36 Arguments for the Existence of God
This clever novel manages to blend existential ponderings with humor and sharp writing.
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While Cass ponders life, the universe, and everything, he also reflects back on the people who inspired his desire to understand the nature of religion: a 6-year-old Hasidic mathematical prodigy and a renowned scholar. Jonas Elijah Klapper’s specialty was messianism. While that should have been enough of a warning signal to send grad students scrambling for the door en masse, instead, Jonas collected acolytes. “ ‘I sense the aura of election upon you,’ he would pronounce in a hushed voice to some severely young person, who, unsurprisingly, rarely disagreed.”Skip to next paragraph
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And then there is Roz. An anthropologist whose tribal name means (she claims) “a whole lot of woman,” Roz Margolis is without question a whole lot of character. Whenever she strides onto a page, glee follows. (Roz, by the way, is planning to live 500 years, and you kind of hope she succeeds.)
Cass doesn’t believe in trampling on the faith of others, but his current live-in girlfriend, “the goddess of game theory,” has no such compunctions. “It was touching how sincerely Lucinda believed in reason. It was difficult for her to get her mind around the fact that believers weren’t all high school dropouts who used their fingers and toes to add and subtract.”
While the religiously inclined among us may beg to disagree that the truly intelligent don’t believe in God, the novel, and Cass’s character himself, are utterly disarming.
But it must be said that the defenders of the faith in “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” are an unappealing lot. They range from the humorless to the barking mad. The one exception is a Hasidic rabbi who sincerely devotes his life to caring for his people. And the novel’s big climax – sponsored by Harvard’s “Agnostic Chaplaincy” (Holy oxymoron, Batman!) – unfortunately fizzles. In one corner, we have floppy-haired Cass and all his sweet goodwill. In the other, a Nobel Prize-winning Christian economist wearing an expensive shirt and a perma-sneer. A battle for the ages requires a worthy opponent, and one ends up wishing for a Marilynne Robinson, G.K. Chesterton, or C.S. Lewis to craft a real theological cage match.
But how many works of fiction can tackle thorny questions such as theodicy and still make you laugh? Not since “The Tao of Pooh” has philosophy been so much fun.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.