The Question of God (Introduction) - An Alternate Sabbath School Lesson Series (1 of 11)


(system) #1

With this posting I begin an 11 part series structured for possible use as an alternate Sabbath School Study Guide. I will post one lesson/study per week. The springboard for discussion comes from a PBS television program (subsequently released as a DVD) and book entitled The Question of God. The book is authored by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Armand Nicholi, who also developed and produced the PBS broadcasts. I integrated segments from the DVD into the class. The issues he raises touch some of the most foundational spiritual questions people face.

After this introductory session the remaining 10 are entitled:

2) A Transcendent Experience 3) Science or Revelation 4) The Exalted Father 5) Why Believe? 6) Miracles 7) Moral Law – Part A 8) Moral Law – Part B 9) Love Thy Neighbor 10) The Human Condition 11) Suffering and Death

The topics covered will range from epistemology to ethics and ask such questions as – how ought we to ground our morality, and is there an answer to The Problem of Evil?

One of the difficulties chronically associated with a standard Sabbath School class is that it too often makes unwarranted assumptions about what the participants actually believe, perhaps assuming that the group operates with more theological unanimity than really exists. That can short-circuit important questions members may wish the class would explore, but instead avoid raising them for fear of appearing out-of-harmony with others or perhaps feel unsure they are in a safe environment to explore such thoughts.

Sabbath School is also too often initiated with discussion-starter questions that have ‘agreed upon’ answers which produce status-quo responses that can then leave the group with little resolution to genuinely perplexing problems. The class may even end with some semi-satisfying recapitulation of cherished beliefs, but all too frequently little serious investigation has actually occurred because our initial presuppositions were both taken for granted and then reaffirmed.

To help avoid such potential traps, when I taught and prototyped this series in my own local Sabbath School, I asked for a few simple ground rules:

  1. First, class members needed to wait until some introductory, explanatory material had been presented before any discussion began. Now obviously this can be a two-edged sword. If all I did was to pontificate my own personal theological presuppositions (prejudices?) without developing a substantive framework for deeper discussion then such an intro would just provide me an ego-scratching, hubristic, bully pulpit. But if I could lay groundwork that would preclude mere recapitulation of standard ‘safe’ responses then perhaps the class would better address new and often difficult issues. At any rate, this was my approach and intent.
  2. Second, I requested people to not just speak up whenever they wanted without first gaining permission by some slight nod or hand-raise. This worked well as its obvious fairness was recognized. It also prevented people from hijacking the discussion and/or just riding their favorite hobby-horses.
  3. Third, I told class members that I especially wanted to hear thoughts from those who rarely spoke up – but I would promise never to call on them without their permission. I hoped this would make them feel both safe and realize that they too might have a chance to participate even when there would likely be others more assertive who otherwise could quickly dominate the more quiet and hesitant class members.

Now, concerning content. Dr. Nicholi’s book is primarily an examination of the key philosophical/religious issues addressed by Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis – perhaps two of the most seminal personalities of the 20th century – one who chose atheism, the other Christianity. From this material Nicholi created a Harvard seminar and from that class the PBS video series was developed. The majority of the DVD material is a dramatic re-enactment of the biographies of both Lewis and Freud, moving through their lives from childhood to their deaths. At various points Nicholi interrupts this dramatic narrative to include short roundtable discussions (roughly between 5 and 12 minutes each) of some key philosophical/religious questions being alluded to in the dramatic portions of the DVD. He carefully chose seven highly intelligent participants, whose viewpoints range from a fairly conservative practicing Christian to an avowed atheist.

I chose to skip the DVD’s dramatic portions and focus strictly on the conversations. So the Sabbath School lesson hour was broken down as follows:

  1. Start with an overview lecture by the class teacher (adapted as desired from this 11-part Study Guide) to orient and focus the discussion to follow.
  2. Proceed (most weeks) to watch one of the short video conversations.
  3. Open up the last ½ hour for class discussion.

Each week I provided handouts: first a summary of the lecture material, then also (when applicable) a transcript of the DVD roundtable discussion.

Obviously the organization I detail here is only my personal choice regarding class structure. Use whatever seems to work best in your context. I would advise that you buy the DVD so the class might have an opportunity to watch the discussions. However, each discussion comes with a transcript on the PBS website which you could work from if you are unable or decide to not use the DVD discussion portions directly. And there is one week (besides this one) where the introductory material was just too extensive to include both lecture and video discussion.

More information on this PBS series may be found here.

You may purchase the DVD here.

The book The Question of God can be purchased at Amazon or elsewhere.

One of my class handouts for this Introductory Week 1 is a bibliography. Note that this is the additional material I have drawn on for my own research, consequently it may not be a good fit for you or your class unless you take the time to review some of it personally. But it might provide class members with additional references for further study, were they so inclined.

Here is the link to that material.

Here is a link to the class syllabus handout I used, where more detail is given about the content of each session. Note that the weekly topic ordering I chose is also slightly different from way it was organized on the DVD. The rearrangement was intended to facilitate better topic flow.

Finally, below is my Week 1 lecture/essay which correlates to the handout material.

Lewis and Freud – Two World Views

  • What is a world View?
  • Knowledge formation -> world view -> context

Figure 1

Typically our discussions on difficult and contentious subjects (and subsequent frequent disagreements) take place contextually. That is, we argue about such topics as Creation, homosexuality, women's ordination, etc. These contexts are what I like to call ‘above the water line’. I’m thinking metaphorically of an iceberg, where the topic is what we see, but the more substantive (and more abstract) components are not obviously visible. Immediately below this ‘water line’ is our world-view, a way of sorting out and organizing this swirling mass of sense-data that has seemed to work for us – more-or-less – through the years. World views are enormously helpful. We cannot continually revisit every idea or issue that needs deciding so we usually lean on past experience and analysis. We (hopefully) apply reasoning, listen to respected authorities, etc. And then develop a fairly consistent, pragmatically workable belief system that lets us make religious and philosophical choices expeditiously. But world views are not static. They can morph over time as dissonant input data competes for our attention and we try (often painfully) to resolve the dissonance.

Now, for an atheist/agnostic, the line I’ve drawn (as the left-hand-side input to the world-view) marked ‘revelation’ barely exists, or at best is in embryonic form. Knowledge formation, for such people, is almost exclusively influenced from experience. And experience here should be understood to include the voices of authority, such as peer-reviewed science, extended (one hopes) by sound/valid personal reasoning. But for a Theist, there is a second, competing stream of potential knowledge - revelation. Obtained from some presumably super-human source: perhaps the Bible, Koran, Bagavad-gita, Scientology, space aliens – whatever.

And most Theists, I would also suggest, are what I call compatiblists. That is, they adhere to the reasonable assumption that these two knowledge streams ought to somehow and eventually resolve. After all, God’s explicit revelation should be compatible (consistent) with His ‘book of nature’. And if we cannot always presently see this resolution, then the problem is likely our limited vision, not God’s schizophrenia, duplicity or lack of existence.

Yet there frequently remain some areas (e.g. Faith and Science, homosexuality, women’s equality) where such resolution can remain elusive and hence the contextual views expressed (above the water line) may be quite contentious.

How then should one attempt to deal with such dissonance? Freud and Lewis have chosen two radically different approaches.

Freud – Wish Fulfillment

Freud’s approach was what one might term ‘bottom up’. He used the words ‘wish fulfillment’ meaning by this that we really personally manufacture a God from our deepest needs, then extrapolate from these needs to a (possibly personal) God figure.

Consider some of these quotes from Nicholi’s book:

Nicholi p. QoG p. 41: “Freud … proffers two main arguments against the existence of an intelligence beyond the universe: one, the psychological argument concerning wish fulfillment, and two, the argument concerning human suffering.” “Freud’s psychological argument against the spiritual worldview rests on the notion that all religious ideas are rooted in deep-seated wishes and are therefore illusions – false beliefs.” From Freud's Future of an Illusion: “We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent providence and if there were a moral order in the universe and an afterlife, but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be”. Nicholi: QoG p. 41: “Freud therefore concludes that belief in God is merely a projection of powerful wishes and inner needs.” Nicholi: QoG p 44: “So Freud asserts we possess intense, deep-seated wishes that form the basis for our concept of and belief in God. God does not create us in His image; we create God in our parents’ image … God exists only in our minds.”

Nicholi then notes a problem of Freud’s method:

Nicholi QoG p 37-38: “Freud calls his worldview dd>‘scientific,’ because of its premise that knowledge comes only from research. Of course, this basic premise cannot itself be based on scientific research. Rather, it is a philosophical assumption that cannot be proven. One can only assume that all knowledge comes from “research” and that “no knowledge” comes “from revelation”. Freud appears to realize that logically one cannot prove a negative – one cannot prove that God does not exist. The only real defense of his worldview is to discredit its alternative. Thus Freud undertook a systematic and sustained attack on the spiritual worldview.”

Lewis – The God-shaped Hole

Lewis saw things ‘top-down’. One might label this the ‘Hound of Heaven’ argument, named after the 19th century poem by Francis Thompson. Lewis postulates that humans have a ‘God-shaped hole’ which our divine pursuer lovingly seeks to fill with Himself.

Nicholi writes (quoting Lewis):

QoG p. 46 “Lewis [argues that] not only does wishing for something not rule out evidence for its existence of the object wished for – it may itself be evidence for its existence. In his own life, Lewis experienced periodically a deep-seated desire that he called “joy” and that he eventually concluded was a desire for a relationship with his Creator. Lewis notes we usually possess desires for things which exist. He asserts that “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.” He then implies we all have a deep-seated desire, or wish for, a relationship with the Creator and for an existence beyond this life … .” QoG p. 47 ‘Lewis writes: “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.”

So here we begin with two radically different and likely logically irresolvable perspectives. Do we humans manufacture God (Freud) or does God find us (Lewis)? Or is there some of both at work?

One of my favorite metaphors illustrating this most fundamentally human dilemma comes from an ancient book entitled The Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People written around 673 AD, by the Venerable Bede. In it he relates this story:

“The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another. Whilst he is within, he is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.” - Bede, Ecclesiastical History: Book II

There are many Christians and Adventists I think who would be quite uncomfortable having me back up this human dilemma to such an uncertain starting point for discussion. We want to begin with axiomatic Bible quotes (not to mention Ellen White statements) liberally sprinkled into the logical flow as ‘unassailable’ touch points, with everything then moving downstream from there. But to start at that point begs a full range of crucial questions we need to first address. And as I stated above, Sabbath School too often avoids this messy inquiry.

Here then is how I wish to begin these series of Lessons – with semi-clueless humans searching for the possibility of the Divine. Armand Nicholi’s book is, after all, entitled The Question of God. How then are we to find Him or be found?

Handout Material for Week 1

Some Questions to Consider:

Q: What methods should be employed in the search for God? Q: Are Freud’s presuppositions better or worse than Lewis’s? Q: Can we ever step-back from our birth heritage and pre-suppositions to examine this question objectively? Q: What does ‘objectively’ mean anyway?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2182