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Atypical (Dis)Believers

What does God have to do with it?

I was reading Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, $27.95) on a train; the man next to me, noticing the title, asked me if the book was “convincing me.” The answer, ultimately, is no — the book could just as easily (and perhaps more aptly) be called 36 Arguments Against the Existence of God. But like most good novels, despite its title (and all the arguments within it, and there are many), it’s not trying to make me pick a side.

I don’t know anything about Goldstein’s religious proclivities, but I suspect that she is, as her main character Cass Seltzer is labeled by Time magazine, “an atheist with a soul.” Seltzer is a professor of the psychology of religion and the author of a book called The Varieties of Religious Illusion. His book, intended to show “how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience,” sports an appendix (attached to the novel as well) of 36 arguments for God that Seltzer dismantles one by one, and has catapulted him into a position of fame that he does not quite know how to occupy. Seltzer’s success derives in part from being declared the only one of the “new atheists” (the crop of anti-God arguers appearing just after 9/11) who “seems to have any idea of what it feels like to be a believer.” And Goldstein, while she most closely inhabits Seltzer, also manages to describe a synagogue full of fervent Orthodox Jews with a depth of feeling that can only come from someone respectful (and observant) of what faith does for a life, a community, and our world.

The book jumps through time between two main story lines, one dealing with the present and one with the past, when Seltzer was in graduate school, studying with an eccentric mentor named Jonah Elijah Klapper. Klapper threatens to hijack the book, and never became a very believable character for me, but he does lead Cass into the world of a Hasidic community in upstate New York called New Walden, which is where some of the most luminous moments of the novel take place. There Cass encounters a child genius, Azarya Sheiner, the son of the community’s Rebbe, whose gifts bring him to have to decide whether to abandon his community in order to expand his mind, or sacrifice his gifts to remain with the people he loves. It was in Azarya’s struggle that the questions of faith seemed to me the most clear, relatable, and interesting, and the philosophy came most to life.

It is a rare novel that takes on issues this grand, this crucial, and this hard to describe. The power of Goldstein’s mind, while it may confound us at times, can really only be admired. In her very first chapter Cass Seltzer finds himself on a bridge overlooking the frozen Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the dead of winter and the middle of the night. In a beautiful meditation on sublimity and selfhood, Goldstein gets at what may be the most important question of all: “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’?”

Nellie Hermann is the author of the novel The Cure for Grief. She teaches writing at Barnard College and in the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia Medical School.