Yesterday I received an email from my old buddy Steven Pinker. Well, it’s not like he’s a really close friend: about three years ago I quoted him in my nonfiction book about Genesis 1 and sent him the relevant passage, which he commented on. So I guess I got automatically stored in his email directory. Anyhow, my pal Steven wanted to let me know that his wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, had just published a new book called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.
As you can imagine, especially if you’ve been reading my recent posts, the title immediately captured my attention. Goldstein, being married to one of the more famous of the “new atheists,” isn’t really offering an apologetics — the 36 Arguments appear in an Appendix, each accompanied by a convincing counter-argument. Besides being a novelist, Goldstein is a serious scholar, having taught philosophy at the university level and having written biographies of Gödel and Spinoza. One of her novels in a fictionalized account of the life of William James. The new novel was just released just yesterday, and today it’s number 200 among all books, fiction and nonfiction alike, on the Amazon bestseller list. [I just checked again: it’s down to 246]
The update from Stephen dovetails nicely with the sixth of seven randomly-selected sentences from which I’m hoping to discover personal meaning and direction for the new year. It goes like this:
“Thus he is given almost equal status to Peter, who sits in a similar position to the right of Christ, and they are distinguished from the other disciples in being accompanied by two female figures, one representing the church of the Jews and the other the church of the Heathen, offering wreaths to Christ.”
The “he” who serves as subject of this sentence is the Apostle Paul, on whose writings I’ve written frequently at Ktismatics. The sentence appears on page 200 of Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind, a book which I found in the giveaway box at the local library and which I’ve not yet read. According to the back cover, the book traces the decline of scientific and rational thought in the West as a consequence of Constantine’s consolidation of a Christianized Roman Empire in the fourth century. Previously the church had emphasized the Gospels, in which Jesus is presented as a Jewish national hero and a rebel against Roman authority. After the crucifixion Peter had sustained the essential Jewishness of Christianity. Paul, on the other hand, universalized the Christian faith to embrace Romans and barbarians alike, imposed a hierarchical church authority structure, and counseled cooperation with the political authorities — an approach that proved much more compatible with the consolidation of the Empire. Augustine emerged in the fourth century as the pre-eminent Pauline theologian and enforcer of a standardized Christian dogma.
In my nonfiction book about Genesis 1 I made the opposite argument: that a revival of Augustinian influence within Christianity during the Protestant Reformation restored a more empirical and creative orientation to Western culture. In all likelihood I was being overly charitable, largely because I was trying to establish a basis for collaboration and compromise between believers and nonbelievers. Three years later I don’t care as much about compromise, or even about religion-bashing. I’m prepared to regard Christianity as the fiction I believe it to be, along with most other forms of metaphysical speculation, and to exploit it for my own amusement. At the same time, I agree with Fabio’s contention that
“In the West we cannot ignore how the history of Christianity influences our every step (and on this point, I find extremely telling the constant subtle interest of extremely timely ‘radical thinkers’ such as Badiou and Zizek with Christianity, not to mention of course Meillassoux own polemic against fideism and yet his confrontation with theological, or divinological, issues)”
So, like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, I’ll continue incorporating religion into the fiction I write, as long as it stimulates my imagination and contributes to my glee.