Joseph Preville Elaine Pagels

Elaine Pagels discusses what led her to explore religious history and how her life experiences were interwoven with her work.

Elaine PagelsPrinceton University Professor Elaine Pagels is one of America’s most respected scholars. She is noted for her many groundbreaking books, including The Gnostic Gospels (Random House, 1979), Adam, Eve and the Serpent (Random House, 1988), The Origin of Satan (Random House, 1995), and Beyond Belief (Random House, 2003).  In her beautiful new book, Why Religion? (Ecco, November 6, 2018), Pagels weaves together the joyous and tragic threads of her life in a moving spiritual memoir of courage, hope, and grace. “And since everything we experience,” she writes, “shapes what we are capable of understanding, I’ve interwoven this personal story with the work that I love, acknowledging such connections helps us understand the past and illuminate the present.”

Elaine Pagels discusses her new book in this interview.

Joseph Richard Preville: Thank you for your beautiful book.  Was it a healing experience for you to write this book?

Elaine Pagels: This book is different from anything I’ve written before. Instead of writing about the discovery of secret gospels, or topics, like the origin of Christian anti-Semitism, I wrote a very personal story—about the experiences that impelled me to explore the history of religion, and how my work connects with experiences in my life. Before now, I never thought I’d write like this, since some of those experiences—above all, the loss of our six-year old son to a very rare lung disease, and then, about a year later, the shocking death of my wonderful husband, the physicist, Heinz Pagels, in a mountaineering accident. For more than two decades after that, writing about such losses felt utterly impossible; but eventually, we need to deal with what happens, or we cannot live fully. So, although it took seven years to write—the most difficult writing I’ve ever done—the process has offered some perspective; and there’s also a lot about this book that I enjoy.

JRP: What sparked your early interest in the study of religion and the origins of Christianity?

EP: When I was growing up in California, my family was culturally Protestant, but my father had given up the fierce Presbyterianism of his parents as soon as he read Darwin, and became a research biologist. The only people who were serious about religion, I was told, were ignorant of science!  I loved poetry, music, dance, and stories—and only encountered powerful religious experience when, in high school, I happened to go with friends to an evangelical revival—Billy Graham at the sports stadium in San Francisco, preaching to a crowd of eighteen thousand!  To my own surprise, I loved it, and was “born again”; joined an evangelical church for about a year—until some people there told me that a close friend was in hell, because he was Jewish—wasn’t Jesus Jewish? That didn’t seem to matter. I was shocked and devastated; left and never went back. I went to New York to study dance at the Martha Graham School, with great enthusiasm, and discovered that I was pretty good at it—but that’s not good enough, in New York—so I had to look for plan B. I still had questions about what had hit me during that episode with evangelical Christians: who was Jesus? What do we actually know? And does it matter?  So, I decided to find out, and chose a secular university, which offered a doctoral program in the study of religion—you could choose Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, or Christianity. When I arrived, I was amazed to hear that our professors had file cabinets full of gospels I’d never heard of—the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Truth—and dozens of other ancient sacred writings, previously unknown—that totally change how we used to think about how Christianity began. Fascinated, I dove right in!

JRP: What challenges and hazards did you face as a female graduate student at Harvard University in the 1960s?

Elaine Pagels Why ReligionEP: The first challenge was getting in—very few women had ever been admitted to the doctoral program. But after arriving, I was delighted; this was nearly the only place in the country where graduate students and faculty were allowed—invited!– to read, translate, and publish these astonishing secret texts, working with scholars who were transforming the field: what a privilege! Much of it was amazing, although, like most women admitted around that time, I encountered a couple of professors who were sexual predators, at a time when reporting them would have met with denial, silence, and disbelief. Others, though, were the best teachers I’d ever met, offering us the opportunity to participate on an adventure that felt like the greatest detective story ever.

JRP: Your books have been praised and criticized.  How did you cope with all the public attention and scrutiny?

EP: Right after graduate school, as an assistant professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, I decided to write about these texts so that people who weren’t scholars could hear about them. So, after writing two scholarly monographs and a handful of articles, I wrote The Gnostic Gospels. The surprise, and the  good news, was that this book—by an unknown, untenured writer, was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Book Review; but the bad news is that the reviewer, Reverend Raymond E. Brown, was a renowned senior scholar, a Sulpician Catholic priest, and president of our professional society—who declared that these secret gospels were “rubbish in the first century, and are still rubbish”—and that discussing them along with the real gospels—those in the New Testament—was misleading the public! My professor at Oxford, the traditionalist Henry Chadwick, denounced them in The Times Literary Supplement as well—a very public barrage of attacks by scholars I respected—yet others shared my enthusiasm, and sent buckets of praise. What I learned is that neither praise nor attacks mattered as much as I’d imagined they would—and since then, most scholars have come to appreciate the enormous significance of these discoveries.

JRP: How did marriage and motherhood deepen your spirituality?

EP: I was very lucky in my marriage to a wonderful, loving, kind, adventurous man, whom I adored for the twenty-two years we shared our lives, deeply interwoven; our close and joyful connection made everything easier and more enjoyable—I’d never imagined how wonderful marriage could be! And we were never happier than when our son, Mark, was born.  Shocked to hear Mark diagnosed, at the age of two, with a disease that the doctors called “invariably fatal,” we nevertheless loved our life with him. Facing the unimaginable possibility of losing him, we hoped to have more children, and adopted two babies.  That took faith in the future, and in our capacity to cope; but we knew we could do it together.

JRP: What were your sources of comfort and strength in times of tragedy?

EP: After Mark died, and the horrendous shock of Heinz’s accidental death, I was devastated. If anything could have destroyed me, it would have been those two events. But now I had two babies to care for by myself—and felt that falling apart would not honor them, or their memories. Sources of comfort and strength? Friends who were there, and who helped us get though; too much to say to write in a line or two—the book talks about that. Having to raise two children, teach full-time, I found that my work, writing history of religion, felt like a kind of yoga, in which I explored the emotional turmoil, and the issues such experiences raise.  If this book were primarily about grief, I would not have written it: we all experience that, and who needs to hear it? Resilience and hope are much more interesting: what fascinates me, and what I write about, is how we get through things that we feel we can’t survive.

JRP: You have had a long and distinguished career as a scholar and professor.  Are you pleased with the legacy of scholarship you are leaving behind?

EP: I love the work I’ve been doing, and am now exploring several other secret gospels and other texts from that discovery, which only now we’re beginning to understand more clearly—right now writing about the Gospel of Truth,  a beautiful text that claims to be the secret teaching of Paul—whether it is or not, we don’t know, and that doesn’t matter much to me; it’s a moving and powerful interpretation of meaning in human life– and Thunder, Complete Mind, an ancient poem that speaks in the voice of a feminine divine power—“thunder” is a feminine word in Greek—and includes both Eve and Egyptian goddess Isis as manifestations of divine wisdom, or spirit  (both, in Hebrew, are gendered feminine, allowing Biblical exegetes to read them as personifications of the divine), so there’s much more for our students to go on exploring.

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