A ra­zor-sharp mind ripped apart by grief

AF­TER HER YOUNG SON AND HUS­BAND DIED, A HIS­TO­RIAN OF RE­LI­GION BE­GAN A JOUR­NEY IN SEARCH OF IN­SIGHT FROM THE BOOKS SHE HAD ONCE STUD­IED

The Nation - - NEW CHAPTERS -

A RARE lung dis­ease killed Elaine Pagels’s 6-yearold son, and then about a year later her hus­band fell to his death while moun­tain climb­ing. Af­ter that Job-like run of tragedies, no one would have blamed Pagels if she had de­cided to “curse God and die”.

But she held on. Through rage and ter­ror and de­spair so over­whelm­ing that it made her faint, she held on.

“I had to look into that dark­ness,” she says at the open­ing of her new me­moir, “Why Re­li­gion?” “I could not con­tinue to live fully while re­fus­ing to re­call what hap­pened.”

Pagels ac­knowl­edges that “no one es­capes ter­ri­ble loss”, but as Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar his­to­rian of re­li­gion, she brings a unique reser­voir of spir­i­tual wis­dom to bear on the thou­sand nat­u­ral shocks that flesh is heir to. A MacArthur “ge­nius” and a pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity, she has long been one of those rare bilin­gual aca­demics ca­pa­ble of speak­ing to lay and schol­arly read­ers. Her foun­da­tional work, “The Gnos­tic Gospels” (1979), rev­o­lu­tionised our con­cept of early Chris­tian­ity, won a Na­tional Book Award and be­came a best-seller. Her sub­se­quent books, in­clud­ing “Adam, Eve and the Ser­pent”, “The Ori­gin of Sa­tan” and “Rev­e­la­tions”, have con­tin­ued to com­pli­cate con­ven­tional un­der­stand­ings of Chris­tian­ity and trace the per­sis­tence of an­cient at­ti­tudes in mod­ern so­ci­ety.

Now, at 75, with dis­dain for “the facile com­fort that churches of­ten dole out like Kleenex”, Pagels leads us through the re­mark­able events of her life by con­sid­er­ing the con­so­la­tions and the tor­tures of faith. “Why Re­li­gion?” is, as its sub­ti­tle states, a per­sonal story, but it’s also a wide-rang­ing work of cul­tural re­flec­tion and a brisk tour of the most ex­cit­ing re­li­gion schol­ar­ship over the past 40 years.

Given Pagels’ fa­mously ec­u­meni­cal ap­proach, it’s sur­pris­ing to hear that her spir­i­tual jour­ney be­gan at a sta­dium re­vival preached by Billy Gra­ham. At 15, vaguely cu­ri­ous, she tagged along with some Chris­tian friends to the Cow Palace out­side San Fran­cisco. Her fam­ily was fe­ro­ciously sec­u­lar, but when Gra­ham in­vited the as­sem­bled crowd of 23,000 peo­ple to be born again, Pagels found his in­vi­ta­tion ir­re­sistible. In tears, she stepped for­ward to be saved. “That day opened up vast spa­ces of imag­i­na­tion,” she writes. “It changed my life, as the preacher promised it would – although not en­tirely as he in­tended.”

That ref­er­ence to “imag­i­na­tion” – the first of many laced through this me­moir – fore­shad­ows her even­tual break from or­tho­dox Chris­tian­ity, but it also sug­gests her de­ter­mi­na­tion to think cre­atively about sa­cred texts and the in­flu­ence they wield. One of the bedrocks of her phi­los­o­phy is that “what we imag­ine is enor­mously con­se­quen­tial”. While oth­ers, like her par­ents, sim­ply dis­missed re­li­gion as a chaotic sys­tem of fairy tales, Pagels has felt im­pelled to keep ask­ing, “Why is re­li­gion still around in the 21st cen­tury?” It’s a ques­tion that has sent her search­ing around the world and across mil­len­nia.

But in her 20s, with a child­like sense of awe, she ap­plied to five grad­u­ate schools in five fields. She never says so, but it’s clear she could have ex­celled in any of them. Har­vard Uni­ver­sity told her they al­ready had too many women in their re­li­gion pro­gramme – Why waste open­ings on the flighty sex? – but if she were still in­ter­ested a year later, she could ap­ply again. For­tu­nately, she did, and be­fore long she was work­ing on a “top se­cret” cache of Egyp­tian doc­u­ments dis­cov­ered in 1945 – hereti­cal gospels long ru­moured but con­sid­ered lost in the sands of time. “I was amazed,” she writes, “to find that some of th­ese texts spoke words I’d never heard be­fore yet longed to un­der­stand.”

“Why Re­li­gion?” moves freely among the in­ti­mate de­tails of Pagels’ life, her mar­riage to the bril­liant physi­cist Heinz Pagels and the chal­lenges of up­end­ing cen­turies of cal­ci­fied be­lief. Along the way, she de­scribes the ter­rors of rais­ing a ter­mi­nally ill child, con­sid­ers the ethics of fu­tile med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions and tes­ti­fies to the temp­ta­tion and havoc of de­nial.

She is con­sis­tently, some­times hi­lar­i­ously hum­ble. She men­tions that she started read­ing Greek the way one of us might men­tion that we started watch­ing “Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt”. World­fa­mous ac­quain­tances – Jerry Gar­cia, An­drei Sakharov, Oprah Win­frey – are noted with­out a whiff of ar­ro­gance. Her con­tro­ver­sial pro­fes­sional tri­umphs and crit­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies are re­counted with head-spin­ning speed. In­deed, Elaine Pagels’ pre­vi­ous books, which are con­cise to a fault, are not al­ways well served by be­ing so ag­gres­sively sum­marised in this new book.

But when the me­moir ar­rives at the death of her lit­tle boy, Pagels’ tone feels brac­ingly ap­pro­pri­ate. “I can tell only the husk of the story.” It felt, she says, “like be­ing burned alive”. Grasp­ing for some ex­pla­na­tion, pricked with the cruel sense that ill­ness is the pun­ish­ment for sin, she be­gan to search for the source of this self-re­crim­i­na­tion. Sud­denly, the Bible texts seemed stained with dread:

“Work­ing hard to stay steady, or seem to, I could no longer af­ford to look through a lens that heaps guilt upon grief,” she writes. “Although I wasn’t a tra­di­tional be­liever and didn’t take such sto­ries lit­er­ally, some­how their premises had shaped my un­con­scious as­sump­tions. Now I had to di­vest my­self of the il­lu­sion that we de­served what had hap­pened; be­liev­ing it would have crushed us.”

That un­speak­able ex­pe­ri­ence con­firmed her un­der­stand­ing of the in­flu­ence of the Bible’s sto­ries. “Whether we be­lieve them or not, they are trans­mit­ted in our cul­tural DNA, pow­er­fully shap­ing our at­ti­tudes to­ward work, gen­der, sex­u­al­ity, and death,” she writes. “I sought to untangle my own re­sponses, while sens­ing how pow­er­fully our cul­ture shapes them.” One gets the im­pres­sion that study­ing her­self in the cru­cible of grief was of­ten the lone ac­tiv­ity that kept her sane.

Feel­ing con­fused and over­whelmed, she turned to the New Tes­ta­ment, the Gnos­tic gospels of the Nag Ham­madi li­brary and Bud­dhism. In the­ory and prac­tice, her life demon­strates the free­dom that comes from breach­ing the bound­aries of or­tho­doxy and ac­cept­ing in­sight wher­ever it might be hid­ing.

Those in­clude mys­ti­cal places that most aca­demics would be re­luc­tant to en­ter. But Pagels is as fear­less as she is can­did. In the depths of her sor­row, she re­calls un­canny co­in­ci­dences, acts of pre­cog­ni­tion, ghostly vis­i­ta­tions and even a con­fronta­tion with a de­mon one night in the hos­pi­tal. Th­ese episodes are never sub­mit­ted as fac­tual ev­i­dence of su­per­nat­u­ral in­ter­ven­tion. In­stead, Pagels of­fers her sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences to demon­strate the way our lives are moulded by an­cient sto­ries, con­sciously and un­con­sciously.

Still, the facts are as hard as a grave­stone: No saint in­ter­ceded to fill her son’s lungs. No an­gel caught her hus­band as he fell from Pyramid Peak. And no ray of di­vine in­spi­ra­tion even­tu­ally il­lu­mi­nates a greater good in their deaths. But that’s not the end of the story for Pagels. With the twinned spir­its of seeker and scholar, she kept study­ing the Gospels, the let­ters of Paul, the Gnos­tic texts and the in­sights of Bud­dhism and Trap­pist monks un­til she un­der­stood that suf­fer­ing is an es­sen­tial and com­mon el­e­ment of hu­man life. To­wards the end, she writes, “My own ex­pe­ri­ence of the ‘night­mare’ – the agony of feel­ing iso­lated, vul­ner­a­ble, and ter­ri­fied – has shown that only aware­ness of that sense of in­ter­con­nec­tion re­stores equa­nim­ity, even joy.”

When that ray of hap­pi­ness fi­nally pierces the gloom in her life, “Why Re­li­gion?” feels mirac­u­lous and yet en­tirely be­liev­able.

Elaine Pagels re­ceives the Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Medal from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in Septem­ber 2016.

Why Re­li­gion?: A Per­sonal Story By Elaine Pagels Pub­lished by Ecco Avail­able at ma­jor book­shops, Bt868 Re­viewed by Ron Charles

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