Plan B, which is a broken world, that free reign of evil is everywhere. And then you get this, from Nicholi: Lewis's worldview is very much based on a person that appeared in history. He looked very carefully at the historical documents, and this person who claimed to be God. And, indeed, Lewis concluded that this person was who he claimed to be, and that he died as he predicted he would, and that he rose again on the third day. Now if this person did appear today, so that we could experience him, would we believe? This is true to Lewis, but what's it tell us about "spiritual" positions which aren't Christian? What's really going on is that the spectrum is based on Lewis' life, not so much a spread as a trajectory from atheism to Christian faith. The New Agey women, the Jew and the skeptics don't make it to the end, but they're good conversation partners along the way.

Here's how the series closes: Is it possible that Freud and Lewis represent conflicting parts of ourselves? A part of us that yearns for a relationship with the source of all joy, hope and happiness, as described by Lewis. And another part that raises its fist in defiance and says with Freud — "I will not surrender." Whatever part we choose to express will determine our purpose, our identity, and our whole philosophy of life. This only seems even-handed. God's existence is once again presupposed, Freud a rebel, and a stand-in for the sinful part of each of us (dare I say: the Jewish part unable to accept Jesus as Lord?). Indeed Nicholi (this time it's him, not the generic narrator) pauses after "our purpose" long enough for certain listeners (including me!) to sense a question about afterlives spent in, well, different places.

So, a 4-hour special couched in the language of intelligent design with a barely concealed Evangelical apologetic beneath the surface, on PBS. How did it get there? Therein lies a tale. Turns out that Nicholi is one of Harvard's best known evangelical professors. (He's a cofounder of the Family Research Council.) Someone took his seminar and told evangelical entrepreneur Douglas Holloday about it. Holloday brought together funders (including of course the Templeton Foundation) so that he could offer it to PBS as a complete package. They took the bait. Holloday is the Wall Street Christian in the discussion - bottom right in the spread above.

I'm not making this up. It's described in D. Michael Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (Oxford University Press, 2007):

The Question of God ... is an excellent example of evangelicalism's intellectually oriented outreach. ... Evangelical backers of the documentary wanted a "subtle, even-handed" account of the differences between Freud and Lewis, and insisted that the program "not preach" so that viewers could decide which perspective was truer to their experience. ... "PBS was critical for this type of project," says Holloday, because "their audience was our direct target." (104)

I showed some clips from "The Question of God" in Theorizing Religion on Tuesday, right after we'd read Freud's The Future of an Illusion. It wasn't my intention to put anyone in harm's way, just to raise questions about how public discussion about religion is formed in our time (as we did earlier with the Belief-O-Matic). Sometimes "spiritual" means everything and nothing, a relief from the dangers of "religion." Sometimes the situation is more complicated. But the program is very well made, its PBS cheesiness disarming. And Lewis seems so open and joyful, Freud so dogmatic and grim. Indeed, Lewis is associated in my students' minds with the Narnia books and the joys of childhood enjoyed throughout life, while Freud seems the pervy uncle who thinks childhood cheerless and adulthood even worse. And they're too young (imagine that!) to remember the scandals around "intelligent design." They didn't like being bamboozled by Evangelicals, but I suspect that Nicholi's seminar is still one many would take if they could. D'oh! It's working.

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