Elaine Pagels is an American religious historian who has conducted extensive research into early Christianity and Gnosticism. A controversial scholar because she questions many traditional Christian teachings, Pagels is called a heretic by some peers while others herald her as one of the great Christian scholars of the last 40 years. Pagels has gained a reputation for asking hard questions; the latest, “Why Religion?” is answered in this autobiography with the same title.
Pagels had a life-changing “born again” experience after responding to a Billy Graham altar call at San Francisco’s Cow Palace when she was 15. Among Evangelical Christians, “I’d begun to find a much larger family, in which people talk freely and passionately, hugged each other, and shouted praises to God.”
Concurrently, Pagels became part of San Francisco revolutionaries, which included guitarist Jerry Garcia and artist Paul Speegle. Of Speegle she confesses, “I responded to his extravagant declarations of love, and his vision of himself as artist, and me as his muse.” But then tragedy suddenly ended their relationship when 16-year-old Paul was killed in an automobile accident. Her Evangelical friends immediately asked, “Was he born again?” Pagels answered, “No, he was Jewish!” Her friends responded, “Then he’s in hell.” Pagels refuted their supposition, walked away from that congregation and never returned.
The untimely death of Paul led to disillusionment and suspicion of traditional Christianity, especially its claim that “outside the church there is no salvation.” But Pagel’s curiosity about Jesus and religion never diminished. Shortly after graduating from Stanford University she entered Harvard University to pursue a PhD. in religion and seek some answers to her deep-seated questions.
At Harvard she was introduced to long-lost first century gospels found in 1945 at the Egyptian community, Nag Hammadi. The Gospel of Thomas especially spoke to her and she read it with keen interest. The Jesus depicted by Thomas urges his followers to find the divine within themselves, rather than a being from a heavenly place. She embraced this teaching and wrote about it. The young scholar’s ground breaking research brought her instant academic and popular recognition.
In the early 1980s, Pagels and her husband, physicist Heinz Pagels, decided it was time to start a family. After years of yearning and fertility treatments they had a son they named Mark. The infant was immediately diagnosed with a terminal congenital heart ailment. They were told Mark would not live very long and, as forewarned, he died in 1987 when he was in kindergarten.
Pagels and her husband also had adopted a girl and, after Mark’s death, another boy. Then, in mid-1988, tragedy struck again. One day, 49-year-old Heinz was hiking in the mountains when the gravel trail gave way and he slipped to his death. Pagels was devastated, numb. She was now a widow with two children under the age of two. The feeling of loss was unspeakable. “Sometimes outbursts of sobs began uncontrollably; more often I’d try to cry, but no tears would come.”
Pagels buried herself in her work, finding refuge in academia examining the wisdom in the 52 ancient scrolls housed in the Nag Hammadi Library. She discloses the inner work the deaths of a close friend, as well as her son and husband forced upon her, at that time. Her inner turmoil caused her to search for answers to such questions as “What happens after death?” and “Is suffering divine punishment for sin?”
Slowly her inquiries led her to find some comfort through the profound sayings found in the early scrolls. The chief theme that runs through all the insights she gained is that God is present within each of us and connects all human beings.
“In Thomas, then, the ‘good news’ is not only about Jesus; it’s also about every one of us,” Pagels writes. “For while we ordinarily identify ourselves by specifying how we differ… [the sayings] suggest that recognizing we are ‘children of God’ requires us to recognize how we are the same.”
Pagels is acclaimed by many Christian skeptics and ridiculed by those who hold traditional views. Her free, non-doctrinal and questioning approach to God will offend some readers, while others will find her approach a breath of fresh air. The account of her grief and how it drove her to deep theological searching will touch a chord with everyone. “Why Religion?” is a meaningful journey of heartache and hope.