Posted by: Lizzie Ross | July 7, 2010

Religion and ethics 101

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (2010), Pantheon, 344 pp. + appendix

Argument #1 for the Existence of Time

This is a book you can’t read in one sitting. You have to give yourself time to meditate on the characters’ intertwining lives, on the book’s tripartite structure, on the author’s philosophical stance, and on your own arguments for the existence (or non-existence) of God. I can’t imagine anyone saying, upon finishing the book’s final page, “OK, that’s done. What next?”

In 36 chapters (mirroring the 36 arguments, which appear and are refuted in an extensive appendix), the book focuses on three periods in the life of Cass Seltzer, an academic whose area of expertise is the psychology of religion. One period is his early academic work with a charismatic mentor who leaves Columbia University to become the Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values at a tiny college in Boston. A second is the period when Cass nears the end of his academic apprenticeship to his mentor and meets the mathematically gifted son of a Hasidic sect’s Rebbe. A third is “now”, as he prepares for a smack-down debate with a University of Chicago professor: “Resolution: God exists.”

Throughout are brief forays into numbers theory, Qabala, morality and risk management (Cass’s “rational-actor matrix” to discover whether the payoff is high enough to risk being the first in a relationship to say “I love you” is one of the many high points).

You know Cass’s stance right from the start. He wants to save the world from bad (i.e., illogical) thinking:

Now [those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing have] all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on your watch. You ought to have sent up a balloon now and then to get a read on the prevailing cognitive conditions, the Thinks watching out for the Think-Nots. Now you’ve gone and let the stockpiling of fallacies reach dangerous levels, and the massed weapons of illogic are threatening the survivability of the globe.

Cass starts out absolutely secure in his beliefs, but finds them shaken by members of the Hasidic community of New Walden, and by his own experiences with love and life. Towards the end of the book, Cass considers how he is feeling, as the Hasidim celebrate the birth of their Rebbe’s first son:

… his Appendix was only an appendix, and that it has little to do with the text; and that the text is written not out there but in here, in the emotions that are so fundamental that we spread them onto a world of our imagining, or onto a world of our making, so that we end up beholding a world that is lavished with our own disgust at the uncleanliness that pollutes us, and with out yearning for a mythical purity that remains untouched, and with our vertiginous bafflement at the self that is inviolably me and here and now, and with our desperate and incomplete sense of the inviolable selves of the others that we need so crucially, and with our fear of all that’s unknown out there and that can hurt us, and with our suspicion that almost everything out there will turn out to be unknown and able to hurt us.

The breathlessness of this one sentence gives a sense of Cass’s own enlightenment coming after years of dogged loyalty to the ideal of logical thought. In the end, it still all comes down to emotion and self, to what makes our own lives comprehensible and meaningful — and fulfilled.

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