Book review: '36 Arguments for the Existence of God' by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; C04


A Work of Fiction

By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Pantheon. 402 pp. $27.95


Are you a person of faith offended by claims that your savior is just another fanciful invention, like an elf or a unicorn? Or are you an atheist singed by predictions that you'll burn in hell?

Or are you just weary of this shrill, fruitless debate that surely hasn't changed a single mortal soul?

Well, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters!" Amid the multitude of bestselling books by atheists and apologists preaching to their respective choirs, here finally is an answer to prayer and reason: a brainy, compassionate, divinely witty novel by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein called "36 Arguments for the Existence of God." A Princeton-trained philosopher and a MacArthur "genius," Goldstein can make Spinoza sing and Gödel comprehensible, and in her cerebral fiction she dances across disciplines with delight, writing domestic comedy about Cartesian metaphysics and academic satire about photoelectric energy. "36 Arguments" radiates all the humor and erudition we've come to expect from Goldstein, and despite the novel's attention to the oldest questions, it has arrived at exactly the right moment, descending like a deus ex machina into our futile hissing match about the reality of God.

The story introduces us to the world's best-selling atheist, a psychologist who toiled away in the field of religious experience for two decades before Richard Dawkins and his legions made unbelief so hip, "edging out cookbooks and memoirs written by household pets." In the opening pages, Professor Cass Seltzer finds himself alarmed, almost terrified by the "indecent amount of attention" that has recently been lavished on him and his new book, "The Varieties of Religious Illusion." But it's not the body of Cass's book, it's the appendix -- added as an afterthought -- that has earned him millions of dollars and made him an international sensation. At the back of "The Varieties of Religious Illusion" (and at the back of this novel, too) can be found a list of 36 arguments for the existence of God, each calmly rebutted to illustrate that the success or failure of these arguments makes "little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience." The sense of spirituality persists, Cass claims, even if "The Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws" (No. 6) or "The Argument from Answered Prayers" (No. 9) or "The Argument from Sublimity" (No. 34) is demolished.

Leaving aside Sam Harris's condescension and Christopher Hitchens's pugilistic tone, Goldstein has created a kinder, gentler atheist. Cass, she tells us, is the perfect spokesman for "the most distrusted minority," and she weaves him right into the fabric of our contemporary debate. The New York Review of Books calls him William James for the 21st century. Time magazine immortalizes him as "the atheist with a soul." Handsome, congenial and impossibly naive about others' motives, he "has a fundamental niceness written all over him." Even the gods of Cambridge, Mass., have sent their blessings: a lavish job offer from Harvard University.

Contemplating his good fortune on a cold Boston night, "America's favorite atheist" feels "moved by powers beyond himself." In such a transcendent moment, how can he resist "the sense that the universe is personal, that there is something personal that grounds existence and order and value and purpose and meaning"?

Goldstein relishes the devilish irony of this epiphany, and in the odd story that develops, she explores the tumultuous spiritual and intellectual path that brought Cass here. Little happens in the novel's present-tense narrative -- for 300 pages Cass just waits for his brilliant girlfriend to return from a conference -- but a series of hilarious flashbacks takes us through his days as a wide-eyed graduate student. The field of academic satire is crowded with such classics as "Lucky Jim" and "Straight Man," but "36 Arguments" sports so many spot-on episodes of cerebral pomposity that you've got to place this novel among the very funniest ever written. I was constantly snorting at these outrageous characters, from Cass's lupine first wife, a French poet who repays all his devotion with disdain, to an anthropologist determined to live for 200 years.

But they're all overshadowed by the novel's pièce de résistance, Cass's adviser, Dr. Jonas Elijah Klapper, the sole member of the Department of Faith, Literature, and Values. Here is the oracular professor created to perfection: the grotesque love-child of Harold Bloom and Miss Jean Brodie. Dr. Klapper is a messianic poet-prophet who dazzles young Cass and leads him down a straight and narrow path to lunacy. He speaks all languages, moves himself to tears with his own "divine afflatus" and endures the world's ignorance with long-suffering patience. He is a man aware of "the loneliness of his loftiness, grown weary of the constant burden of delivering himself ex cathedra."

Like God's, Goldstein's ways are mysterious. The intellectual demands of "36 Arguments" are considerably magnified by the novel's convoluted structure and its inability to resist any tangential character or subject. These bright people banter about the philosophy of soul-making, mathematical models of game theory, the psychological benefits of suffering, the contemporary relevance of Maimonides, the poetry of Matthew Arnold. Much of this is parody of gassy intellectualism, but more of it is an exploration of the complexities of religious expression that will provoke and amuse anyone serious about the nature of faith.

Cass's search comes together in the novel's richest section, a comic and moving portrayal of a Hasidic community along the Hudson River. Inflamed -- or unhinged -- by the mysteries of the Kabbalah, Dr. Klapper grows obsessed with this secluded religious group and hopes to use Cass's familial connections to gain favor with its charismatic rebbe. Goldstein plunges into this esoteric material with finesse, explaining the intricacies of the Hasidic tradition while also satirizing its excesses and celebrating its intensity. Yes, the sect seems backward and dangerously anti-modern, a virtual prison for the rebbe's 6-year-old son, who shows signs of being a once-in-a-century mathematical genius. But Cass can't deny that the isolated Jewish community also offers its members a sense of imminent divinity, a kind of joy and communion that modern life rarely provides.

In the end, the novel's thesis seems awfully close to what Cass preaches: Whether or not God exists, in moments of transcendent happiness we all feel a love beyond ourselves, beyond anything. Goldstein doesn't want to shake your faith or confirm it, but she'll make you a believer in the power of fiction.

Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.


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