Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A Personal Story (New York: HarperCollins, 2018), 235pp.
It's hard to believe that it's been forty years since Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University, published her book The Gnostic Gospels (1979). That best-selling and award-winning book was a popular introduction to the fifty-two Christian and Gnostic texts that were discovered by a farmer in the town of Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 (not to be confused with the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls). Although best known for that controversial book, since finishing her graduate studies at Harvard in 1970, Pagels has published another eight books that explore various trajectories of these non-canonical texts.
As its subtitle suggests, her newest book is different. After fifty years working on the gnostic texts as a scholar, this "intensely personal" book describes how these texts have worked on her as a grieving mother and wife. In April 1987, Pagels's son Mark died at the age of six, after having been born with a hole in one of the walls of his heart — a condition for which they always knew there was no treatment or cure. Fifteen months later, in July 1988, her husband Heinz died in a mountain climbing accident.
In the language of the Quakers, Pagels explores how the gnostic texts, and especially the "secret wisdom" in the Gospel of Thomas, "spoke to my condition" (181). Why do we suffer? How is one to negotiate the "unspeakable, unimaginable sorrow," the shock, and the "messy emotions?" How do you go on "without drowning in despair?" What about the anger, the guilt, and the illusion that we have control over our lives? Her book thus takes its place in the literature of grief as she searches for healing and meaning in a chaotic world.
Pagels says that she's not a "traditional believer," but that she nonetheless remains "incorrigibly" religious. At the end of her book she acknowledges that her own conclusions might not speak to others. We all have "varieties of religious experiences," she says, quoting William James. Nonetheless, beyond the particular and the personal, she affirms something universal for us all: in the words of her beloved husband Heinz, she has decided to "stand on the side of life."