This past decade will be remembered as a time of polarized debates between the new atheists on the one hand and the religiously fervent on the other. Few books have explored the fertile nexus in the middle, praising paradox, celebrating uncertainty, and enjoying the numinous without committing to any sacred particulars. Rebecca Goldstein’s new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, stakes out its territory in this middle ground, illuminating questions of faith in a tale set in the corridors of academia.
At the center of Goldstein’s story lives Cass Seltzer, a young professor launched into academic fame by the unexpected popularity of his book on the psychology of religion. His book has dismantled 36 famous arguments that have commonly been put forward to prove God’s existence. These include the Cosmological Argument (God must exist because everything that exists must have a cause), the Argument from Design (beautifully designed things must have a designer), and the Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws (the laws of nature are intrinsically beautiful). Cass pens his masterful counterarguments (which Goldstein includes as an appendix to her novel) only to demonstrate that the “most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience.” Because of his insistence on the genuineness of the spiritual impulse, the media have dubbed him “the atheist with a soul.”
For all his newfound success, Cass is ill-fated in love. His first wife, a poet who captured him with her words, becomes wordless from a stroke and finally leaves him. His current partner, Lucinda, is an expert in game theory who views relationships as she does economics. For her, everything is a zero-sum game: when one gains, another loses. Cass is victim to women who possess “savage certainty.”
Beyond the women in his life, his deepest admiration is reserved for his thesis adviser, Jonas Elijah Klapper, a fleshy and egomaniacal professor whose capacious mind absorbs everything in the academic canon and beyond. His genius is matched only by his pomposity; his deprecation by others is counterbalanced by Cass’s fathomless esteem.
We also meet a six-year-old mathematical genius, Azarya, the long-haired heir to the Hasidic rabbinate. He is born as one who already knows the world, understanding prime numbers before he ever learns the name for them (he calls them angels, because that’s all his parochial vocabulary permits). A few readers may find Azarya’s mathematical acrobatics a little incongruous in a book of fiction, but the author would presumably assert that this is the nature of the modern world: there is no reason novels should respect traditional subject matter boundaries.
Via these characters — especially Professor Klapper — Cass rides through a landscape of great thoughts and great thinkers, with chapters alternating between his preparations as a young graduate student and his lift-off as a high-profile professor. With Goldstein’s vast knowledge animating her characters’ discussions, we find ourselves on a whistle-stop tour though baroque and fascinating niches of human knowledge, from poetry and philosophy to religion and science.
The story is firmly rooted in the customs of American academia, and Goldstein’s readers play the part of anthropologists studying this illustrious but bizarre culture. Even more specifically, Cass’s world is a very Jewish academia in which the colorful details of gastronomy, name change, scholarly achievement, rabbinic ancestry, and ornate traditions provide a rich palette.
Love, loss, and ambition keep the plot moving at a good clip, but the story is really about the characters’ inner lives. As in Goldstein’s previous books, characters wrestle with questions of ethics and faith. The theme of messianism runs strongly through the book, and the subject attracts the brilliant Klapper, who points out that “for the Hasid [a messianic sect of orthodox Judaism], the ordinary is already brimming with the extraordinary.” And this is what we take away from Goldstein’s writing: a magnification of the beauty in the details. She turns her focus on the ordinary and brings millennia of philosophy to light it up. As Cass would put it, this is the religious experience outside the traditional house of worship.
To my mind, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is both post-religion and post-atheism. Goldstein is not impressed by dogma from either side but instead explores the world of meaning in the middle, balancing her work between the scientism of the ivory tower and the numinous experience of the pearly gates. She uses literature to battle savage certainty.
One enjoyable aspect of this book is its stylistic freedom: scattered through the text one finds prime number triangles, stretches of Hebrew, and rational-actor matrices; some chapters consist of nothing but short email conversations, as tight as poetry. This liberty of design provides a canvas of the modern age, in which letters and numbers and game theory and electronic missives live side by side in the background vocabulary.
Goldstein majored in philosophy – as an undergraduate and then as a Ph.D. candidate — and went on to teach the philosophies of science, mind, and psychology. The breadth and depth of her knowledge are obvious in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God; she flexes all her muscles to construct a rich matrix of ideas, spanning the history of Jewish orthodoxy, Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” primitive Amazonians, and Qabalistic opinions on potato kugel. When Goldstein won a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship in 1996, the granting committee wrote that “her novels and short stories dramatize the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling.” And that is as true in this book as it is in her others, which have covered the spectrum from fiction (The Mind-Body Problem, The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind, The Dark Sister, Strange Attractors, Mazel, Properties of Light) to philosophy (Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel and Betraying Spinoza). Goldstein has said that she believes literary fiction to be “remarkably suited” to grappling with the problems of objective truth and subjective needs: philosophy and science do not have a lock on these questions.
This is her finest fiction yet, celebrating her uncommon ability to marry rigorous scientific thought to the philosophy of what matters. She’s a connoisseur of the sciences, but she also campaigns for what lies beyond their ken: questions of humanity, humility, faith, admiration, lunacy, and love. She exploits the structure of the novel for a multi-pronged approach to knowing the world. Often humorous, sometimes heavy, always enlightening, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a book of astonishing scope and beauty, one in which the brilliant Goldstein takes us on a journey that is as emotionally satisfying as it is intellectually expansive.