On Novels of Ideas: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

Michael Da Silva takes a pause from his account of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s list of the best novel of ideas to examine her most recent novel.

Reviewed in this essay: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Vintage Contemporaries, 2011 (1st ed. by Pantheon, 2010).

When psychology professor Cass Seltzer sat down to write his breakthrough text, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, “he’d had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.” The narrator’s description of his writing process seems almost mythical, fulfilling his mentor (famed literary theorist Jonas Elijah Klapper)’s suggestion that Cass Seltzer is among the “elect”. The finished product, however, undermined his mentor’s mysticism. When his refutation of 36 arguments for the existence of God was turned into the main text by an eager publisher, a bidding war ensued. Seltzer’s work went mainstream, earning him the title of “the atheist with a soul” and earning him an offer to move from fictional Frankfurter University to Harvard.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God reverses The Varieties of Religious Illusion structure again, beginning with 36 chapters telling the story of Seltzer’s graduate education, involvement in the life of a math prodigy groomed to lead a Hasidic community and eventual rise to academic prominence and ending with an appendix full of analytic proofs and refutations that could be the text of Seltzer’s own book but are not necessary for understanding or appreciating his story.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein received her PhD in philosophy before becoming a novelist. She is an accomplished philosopher and her novel The Mind-Body Problem is considered one of the better contemporary novels of ideas. Her latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, begins with Seltzer’s offer and then switches back and forth between past and present in order to show how his life experiences influenced his breakthrough text. With chapter titles like “The Argument from Lucinda” sharing space with “The Argument from Cosmic Tremblings”, it is clear that Goldstein is interested in how ideas play out in real life and how we experience them emotionally.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God has a few faults common to recent entries in the novels of ideas genre, but it is nonetheless a worthwhile read that meets its aims. Given that this posting is focused on novels of ideas, I will focus only on the narrative portions of the text here. In short, Goldstein can be a tad programmatic with her aims. When Seltzer’s ex-girlfriend Roz remarks on the personal nature of The Varieties of Religious Illusion, her comment is rather on the nose: “Every one of us is in it, in a way. Klapper and Azarya and Gideon and me. You’ve worked us all into what everybody thinks is a psychologist’s learned discussion of religion.” Further, her decision to focus on verbose academics leads to some wordy discussions of ideas that make their origin stories seem too clearly illustrative (and leads one to wonder if certain characters are veiled real life academic stars). While this transparency can make the “ideas” outweigh the “novel” at times, her story is a compelling one full of interesting details. Indeed, her knowledge of the academy also works in her favour and provides her ample resources to satirize academic pretense (embodied in the form of the reclusive Klapper) and her academic research into Hasidic culture unearthed knowledge of trends that add colour to the story.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God often works as a novel. Seltzer’s relationships are intriguing and Goldstein’s account of a young graduate student out of his depth in a new field is full of funny moments. I particularly like when Selzter is told to meet at The View from Nowhere and spends a whole night reading (Goldstein’s thesis supervisor) Thomas Nagel to unwrap the riddle only to find out that it is the name of a local bar.

I can recommend this book as an easy entry into contemporary novels of ideas.