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Popular historian asks, ‘Why religion in the twenty-first century?’

March 7, 2019

Elaine Pagels’ new book, “Why Religion? A Personal Story” (2018), asks a timely question in our age of reason and science. Her answer is a personal one: Human beings suffer and seek help and assurance, often through community, ritual, imagination, prayer, and a variety of religious beliefs which evolve throughout a person’s lifetime.

Pagels is a National Book Award winner, scholar of religion, and teacher at Princeton. She authored “The Gnostic Gospels” (1979); “Adam, Eve and the Serpent;” “The Origins of Satan;” and “Revelations.” Her work has deepened our understanding of early Christianity. She complicates our conventional understandings by identifying how ancient beliefs remain in modern life.

I became aware of Pagels’ work when I was training at the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. Jung had searched for historical prefigurations of his understanding of the collective unconscious, he recognized that ancient gnosticism had been repressed by orthodox Christianity. Pagel’s “The Gnostic Gospels” was published from her research with secret gospels known as the Nag Hammadi Library — papyrus texts buried in an ancient earthen jar that included secret writings from the beginning of the Christian era, the same time the New Testament Gospels were written. These include The Gospels of Philip; of Thomas; of Mary; of Truth, etc.

The early church was not the unified body we assume it to be. The followers of Jesus did not believe the same things. Some early Christians did not believe in a bodily resurrection. Many believed that the divine was within the human so the way to salvation was through self-knowledge. Gnostic Christians believed in a God who was both Father and Mother. They understood women and men as spiritual equals. “Gnosis,” from the Greek, means “knowledge, a knowing of the heart of spiritual truth.

“Why Religion?” is not an academic read. Pagels addresses the question, “When we say ‘religion,’ what are we talking about?” This book is a readable, poetic, personal story of her challenging life. Her young son died of a terminal illness at age six; her husband died fifteen months later while mountain climbing. She had to raise two other young children by herself. In her experiences of devastation, she admits disdain for “the facile comfort that churches often dole out like Kleenex.” She reminds us that “no one escapes terrible loss.”

Pagels was a born-again Christian at an early age, but she was not necessarily a devout believer. A Jewish friend in young adulthood died in a car accident. Her evangelical Christian friends said the young man would go to hell as a disbeliever. This was one of many experiences that led to disillusionment. Many evangelical friends saw their religion as “a club for people spiritually superior to everyone who didn’t share their beliefs. Numb, devastated, and alone, I left the church and never went back.” She now admits she is somewhat of a heretic.

Today, many Christians insist on only one set of dogmatic beliefs, usually what their denominations endorse. Pagel’s story and her discernment of the ancient gospels can open the reader to wider wisdom than by following a single path. This is a fine book which can deepen our spiritual practices. Her story addresses and illustrates her answer to the question, “Why religion?” The secret gospels spoke to her suffering: “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.” Wise advice to us as we too must look into the darkness and do our own inner work.

The existential theologian, Paul Tillich, noted that a person’s religious faith cannot be “imposed” but rather must “unfold” from his or her personal experiences. Pagel’s Why Religion? bears witness to this. It is a work which challenges both our minds and hearts. It reminds us that suffering is a common and essential element of life. This work will resonate with readers who have experienced tragedy, trauma, vulnerability, despair, loss and grief which evoke questions that dogmatic beliefs cannot adequately address.

This book is available at the Cabell County Public Library.

David J. Dalrymple, Ph.D., is affiliate minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charleston, a pastoral psychotherapist and Jungian psychoanalyst, and has been adjunct faculty in Religious Studies at Marshall University.