Elaine Pagels is famous for asking hard questions. Her latest: ‘Why Religion?’

Why We Wrote This

The scholar’s professional life has been about challenging orthodox ways of thinking about Christianity. In her new book, she shows the personal struggle behind that quest.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
President Barack Obama presented historian and author Elaine Pagels with the 2015 National Humanities Medal during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Her new memoir ‘Why Religion?’ delves into the deep searching she did after she lost her husband and a son within one year.

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If “The Gnostic Gospels” made Elaine Pagels one of the most celebrated and reviled religious scholars of the past 100 years, her memoir “Why Religion?” helps put her work’s remarkable cultural resonance into a deeper spiritual context. At the heart of “Why Religion?” is a quiet meditation on the meaning of human mortality, and the grief and soul-shattering anguish the famous scholar experienced over the course her life. Her firstborn son, then 6, died of a rare respiratory illness. A year later, she lost her husband, who fell to his death while hiking in Colorado. “I needed to write this, partly because I needed to bring forth those experiences that I had buried, because they were so difficult to deal with at the time,” Ms. Pagels says, in an interview, of her reasons for writing such an intensely personal book. “But I’ve been asking these sorts of questions since I was a teenager,” she says. “Questions of, well, where do I belong? And how are we supposed to live? I wondered if there are sort of axioms in the universe about these things, but I just wanted to find out.”

Elaine Pagels, people say, is a heretic.

It’s an ancient accusation, of course, and it hardly wields as much power as it used to, especially in the free-wheeling religious landscape of America. And Ms. Pagels is, in fact, one of the globe’s foremost experts in early Christian heresies.

But as a woman who has been disrupting established orthodoxies for nearly half a century, her name still has the power to arouse disdain in certain religious circles.

“You know, people have sometimes called me ‘Elaine Pagan’,” the Princeton University professor says during an interview with the Monitor, smiling as she reflects on the trajectory of her life’s work, her many orthodox critics, and her new book, “Why Religion? A Personal Story.”

Forty years ago, Pagels’ first book, “The Gnostic Gospels,” was an unlikely sensation. A young historian without tenure and a specialist who read 1st century languages like Coptic, she was one of the first to illuminate an ancient trove of long-lost gospels and other writings about Jesus, writings which were simply stumbled upon by a local farmer near the Egyptian town Nag Hammadi in 1945.

“That’s lucky, since some of us need heresy – ‘choice,’ that is,” Pagels writes in her new book, noting, as specialists do, the meaning of the original Greek word hairesis.

That need for religious choice is actually a quintessential feature of the spiritual yearnings that have long defined America’s cacophony of religious voices: Puritans, Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons, Christian Scientists, as well as self-reliant transcendentalists, counter-cultural communitarians, poets, artists, and hosts of others have each felt free to throw off existing institutional constraints and follow the longings in their hearts.

Her admirers and critics both marveled at how the work of such a young scholar could resonate with a much wider audience. Published in 1979, it won the National Book Award and other literary prizes. It brought her a MacArthur Fellowship and its “genius” grant. Modern Library later named it one of the 100 best nonfiction books since 1900 – as did the late music legend David Bowie.

Yet if “The Gnostic Gospels” made Pagels one of the most celebrated and reviled religious scholars of the past 100 years, her memoir “Why Religion?” helps put her work’s remarkable cultural resonance into a deeper spiritual context.

“Many of us, of course, have left religious institutions behind, and prefer to identify as ‘spiritual, not religious’,” she writes at the outset. “I’ve done both – had faith, lost it; joined groups, and left them.”

“What matters to me more than whether we participate in institutions or leave them is how we engage the imagination – in dreams, art, poetry, music – since what each of us needs, and what we can engage, obviously differs and changes throughout our lifetime.”

In a number of ways, Pagels is describing the language of the fastest-growing religious group in the country right now, the so-called “nones,” a cohort of mostly younger Americans who have begun leaving places of worship in droves. Rejecting the array of choices presented by the institutions and traditions that have long flourished in the country, most “nones” still maintain their own self-defined relationships with the divine.   

Still, at the heart of “Why Religion?” is a quiet meditation on the meaning of human mortality, and the grief and soul-shattering anguish the famous scholar experienced over the course her life.

More than 25 years ago, her firstborn son, then 6, collapsed in her arms and died of a rare respiratory illness. Just a year later, with her two younger children under her care, she lost her husband, who fell to his death while hiking in Colorado.

“I needed to write this, partly because I needed to bring forth those experiences that I had buried, because they were so difficult to deal with at the time,” Pagels says of the reasons for writing such an intensely personal book. “And I think for anyone, whether it’s people who write poetry or music or any other kind of expressive forms, you can ask, ‘Why do we really need to do that?’ ”

“But I’ve been asking these sorts of questions since I was a teenager,” she says. “Questions of, well, where do I belong? And how are we supposed to live? I wondered if there are sort of axioms in the universe about these things, but I just wanted to find out.”

Such questions, too, were springing from a life that seemed to always be at the center of major parts of American culture. A teenager in the early 1960s, Pagels bristled in “the clipped suburban lawns of Palo Alto,” and “living in the a world that felt flat, where emotional intensity was suppressed.” Her father was a botanist who despised religion, and her mother was emotionally aloof.

When she was 15, Pagels had a profound “born-again” experience after she answered one of Billy Graham’s famous altar calls. Among Evangelical Christians, she writes, “I’d begun to find a much larger family, in which people talked freely and passionately, hugged each other, and shouted praises to God.”

“It changed my life, as the preacher had promised it would – though not entirely as he intended, or, at least, not for as long.”

At the same time she was attending Bible studies at a close-knit Evangelical fellowship, Pagels was also part of San Francisco’s revolutionary cultural scenes. Her crew included the young Jerry Garcia and his best friend Paul Speegle, who had quit high school and often painted furiously until dawn. “I responded to his extravagant declarations of love, and his vision of himself as artist, and me as his muse,” Pagels writes of the young artist she describes as “my friend Paul.”

But a car crash one night shattered that world for each of them: Speegle broke his neck and died. “My Christian friends, at first sympathetic, immediately asked, ‘Was he born again?’ When I said, ‘No, he was Jewish!’ they said, ‘Then he’s in hell.’ ... Numb, devastated, and alone, I left the church, and never went back.”

The tragedy helped shape her suspicion of orthodoxy and traditional Christianity – especially its insistence that “outside the church, there is no salvation.” It didn’t make sense to her that outsiders who did not accept Jesus Christ – or even those who did, but in ways considered “heresy” – would be consigned to hell.

Pagels didn’t attend her graduation at Stanford. She moved to New York City and again joined a community of would-be artists, musicians, and poets. She devoted herself to dance, attending the famous Martha Graham School.

She was talented, but not talented enough. And she was still wondering why her experience with Evangelical Christianity was so powerfully compelling. Her interest in religion and curiosity about Jesus never waned, and she eventually went to Harvard University and learned of the trove of long-lost gospels found at Nag Hammadi.

‘Like a window opening up’

Pagels was one of the first in nearly 2,000 years to read books like The Gospel of Thomas, a source that spoke to her, she says, from the moment she opened it.

There was a very different kind of spirituality in these pages, she noticed, even though much of it overlapped with some of the content of the canonical gospels. Instead of depicting Jesus as a divine being from a transcendent place, these 114 sayings, or “secret words” showed Jesus urging his followers to find the divine within themselves.

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you,” saying 70 says.

Pagels was one of the few women doing such work at Harvard, and she offers her own #MeToo story in her book. Her adviser, a short, balding Lutheran reverend, asked her to babysit and assaulted and groped her in the middle of the night. He continued to make passes for years after.

This added an important context to the fact that many of these lost traditions used feminine images for the divine.

“I feel like it sort of just opens some windows on a tradition that had seemed pretty much closed and sort of codified a long time ago, like, these are the correct ways to understand God, as a father, as a son,” Pagels says about the lost images. “And now people say, ‘Oh, well, there’s many different ways of thinking about this.’

“And for me that is like a window opening up, bringing fresh air and more light.”

In the book, Pagels describes a key moment in her career when Barnard College in New York asked her to give a lecture on women in early Christianity.  

At first she wasn’t sure what to say, since so little work, if any, had been done. So she began to gather references from these “gnostic” gospels to share with an audience of thousands of women. Her husband, Heinz, showed up with a Wonder Woman button, and the crowd listened eagerly as Pagels read a scene from the Secret Gospel of John: God is being arrogant and boastful, saying “I am father, and God, and there is no one above me!” But then the voice of his mother, divine Wisdom, comes down from above: “You are mistaken!”

Pagels describes her life in New York City with her husband, a noted physicist who had also published a successful book, “The Cosmic Code.” Deeply in love and rarely ever apart, they struggled to have a child, however, and she began to undergo difficult fertility treatments.

A year of loss

As Pagels begins to describe the agonizing years to come, her prose comes alive with the spiritual and miraculous. After years of longing, she gives birth to her son Mark after an artist friend suggests a simple ritual. Mark, however, is immediately diagnosed with a congenital heart problem, and Pagels and her husband were told he likely would not live long.

Mark lived for six years, and Pagels describes, in a voice calm, steady, and elegant, the experiences of being a mother to a son given little time. She drank, she felt an enormous sense of guilt, she had terrifying nightmares. But there were, as she writes, moment of grace with the funny and precocious boy.

“It’s the frustrations of life that drive people to ask questions about meaning,” Pagels says in the interview. “And one of the deepest sources of frustration and pain is certainly the death of people that you love and count on.”

She and her husband adopted a girl and, after Mark’s funeral, another little boy. But then came Heinz’s accident and again, a loss that could be described as beyond words were it not for Pagels’ steady voice.

“Throughout those nameless days, my temper exploded at slight frustrations. Trembling, starting in my stomach, would spread until my whole body was shaking,” she writes. “On the floor, I’d bend over involuntarily, head to the ground, emitting a strange keening sound I’d never heard before. Sometimes outbursts of sobs began uncontrollably; more often, I’d try to cry, but no tears would come.”

In the final chapters, Pagels explicates a number of writings from the Nag Hammadi library. She asks traditional questions that wonder at what happens after death. And she again questions some of the canonical traditions that suggest suffering is part of a reality of divine punishment for sin.

She finds deep comfort in many of the sayings and teachings she helped to restore to already cacophonous landscape of Christianity.

“Church history used to be much more a kind of church-based tradition about our faith, about how it was Jesus who taught this, and how there’s this great continuity here,” Pagels says. “And now we say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a lot more complexity in this history than we never admitted or realized.’ ”

“So I think it’s become easier, now, for many people to think about these traditions, and instead of just saying, ‘Do you believe this?’ or ‘Do you not believe this?’ they can find something resonates more deeply.”

In her book, she keeps coming back to a singular theme: the immanent reality of the divine that connects all human beings together.

“In Thomas, then, the ‘good news’ is not only about Jesus; it’s also about every one of us,” Pagels writes. “For while we ordinarily identify ourselves by specifying how we differ … [these sayings] suggest that recognizing we are ‘children of God’ requires us to recognize how we are the same.”

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