The Question of Love

t associated with sexual liberation, Sigmund Freud, lived his own life in a way that Christians would do well to emulate. As Armand Nicholi tells us in his new book The Question of God, Freud was sexually chaste until his marriage at thirty and faithful to his wife thereafter. He lived what C. S. Lewis summed up as the biblical ethic: "either marriage with total faithfulness to your partner or else total abstinence." But it's Freud's ideas, not his personal conduct, that shape our culture. And by examining his ideas we can see the direct line between Freud and our sexually charged culture today. As Armand Nicholi writes, "Freud [equated] happiness with pleasure." The specific pleasure Freud had in mind was "the pleasure that comes from satisfying our sexual needs." For Freud, what people call "happiness" is the result of a sudden satisfaction of those sexual needs that have been "dammed up." Unhappiness is not only due to misfortune, such as illness, but also comes when sexual release occurs infrequently. Freud's emphasis on sexual pleasure naturally led to his ideas about what he considered another major source of unhappiness: "repression." By repression Freud meant those cultural restrictions and prohibitions that limited the individual's pursuit of sexual pleasure and, by extension, happiness. We see Freud's ideas about sex, happiness, and repression all around us. Our culture regards chastity as quaint and possibly even unhealthy. If you object to the sexually explicit content in film, television, and advertising, you are often caricatured as "repressed" and obsessed with sex yourself. As philosopher Peter Kreeft, among others, has written, ours is a culture that has made sex the highest good of human existence. C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, pointed out key distinctions that were lost on Freud and his contemporary disciples -- distinctions that are at the heart of the Christian ideas about sex and happiness. We need to distinguish, for example, between "repression" and "suppression." While repression is subconscious, suppression is the conscious effort to control our desires and impulses. It is healthy self-denial. In Freud's time, as in our own, people confused the two and came to regard any attempt to limit human sexuality as "unhealthy." Lewis regarded this as nonsense. It was the "anything goes" approach to sexuality that was unhealthy. This approach, he said, leads to "disease, lies, jealousy . . . the reverse of health" -- just the kinds of things we observe in our culture every day. Lewis also drew an important distinction between romantic love, what he called "eros," and sexuality. Sexual attraction is only a part of eros, the state we call "being in love." Throughout human history sexual attraction has often followed friendship and mutual affection. It's only in modern times, that sexuality, thanks to Freud, occupies the center of human existence and is placed first. The differences between Lewis and Freud are not limited to sex. They cover almost every important issue in human existence, which is why I recommend Nicholi's book based on the course he has taught at Harvard for many years. Read it not only to understand the false ideas that dominate our culture, but also to understand the Christian alternative -- the one that, as Lewis would tell us, points to true happiness. For further reading and information: Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (Free Press, 2002). C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Harvest Books, 1971). Learn about the Library of Congress's "Conflict, Freud, and Culture" exhibit. Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War (InterVarsity, 2002).


Chuck Colson



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