'36 Arguments' Poses Questions Of Faith, In Fiction
'36 Arguments' Poses Questions Of Faith, In Fiction
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Hardcover, 416 pages
List price: $27.95
The new year began for me badly — with a thick head cold and one of those artfully written novels that start off with a lot of beguiling razmatazz and turn out to be about nothing. The novel in question, The Privileges, chronicles 20 years in the life of a golden couple who never lose their luster. Other critics have rightly enthused over the novel's evocation of the world of the New York mega-rich, but I found myself growing crankier with every passing chapter in which very little of substance happened. By frustrating narrative expectations, The Privileges certainly makes readers conscious of the cliched plot lines we carry around in our heads, but my poor head was too congested for games. I wanted a dose of diverting plot, and interesting characters, and a point, along with my Nyquil.
That's just when Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel appeared like an answer to a fevered prayer. Ever since her 1983 debut, The Mind-Body Problem, Goldstein has marked out a singular space for herself in the world of contemporary fiction. A philosopher by training, (she holds a Ph.D. from Princeton), Goldstein writes about what happens when worlds collide: the realms of the ethereal vs. the everyday; of erudition vs. gut instinct; of ration vs. lust. Her novels tackle the Big Questions of Life and unapologetically reference philosophers like Spinoza and William James. Best of all, Goldstein gets away with this high-hatting because she's so funny and she knows how to tell an engrossing story. When you have as much gleeful gravitas as Goldstein, you don't have to find quirky ways to show off.
This latest novel is called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God and the arguments of the title are really listed — along with their refutations — in the Appendix of this book. Our hero here is named Cass Seltzer and, like many of Goldstein's characters, he's a Jewish academic, in this case, a learned psychologist of religion. But, Cass has lately become a crossover success because of his surprise bestseller entitled, The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Dubbed "the atheist with a soul," Cass has attracted the notice of Oprah, Time Magazine, even NPR with his compassionate and timely tackling of the existential jackpot question: "Does God exist?" Thanks to the efforts of his canny literary agent, a shark who boasts that he knows how to put "the 'antic' back in 'pedantic' and the 'earning' back in 'learning,'" Cass is now that rarest of animals: a wealthy public intellectual. His success is tempered, however, by the return of an old girlfriend who, strangely, calls to congratulate him on writing such a profoundly autobiographical book.
Taken aback, Cass realizes that he's indeed still replaying the life-shredding events that took place some 20 years ago, when he was a graduate student. Back then, he was under the charismatic sway of a sage — or maybe a madman — named Jonas Elijah Klapper, a literature professor who composed the entire department of Faith, Literature, and Values at the fictitious Frankfurter University. As Klapper became swept up in the study of Kabbalah and the secluded life of a nearby Hasidic sect, Cass tried to airlift a young boy out of that community — a boy who was clearly a mathematical genius, slated to have his gifts ignored because of the worldly suspicions of religious orthodoxy. Of course, Cass would still be haunted by that tumultuous time and by the larger questions about identity, loyalty and belief that still linger.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God ends with a suspenseful set piece in which Cass debates another famous academic on the proposition that "God exists." The brilliance of Goldstein's satirical, yet affecting narrative is that even as Cass, in the midst of the debate, finds himself drawn to his cutthroat opponent's religious point of view, there's enough secular ammunition left in these pages to garner the endorsement of uber-atheist Christopher Hitchens, who blurbed this book. Part academic farce, part metaphysical romance, all novel of ideas, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God may not settle the question of whether God exists but it does affirm the phenomenon of literary miracles.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God
A Work of Fiction
Hardcover, 402 pages |purchase
Excerpt: '36 Arguments For The Existence Of God'
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Hardcover, 416 pages
List price: $27.95
I: The Argument from the Improbable Self
Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.
Call it the world.
The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues that they had thought had settled forever beneath the earth's crust. The more sophisticated they are, the more annotated their mental life, the more taken aback they're likely to feel, seeing what the world's lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires they had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.
What is this stuff, they ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and all but forgotten.
Now it's 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 their watch. They 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 they've gone and let the stockpiling of fallacies reach dangerous levels, and the massed weapons of illogic are threatening the survivability of the globe.
None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That's what he's thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen Charles and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He's thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers. He's thinking zealots proliferate and Seltzer prospers.
It's four AM, and Cass Seltzer is standing on Weeks Bridge, the graceful arc that spans the Charles River near Harvard University, staring down at the river below, which is in the rigor mortis of late February in New England. The whole vista is deserted beyond vacancy, deserted in the way of being inhospitable to human life. There's not a car passing on Memorial Drive, and the elegant river dorms are darkened to silent hulks, the most hyper-kinetic of undergraduates sedated to purring girls and boys.
It's not like Cass Seltzer to be out in the middle of an icy night, lost in thought while losing sensation in his extremities. Excitement had gotten the better of him. He had lain in his empty bed for hours, mind racing, until he gave up and crawled out from under the luxe comforter that his girlfriend Lucinda Mandelbaum had brought with her when she moved in with him nineteen weeks ago. This comforter has pockets for the hands and feet and a softness that's the result of impregnation with aloe vera. As a man, Cass had been skeptical, but he's become a begrudging believer in Lucinda's comforter, and in her Tempur-Pedic pillow, too, suffused with the fragrance of her coconut shampoo, making it all the more remarkable that he'd forsake his bed for this no-man's stretch of frigid night.
Rummaging in the front closet for some extra protection, he had pulled out, with a slight smile, a long-forgotten item, the tri-color scarf that his ex-wife Pascale had learned to knit for him during the four months when she was recovering from aphasia, four months that had produced, among other shockers, an excessively long French flag of a wool scarf, which he wound seven and a half times around his neck before heading out into the dark to deal with the rush in his head.
Lucinda's away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that's presently crystallizing into ice. She's in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on "Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games." Among these equilibria is one that's called the "Mandelbaum Equilibrium," and it's Cass's ambition to have the Mandelbaum Equilibrium mastered by the time he picks her up from the airport Friday night.
Technically, Lucinda's a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He's so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience — a bloated category on anyone's account, but especially on Cass's, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.
For close to two decades Cass Seltzer has all but owned the psychology of religion, but only because nobody else wanted it, not anyone with the smarts to do academic research in psychology and the ambition to follow through. It had been impossible to get grants, and the prestigious journals would return his manuscripts without sending them out for peer review. The undergraduates crowded his courses, but that counted, if anything, as a strike against him in his department. The graduate students stayed away in droves. The sexy psychological research was all neural network modeling and cognitive neuroscience. The mind is a neural computer and the folks with the algorithms ruled.
But now things had happened — fundamental and fundamentalist things — and religion as a phenomenon is on everybody's mind. And among all the changes that religion's new towering profile has wrought in the world, which are mostly alarming if not downright terrifying, is the transformation in the life of one Cass Seltzer.
First had come the book, which he had entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud's The Future of An Illusion. The book had brought Cass an indecent amount of attention. Time Magazine, in a cover story on the so-called new atheists, had singled him out as the only one among them who seems to have any idea of what it feels like to be a believer — "to write of religious illusions from the standpoint of the regretfully disillusioned" — and had ended by dubbing him "the atheist with a soul." When the magazine came out, Cass's literary agent, Sy Auerbach, called to congratulate him. "Now that you're famous, even I might have to take you seriously."
Next had come the girl, although that designation hardly does justice to the situation, not when the situation stands for the likes of Lucinda Mandelbaum, known in her world as "the Goddess of Game Theory." Lucinda is, pure and simple, a wondrous creature, with adoration her due and Cass's avocation.
And now, only today, as if his cup weren't already gushing over, had come a letter from Harvard, laying out its intention of luring him away from Frankfurter University, where Cass has spent the last two decades, having first arrived as a graduate student in order to study under the legendary Jonas Elijah Klapper, the larger-than-life figure who had been Cass's mentor and Cass's tormentor.
After all that has happened to Cass over the course of this past year, he's surprised at the degree of awed elation he feels at the letter bearing the insignia of Veritas. But he's an academic, his sense of success and failure ultimately determined by the academy's utilities (to use the language of Lucinda's science), and Harvard counts as the maximum utility. Cass has the letter on him right now, zippered into an inside pocket of his parka, insulating him against the cold.
It will be a treat to tell Lucinda about Harvard's offer. He can see the celebratory clinking of flutes, her head thrown back in that way she has, exposing the sweet vulnerability of her throat, and that's why he's decided to wait out the week until she comes home to tell her. There's no one in all the world in a better position than she to appreciate what this offer means to Cass, and no one who will exult more for him. Lucinda herself has known such dazzling success, from the very beginning of her career, and she has taught him never to make apologies for ambition. Ambition doesn't have to be small and self-regarding. It can be a way of glorying in existence, of sharing oneself with the world and its offerings, of stretching oneself just as wide to the full spread of its possibilities as one can go. That's how Lucinda goes about her life.
It's one AM now for Lucinda. She's taken the little amber bottle of Ambien with her — he'd checked their medicine cabinet round about two AM — so she's down for seven-and-a-half hours. She'll be sleeping in T-shirt and shorts, her muscled legs — Lucinda competes in tri-athlons — probably already having fought their way clear of the bedclothes. Lucinda begins each night neatly tucked within her comforter, carefully placing her cold feet in the pockets, but no sooner is she asleep then the long struggle for freedom begins, and her legs are nightly manumitted.
For nineteen weeks now Cass has had the privilege of acquiring this intimacy of information regarding Lucinda Mandelbaum: her rituals of brushing and flossing and exfoliating and lotioning; the fact that she gets hiccoughs if she eats hard-boiled eggs too quickly and that her cold hands and feet are the result of Raynaud's Syndrome; that she had spent her junior year of college at Oxford and had acquired a taste for certain British products that she orders from a website called British Delights; that as a girl she had wanted to be either a concert pianist or Nancy Drew; that she sometimes makes a whole dinner of Sticky Toffee Pudding, is mildly libertarian in her politics, and gasps always with the same sound of astonishment in lovemaking.
How is it that Cass Seltzer is intimate with the texture of Lucinda Mandelbaum's life? His election — in that old crazy Calvinist sense, about which Cass knows more than a little — is undeserved and absolute.
Suspended here above the ice-stilled Charles, he pictures Lucinda asleep, her mouth slightly open and her delicate eyelids fluttering in dreams — oh, make them happy!
She usually falls asleep before him, and the sight of her sleeping always wrenches his heart. All that mental power temporally suspended, her lashes reclining on the delicate curve of her high cheekbone, her fluffy ash blonde hair released from its daytime restraints and spread fragrant and soft on her Tempur-Pedic pillow. He sees the little girl she must have been. He sees the phantom child yet to be, materializing before his mind with her mother's incandescent skin and hair, her gray eyes outlined in blue and lit with points of fierce intelligence. Watching Lucinda sleeping or absentmindedly playing with a strand of hair while she scratches out the esoteric symbols of her science; leaving his front gate, with its sign left over from the previous owners: Please close the gate, remember our children: the force of the fantasy catches him off-guard.
Nobody out there is keeping the books, of course, but maybe he's earned the right to such happiness? Maybe the years he'd given up to mourning Pascale have paid out a retributive dividend? No. He knows better than to believe in such hocus-pocus, nothing else but more spilled religion.
Pascale's absurd scarf mummying him up to his rimless glasses, he hadn't thought much about where he would go at this hour and had headed straight for Harvard Square and then down to the river, and then up onto Weeks Bridge, dead center, which seems to be the spot that he'd been seeking.
The night is so cold that everything seems to have been stripped bare of superfluous existence, reduced to the purity of abstraction. Cass has the distinct impression that he can see better in the sharpened air, that the cold is counteracting the near-sightedness that has had him wearing glasses since he was twelve. He takes them off and, of course, can't see a thing, can barely see past the nimbus phantom of his own breath.
But then he stares harder and it seems that he can see better, that the world has slid into sharper focus. It's only now, with his glasses off, that he catches sight of the spectacle that the extreme cold has created in the river below, frozen solid except where it quickens through the three graceful arches of the bridge's substructure, creating an effect that could reasonably be called sublime, and in the Kantian sense: not cozily beautiful, but touched by a metaphysical chill.
Standing dead center on Weeks Bridge, in the dead of winter in the dead of night, staring down at the three enormous arches sublimely carved into the Charles, suggesting a cathedral shaped into the ice, Cass is contemplating the strange thing that his life has become.
To him. His life has become strange to him. He feels like he's wearing somebody else's coat, grabbed in a hurry from the bed in the spare bedroom after a boozy party. He's walking around in someone else's bespoke cashmere while that guy's got Cass's hooded parka, and only Cass seems to have noticed the switch.
What has happened is that Cass Seltzer has become an intellectual celebrity. He's become famous for his abstract ideas. And not just any old abstract ideas, but atheist abstract ideas, which makes him, according to some of the latest polls, a spokesperson for the most distrusted minority in America, the one that most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.
This is a fact. Studies have found that a large proportion of Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays, and Communists, as "sharing their vision of American society." Atheists, the researchers reported, seem to be playing the pariah role once assigned to Catholics, Jews, Communists and homosexuals, seen as harboring alien and subversive values, or, more likely, as having no inner values at all, and therefore likely to be criminals, rapists and wild-eyed drug addicts.
"As if," as Cass often finds himself saying into microphones, "the only reason to live morally is out of fear of getting caught and being spanked by the heavenly father."
Cass Seltzer has become the unlikely poster boy for this misunderstood group. His is a good face for counteracting the fallacy of equating godlessness with vice. Handsome, but not in a way to make the squeamish consider indeterminate sexual orientations, Cass's fundamental niceness is written all over him. He's got a strong jaw, a high ovoid forehead from which his floppy auburn hair is only just slightly receding, and the sweetest, most earnest smile this side of Oral Roberts University. Is this a man who could possibly go out and commit murder and mayhem, rape our virgin daughters and shoot controlled substances into his veins?
His life has been largely commandeered not only by Sy Auerbach, the literary-agent-cum- cultural impresario who represents him, but by a speakers' agent, publicists, media escorts and other attendants who a year ago were as alien to him as atheists remain (despite Cass's best efforts) to the majority of Americans.
No wonder then that Cass undergoes moments when he feels like he's lost the feel of his own life, its narrative continuity, the very essence of which was insignificance and an obscure yearning in many directions. The loss hardly matters, since he likes this new narrative so much better, likes it too much to own it fully as his own.
For the most part fame is agreeable to Cass. For one thing, people treat him more nicely. It's a revelation to learn what a nice bunch of upright mammals we're capable of being. Everybody happily, gratefully, applies the Golden Rule when it comes to interacting with the famous. Thou must treat the famous as thou wouldst wish to be treated thyself. Easy! If only everybody could be famous, we would all be effortlessly altruistic.
Of course, notoriety presents its own challenges. Last week, a girl had shown up after one of his lectures, with a copy of his book and asked him if he "signed body parts." Before he could find his voice or gain control over the blush spreading beyond his high hairline, she rolled up her sweater and offered him the heartbreaking baby innocence of her tender inner arm. Not knowing what else to do, wishing the present moment to become the past as quickly as possible, he had mutilated the butterfly softness in the tiniest spider scrawl he could manage.
"It must be that Seltzer boyishness I keep reading about," Auerbach had laughed when Cass had told him about it, wanting his reassurance that this sort of thing was within the bounds of the normal, that it didn't transgress an academic's sacred trust to the impressionable young. "Stop worrying and start enjoying. Anyway, why isn't it a good thing if a guy like Cass Seltzer becomes a cult figure? Why not you rather than a scientologist moron like Tom Cruise? Think about it, Seltzer."
Cass is still thinking.
This boyishness of Cass's: Before this year that quality listed awkwardly in the direction of a handicap, socially and professionally, not to speak of romantically. Not that there had been any romances to speak of during that long cold February of the soul that had arced from the day four years ago when Pascale regained her speech and announced the end of their marriage until that day seventeen-and-a-half months ago when Lucinda Mandelbaum had sat down next to him at the first Friday afternoon Psychology Outside Speaker lecture of the new fall semester. But now, under the transfiguration of his fame, even his boyishness has become charmed. He's no boy (forty-two), but he has got boyish looks and boyish ways, of which he used to be boyishly unaware, until he read himself described as "boyish" in several newspapers, magazines, and blogs too many. So now when he goes bounding across some stage, his reddish, silky hair flapping a bit round his ears in time with his eager strides, somewhere in the recesses of his mind he knows that this is boyish, and that this is good.
He knows now, too, from the profiles, that though he's a tall and lanky man — well, of course, that he knew — he carries himself as if he weren't, as if, as one of the features had put it, "he's almost apologetic to be taking up so much vertical space." It's actually less embarrassing to read these personal descriptions of himself than he would have imagined. It's hard to take the person featured in these articles seriously as the Cass Seltzer that he's known all his life.
Cass is still trying to assimilate the fact that his book has become an international sensation, translated into twenty-seven languages, including Latvian. He understands that it's not just a matter of what he's written — as much as he'd like to believe it is — but also a matter of the rare intersection of the preoccupations of his lifetime with the turmoil of the age. When Cass, in all the safety of his obscurity, set about writing a book that would explain how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience — so irrelevant that the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost; and when he had also, almost as an afterthought, included as an Appendix thirty-six arguments for the existence of God, with rebuttals, his claim being that the most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience, he'd had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.
He would never have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes — he certainly doesn't — but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It's the Appendix that's pushed him into the role of atheism's spokesperson, a literary after-thought that has re-made his life.
Early tomorrow morning, he will meet with Shimmy Baumzer, the president of Frankfurter University, who will affect his I'm-just-a-hick-from-a-kibbutz demeanor, the better to cover up just how masterful an operator he is.
"What do I have to offer you to keep you from deserting us for those shmendriks up the river?" Cass knows that Baumzer will say to him because that's what he had said to Cass's former colleague, Marty Huffer, now at Harvard, three years ago, when Huffer's research on the psychology of happiness had hit the big time in a book that a mainstream publisher had brought out to a sizable audience and that had been Huffer's ticket out of Frankfurter.
It was Huffer's editor to whom Cass had originally sent the manuscript of The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Cass knew his name from Huffer's endless regaling of his former colleagues with tales from the life now lived far above their heads. The editor had called six weeks after Cass had sent the manuscript to him, just at the point when Cass was considering which university press to send it to next, and had invited him to lunch in New York. Over poitrine de veau, he had allowed that Cass's approach was interesting, "especially the Appendix. I liked it. It's more provocative than the rest of the book. I don't suppose you could switch it around and make the Appendix the book and the book the Appendix, could you?" While Cass was still gaping, the editor had named his figure.
"This is the absolute upper limit of what I can offer," he had said, the slightest seizure distorting his upper lip.
Going back on the Acela Express — this was the first time Cass had ever taken the expensive high-speed train rather than the slower regional or, more often, the Chinatown bus, which makes the run from New York's Chinatown to Boston's for fifteen dollars and only very occasionally catches fire — the fumes of his euphoria making him so giddy that he had laughed aloud twice and sufficiently startled the starchy lady next to him so that she had changed places well before she detrained at New Haven, Cass had suddenly thought back to the editor's oddly defensive words and the equally odd look on his face while he had said them, a suppressed smile of some sort making merry with his upper lip.
René Descartes identified the seat of the soul as the pineal gland, but in Cass's experience it's the upper lip that reflects the true state of the soul, giving accurate tells on the self-regarding emotions. Self-doubt and self-satisfaction will both betray themselves there. And if there is an egotist lurking within, the upper lip is the place that will give him away.
Flashed by the backside of New London, Connecticut, Cass thought back to the editor's self-congratulatory upper lip and felt the touch of a misgiving tugging at the edge of his elation. Back in Cambridge, he called Marty Huffer, asking him what he thought of the offer. Ninety seconds after he had hung up with Huffer, Cass's phone had rung, with Huffer's agent, Sy Auerbach, on the line.
"You can't possibly accept a contract for a book like that without representation," Auerbach had informed — or flattered or rebuked — him.
"But I already all but said yes to him," Cass tried to explain. "I think I may have verbally committed myself to him."
"No such thing. From now on, I'm the one he deals with. I'm your representative. Do you get it?"
"I'm not entirely sure."
"Well, here's something that might help you process. If I can't get you more than that offer then I'll forgo my commission."
"But he was so nice to me.
The agent laughed, a mirthless noise.
"What did he do that was so nice?"
"Well, for one thing, he took me out to an expensive restaurant."
The agent laughed again.
"Listen, if you let that junket to Balthazar persuade you to accept that offer, then that will be the most expensive lunch you've ever had. That lunch will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Auerbach had held an auction for The Varieties of Religious Illusion, and not only had the Balthazar editor made a bid five times his "absolute upper limit," but he had been roundly outbid.
Cass has certainly had his moments of doubt about his agent, wondering whether beneath the cynical exterior there was an even more cynical interior. Is he showman or shaman? A little of both, Cass has come to think, but a force for good for all that. Sy Auerbach has an agenda that goes beyond putting the "antic" back in "pedantic" and the "earning" back in "learning." His idea is that the time has come for a different kind of public intellectual. The old-time intellectuals, who were mostly scientifically illiterate, not knowing their asses from their amygdalas, have been rendered worse than dead; they've been rendered irrelevant by the scientists and techno-innovators, who are the only ones now offering ideas with the power and sweep to change the culture at large.
Auerbach harbors such impatience for the glib literati — the "gliberati," as one of his own digerati had christened them — that Cass has wondered whether there might not be some personal history. In particular, Cass has wondered whether Auerbach might not have known Jonas Elijah Klapper, the man of letters who had once reigned unopposed over vast stretches of the humanities, including Cass Seltzer's. Certainly, Auerbach must have known of Klapper. There was a time when Jonas Elijah Klapper had been revered by scholars the world over — with the notable exception of the British, whom Klapper had been forced to despise en masse, observing that "they seem to have lost, with their empire, the possibility of understanding me." The only thing that Klapper, born on the Lower East Side, must have admired about the English was their accent, since he had successfully acquired it. When SyAuerbach describes the kind of thinker he detests, obscure references rendered in dead languages falling from their lips like flecks of food off a messy eater, it always sounds to Cass like he's holding Frankfurter's former Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature, and Values up to his mind's eye and picking off his attributes one by one.
For months Auerbach had only existed as a disembodied voice on the phone, always answering the "hello" with the announcement, "Auerbach." The image that the voice had conjured had been surprisingly on the mark, as Cass learned when he finally met the man at a packed reading Cass had given at the 92nd Street Y. This was fourteen months after Auerbach had held the auction for Illusion that would make an unlikely millionaire and celebrity out of Cass Seltzer. Auerbach is a large and showily handsome man, with a petulant mouth and fine white hair, looking like milkweed that has burst its pod. He wore a dramatic white fedora and a flashy white suit. It was early summer and hot, but he looked the sort who might easily don a billowing Victorian cape when the weather turned cooler, and brandish a silver-tipped walking stick.
Auerbach, with his uncanny nose for intellectual property, hadn't hesitated in accepting Cass as a client, unconcerned that there was already a glut of godlessness on the market. Atheist books were selling well, sometimes edging out cookbooks and memoirs written by household pets to rise to the top of the bestseller list. Cass is fairly certain his agent has never read his book, but perhaps he, too, had sensed that Cass was an atheist with a difference.
The atheist with a soul. Cass always smiles at the absurdity of the phrase. But which is the more absurd element, he wonders. The truth is — and what's the good of a man contemplating an inhumanly frozen world at four AM if no truth-telling ensues? — that Cass is somewhat at a loss to account for what he has done. How to explain those Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God (see Appendix), all of them formally constructed in the preferred analytic style, premises parading with military precision and every shirking presupposition and sketchy implication forced out into the open and subjected to rigorous inspection?
Cass had started out with all the standard arguments for God's existence, the ones discussed in philosophy classes and textbooks: The Cosmological Argument (#1), The Ontological Argument (#2), The Argument from Design (#3A), the arguments from Miracles, Morality, and Mysticism (#'s 11, 16, and 22, respectively), Pascal's Wager (#31) , and William James's Argument from Pragmatism (#32). He had also analyzed the new batch of teleological arguments recently whipped up by the Intelligent Design crowd, to wit, The Argument from Irreducible Complexity (#3B), The Argument from the Paucity of Benign Mutations (# 3C), The Argument from The Original Replicator (#3D), The Argument from The Big Bang (#4), The Argument from the Fine-Tuning of the Physical Constants (#5), and The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness (#12). But then he had gone beyond these, too, attempting to polish up into genuine arguments those religious intuitions and emotions that are often powerfully evocative but too sub-syllogistic to be regarded as actual arguments. He had tried to capture under the net of analytic reason those fleeting shadows cast by unseen winged things darting through the thick foliage of the religious sensibility.
So Cass had formulated The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences (#7), appealing to such facts as these: that the diameter of the moon, as seen from the earth, is the same as the diameter of the sun, as seen from the earth, which is why we can have those spectacular eclipses when the corona of the sun is revealed in all its glory. He had formulated The Argument from Sublimity (#34), trying to capture the line of reasoning lurking behind, for example, the recent testament of one evangelical scientist who had felt his doubts falling away from him when he was hiking in the mountains and came upon a frozen waterfall — in fact a trinity of a frozen waterfall, with three parts to it. "At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief."
For the right observer, Cass supposed, the triptych cathedral etched out in the ice below might yield a similar epiphany.
Cass had named the twenty-eighth in his list "The Argument from Prodigious Genius", though privately he thinks of it as "The Argument from Azarya." The astonishment of beholding genius, especially when it shows up in child prodigies, is so profound that it can feel almost like violence, as if a behavioral firestorm has devastated the laws of psychology, leaving us with no principles for explaining what we're seeing and hearing. "It's as if these children come into the world knowing" are words that Cass had heard twenty years ago, inspired by a child who could see the numbers and thought that they were angels.
And then there's The Argument from the Improbable Self (#13), another one that engages Cass in a personal way. He had struggled to squeeze precision into the sense of paradox he knows too well, the flailing attempt to calm the inside-outside vertigo to which he's given, trying to construct something semi-coherent beneath that vertiginous step outside himself that would result from his staring too long at the improbable fact of his being identical with . . . himself.
If somebody hasn't experienced this particular kind of metaphysical seizure for himself, then it's hard to find the words to give a sense of what it's like. Cass had experienced it as a boy, lying in bed and thinking his way into the sense of the strangeness of being just this.
Cass had the lower bunk bed. Both he and Jesse, his younger brother, had wanted the higher bunk, but, as usual, Jesse had wanted what he wanted so much more than Cass had wanted it, with a fury of need that was exhausting just to watch, that Cass had let it go. Lying there awake on his lower bunk, Cass would think about being himself rather than being Jesse. There was Jesse, and here was Cass. But if someone were looking at the two of them, Jesse there, Cass here, how could that observer tell that he, Cass, was Cass here and not Jesse there? If it got switched on them, everything the same about them, the body and memories and sense of self and everything else, only now he was Jesse here and there was Cass there, how would anybody know? How would he know, how would Jesse? Maybe a switch had already happened, maybe it happened again and again, and how could anybody tell?
The longer he tried to get a fix on the fact of being Cass here, the more the whole idea of it just got away from him. If he tried long enough to grasp it, then he could get the fact of being Cass here to blank out of existence and then come dribbling weakly back in, like a fluorescent fixture flickering on and off toward death. He would get the sense of having been shot outside of himself, and now was someone who was regarding his being Cass Seltzer as something like his being in the sixth grade, just something about him that happened to be true. Who was that Other that he was who was regarding his being Cass Seltzer as if he didn't have to be Cass Seltzer? The sense of giddiness induced by these exercises could be a bit too overwhelming for a kid in a lower bunk bed.
It could be a bit overwhelming still.
"Here I am," Cass is saying, standing on Weeks Bridge and talking aloud into the night.
Cass knows he needs to tamp down his tendencies toward the transcendental. It isn't becoming in America's favorite atheist, who is, at this moment, Cass Seltzer, who is, somehow or other, just this here.
"Here I am."
How can it be that, of all things, one is this thing, so that one can say, astonishingly — in the right frame of mind, it is astonishing, with the metaphysical chill blowing in from afar — "here I am."
"Here I am."
When you didn't force yourself to think in formal reconstructions, when you didn't catch these moments of ravishments under the lens of premises and conclusions, when you didn't impale them and label them , like so many splayed butterflies, bleeding the transcendental glow right out of them, then . . . what?
It's even hard at a time like this to resist the shameful narcissistic appeal of reasonings like The Argument from Personal Coincidences (#8) and The Argument from Answered Prayers (#9) and The Argument from A Wonderful Life (#10). William James had rebuked the "scoundrel logic" that calculates divine provenance from one's own goody-bag of gains, and Cass couldn't agree more with the spirit of James, but here it is, his bulging goody bag, and call him a scoundrel for feeling personally grateful to the universe when, at this same moment that he is standing on Weeks Bridge and tossing hosannas out into the infinite universe, there are multitudes of others whose lives are painfully constricting with misfortunes that are just as arbitrary and undeserved as his own expansive good luck, but Cass Seltzer does feel grateful.
At moments like this could Cass altogether withstand the sense that — how hard to put it into words — the sense that the universe is personal, that there is something personal that grounds existence and order and value and purpose and meaning — and that the grandeur of that personal universe has somehow infiltrated and is expanding his own small person, bringing his littleness more in line with its grandeur, that the personal universe has been personally kind to him, gracious and forgiving, to Cass Seltzer, gratuitously, exorbitantly, divinely kind, and this despite Cass's having, with callowness and shallowness aforethought, thrown spitballs at the whole idea of cosmic intentionality?
No, no, that doesn't capture it either. Those words are far too narrowed by Cass's own particular life, when what it is he could feel, has felt, might even be feeling now, has nothing to do with the contents of Cass's existence, but rather with existence itself, Itself, this, This, THIS . . . what?
This expansion out into the world which is a kind of love, he supposes, a love for the whole of existence, that could so easily well up in Cass Seltzer at this moment, standing here in the pure abstractions of this night and contemplating the strange thisness of his life when viewed sub specie aeternitatus, that is to say from the vantage point of eternity which comes so highly recommended to us by Spinoza.
Here it is then: the sense that existence is just such a tremendous thing, one comes into it, astonishingly, here one is, formed by biology and history, genes and culture, in the midst of the contingency of the world, here one is, one doesn't know how, one doesn't know why, and suddenly one doesn't know where one is either or who or what one is either, and all that one knows is that one is a part of it, a considered and conscious part of it, generated and sustained in existence in ways one can hardly comprehend, all the time conscious of it, though, of existence, the fullness of it, the reaching expanse and pulsing intricacy of it, and one wants to live in a way that at least begins to do justice to it, one wants to expand one's reach of it as far as expansion is possible and even beyond that, to live one's life in a way commensurate with the privilege of being a part of and conscious of the whole reeling glorious infinite sweep, a sweep that includes, so improbably, a psychologist of religion named Cass Seltzer, who, moved by powers beyond himself, did something more improbable than all the improbabilities constituting his improbable existence could have entailed, did something that won him someone else's life, a better life, a more brilliant life, a life beyond all the ones he had wished for in the pounding obscurity of all his yearnings, because all of this, this, this, THIS couldn't belong to him, to the man who stands on Weeks Bridge, wrapped round in a scarf his once-beloved ex-wife Pascale had knit for him for some necessary reason that he would never know, perhaps to offer him some protection against the desolation she knew would soon be his, and was, but is no longer, suspended here above sublimity, his cheeks aflame with either euphoria or frostbite, a letter in his zippered pocket with the imprimatur of Veritas and a Lucinda Mandelbaum with whom to share it all.
From 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Copyright 2010 Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Reprinted by permission, Pantheon. All Rights Reserved.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God
A Work of Fiction
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