Finding the Other in the Question of God

In Freud’s Last Session, a film adaptation of a play that is itself based on a book, the great thinkers Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis verbally spar about the nature and existence of God, yet the film is almost uninterested in deciding which of them is right.[1] Their disagreement over the existence of God forms the bones or skeleton of the picture but constitutes little of the meat. Instead, the film seems to take inspiration for its fictional what-if from Lewis’s book The Four Loves, which suggests that friendships begin over a shared task, in this case the shared task of discussing God.

For a certain sort of viewer, this emphasis on relationship will disappoint. Those coming to the movie for combat will not find it. What they will find are people: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud, the protagonists, and Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter, who wrestles with her loyalty to and dependence on her father amid his rejection of her lesbianism. Rather than an epic fight in the coliseum with rhetorical blood and jabs, viewers will find a film bursting with pain, empathy, humanity, humor, and guts. The skeleton is clothed with shared discovery and appreciation of humanity as each protagonist takes a turn on Freud’s couch. And in this way, the film invites us to consider how we have learned to resist contact with the humanity of one another in favor of fighting over ideas.

We two essayists are approaching this review from different respective positions. As a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, I (Paul) have studied and metabolized Freud through the reinterpretation of him by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. My professional work as a counselor and professor has long been haunted by the ghost of Freud—the genius, misogynist, atheist, founder, and more. The paradox of his legacy as arguably one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century and also one of the most derided and least understood looms over the entire psychoanalytic project and continues to cast shadows in the classes I teach.[2] It is from this haunted place that I was interested in this film and how he would be portrayed in 2023.

Meanwhile, I (Billie) come to this film as a Lewis scholar and fan. Lewis’s stories, apologetics, theology, and academic literary work have all had profound influences on the way I experience God, academia, literature, and even gender. I am fascinated by Lewis as a thinker, author, and storyteller, as well as the role he plays in Christian culture as an icon of Christian thought. As a queer woman, I have spent countless hours reading and wrestling with some of the best and worst of his thoughts and his legacy.

And so, rather than analyzing this movie in the typical manner of film or art critics, which we are not, we undertake this review from our particular locations and disciplines, intrigued by all that the film stirs and invites in its fictional portrayal of such significant thinkers and their legacies.

The film is set in a world on the edge. World War II is just beginning, and the terror of what it brings is suffused with the memory of the last war. Freud has been uprooted from his beloved Austria to escape the persecution of the Nazis and is currently dying of oral cancer. Lewis is a young Oxford don, struggling with the trauma he carries from fighting in World War I. He is beginning to develop as a thinker, nascent apologist, and academic who has, only in the last decade, come to his Christian faith through his relationship with J. R. R. Tolkien and other friends. He is struggling with his complicated and ambiguous relationship with his friend’s mother, Janie Moore. And Anna Freud is caught in the impossible tensions between her own budding career, sense of duty to her sickly father, her lesbianism, and her father’s conflicting desires for her as a nurse, protégée and daughter.

And yet, as the setting prepares us for a global conflict, which another director might have chosen to have parallel an interpersonal conflict between the worldviews of the protagonists, the film instead invites us to explore the humanity of each character. We meet Freud and Lewis not as giants and models of their respective worldviews but as complicated, contradictory, hypocritical humans striving to navigate life.

Rather than the past, present, and future battlefields, which all assert some influence on the film, the woods are the touchstone spaces for both of the men in the film. For Lewis the woods are an impossible place of wilderness and wonder, first experienced in a “biscuit box” diorama given to him by his brother.[3] Lewis speaks of his time in the woods as a place of longing and magic, where he was “surprised by Joy.” Lewis’s God is coy, playful, beautiful, and wild, a “Myth become Fact.” Conversely, Freud’s woods are gothic, dark, and lonely—a fortress of solitude. Freud enters the void and emptiness of the wilderness when he attempts to escape the pressure of his father and childhood, and it is here that he doesn’t find God. Freud’s atheism stands as an indictment against the optimistic, positive God of the Christian culture around him. That God was part of the antisemitism he endured constantly, was in service of denying harsh reality, and provided the narcotic fantasy of meaning and happy endings that Freud refused to be dulled by. That God couldn’t survive his woods.


The Freud of the film is in his last days and wrestling with the pain of oral cancer. Throughout the film, we see him reach for his morphine and play with the suicide pill that he keeps nearby, as he contemplates euthanasia. He has spent his life facing pain and horror. Here, at the end, he is longing for his medication to numb the pain, yet as the film progresses, his supply runs out and we are confronted with a vulnerable, hurting Freud, bleeding and in need of help. He is not the great healer but a wounded sufferer. As we have come to expect from Anthony Hopkins, the Freud in the film is a captivating, complicated character who diagnoses paternal struggles and internal conflicts all around him while simultaneously falling prey to them in his inability to accept his own daughter for who she is. The film wrestles with his brilliance and the size of his persona as embodied as a fallible father. We meet and experience a human Freud, a man at times curious, hurting, angry, wise, terrified, intolerant, brilliant, whimsical, and vulnerable.

Freud is often remembered for his attacks on religion and as a great atheist. However, as with most great thinkers, popular memory and legacy lack much of the nuance, depth, and complexity of the actual man. The film attempts to bring more of this to the foreground, showing the ambivalent and confusing messages Freud experienced around religion growing up with his staunchly Catholic nanny and Orthodox Jewish father, both of whom haunt his character. From these beginnings, Freud is presented as having hardened into a staunch atheist. There is a great deal of evidence to support much of this story, and it is the common narrative of many of Freud’s biographers.

His relationship to religion and spirituality, however, is far more conflicted than is typically portrayed. For example, in an unpublished letter, penned on his seventy-sixth birthday, Freud wrote, “In some place in my soul, in a hidden corner, I am a fanatical Jew. I am very much astonished to discover myself as such in spite of all efforts to be unprejudiced and impartial. What can I do at my age?”[4] Yet the image of the assured atheist remains in the popular imagination of Freud, and that persona haunts the character of Freud on the screen. There is a familiarity to this image that lures us into interpreting Freud through our contemporary eyes around the nature of great debates like the one structuring this film. Whereas today’s arguments over the existence of God are often set as spectacles of confrontation, in which adversaries hope to score points against one another in a zero-sum game, showing dominance over another point of view, this film invites us into an entirely different mode of discourse and, therefore, a more nuanced man.

The main characters meet in order to move beyond the other as mere signifier of a worldview; they meet to have an encounter with the other as a full human. Freud, the doctor, is curious about how Lewis ticks; he’s not trying to convince him. This is a fundamental aspect of the film that we deeply appreciate. Although they trade arguments and debate, the posture of their conversation is far more relational than confrontational. The movement is from a Christian apologist facing the great atheist to Clive Staples (or “Jack”) meeting Sigmund.

This concern for persons rather than the domination of ideas is seen most clearly in their moments of restraint. At different points in the film, the men face moments of vulnerability in each other and pull back, respecting boundaries and dignity. Moreover, they both doubt. Lewis is driven to admit he doesn’t know what to do with pain. Freud calls out his wish that there was a God so that he could choke him. Both men face their contradictions and hypocrisies, which are part of what it means to be human.

Much has been written on how Freud was affected by the antisemitism that he experienced throughout his life, which culminated in witnessing the rise of fascism mixed with Christianity. His experience of religion was decried by his close Protestant friend Oscar Pfister as being limited to only “pathological forms of religion” that Freud generalized to be what all religion is like. Freud’s world was arguably insulated in many ways from more robust expressions of authentic faith, with most of his patients and colleagues coming from decidedly atheistic positions and cultures.[5]

Additionally, it is important to remember, as the film hints, that Freud’s occupation matters significantly in his view of God and religion. Freud is the doctor, the healer, the one whose entire life has been dedicated to dealing with the hurt and outcasts. As such, his focus is on the use or misuse of beliefs by individuals. Freud’s thinking, Boothby writes, “focuses not on the object of belief, but rather the subject who believes. The problem is the motive for believing.” Freud seemingly condemned religion as an illusion, but then clarified his position, noting that an illusion is not necessarily an error. Vitz writes “It is conceivable that an illusion might be true. But as Freud saw it any idea of belief is an illusion ‘when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation.’” As a psychoanalyst, Freud cared more about the person who believed than the belief itself. The result was that Freud’s critiques of religion are more in service of the function and use of those beliefs than the truth content of the beliefs. Psychoanalytic thinking argues that all information comes with desire. There is always more to what we think we understand and why we think at all.[6]

This brings us to why Freud fails to stand up as the champion of modern atheism. He isn’t interested in the job. Freud is fascinated in the person of Lewis and what has motivated Lewis’s belief. Freud seeks to understand rather than to convince. The very notion of psychoanalytic technique resists a directive approach. That’s not how he treats his patients, and it’s not what he attempts with Lewis.

I (Paul) find that this point is really significant in my own work with patients. In our current world, we have seemed to move into a black-and-white space of affirmation or confrontation. To understand or listen, then, has become synonymous with agreement, but that’s an unhealthy distortion. In working with patients, I rarely agree with the choices they are making, but that’s also rarely relevant. Their growth isn’t about conforming to my model of reality. And yet, that’s sadly the state of much contemporary discourse: ideas have become more important than people. What was refreshing about this film was its subversive movement from ideas to humans and not the other way around.[7]

In one scene, Freud and Lewis are in a church, where Freud is feigning ignorance and asking about the art and statues. After being told the name of a particular statue, he corrects the priest, saying that she is actually Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness, “the mad. And the lost.” Freud’s entire career has been concerned with those whom the church forgot—the mad, the lost, the marginalized. In the same way, Freud pushes against Lewis’s picture of the God of joy, asking where that god can be in light of the Nazis. Where is God in the void, the lack, the pain, the trauma that Freud’s entire life has been courageously and tirelessly embracing.

That Freud saw religion as a childish escape from reality reflects much of the way religion was and is still used today. How often are platitudes and Bible verses like “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28 KJV) used to dismiss one another’s pain? Instead of communities that help us face the horror of death and suffering together, churches are much more in the business of whitewashing and avoiding. Outsiders are kept out through implicit and explicit boundary enforcement, leaving the congregants comfortable and insulated from reality. How many parishioners seek out the church sanctuary and say their prayers in an obsessive, anxiety-ridden attempt at maintaining an illusion of control over the chaos of life in the face of uncertainty? So much religion is performed in the service of soothing our existential dread.[8]


Like Freud, Lewis, portrayed excellently by Matthew Goode, comes into the film with baggage. In 1939, the setting for the film, Lewis the man is not yet known as the great apologist—the talks, which would later be compiled as Mere Christianity, were given between 1941 and 1944—though, of course, he does already occupy that position in our imaginations. And again, as with Freud, the film works to complicate him, unburdening him of those expectations.

The Oxford don arrives at Freud’s house in London not quite sure of the reason for his invitation but interested to meet the famous doctor and ready with an apology for his portrayal of the man in The Pilgrim’s Regress. Lewis had used Freud as an allegorical synecdoche for a sort of enlightenment materialism (the character’s name is Sigismund Enlightenment) that substituted arguments against the existence of God for explanations of the motives for people’s beliefs in God—an approach that Lewis would continue to tilt against for some time, most fully in his essay “Bulverism.”[9]

With Lewis’s arguments against Sigismund Enlightenment so well documented and beloved by future Christians, it will likely come as a disappointment to many that Lewis first broaches the subject here with an apology rather than apologia. He wants to assure Freud that the caricature was not personal. And the film goes on to show that the apology is sincere. Throughout their visit, Lewis shows himself to be entirely uninterested in reducing Freud to a type or reducing his ideas, thoughts, accusations, and discourse to any sort of straw man. Just as Freud had invited Lewis over to try to understand him, Lewis is eager to engage with Freud as a man—a great man—whom he wants to get to know. Far from the Christian tin soldier Lewis of evangelical fever dreams, Freud’s Last Session gives us the man who was at his most blessedly hypocritical when his hardest beliefs ran up against real people.[10] Viewers will meet, in fact, something close to the historical Lewis.

Lewis the man—the historical man—was certainly fond of a spirited debate, but he was also uninterested in maintaining an argument at the cost of a friendship. This is a man who was argued into the faith by long-running discussions with J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Hugo Dyson. Those sorts of years-long debates between friends are possible only between people who put their friendship and the humanity of one another above any illusion of winning. Far from the reputation Lewis may have as an apologist today, the conversations that brought him to theism and then Christianity were between friends and academics who simply loved talking about the subject. The historical Lewis is the man who compared notes and argued back and forth with dear friends over long walks and countless beers. And that is the man we meet in this movie.

When Freud, in agony, here dismisses Lewis’s feeble rough draft of the theodicy that he would perfect in The Problem of Pain and then later reject in the face of his own deep suffering in A Grief Observed, we are shown a Lewis who has no qualms about admitting that he has no answer. His faith in a God of joy who whispers to us in our delight remains while his ego is not at all bruised to admit that he has no compelling retort to his interlocutor’s objections. Rather than a man of certainties, we are introduced to a man of compassion. In their last minutes together, Lewis acts in the role of nurse—a role only Anna Freud had been permitted to play for Freud—helping him to extract the prosthetic palate that was the source of much of his pain and, in the process, having his hands bathed in the dying doctor’s blood. If there is an apologia for Lewis’s God in the film, it is to be found not in the arguments or the repartee but in Lewis the man who is unable to marshal an explanation for suffering but is down on his knees being bled on by a man who was supposed to be his rival, easing his suffering, if only for a moment.


And so, not to spoil things, but the film ends with neither man coming out on top. Instead, both are transformed.

One of the forgotten aspects of authentic discourse is the receptivity necessary to actually hear and be affected by the other. Lewis and Freud end the film different than when they started, though neither has changed his mind. By the rules of the game, the ending is an unsatisfying tie with no clear winners. But the film tries to accomplish something far more significant in their debate. Neither Freud nor Lewis stays safely hidden behind his arguments and rebuttals in the film; each takes a seat on the couch and experiences the penetrating gaze of the other. For this alone, the film is worth watching. So much of modern debate seems to have lost this significant nuance. Certainty and gamesmanship are the dominant postures rather than understanding, authenticity, and self-reflection. In humanizing the protagonists and showing them do the same to each other, the film invites us to consider ways that we may renew our engagement with otherness. It calls us to consider being affected by those we disagree with and risk being contaminated by their humanity so as to make contact with a human and affirm their dignity.[11]

Throughout the film, many different characters and ideas are shared and debated. Each has their own internal division and doubt. Anna struggles with her relationship with her lover and her father. Freud faces his own internal contradictions with Anna, his inability to live up to his own image, and his fear of death. Lewis questions his faith and his duty and confronts his past trauma. Through it all, only one group holds fast to their convictions. Only one group never falters under ambivalence or doubt, never questions their mission or desire. Only one group holds tightly to certainty—the Nazis.

[1] See Armand M. Nicholi Jr., The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (New York, NY: Free, 2003).

[2] For more on the controversy surrounding Freudian ideas and contemporary psychoanalytic thought, see Richard Boothby, Sex on the Couch: What Freud Still Has to Teach Us about Sex and Gender (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005); and Daniel José Gaztambide, A People’s History of Psychoanalysis: From Freud to Liberation Psychology (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021).

[3] In Lewis’s recounting, the diorama was in “the lid of a biscuit tin . . . covered with moss and garnished with twigs” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy [New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1955], 5).

[4] See Jozef Philip Hes, “A Note on an As Yet Unpublished Letter by Sigmund Freud,” Jewish Social Studies 48, no. 3/4: 321–24, esp. 322.

[5] Paul C. Vitz, Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious (New York, NY: Guilford, 1988), 212.

[6] Boothby, Embracing the Void: Rethinking the Origin of the Sacred (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2023), 9; and Vitz, Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious, 209. Also, see Todd McGowan, Psychoanalytic Film Theory and the Rules of the Game (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2015).

[7] For more on the significance of human contact, mutual recognition, and authenticity in psychotherapy, see Jessica Benjamin, Beyond Doer and Done To: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity, and the Third (London, UK: Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 2018).

[8] For more on the maintenance of boundaries and bounded-set theology in the church, see Paul Hoard and Billie Hoard, “Eucontamination: Enacting a Centered-Set Theology in a Multicultural World,” Journal of Psychology and Theology, June 2, 2023, For more on the way theology has been used to reify existing power structures and avoid confronting internalized and systemic racism, see Paul Hoard and Earl D. Bland, “‘How Am I Responsible?’: Evangelical White Rage and Moral Injury in the Interpassive Perpetration of White-Body Supremacy,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 33, no. 5 (September 3, 2023): 653–70, For more on Freud’s views on the use of religion as a defense against pain, see Boothby, Embracing the Void;and Vitz, Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious.

[9] Lewis, “‘Bulverism’ or, the Foundation of Twentieth Century Thought” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 271–77.

[10] The character of Anna Freud and a certain compassionate look from Lewis right at the end of the movie are both representative here. Lewis, although always maintaining a hard line on the subject of homosexuality, had a gay man as his first and lifelong friend and made a point of burning any letters he received from gay acquaintances so as not to risk incriminating them at a time when homosexuality was still very much against the law. See Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1979).

[11] For more on the nature of contamination and allowing others to impact one for good, see Paul Hoard and Willa Hoard, “Eucontamination: A Christian Study in the Logic of Disgust and Contamination,” The Other Journal 32 (2020); and Paul Hoard and Willa Hoard, “Queering as Eucontaminant Reorganization,” The Other Journal 34 (2022): 51–60.