Why Religion? A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels


I know this scholar from her work Revelations about the last book of the Bible “Revelation,” a fascinating book that translates her scholarly work for the public. Her new book recounts her own dramatic life with references to her work and religious/spiritual practices that helped her survive traumas she experienced. Her best known book is The Gnostic Gospels, written early in her career about the suppressed writings about Jesus from the trove of writings stored in a jar discovered in 1945 by a farmer digging for fertilizer near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The works were probably hidden sometime after Athanasius condemned the writings in 347 CE that were not approved as part of the canon. She and other scholars translated the writings from the Coptic.

One interesting fact about her is that she knew Jerry Garcia when she was in high school; a friend was killed in a car crash that he was also a passenger in and that was the impetus for the name of the band Grateful Dead. She was such a brilliant scholar that after her undergraduate degree was finished and she had determined that dance was not going to be a good career for her, she had the choice of five different graduate programs at five different prestigious universities. She chose the study of religion at Harvard. She was excited to find copies of the secret gospels which had only recently become available to scholars. In fact only Harvard and Claremont University in California had copies of them. She was thrilled by what she found in those heretical writings.

The heart of the book, though, relates to the two unimaginable tragic deaths she suffered only one and a half years apart. I prefer not to relive those. I do want to remember several things she writes about such loss: For some years the only music she could tolerate were the late Beethoven quartets. I want to listen to them again knowing that. She recognized that feeling guilt about a tragedy, however unrelated to reason that may be, for her was preferable to losing the illusion that we have control over nature.

At the center of that unreasoned belief that we have control is the story of creation. God made a perfect world and Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation to bring in evil. Augustine claimed that “original sin” infected the human race and caused death. Later she writes,

For if we believe that an all-powerful God created a “very good” world, what happened to it? While the Buddha declared as his first noble truth that “all life is suffering,” Jewish and Christian theologians, on the contrary, speak of “the problem of suffering,” as if suffering and death were not intrinsic elements of nature but alien intruders on an originally perfect creation.

Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A Personal Story, Harper Collins, 2018, 211 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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