My academic training is in poetry but I love stout fiction, the kind Faulkner and Joyce wrote. The kind that clothes life-like characters with carefully interwoven abstraction and emotional chaos. Nothing emulates reality quite like these kinds of stories. About a year ago I read Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Pantheon Books).
Since the book asserts the failures of the classical arguments for a supreme deity, I found it particularly ironic that the press is “Pantheon Books” (“all of the gods,” referring to the Roman gallery of the supernatural figures); that would be a bit like John Piper publishing a book with the “Arminius Publishing Group.”
Nevertheless, as an evangelical, how could I not like a book like Goldstein’s, which includes this cover blurb from Christopher Hitchens: “You do not have to perpetrate an act of faith to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It is faith itself that consists of nothing. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, is quite something”?
The novel is marvelous, philosophical and sardonic all at the same time. It is, in some ways, the antidote to the smiling preacher treacle that fills so much of the Christian subculture, though not in the way that Goldstein, perhaps, proposes. It’s not as intellectually devastating as she would hope for those of us who do believe that faith actually is “something” that provides a genuine contre temps to “nothing.” Instead, it is a stark reminder of the ultimate emptiness of a worldview that reduces everything to nothingness. The characters are dynamos of egotism who leave wounded persons in their wakes. One has the feeling that there’s hardly a one of them who can lie quietly in his or her bed at night and drift to sleep feeling fulfilled and peaceful. Certainly these are literary characters and I should be careful about being over-critical of their foibles but all of us who are in academe know these persons and love them, sometimes for and sometimes in spite of their irascibility.
I picked the book back up this week because it is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I spent two weeks this summer. It’s amazing how one’s mental attempts to capture a story’s literary images always are found to be off the beam once one has seen the actual places described. It’s also interesting to see how a story itself changes when we have a different sense of the setting and the characters based on actual experience. For example, for a year I was Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, living on a multi-millionaire Polish duke’s waterfront estate in Virginia and watching the parties along the Chesapeake Bay from the end of his pier. I’ll never teach that work the same again.
Perhaps that’s what intrigues me about works like Goldstein’s. When these writers, including the New Atheists, write about faith and the supernatural, they write as persons who have never lived in that world, imagining it from their armchairs through the lenses of other writers who likewise have never inhabited those worlds. For those of us who reside in the world of faith and have seen its bridges, its buildings, and its people with our own eyes – yes, faith has eyes, as well as brains – we can recognize the limits of the traveler who has never actually travelled but rather has imagined travelling and decided that it is not really worth the effort. If it’s not really worth the effort, I can’t help but wonder, then why write so much about it? I can swat at a gnat and dismiss its gnat-liness, but I would daresay that writing a hefty volume titled ”Disposing of the Gnat” would be something of overkill.
Someone once said we could fill libraries with books that have been written to dispose once and for all of the one Book that is central to the entirety of Christendom, but that one Book still stands. Maybe that’s because it is filled with something while the rest are filled with nothing.
Let me recommend Goldstein’s “36 Arguments” to you, especially those who are more philosophically minded. It’s an important book that provides us with an armchair guide to the lives of our fellow persons who have chosen paths different than ours; unlike those who have never lived in the world of faith, however, each of us has lived in the world of faithlessness, for each of us who is in the realm of faith was once lost before being found by God’s grace. In the book’s pages I was reminded why I love folks like Hitchens and his compatriots; they are as I once was. Thank goodness for Romans 5: 6-11.