“Freud’s Last Session” and the Art of Civility

“Freud’s Last Session” and the Art of Civility March 27, 2012

In the span of a few short days, I had two experiences which, together, served to expose a serious crack in the edifice of American culture.  First, I attended a conference in New York where I listened to Os Guinness speak briefly about the serious shortage of civility in the public square.  This was part of a larger conference on science of faith, but the polarization of American culture extends far beyond conversations between young earth creationists, intelligent design advocates, and theistic evolutionists.  There are racist polarities still powerfully present in our culture as the death of Trayvon Martin highlights.  The new atheists have an agenda that couldn’t be more explicit:  Tolerance of pervasive myth and superstition in modern society is not a virtue….. Wake up people!!  We are smart enough now to kill our invisible gods and oppressive beliefs.   It is the responsibility of the educated to educate the uneducated, lest we fall prey to the tyranny of ignorance. Such rhetoric points towards a sort of ideological, if not literal, genocide, envisioning a utopian faithless society, in fulfillment of John Lennon’s “Imagine” dream.  Of course, in the other corner, you have fundamentalism’s vision of a “Christian culture”, explained by Guinness as a vision of a sacred public square, in which one religion or another is privileged (though not established) — usually associated for better or worse with the religious right.

Even within both political and faith circles, there is further fragmentation.  The right is divided by Tea Party loyalists, social, and fiscal conservatives.  Within the faith community there are emergent movements and neo-calvinists movements, both with their guns pointed at the other.  The rhetoric, inflamatory statements, and inflated articulations of what’s at stake have created a culture where fear and withdrawal into our ghettos trums civility.

This is no small matter because history tells us that it’s the various framents of culture, lusting for power, that turn culture wars into real wars.  Guinness says that, of all the fragments present among us, Christians should be the champions a civil discourse that is honest and courageous, while allowing for different world views, and living charitably with those who hold them.  This is different from mindless intolerance, for it encourages civil conversations.  It’s also different from “live and let live” tolerance that’s rooted in the notion that there is no transcendent truth.   In our highly framented culture, the recovery of this kind of civility may just be one of the most vital pursuits of our time.

This theme was reinforced ss soon as I arrived home from New York.  I attended a play entitled, “Freud’s Last Session” which is a dialogue between Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis, taking place in London, in 1939.  Freud is dying of cancer and antheist, Lewis is a rising start at Oxford and a robust Christ follower.  They meet in Freud’s office for a discussion.  Masterfully acted and directed, the Taproot Theater production is, in my mind, a must see for anyone living in the Seattle area, because it offers a shining example of civil discourse.  Here are two men, each holding a world view diametrically opposed to the other, and as they talk the differences are quickly apparent.  They shout at each other.  They violently disagree – and they treat each other with dignity.

In my book, The Colors of Hope, I quote Miroslav Volf, who writes: Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. Volf is saying that we all have this tendency to create a false moral high ground where we come to view ourselves as the privileged righteous, which has the implicit affect of marginalizing and vilifying the other.  In Freud’s Last Session, though, we see flaws in both Lewis and Freud, as well as a measure of glory in each.  This is the truth of it.  We who follow Christ are still fallen.  Those who vehemently deny Christ still hold some vestige of God’s image.  There are atheists doing good things in this world, and believers spewing hate and praying for the death of our president.  The categories dissolve.

What’s left then, are ideals, and our understanding of the truths that we believe govern the universe.   This is very different than “I’m a good person and you’re a bad person”.  Historically, when the conversations have centered on truths and ideals, differing sides usually found a large playing field of commonality, where they could agree, and work together.  As recently as during the Clinton administration, Chuck Hegal and Madeline Albright worked closely together on foreign matters.  Though holding different ideologies, they managed to find common ground and arenas in which they could work together.  Even where they strongly differed, their discourse exemplified mutual respect.

Those days seem long gone in nearly every sector of our culture.  We’re retreating into our fragmented ghettos where, together, we villify everyone on the outside, enflaming fear and even hatred.  This isn’t just about politics.  This is about Christians throwing rocks at each other and failing to see the common ground we share.  It needs to stop.

At the end of Freud’s Last Session, as Lewis is leaving Freud’s office, the heated debate has died down.  Freud’s health issues became very real during their time together, as did the possibilities of Germany bombing London.  We saw their mutual humanity, and glory.  Lewis looks at Freud and says, “it was foolish of us, really, to think that we could solve these grand problems (regarding God, truth, meaning, sexuality) in hour wasn’t it!” Freud’s response is beautiful:  “yes… but the only thing more foolish would be to not try”.  Beautiful.  Nobody is advocating for mindless tolerance, or blind surrender to post-modern pessimism.   Instead, this is a plea for civility- looking for common ground, seeking the common good, and seeking to bless all people.   It’s a pursuit worthy of our grandest efforts, but can begin today, as we extend a hand and listening ear to someone with whom we disagree.


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