More than likely there will be many readers intimidated by the title alone of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God; I wouldn’t be surprised if it hadn’t been purposely chosen with intimidation in mind. This is not a novel for a reader fearful of ideas. There are philosophical discussions; there are theological debates. There are pages devoted to what some might consider esoteric mathematical theory. There are discussions of Jewish mysticism. But if you are undaunted by such considerations, this is after all a novel not a philosophical tract, and it is a novel that will have you laughing, it is a novel that will move you, a novel that will give an emotional as well as an intellectual workout.
The central figure in the book is Cass Seltzer, a professor who specializes in the psychology of religion. He teaches at Frankfurter University, a school located near Boston, which seems to have been suspiciously cloned from Brandeis. He has recently published a bestselling study of religious belief called “The Varieties of Religious Illusion,” and has become something of a poster boy for modern atheism, the popular press calling him, “the atheist with a soul.” Divorced from his first wife, a French poetess, he is living with a highly aggressive colleague, a star in her own right, whose expertise is in game theory. Although a non-observant Jew himself, Cass comes from a family which has belonged to an orthodox Chassidic sect.
Goldstein takes the reader back and forth between Seltzer’s successful present and his past. She shows how he became a disciple of a megalomaniacal literary scholar with an obsession with mystical religion, a bond from which he eventually has to break away, but not before — at his guru’s instigation — he renews his Chassidic connections. In the Chassidic community he meets the Grand Rabbi’s young six year old son, who he discovers is a mathematical prodigy, and who will eventually be forced to choose between his religious obligations — he is the inheritor of his father’s mantle, and the outside world. While the literary scholar is treated as a ridiculous figure in his pompous pedantry, the young boy is treated with compassion and understanding. Interestingly, the young man’s conflict, is similar to that described in Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, but with different results.
Like many other novels of academia, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is very hard on academics. With few exceptions they are self absorbed egomaniacs with little concern for anything other than their own reputations and perks. For them the university is not an ivory tower where they can escape from the world and pursue their studies; for them it is a stepping stone to something bigger and better, a Nobel Prize, a key note address, a bestseller and a spot on The Daily Show. For them the goal is to become an Extreme Distinguished Professor. Education is the least of their concerns. Indeed in this novel about a professor, one of the things we never see the central figure do is teach.
Goldstein’s writing is intellectually rich. She writes with equal assurance about the poetry of Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the mathematical ideas of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Euclid’s proof of the infinity of prime numbers, the theological ideas of William James and the teachings of the Jewish mystics. Not only does she write about them with clarity and understanding. She is an adept with the phrase. A literary agent goes beyond “putting the ‘antic’ back in ‘pedantic.’” After the breakup of his marriage Cass goes through “the long cold February of the soul.” His advisor had been his “mentor” and “tormentor.” His new love is famous as “the Goddess of Game Theory.” She writes with a wit that makes even the most complex ideas accessible to the attentive reader.
In an age when intellectuals tend to limit themselves to their special disciplines, it isn’t often that you come across a book that manages to move freely between fields of study — between mathematics and literature, science and mysticism, music and psychology. It is the genius of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God that it does so with style and ease. It is a book about pedantry that never seems pedantic. It is a book about reason, that still has a place for mystical faith. It is a book about faith that recognizes the importance of reason. It is a remarkable book. It is a book to savor.