After son and husband died, she wondered why religion survives
A rare lung disease killed Elaine Pagels’ 6year-old 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, she held on.
“I had to look into that darkness,” she says at the opening of her new memoir, “Why Religion?”
Pagels acknowledges that “no one escapes terrible loss,” but as the country’s most popular historian of religion, she brings a unique reservoir of spiritual wisdom to bear. A professor at Princeton University, she has long been one of those rare academics capable of speaking to lay and scholarly readers.
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 a personal story, but it’s also a wide-ranging work of cultural reflection and a brisk tour of the most exciting religion scholarship of the past 40 years.
Given Pagels’ famously ecumenical approach, it’s surprising to hear that her spiritual journey began at a revival preached by Billy Graham. “That day opened up vast spaces of imagination,” she writes.
That reference to “imagination” foreshadows her eventual break from orthodox Christianity, but it also suggests her determination to think creatively about sacred texts.
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.” Pricked with the cruel sense that illness is the punishment for sin, she searched for the source of this self-recrimination. Suddenly, the Bible texts seemed stained with dread. “I could no longer afford to look through a lens that heaps guilt upon grief,” she writes.
She turned to the New Testament, the Gnostic gospels of the Nag Hammadi library and Buddhism, accepting insight wherever it might be. 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 sorrow, she recalls uncanny coincidences, acts of precognition, ghostly visitations and even a confrontation with a demon one night in the hospital.