Goldstein Opens Up Religious Discussion in ‘36 Arguments’

'36 Arguments for the Existence of God' by Rebecca Goldstein (Pantheon)

The strength and weakness of philosophical novels is that they often feel like a multiple choice test for which the author has circled several answers to the same question. Whereas a traditional philosopher must present a rigorous argument that is carefully constructed and proven, the philosophical novelist revels in the ambiguity of his or her characters, and the conflicting ideas that make up their lives and conversations. Rebecca Goldstein—who has made a career out of presenting philosophical concepts in fictional form—offers with her latest book a showcase of the advantages and frustrations attendant to this curious medium. “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction” doesn’t settle any of the questions it raises, but it certainly edifies, entertains, and provokes.

Goldstein’s novel flits between two storylines in the life of affable academic Cass Seltzer, one in his present, the other in his past. Presently, Seltzer is contemplating an offer to assume a post at Harvard University, having achieved unexpected fame with his book, “The Varieties of Religious Illusion.” The combination of this secularist tract—and its appendix refuting 36 arguments for God’s existence—with Cass’s clear-eyed empathy for religious belief has turned him into an overnight celebrity, dubbed by Time Magazine as “the atheist with a soul.”

The novel’s flashback plotline explains how Seltzer came to write such a book, recounting his trajectory from life as a long-suffering graduate student in the humanities to becoming personally concerned with matters of faith. Under the tutelage of Jonas Elijah Klapper—a Harold Bloom caricature—Cass visited New Walden, a cloistered Hasidic enclave where men and women walk on different sides of the street and modernity has yet to intrude. There Cass meets Azarya, a child prodigy who at the age of six has derived complex mathematical proofs without any formal education. But Azarya is also the son of the town’s Grand Rebbe, expected to succeed his father as the Hasidim’s spiritual guide. Cass bears witness to Azarya’s agonizing choice between denying the secular world that so engages him or leaving his communal responsibilities and attending MIT—a struggle which informs Cass’s own thinking on religion’s roots and allure. While in the past Cass waits to discover what Azarya will decide, in the present readers wonder whether Cass will prevail in his upcoming religion-and-reason debate at Harvard against a neoconservative Nobel Laureate.

But the story is not entirely an intellectual adventure. Throughout the novel, Goldstein uses playful, everyday occurrences to creatively broach serious topics, deftly interweaving such diverse concepts as probability theory, the mind-body problem, and theodicy with Cass’s relationship issues and dinner conversations. Of course, innumerable thinkers over many centuries haven’t definitively solved the problem of evil, and Goldstein isn’t going to do it over dessert, but she does succeed in accessibly introducing a classic conundrum to her audience in the flow of her storytelling. So long as readers recognize that the positions debated in “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” are only the beginning of the conversation and not the end, Goldstein has accomplished her task. The job of the philosophical novelist is not so much to answer questions as to raise them.

Goldstein can introduce so many abstract concerns because she chooses here, as in many of her other books, to make her characters professional scholars, a territory she knows well. Seltzer’s academic career is narrated by Goldstein—a former fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, among other posts—with the skill of an insider. Given Goldstein’s background, Harvard students may find much that is familiar in Seltzer’s story. He works at a predominantly Jewish university named for a famous Jewish jurist—not Brandeis, of course, but the fictitious “Frankfurter University.” One of Seltzer’s colleagues is said to have been catapulted to a Harvard professorship when a mainstream publisher picked up his research on the psychology of happiness—a favorite subject of some of Harvard’s actual psychology lecturers, from Daniel Gilbert to Tal Ben-Shahar. And while the fictional Cass Seltzer did not debate Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, at the London Jewish Book Festival, Goldstein’s husband, Harvard icon Steven Pinker, did in 2005. These adapted details of academia make Goldstein’s story that much more compelling, and her not infrequent satirical skewers of modern university life that much more biting.

When it comes to sketching Jewish tradition, and the life of New Walden’s Hasidim, however, Goldstein’s understanding is slightly weaker. She gets the names of Hasidic customs wrong—dubbing the mystical Hasidic custom of waiting to cut a boy’s hair until his third birthday an “upshneering” instead of the Yiddish “upsherin”—and her Klapper character deduces the numerical value of his Hebrew name using a form of gematria so obscure that Goldstein is either being very clever with his dialogue or is in error.

That Goldstein is much more at home in the academic realm than in the religious gradually becomes clear. For all her novel’s ambition to portray and explain the modern religious experience, it is unable to shake sufficiently free of its author’s initial presumptions. Like many new atheist tracts, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” paints the religion-and-reason question in Manichean terms. This sort of framing can highlight sharp distinctions in philosophies, but doesn’t begin to approach the varieties of religious experience—or illusion—in the modern world. For Goldstein and her characters, the world divides into the rational and the irrational, the secular and the religious. There are the academics, who are either free of the superstitious bonds of faith or only subscribe to it for its social utility, and then there are the unenlightened masses. Azarya’s situation is similarly rigid—he must choose between living entirely outside modernity or entirely within it, when few such isolated shtetls as New Walden exist and few university students live a life so divorced from the concerns of the spirit.

Goldstein seems to be overlooking the very real people in between her extremes. Where is the celebrated Princeton philosopher Saul Kripke—a real life Azarya, who taught at MIT while a Harvard undergrad, himself an observant Jew and critic of materialism—and where is Harvard’s own Hilary Putnam, who writes on Jewish thought and prays at Harvard Hillel, or Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project and a believing Christian?

For all its intellectual banter, witty academic satire and thoughtful portrayal of religious life and community—all of which make this a far more elegant and effective work than any new atheist polemic—“36 Arguments for the Existence of God” still simplifies its subject, and so falls short of meeting its own ambitious standards. A novel that considers rational religionists and non-materialists on their own terms, while maintaining its strong intellectual reservations, would make a worthy sequel to this excellent but incomplete entry into the genre.

—Staff writer Yair Rosenberg can be reached at yrosenb@fas.harvard.edu

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