The Smile on the Dog

JM: It’s a pleasure to be conducting this virtual Q&A – although I have a lurking suspicion that our friends at the Jewish Quarterly have cast me, the Everything is God guy, as Felix Fidley to your Cass Seltzer, a role which I am uniquely unqualified to play.  As the title of my book suggests, my own theology is closer to pantheism (or panentheism) than it is to the relatively primitive classical theism debunked in your (and Seltzer’s) appendix.  So I’d like to start there: Given the way you frame the book’s climactic debate on ‘Does God exist?’ do you agree with today’s neo-atheists that the ‘God’ in question, the ‘God’ that is most relevant to our contemporary moment, is really the old time religion God of providence and punishment?  Personally, I’ve always felt that Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, are setting up a straw man, that only fundamentalists believe as they describe.  Is your sense that the real ‘atheism versus religion’ debate today is indeed between old time religion and rational, scientific philosophy, with no significant role for panentheist Hasidim, Tielhard-style Christians, feminist theologians, or the myriad of other religionists with more contemporary theologies?

RG: It’s nice to make your virtual acquaintance, Jay, and I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can, while maintaining a novelist’s prerogative of ambiguity. Trained as I am as a philosopher, a field in which we battle against imprecision and ambiguity, I’m hyper-sensitive the deliberate application of ambiguity in literature.  A novelist has to create spaces into which the reader’s own point of view moves so that it can inhabit the work and make it into an experience of its own—one hopes pleasurable, though no novelist can secure this for every reader. That is the diceyness of the game. A novel is not an argument but rather a template for experience.  This difference between argumentation and literary experience is the subtext that runs through this novel, which takes as its backdrop the contemporary reactivated atheist/religion debate.  It’s one of the themes of the novel that the binary choices presented in the debate hardly exhaust the possibilities.  That’s why Cass says about the arguments and counter-arguments in his Appendix, which I reproduce at the back of my novel, that they don’t capture all that there is to the matter.  The Appendix is only the Appendix, and the text of the matter, our lived experience,  is something else.
All that being said, I don’t think that your conception of God is what most people have in mind when they discuss the existence of God, anymore than they have in mind the Spinozist conception to which I am myself very partial.  (The book I’d published immediately previously to this one was Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.) The God whose existence is under lively debate at this moment is the same God to which mainstream religion has been devoted for millennia and about which philosophers have long argued. This God has at least a subset of the following characteristics: he created the world ex nihilo; he designed the laws of nature; his existence grounds morality; he has a role in the unfolding of human history.  I differ from you in thinking that a God answering to these (or some subset of these) characteristics is so primitive and fundamentalist as to be unworthy of discussion.  So, for example, in Cass’s Appendix, there is the Argument from the Fine-Tuning of the Physical Constants. I think this is a not an uncompelling argument. I think that someone might very well object to Cass’s criticisms of that argument that those criticisms present an even more unlikely universe than one in which God fine-tuned the physical constants. So it’s not at all obvious to me that those who assert a God who stands behind the laws of nature are low-level fundamentalists whom we can dismiss out of hand. I also think that the objective grounding of morality is a source of endless confusion, and that it seems to a great many thoughtful people—again, not necessarily fundamentalists—that the existence of God is of help in clearing up this confusion. So I think these issues are well worth the discussion.
The public atheists aren’t really interested in going after your pantheism (or panentheism) or my Spinozism, since neither your view nor mine is apt to make much trouble in the world. But religious views that lay claim to a privileged access to morality, or to a privileged status in the unfolding of world history, wreak havoc.

JM: Relatedly, as someone who’s studied and taught Kabbalah for 20-odd years, I was intrigued by Professor Klapper’s interest in mysticism. I was surprised that he didn’t offer a more sophisticated theological counterpoint to the neo-conservative ‘ground of ethics’ palaver that Fidley serves up, and seemed to be swept up in naivete. (Like Edie Brickell said, ‘religion is the smile on a dog.’)  Could you say more about the way this Bloomian figure of academic indulgence functions in 36 Arguments, and whether in your mind there’s a distinction between his adopted/misunderstood Kabbalah and Fidley’s fideism?

RG: Professor Klapper has no genuine interest in mysticism. Or, in any case, all his interests are self-referential. Cass is far more a mystic — albeit of a Spinozistic cast — than his former professor is Why are Klapper, Cass’s one-time adored mentor, and Pascale, Cass’s one-time adored former wife, and Lucinda, Cass’s current adored girlfriend, all the ego-encased people that they are?  Why are they all so opaquely closed off to the world — never seeing outside of their own narcissistic eidola, certainly never seeing poor Cass who loves them each so ardently and therefore misinterprets them so egregiously? Was I trying to say something about their fields — about Klapper’s new-found Kabbalism or Pascale’s poetry, or Lucinda’s game theory? Not that I’m aware. You might better think of those three as demonstrating Cass’s own tendencies toward particular forms of illusion — he who authored The Varieties of Religious Illusion — and you might also think of these three as themselves doomed to never getting outside of their own airless and narrow world, no matter how much erudition they gather and how much external fame and acclaim they garner. (All three, as opposed to Cass, are greedy for the world’s praise.)  The book is much concerned with the nature of moral progress, which is the topic of the debate that Cass has with Fidley.
And now, to that debate (which by the way, I don’t consider the climax of the book. The heart of the book is Azarya, the Chassidic boy-genius, and the revelations about him are, at least for me, the climax of the book.) The debate, as it develops, coalesces around the nature of morality. I don’t think it’s at all a trivial matter to establish the objective grounds for morality, or explain why these grounds have motivational force and can actually push us to do the right thing. These questions lie in the realm of moral philosophy, which means they require philosophical sophistication, which is generally in short supply. That being so, it’s no miracle that the questions seem so mystifying as to send people running to God to supply the answers. It’s not only lay people but philosophers who sometimes argue that the consequence of denying God is moral relativism or subjectivism, a consequence they endorse. So see, for example, J.L. Mackie, who argues on the basis of the ‘queerness’ of ethical truths (‘if there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe’) that they don’t exist. I believe this is wrong, but not trivially wrong, and for this reason I don’t think that those who resort to a theist answer in trying to make sense out of morality are spouting palaver.
And given that so many believe that their God is necessary for both grounding morality and motivating people to live ethically, it’s no wonder that many believers have an intense suspicion of non-believers, or of believers of different faiths, which is a situation with enormous political ramifications.

JM: In 36 Arguments, it seems no view and no character escapes gentle (or not so gentle) ridicule.  For example, most of the ‘atheists with souls’ who I know nourish those souls on art or music or literature, yet in 36 Arguments, the aesthetes (such as Klapper and Pascale) are narcissists.  Is there a truly nourishing ‘food for the soul’ that is represented in the book? Or is the world of 36 Arguments, with its Frankfurter/Brandeis jokes and hilarious character names, a carnival of folly? (Or both or neither).

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Night Notes

RG: I’ve been asked by many interviewers what I meant by dubbing Cass the atheist with a soul (although it wasn’t really I who dubbed him this, but rather Time magazine). The easiest way for me to explain Cass’s soulfulness is his susceptibility to the experience of ontological wonder, shot through with a sense of gratitude for existence, appreciation for its improbability and fragility and splendor. As Cass puts it, existence is just such a tremendous thing. Cass is brimming with aesthetic experience, responding not just to physical beauty but to artistic beauty. He’s much given to quoting poetry and falls in love with Pascale partly because of her poetry. ‘Glory be to God for dappled things,’ he quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins, when walking through the campus on a beautiful autumn day, a line he repeats when he lays eyes on the external beauty of Lucinda and then again when he sees what he misinterprets as her inner beauty. Azarya responds almost as powerfully to music as he does to mathematics. And of course mathematics is, for those of us who love it, all about beauty. Azarya’s ecstasy at the tish at the sight of the proof for the infinity of prime numbers is meant to convey something of this aesthetic bliss.  Roz, too, the other non-believer in the novel, is a large-souled person who is nourished by her multifarious interests, her loves, her sensuality, her jazz.
And, of course, the whole idea of framing this discussion within a novel, which is meant to induce some sort of aesthetic pleasure (or so a poor author can only hope), is itself an indication of how I regard the role of the aesthetic response in the pursuit of the expansion of our lives into the sort of knowledge that makes a difference. In fact, views on this subject are partly what initially drove me — nine books back — to writing of philosophical ideas within the framework of novels in the first place.

JM: 36 Arguments’ characters live in academe, and it sometimes feels to me like the pitched battles within the ivory tower ignore the larger battle between the forces of knowledge/light/good and the forces of, well, Glenn Beck. Since we’re having this dialogue en route to a seeming train wreck of a midterm election, could you comment on how the intellectual debates of the novel relate to the problem of American anti-intellectual, pro-religious populism? Are we liberals looking for a way to bash the bullies? Should we be? Put another way: is there any room for subtlety, or do we need to take sides?

RG: They don’t, of course, all live in academe.  The two communities, one academic and one Chassidic, are played off against one another.
The pitched battles within academe are sometimes — well, often — about individual egos and other less than heroic impulses. That’s what human nature is, and we are none of us immune to it. But those pitched battles are also often about the passion for trying to get the truth right, and the difficulties of reconciling opposing intuitions in the face of our cognitive limitations. For every Klapper there’s a Cass. For every Lucinda, there’s a Roz. I feel as impatient with those who see only the follies of academe, ignoring the possibilities it affords for expanding human experience, as you probably feel with those who see only the follies of religious life, ignoring the possibilities it affords for expanding human experience. Those pitched battles of academe often emerge from the fact that the truth is subtle, our expressions for it frustratingly too coarse-grained. Academics, often accused of hair-splitting, are sometimes just trying to do justice to complexity.
But is that sort of delicacy to subtlety and complexity relevant when one steps outside of the academy and into the public square? Can one insert it into the rough-and-tumble of politics? The empirical evidence often seems to weigh heavily against the possibility. Politics often seems designed to fit and intensify our very human tendency to pick sides, subtlety be damned.
Though I am loathe to push my own interpretation of my novel on any reader, I would have said that the values celebrated in the novel, in the figures of Cass and Azarya and Roz,  are intellectual honesty, recognition of the worthiness of one another and the obligations that this recognition places on us, generosity of spirit which inclines us to love, even unwisely, and often makes us suffer but is always, in the end, worth it. I can’t help but think that these are useful values in our political as well as private lives.

Jay Michaelson is the author of Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism (Shambhala), as well as two other books and over 200 articles. A columnist for the Forward, Huffington Post, and Tikkun, Michaelson was recently named in the ‘Forward 50’ list of the most influential American Jews. He is executive director of Nehirim, a national nonprofit organization of GLBT Jews and allies.

Rebecca Goldstein is the author of nine books, seven of them fiction. Her two non-fiction books are Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, which won the Koret International Prize in Jewish Thought. She is a Humanist Laureate and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her latest novel, 36 Arguments for The Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, was published in the UK in March, 2010.

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1 Comment
  1. offgrid says

    I think Yahshua the Nazarene was a Spinozist. He said the “Kingdom of God is within you” and always referred to God as “the cosmic spirit within all things”

    Avoon, Abwun, Ab, Aleph-Bet. The One that exists in all others.

    We need to go back and study the letter/numbers. yod-heh-shin-vav-heh. What does it mean. ? Yes, What does it mean.

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