Of Faith and Tragedy

A scholar of early Christianity on how her work informed her life

Flickr/Br Albert Robertson OP
Flickr/Br Albert Robertson OP

Why Religion? A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels; Ecco, 235 pp., $27.99

“Why religion, of all things?” a confident young physicist asks the young Elaine Hiesey, while she is pursuing her graduate studies at Harvard. “Why not something that has an impact in the real world?” His question is, for her, more than a little charged—he’s very handsome, she’s in love with him, and later, when they get married, she will become Elaine Pagels. But her future husband’s skepticism was not unusual. As Pagels makes clear in her new memoir, she’s been fielding this question from her peers ever since starting graduate school.

The daughter of a decidedly antireligious father, Pagels was an unlikely candidate for a career in religious studies. But a teenage brush with Billy Graham created in her an early “born again” faith, which lasted until the callous reaction of her fellow Christians to the death of one of her childhood friends. (“Was he born again?” they asked her, and upon hearing that her dead friend was Jewish, responded: “Then he’s in hell.”) Still, her interest in religion remained.

Today, Pagels is best known for her popular works on the gnostics: Christians who believed in secret teachings, or “gnosis,” available only to the few. (The term “gnostic” is subject to debate, but this is the sense in which Pagels uses it.) Her interest in gnostic texts, however, is not only intellectual. She draws enormous personal comfort from them, particularly the Gospel of Thomas. With Why Religion? she tries to answer that question by taking us on a tour of her life and her professional work, showing how one relates to the other, and how the study of Gnosticism buoyed her through loss.

There is a lot of loss. Pagels’s first child, Mark, was born with a heart condition and died at the age of six from pulmonary hypertension. She and her husband, Heinz Pagels, adopted two children, one of them while Mark was still alive, but midway through the adoption process for the second child, Heinz fell to his death while hiking in the mountains. His body was so disfigured by the fall that the doctor would not allow her to see it—only to touch what she thinks might have been a part of his leg through the body bag. Pagels writes about all of this in a placid style, but the grief described in these passages is still raw.

I must acknowledge up front that I do not recognize the Gnostics Pagels portrays in her books, no matter how much I defer to her expertise. It is difficult for me to imagine anything from which I am more inclined to recoil than “Gnosticism,” a way of viewing the world and other people that seems to me chilling and disdainful, privileging strength, self-sufficiency, and intelligence in a world where most people are not strong or self-sufficient or smart. When Pagels writes, for instance, about how Gnosticism emphasizes connectedness, I feel my ears going back: Oh, does it?

Still, for that reason, there is something valuable about her almost romantic enthusiasm for these texts. The gentle and open quality of Pagels’s work, given the amount of personal tragedy lurking behind it, impresses me. I am one of those people who think that beliefs matter, and she, by her own account, has little sympathy for that way of viewing religion, preferring the Gnostic stress on looking within to “inner resources” and the aesthetics of “music, poems, liturgies, rituals, and stories” from various traditions. But sometimes expressions of love are more useful to the skeptical reader than something that sets out to debunk objections point by point, even if this means that the experience of reading her work can be frustrating.

Why Religion?  is a valuable attempt to rescue the religious instinct—which here largely means the desire for meaning, ritual, and some way of coping with death. It fits, however, into another genre: the why-the-humanities book. And like many if not all of these books, it chooses to explain the worth—or at least the so-what-ness—of humanistic study by telling part or all of the writer’s life story.

Pagels writes about the intense personal loss of her child and husband in a placid style, but the grief described in these pass-ages is still raw.

What exactly compels people to write this way? On one level, I get it—for I, too, was formed by books and have passionate reactions to them. Disciplines like literature or philosophy are relevant to everyday life if only because without them, people are ill-equipped to face tragedy or other moments when existential questions become pressing and immediate.

Yet the more these books are published, the more skeptical I am of what they can accomplish. If readers come to a book like Why Religion? already doubting the value of religion in general, and the study of it in particular, will they care that this or that piece of her work was steeped in grief, or written after the death of her son? Much like a conversion narrative, in which the writer hopes to reach potential converts by relating a story that carries an emotional appeal, these books dramatize the experience of intellectual work. They situate the reader in the place of the scholar, hoping to communicate in some visceral way the attractions of mucking about in ancient texts: this is how I fell in love; you can too. It is a scholarly altar call.

But what comes after the altar call? No one book needs to answer this question. Yet the genre, collectively, raises it. We have tremendous faith in individual stories, and for good reason, but sometimes it seems as if we have overburdened them. Sometimes storytelling seems to be the only tool offered, culturally or politically, to advocate for ourselves or the things we love.

Much as love is sometimes more persuasive than argument, I wonder if the best defense of Pagels’s field of study might be her work itself. Surely the subjects that occupy her attention matter not merely because they are important to her, or to me. The Gospel of Thomas provided her with needed counsel not because she projected her own tragedy into it, as one of her colleagues accuses her of doing, but because those meanings were there, waiting to be found. It’s hard to avoid the thought, shutting the book, that Pagels has sold herself—and her work—unnecessarily short.

Perhaps my objection to advocating for your discipline by telling your story is an expression of my preference for seeking God through structured beliefs. Why Religion? positions scholarship almost as its own form of gnosis. But the valuable thing about Pagels’s other work is precisely that she understands this knowledge could be, and was meant to be, shared. You can learn a lot by looking inside yourself. Still, in the end, I would rather look out.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

B. D. McClay is senior editor of The Hedgehog Review.


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