A few years ago, I found myself sitting in a packed hall at Georgetown University observing one of those debates pitting a Christian believer against one of the so-called “new atheists.” The believer, seemingly right out of Central Casting, was an eminent Protestant theologian, mild-mannered, tweedy and bow-tied; his opponent, a well-known journalist and pugnacious provocateur, the author of a best-selling assault on religion, sat casually, open-collared, armed with a sharp tongue and sardonic wit, yawning while the theologian fired his opening salvo.
The debate was entertaining but not terribly enlightening, and, as in most such spectacles, I doubt that anyone walked away moved from his or her original position. Yet, I recalled it as I came to the climax of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s ambitious new novel, which features such a public disputation, sponsored by the Agnostic Chaplaincy at Harvard, on the resolution “God exists.” Goldstein, a philosopher by training and author of several acclaimed novels, including The Mind-Body Problem and Mazel, as well as, most recently, a biographical reflection on Spinoza, has here produced a book that announces itself a little impudently as “a work of fiction,” a novel grappling with such big ideas as the struggle of faith versus reason and the claims of genius versus communal responsibility, with some Jewish mysticism and a couple of torrid romances tossed in for good measure.
The atheist in this case is a rather likeable fellow. He is Cass Seltzer, forty-two-year-old Prius-driving professor of psychology of religion at Frankfurter (read: Brandeis) University. Boyish and mild-mannered, Cass has unexpectedly hit the big time with his latest book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion (“translated into twenty-seven languages, including Latvian”) which explains “how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience.” Seltzer’s book includes an appendix laying out “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” along with their philosophical refutations: “a literary afterthought that has remade his life.”
But Cass is not your run-of-the-mill atheist. He is, as Time magazine proclaims, “the atheist with a soul,” very much in touch with the possibility of transcendence and quite capable of experiencing the sublime, whether it is in the patterns the ice has formed by the Weeks Bridge over Charles River (where he stands and utters the biblical Here I am to the darkness), or in the slight quiver of Lucinda’s upper lip. He doesn’t have the snarky anti-theological ire of a Dawkins, a Harris, or a Hitchens, because he understands the deep place from where belief arises, and he has a genuine respect for religious sensibility and commitment.
The success of Cass’s book, we are told, represents “the rare intersection of the preoccupations of his lifetime with the turmoil of the age.” Inspired to compose the book as a response to a new colleague’s questioning the legitimacy of his field, the work is not merely an act of professional self-justification but one of therapy as well, a working through of his failed marriage (to the “lupine” French poet Pascale Puissant, who has run off with her one-legged neurologist Dr. Micah McSweeney after recovering from aphasia), as well as his fraught relationships with his erstwhile academic advisor and the son of a Hasidic Rebbe: “He needed to extract,” Goldstein writes, “some answer out of the questions that had been roiling in him for the past two decades, the questions that he had lived out with Jonas Elijah Klapper and the questions he had lived out with Azarya. He had never cashed in that experience for hard insight.” The Varieties of Religious Illusion is that cashing in, big time. We don’t learn much about that work itself, unfortunately, though we do receive the famous appendix, the fifty pages working out the classical Western arguments for the existence of God, as well as those culled and formed from Cass’s own experience, which Cass mulls over throughout the course of the novel and which, for our reference, are helpfully appended to the novel itself.
The plot of Goldstein’s novel, developed in thirty-six chapters (or “arguments”), a number steeped in Jewish significance, is woven of three strands, moving back and forth in time. When we meet him, in February 2008, things are really going well for Cass—he is cohabitating with his beautiful, brilliant, and über-rational colleague Lucinda Mandelbaum (“the Goddess of Game Theory”), has just received an tempting offer from Harvard University, and is about to go mano a mano against a well-known conservative fideist named Felix Fidley, on the topic of the existence of the divinity. Considering that Lucinda is out of town at an academic conference, the campus is on the verge of a civil war (between students who want to establish a Greek system on campus and their opponents, self-styled Maccabees), and Cass’s dynamo of an ex-girlfriend, Roz Margolis, has just showed up on his doorstep, perhaps hoping to re-ignite their relationship but officially looking for his support for her new venture called “The Immortality Foundation”—considering all this, it is almost plausible that he has forgotten about the imminent debate.
Roz, correctly dubbed Suwäayaiwä (“a whole lot of woman”) by a remote Amazonian tribe, was Cass’s girlfriend twenty years ago, when she was a dreadlocked anthropology student and Cass was starting out at Frankfurter, having cast off his ambition to attend medical school to study with the scholar Jonas Elijah Klapper (né Klepfish), who, during an office hour meeting, has solemnly intoned to Cass, “I sense the aura of election upon you.” Klapper—a wild caricature, it would seem, of Harold Bloom, and “Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature, and Values”—is introduced to us as “a Jewish walrus in a shabby tweed jacket.” He is the author of such works as Goethedämmerung and The Perversity of Persuasion.
With such a doubly prophetic name, it is no surprise that Klapper most loyal graduate student regards him as “the sole defender of the faith”; he is a man who seems to have most of the Western canon memorized (indeed, whose lectures “were rendered in the very voice of Western civilization”), but has yet to mint a single Ph.D. in his image. He is working on a book on “The Messianic Ideal in the Course of World History: 1750 B.C.E. to 1988 C. E.”), indulges in verbose jeremiads against modern culture, Darwin, and “scientism” (though he admits to be an admirer of Freud), and declares to his fawning graduate students their pressing “need to acquire a self” and to learn to appreciate genius.
Klapper, full of supreme self-regard and obsessed by his latest project, wouldn’t know a living genius if it bit him on his nose—which it does, as it happens, in the form of the six-year-old son of the Valdener Rebbe, Azarya Sheiner. When Klapper discovers that his newest student has filial ties to the Grand Rebbe (Cass’s mother having been born a Valdener, but having left the community as a young woman), he commands Cass to arrange for a visit to New Walden, a cloistered community of Hasidic Jews on the Hudson River Valley (the town regards itself as “America’s only shtetl”) and an audience with the Rebbe himself.
Azarya, it turns out, is a math whiz, working out complex proofs regarding the mysteries of prime numbers, but Klapper is much too interested in discussing the details of the Lurianic Kabbalah (or “Qabalah,” to employ Klapper’s preferred spelling) with the Rebbe himself (who is, in turn, interested in enlisting Klapper’s assistance in obtaining Pell grants for the special needs children of New Walden) to notice. Klapper is soon addressing his student as “Reb Chaim” and dressing in the traditional grab of the Valdeners (a black satin kaputa and a thirteen-tailed Russian sable shtreimel). By the time he resolves that his disciple will master Yiddish and write his dissertation on the kabbalistic significance of Eastern European Jewish cuisine (not a bad topic, actually) and will accompany him “into exile” in the Holy City of Safed, Cass’s disenchantment with his mentor has become inevitable.
The Rebbe’s son emerges ten years later (remarkably well-adjusted, I might add, given the circumstances of his upbringing), torn between his desire to study at MIT and his responsibility to be the next leader of his people. “Going to a university is necessary but impossible,” he deliberates. “Staying in New Walden is impossible but necessary.” With the gentle Azayra, caught between the structure of Jewish orthodoxy and the allure of theoretical mathematics, I think it’s fair to say that “the prodigy son of the Hasidic Rebbe” story has officially become a literary cliché.
Goldstein skillfully weaves these strands together, and, in a novel of such heady ideas, she shows herself to be a keen observer. Her satiric touch, though, is not always light, and sometimes it is downright clunky. She has some odd stylistic tics—a love of alliteration, for instance (“Deedee is bodacious, blonde, and buxom, her teeth capped and her breasts implanted to perfection”) which she shares with her creation, Klapper. But Goldstein is also a writer of significant philosophical talents, and she explores abstruse themes with clarity and grace. The heavy philosophical scaffolding of the novel, its elaborate intellectual program, does not cripple it, which is something of an achievement.
And yet the novel never quite matches the scale of its own ideas, and never attains the level of the grand conflict between faith and reason. The narrative stakes are never that high. (Will Lucinda say “I love you”? Will Cass figure out the Mandelbaum Equilibrium before she returns? Will the President of Frankfurter make Cass a good retention offer? Will Cass prevail in his debate with Felix Fidley? “[T]he fate of all freethinkers hangs in the balance,” Cass writes to a friend on the eve of the contest—wildly exaggerating, one hopes.) The campus novel, especially a near-satire such as this one, may not be the apposite genre for the elaboration of large ideas, restricted as it is to its cloistered halls and poking inevitable—and quite justifiable—fun at the folly and the pretensions of its cast of characters. The eccentricities of Klapper and Cass’s trio of lovers take up so much space that they crowd out both the book’s deeper questions and the pathos of Azayra’s dilemma.
So the climactic debate will likely strike the reader as a letdown. By the time he takes the stage for his showdown with Fidley, an economist (of the Chicago School, naturally), Nobel laureate, and neo-conservative culture warrior—yes, he even composes articles for Provocation (read: Commentary) in his spare time—we know that this isn’t even Cass’s fight. Will he defeat his opponent and strike a blow for freethinkers everywhere (or at least win over his Harvard audience?) Or will Fidley (with Cass’s playbook in hand) outmaneuver him, thereby exposing him as a philosophical lightweight and a fraud? Cass may have a sleepless night worrying over this, but there can be no doubt as to the outcome of the contest. A little more uncertainty would have suited this lively and generous tale of clashing certitudes.
Jerome Copulsky is assistant professor and director of the Judaic Studies Program at Goucher College.