“Why would you come here to see me if you disagree so passionately with my views?”
So says the curmudgeonly Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) to C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) in the film Freud’s Last Session, which imagines a fictional meeting between the two intellectual titans. Set two days after the start of World War II and within the confines of Freud’s London home, the famed psychoanalyst’s question is a worthy one, given how he and Lewis hold such diametrically opposed worldviews.
The Lewis we meet in Freud’s Last Session is not yet the seasoned apologist who has written A Grief Observed or Mere Christianity. Yet he nevertheless possesses the zeal of a new convert and a sympathy for skeptics, given that he’s spent more years as a non-believer than as a Christian. He cannot help but see God in all of creation and as a source of comfort and light, even as a worldwide war rages around him. Freud, who is a well-established neurologist, is battling throat cancer and simply sees religion as a pacifier that people cling to as a source of solace in a broken world. “Religion made the world a nursery,” Freud retorts to Lewis, “[and] it seems to me, professor, that we’ve never matured enough to face the terror of being alone in the dark.”
Yet their conversation is far from a fruitless exercise. Even while the two (particularly Freud) attack each other’s arguments, they never lose sight of the other person’s humanity. Rather than reduce each other down to the ideas that they hold, by their conversation’s end, the two come to see each other as people simply trying to persist and live in a world filled with horrors. The film is a touching exploration of what it looks like to hold vigorous debates with people with whom we may staunchly disagree. For Christians, in particular, it serves as a powerful reminder that for our own faith to grow, we should not shy away from difficult, challenging conversations.
When Freud and Lewis first start debating, however, it seems far easier to demonize the other rather than appeal to a shared humanity. For director Matt Brown, it was always his intention to have Freud be more combative. “Freud’s kind of a trapped animal,” Brown told Think Christian in an interview. “Death is coming and he’s well aware of it. He’s going through a range of emotions right before our eyes.” Indeed, before the tea kettle has had time to warm up, as soon as Lewis enters his home, Freud quips, “Was it your parents who injected you with this fairy tale of faith?”
It would have been easy for the film to become a shouting match between the two, but in Lewis’ response to Freud, we see an alternative way to respond when our beliefs get challenged: with compassion and grace. While Matthew Goode’s Lewis is no less witty or impassioned, rather than match Freud’s energy Goode was intentional about channeling Lewis’ patience. “[He] was a patient and compassionate man,” he told TC. “If you twist his ideology and make him argumentative it would have done a disservice. His humanity was important for me to get across.”
Brown added:“I think Lewis' steadiness and presence is what makes the dynamic work. Lewis’ faith is being challenged and that is apparent, and he finds inner strength through the course of this to stay on his course.”
For our faith to grow, we should not shy away from difficult, challenging conversations.
Indeed, Lewis’ response underscores how he didn’t view Freud’s differing position as an excuse to treat him as inferior. In one of my favorite exchanges of the film, Freud brings up the age-old question of theodicy, mining the present threat of war for all its existential worth. Referencing the high death toll that World War II has taken in just two days, Freud snaps, “You look out there. You see hell has already arrived.” He then asks whether all of this suffering is part of God’s plan. Sensing that Freud’s question is rooted in personal pain as much as intellectual inquiry, Lewis gently replies, “I don’t know.” He could easily provide an intellectual and theological retort against Freud, yet knows that such a response is futile. Slightly taken aback, Freud lets the moment of silence hold between them. It is a refreshingly honest moment, one where Lewis sees Freud not as an argument he needs to take down but a human to commiserate and mourn with.
Ultimately, despite Freud’s antagonism, he too doesn’t let the apologist’s embrace of a faith he doesn’t share (a “ludicrous dream” he calls it) detract from acting with compassion. As Freud and Lewis debate, there’s a warning of a bomb threat and the two have to seek shelter (ironically) in the cover of a church. Once Lewis starts to hear the sirens, he experiences PTSD from his time as a soldier in World War I and begins to panic and hyperventilate. It would have been an easy opportunity to gloat in the moment that Lewis’ faith didn’t offer any comfort, but instead Freud reassures Lewis that all is well and remains by his side. Such a scene reminds us that as much as the two have their disagreements and trade verbal blows, they see each other as whole people, not just containers of ideas. It is in this shared trust and commitment to remembering the other’s humanity that the two can debate.
Freud’s Last Session morphs from an ideological debate into something deeper once its characters no longer try to “win,” but simply listen and understand. It is evident that given how staunchly both of them hold to their beliefs, Lewis has no chance of converting Freud to Christianity any more than Freud is able to convince Lewis to walk away from the faith. Yet they realize that even if they may not change each other’s minds, they can see the other more clearly and, in turn, grow in their own respective beliefs. In his parting words to Freud, Lewis shares, “My idea of God constantly changes. He shatters it again and again. . . . The real struggle is to keep trying. To come awake, to stay awake.” There is a twinge of invitation here, as if Lewis is hinting to Freud that his hardened ideas about who God is might be due for a similar shattering.
In being free of the need to be “right,” Lewis is able to hear the cries, angst, and critiques of his opponent clearly. By viewing God not as an idea to be violently defended, but as an adventure to invite people into, he is able to be fully present with even his most impassioned critic. May we embody this attitude and not shy away from hard conversations that will only deepen our faith.