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36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – February 1, 2011
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From the author of The Mind-Body Problem: a witty and intoxicating novel of ideas that plunges into the great debate between faith and reason.
At the center is Cass Seltzer, a professor of psychology whose book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, has become a surprise best seller. Dubbed “the atheist with a soul,” he wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaumâ“the goddess of game theory.” But he is haunted by reminders of two people who ignited his passion to understand religion: his teacher Jonas Elijah Klapper, a renowned literary scholar with a suspicious obsession with messianism, and an angelic six-year-old mathematical genius, heir to the leadership of an exotic Hasidic sect.
Hilarious, heartbreaking, and intellectually captivating, 36 Arguments explores the rapture and torments of religious experience in all its variety.
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Much of the heat and light of “36 Arguments” is generated in the context of intense Judaism; this is Goldman’s background and clearly a source of her fascination with faith, logic and the big questions. Had the book been written by a Methodist, Catholic or Muslim philosopher of Goldman’s depth and analytic bent, no matter: what’s at issue is whether a singular deity exists, not which team he plays on. The drama of Goldman’s characters is a search for meaning in life; their Jewishness is exquisite set dressing.
Most arguments about the existence of God devolve quickly into, “Faith transcends logic. End of discussion.” Atheists/agnostics fortunate enough to find themselves in a deeper debate, with more than knee-jerk dogmatism on the table, will come well-armed for having read “36 Arguments.” Believers who, having been subjected to the 36 Arguments, retain their faith, have indeed survived a test by fire.
Goldman, her characters, their voyage through doubt and conflict, reveal that there is more logic in religious belief than meets the eye.
P.P.S. Readers who prefer a more accessible reflection on these headachy matters can turn to Raymond Chandler’s excellent last novel, “Playback,” wherein Philip Marlowe opines with his inimitable brand of cynicism: “If God were omnipotent and omniscient in any literal sense, he wouldn’t have bothered to make the universe at all.”
End of discussion.
With regard to the debate between theism versus atheism, the book introduces some arguments and explanations that are new to me. It does this explicitly and by way of parable through the story itself. "36 Arguments" is a breeze to read, includes moments of something like transcendence, and leaves you with alot to ponder.
What is surprising in this so readable a novel, dealing, as it does, with as weighty a subject as God, is how funny it is. Goldstein could write lines for Woody Allen and no reader of "36 Arguments" will fail of laugh out loud at several places, and silently chuckle or smile at many more. My favorite hysterical chapter was Professor Klapper's dissertation on the religious and spiritual properties of potato kugel (pudding).
In order to enjoy this book, it is not necessary for the reader to think too much about atheism, agnosticism or belief, but if one wants to do so, there is plenty of material to assist the thinking process. Chief among them is the public debate about the existence of God, that two of the characters engage in at Harvard, which is both illuminating and dramatic. The appendix, which contains the 36 arguments for the existence of God and possible flaws in each argument, is nothing short of brilliant. As to where Goldstein comes down on this, one can only guess that, if anything, she sides with Spinoza (argument #35), and I note that she has written a well-received non-fiction book entitled "Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity," which I am now going to read.
Like many worthwhile books, "36 Arguments" can be read on many levels. Although it has prompted my thinking and desire to read further about the arguments both for and against the existence of God, this book was an entertaining ride through some very difficult minefields of thought.