By Dan Clendenin
This interview with Elaine Pagels by Terry Gross appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (November 5, 2018).
NPR: Religion scholar Elaine Pagels lost her young son to terminal illness and her husband a year later in an accident. Her new book combines memoir and biblical scholarship to reflect on loss and faith.
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Why is religion still around in the 21st century? Why look to ancient texts, beliefs and practices in an age when scientists have made so many breakthroughs about the nature and origin of the universe? These are questions religion scholar Elaine Pagels has spent a lot of time thinking about. The questions became deeply personal during a long period of grieving. Her life was shattered by the death of her son Mark at the age of 6 1/2 following a long illness. In 1988, just over a year after what she thought was the worst loss she could imagine, her husband, Heinz Pagels, a theoretical physicist and the executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences, died in a mountain climbing accident.
Her new book, “Why Religion?: A Personal Story” combines memoir and biblical scholarship to reflect on how she found faith and lost it but turned to ancient Jewish and Christian texts and the meditation she was taught by Trappist monks to comprehend her feelings of guilt, anger and unceasing grief and to try to survive long enough to move beyond it. Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton University and is best known for her writings on the gnostic gospels, the Christian texts that were omitted from the canon because they were considered heretical.
Elaine Pagels, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think your book will especially resonate with anyone who’s lost a loved one, which is most people. But at this time, I think it’s also especially relevant because American Jews were just slaughtered at their synagogue. African-Americans in 2015 slaughtered at their church. Children have been massacred in their schools, along with some of their teachers. And I think as a country, we’re looking right now for a sense of meaning in this personal and collective suffering that we’re going through and for a sense of comprehension about what is going on. And since your book is, in part, about the search for meaning when you’re suffering, what have you been thinking about in terms of the collective grief that we’re going through as a country right now?
ELAINE PAGELS: All of us have been feeling the tremendous vulnerability of living in a country in which atrocities happen, hatreds have been ripped open, people have been violated and killed and harmed in ways that we hadn’t imagined could happen again in this country and, of course, throughout the world. So I had to open up the story to a much wider story to think about, how do human beings cope with the terrible vulnerabilities we face? But I’ve been thinking about this a long time — not just about the meaning and suffering — because I didn’t want to write just a grief memoir. There are a lot of those. I wanted to write about how hearts can heal, you know, how we recover from things like that.
What you mention — these acts of violence made me well aware, all the time I was writing, that I’ve never had to deal with that. I’ve never dealt with that. I dealt with accident and illness and the losses that came, but I think that people who deal with violent killing — it’s an order of magnitude greater. It’s very painful to think about.
GROSS: So your book is, in part, like we said, about the search for meaning when you’re suffering. And as you point out, you’re a historian of religion. You look at how cultures have dealt with things like suffering and loss. But could you turn to a specific religion for the things you needed when you lost your son and then your husband?
PAGELS: At the time of mourning, I couldn’t look to anything very much that was a tradition like that. They seemed quite remote. What I could turn to were friends and music and nature — and eventually look at the traditions that are most familiar to me, which are Jewish, Christian and Buddhist now that I’m teaching a class on Buddhism with a colleague, whose specialty is Tibetan Buddhism.
GROSS: You write, many of us have left religious institutions behind and prefer to identify as spiritual, not religious. You say, I’ve done both, had faith and lost it, joined groups and left them. To my own surprise, I went back, wanting to understand what happened and to explore the stories, poetry, music and art that make up religious traditions. You grew up in a secular family, and you write religion actually made your father angry. Why?
PAGELS: Yes, it made him angry because he’d been raised by fiercely Presbyterian parents who apparently talked a great deal about hell and damnation, and he wanted to get out of that as soon as he could. So when he heard about Darwin, he just abandoned the whole ship and said, that’s for people who aren’t educated, not people like us. So he wanted to distance himself from that, became a scientist and said, this is the way to find truth.
GROSS: Did you grow up a skeptic about religion?
PAGELS: I didn’t grow up a skeptic. The family was culturally Protestant. So sometimes, my mother took us to a Methodist Church, which seemed to me well-meaning and, basically, fairly boring — that particular church. And it didn’t have an enormous impact. What I find now is that these traditions — these powerful, thousand-year-old traditions — multi thousands of years — are very deep, and they appeal to us very viscerally. And when they do, they are quite extraordinary. When I first experienced it like that, I thought that’s astonishing and fell into it, but I didn’t want to be simply captured by the emotional intensity of that experience because that can trap you into a particular, shall we say, ideology that I found too confining.
GROSS: Well, you were born again at the age of 15 after some friends convinced you — you were living in Palo Alto, and some friends convinced you to go to San Francisco with them to hear Billy Graham as part of his crusade for Christ. What year do you think that was?
PAGELS: That was marvelous. It was at the end of the ’50s, I think. I was a teenager, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. I just thought it might be interesting. And I found it enormously powerful. And that was a big surprise. And, of course, as you say it, it really made my parents horrified when they heard that I had actually jumped right in.
GROSS: You joined the other side.
PAGELS: Well, born again — I mean, that was probably their worst nightmare — evangelical Christianity. What I realized is that there’s a great deal of power in that kind of conviction that Billy Graham expressed, that was articulated through the music. There were 18,000 people in Candlestick Park, which is a sports arena. It was an overpowering experience. And Billy Graham, to my surprise, was talking about the United States in a way that I had never heard. So that struck me deeply.
GROSS: What did he say that struck you like that?
PAGELS: Well, first of all, he said that what he preached was going to be — sound very strange to intellectuals and academics. And that’s the world I grew up in because my father was in that world. And it really did. He, first of all, denounced America for driving its most brilliant sons — of course, then, he only thought of men doing this — into the sciences to build bigger nuclear weapons. And this is only decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So I was stunned because I had been brought up to think, well, you know, science is the way to find, you know, understanding. And America is the gold standard of moral rightness. And to hear him talk about America, about nuclear weapons used against the Japanese, about slavery and segregation, I was totally hooked because I’d never heard anyone speak that way, and it sounded accurate.
GROSS: And were there spiritual things that he said that spoke to you, as well?
PAGELS: Yes. He also appealed completely to somebody who just turned 15. He said, now you can have a new life. You can be born again. You can break out of the confines of the world you live in — for me, that was suburban Palo Alto — and sort of break into a new universe, a much larger canvas, and, you know, find a new family. And I thought, wow. I — that was an irresistible invitation.
GROSS: So, you know, it’s interesting that death tested your faith pretty soon. You know, you were looking to art and music and poetry for a sense of larger meaning, too.
GROSS: And a good friend of yours named Paul was a painter, and he taught you about painting, and you were very close. And then he was killed in a car crash. He was a passenger…
GROSS: …In the car. And that tested your faith because of things that your fellow Christian friends said to you. What were some of those things?
PAGELS: Well, it wasn’t even they tested my faith. It — whatever that meant. I went back to my Evangelical friends. My friend Paul who was killed was 16 in high school. And when I went back to the evangelical church, my friends were very sympathetic, and they said, oh, that’s terrible. Was he born again? And I said, no, he was Jewish. And then they looked at me, stunned, and said, well, then he’s in hell. And I thought, what? That has nothing to do with what attracted me to this kind of community, this kind of conviction — God loves you, all of that. It has nothing to do with that. It’s antithetical. And I felt completely alone, walked out of there and never went back.
GROSS: Did you want to find another church after that, or did you just give up?
PAGELS: No (laughter). No, because I felt that they were all selling different brands of a certain product which could get caught in particular shapes and that they wanted to sort of force people to think a certain way. And I was not having it at that time, Terry.
GROSS: So a little detour here because this is the part of your story that intersects with Jerry Garcia. And I thought, what? Elaine Pagels knew Jerry Garcia before he was in The Grateful Dead? That just kind of shocked me. So…
GROSS: …Was he in that car accident?
PAGELS: Yes. He had been in Palo Alto, playing music, hanging out at various places — Ken Kesey’s house up in Los Trancos Woods and in town. And he was older than the rest of us. But those of us in high school who knew that group were fascinated. He was a brilliant guitarist, and he taught us all kinds of music we never heard of. So I didn’t know him very closely, but he was very much a part of that group. When Paul my friend was killed in a car crash, it was coming from a party where Jerry and Alan Trist, who was his — later, his business manager, were in the car, as well as two other people. And Jerry was actually thrown out of the windshield. And Alan, I think, broke his back, or he had a terrible accident. And so we became, after that, rather close friends because we spent time together after the accident with a couple of other friends who had known each other before.
GROSS: You speculate in the book that The Grateful Dead was named in part because he survived this car crash. And, you know, Paul did not. Do you have any evidence that that really was the source of the name of the band?
PAGELS: Yes. I did speculate that. It seemed obvious to me. And then later, I read something about it. I never — I didn’t see him after that, I mean, after he formed the group. That was years later. But I saw, in a biography about the group, that he said that accident woke him up and made him realize he didn’t have endless time. And he had to get serious. And so the name of the group, as I understand it, came from that accident.
GROSS: So a question that you’ve always had — and this question kind of resounds throughout your book — is, why does religion continue to exist? With all we know about science now, why does religion exist? And what do we want from it? It’s not a question that you can answer in the course of an interview. But along those same lines, you know, you’re a historian of religion. So whether you practice a specific religion or not, you are immersed in the text of Judaism, Christianity. Now you’re teaching Buddhism, as well.
PAGELS: Well, I’m co-teaching…
GROSS: Co-teaching it. OK.
PAGELS: I wouldn’t teach it alone.
GROSS: Yeah. Your late husband, Heinz Pagels, was a theoretical physicist and studied chaos theory. Can you…
GROSS: …Talk about some of the similarities and differences between how you approached similar questions about the workings of the world and finding meaning in life? — him, from his point of view as a theoretical physicist studying chaos theory and you, from your point of view studying the great religious texts or at least…
GROSS: …Some of the great religious texts.
PAGELS: The question I started asking — after I’d left that church for years, I thought there’s something powerful there that — what was it? Was it about Christianity? Was it about religion? What was it? A part of it, Terry, was a kind of emotionally charged imaginative language that is spoken in these traditions — you know? — and was not really spoken in my home. It was also based on the assumption that science was somehow equivalent to religion.
Years later, when I met Heinz, he said to me, why religion? Why do you do something that has no impact in the real world? And I said, well, why do you do elementary particles? And we sort of laughed and argued and realized that we were both looking for some fundamental way of understanding our experience. And what I came to see, living with this wonderful scientist and wonderful man, is that he understood that physics does not answer metaphysical questions. And religions are a different kind of paradigm, an imaginative paradigm that talks about meaning in ways that scientists don’t and can’t. And so these are complementary. I came to understand that. And that’s one of the reasons that the religious traditions aren’t obsolete.
GROSS: When you got to Harvard as a graduate student, you found that your professors had facsimiles of the gnostic gospels. So, rather than me explaining what those gospels are, give us a brief explanation.
PAGELS: My professors had access to 51 ancient texts that we’d never seen before. Actually, they’re Jewish. They’re Christian. Some are Egyptian and Greek. They’re all sacred texts. Many of them claimed to be gospels about Jesus or transcriptions of conversations he had with various disciples. So they offer a whole enormous resource of — range of voices about the early Christian movement and its environment culturally. So I began to look at these, and we were told they were all heresy. They were called gnostic because that’s the word that historians had coined for heretical texts that were rejected from what is now the New Testament.
GROSS: And give us an example of something that you found in these gnostic texts that reoriented your sense of religion or gave you something to hold onto in terms of finding or creating meaning.
PAGELS: When I first read some of these texts, the gospel of Thomas, for example, which claims to be secret teachings of Jesus, I was stunned and delighted to read things like, Jesus says 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. And this was a very different sense of the teachings of Jesus. It’s not about Jesus as Son of God and, you know, the coming of the end of time at all. It’s a teaching basically that is an interpretation of the image in Genesis about everyone created in the image of God, which means that all beings come forth from the same source, from the divine light. There’s another saying in which Jesus says, I am the light that is before all things; I am all things; all things come forth from me; all things return to me; split a piece of wood, and I am there; lift up a rock, and you will find me. Now, this is powerful — you might call it mystical teaching about the unity of the world coming from a divine energy before the beginning of time. It’s not necessarily Christian. That was also stunning.
GROSS: I want to get back to your personal story. You and your husband had a baby after trying to conceive and then fertility treatment. So you gave birth to a son, but he was born with a serious heart problem that would require surgery after he reached the age of 1 and was strong enough to endure the surgery. The surgery seemed to go OK, but you later discovered that he had another fatal problem, pulmonary hypertension. You were told that that was fatal, that it would eventually, sooner or later, lead to an early death. Your son died when he was 6 1/2. So for 6 1/2 years, you loved your son knowing that he wouldn’t live long. And instead of planning for his future — when you looked into the future, you saw his death. And when he died, you felt guilty, even though it sounds like you did everything to give him the maximum amount of love and care. Why do you think you felt guilty?
PAGELS: That’s a good question because parents who are given a very difficult diagnosis about a child will do anything. And also physicians will do anything. They go to extreme lengths to deal with trying to treat a child with that kind of thing. And yet what I was reading at the time — I felt just in agony, of course, about this because it matters more to a parent than our own lives, you know, that our children survive. And yet there was nothing we could do. That sense of helplessness was almost intolerable. And I realized that I felt guilty about it. And yet at a certain critical point in my son’s treatment, I realized that the guilt was only masking something much deeper and much more painful than guilt. And what it was masking was the fact that we were helpless, that there was nothing we could do. We had no input. As long as I felt guilty, I felt, well, at least it’s my fault or I have some agency in something that matters more to me than my own life. But if I have no agency, I mean, that’s almost intolerable. And I realized that I’d rather feel guilty than helpless. It’s a choice I made unconsciously. And I think many people do because the feeling that we can’t do anything and we have no input is more than we can bear.
GROSS: We blame ourselves when we’re suffering. Suffering feels like punishment, like we’re being punished for something. Did you go through that?
PAGELS: Oh, yes. I mean, I was reading anthropologists, too. That quote that suffering feels like punishment comes from an anthropologist and then another who wrote about the accidental death of his young wife when they were working together in the Philippines. She also fell from a cliff and was killed. He talks about guilt, and he says Western people raised in Jewish and Christian tradition in which say the story of Genesis says that we only die because Adam sinned. In other words, humans are guilty. If we weren’t guilty, we wouldn’t die. Now, that’s, I think, scientifically ridiculous. But psychologically (laughter), humans are guilty. If we weren’t guilty, we wouldn’t die. Now, that’s I think scientifically ridiculous, but psychologically, it’s rather powerful. And he said, there’s another response that this masks, which is also anger. And he talked about that. So the turmoil of feelings is very complicated, as anyone in that situation knows. And we had to struggle with it, try to untangle it, try to cope with it and then at — some way let it go.
GROSS: After your son died, some people said to you, your faith must have sustained you. What was your reaction when people said that to you?
PAGELS: When people said that, I thought, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never felt further than anything they were calling faith then at a time of intense grief. That felt extremely remote to me. And I did wonder, you know, how can one go through this? How can one survive it? I wasn’t certain that I could at all.
GROSS: In the story of Jesus, you know, the story is that God sacrificed the life of his son. So put that in your words.
PAGELS: Well, I remember after our son died, I went to the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to talk to people there about the service that we would have. And I heard somebody preparing for Easter — it was right before Easter — talking about God so loved the world that he gave his only son to save the world from sin or something. And I just thought, any god who did that would have to be crazy. I mean, that doesn’t make sense. Our only son had just died. How could one do that for any reason?
Now, I understand why it’s said historically. I understand how it was put together that way. But it struck me as dissonant that this was somehow a sacrifice and something that would have been willed. What I found later in one of the secret texts from the discoveries in Upper Egypt with the gospel of Thomas was a text called the gospel of truth. And that one has a very different perspective. It doesn’t see suffering as sort of ennobling, as teaching you something, as deepening your faith. I don’t like to say good things about suffering. I don’t like suffering. It’s very painful.
But this other text talks about suffering not as if it were some kind of wonderful state that can teach you a spiritual lesson. I think that kind of piety is very much overrated. Certainly it would have been for me. But rather, this spoke about the fact that when people suffer, there is a potential in that dreadful complex of experiences of grief to open up to other people in a deeper way, that it can demonstrate our connection with all other people. And for me, that’s — that feels accurate. And I’m grateful for that.
GROSS: When you wanted that connection after your son died and then also after your husband died, did you seek that fellowship in church, or did you — just to get outside of church with friends, with people who you were close to?
PAGELS: I sought it in any way possible. The monks at Snowmass monastery — it’s a Trappist monastery. Father Thomas Keating, who died this week, was there.
GROSS: Oh, I’m so sorry. You were close to him?
PAGELS: Yes. Yes. Thomas was there. And Father Joseph died last week, too. He was the abbot. Those monks are Trappists. They don’t do doctrine and dogma. I don’t like doctrine and dogma, as you can tell. They meditate. They pray. They work. And they seek a deeper communion with each other and with all being. And from them I learned a lot about meditation. So that was one way. There were also wonderful friends without whom I couldn’t have survived. There was music, and there were two babies that we had adopted who needed care. And that work, difficult as it was at the time, was probably very sustaining.
When I came back to Princeton, I couldn’t teach at the time. I was incapable of the energy it took to do that. But I kept exploring and thinking and reflecting and musing on all the ways that these traditions like the stories of Job in the Hebrew Bible, the stories of Jesus in the New Testament, the stories of the Buddha — how these traditions explore and struggle with the questions of dealing with illness and death and loss. And those were also helpful. They became a kind of yoga. My work became a kind of yoga for me, another way of finding a way through it.
GROSS: Did you have a sense that, like, after you lost your son when he was 6 1/2 after he died from an illness that you would be kind of immune because, like, you were given, like, the horror that you had to suffer through, and now you could, like, move on and face the future with a constant sense of grief but still — did you have the sense of, like, you were done, you had been afflicted and lightning wasn’t going to strike twice? Because it did strike twice. Like, your husband died in…
GROSS: …In a mountain climbing accident just slightly over a year after your son died.
PAGELS: Absolutely. After our son died, we felt that the worst thing we could imagine had happened. It was — the sword had fallen. Nothing worse could happen now. And so we went on with the two children we had. One was 3 months old, and one was 2. And nothing could happen, right? The horror was behind us. His accident was beyond any imagination. And that’s when I thought, it’s unimaginable; how can I possibly survive this?
GROSS: On the first anniversary of your husband’s death, you went to Colorado, where he was killed in a mountain climbing accident and where you used to summer, and you meditated with the Trappist monks who you’d befriended there. And you say you used to have a tape loop in your mind of your husband falling from the cliff toward the rocks below. And that’s where the tape would stop and then start over again. So you had this constant image of him falling toward the rocks, but that’s as far as the image went.
GROSS: But when you were meditating with the Trappist monks, that image in your mind continued, and you actually saw in your mind your husband hitting the rocks and a river of blood flowing. What do you think it was about meditating with the monks that furthered that image? And what was it like to live with that image as opposed to having it ending before the moment of impact?
PAGELS: That’s a good question. That tape loop began as soon as I heard of the accident. It seemed to go — it seemed to flip through my imagination every few seconds, and then every five seconds and maybe 10 or 20. By a year later, it was less frequent, but it was often there. When I went into the chapel with Theophane (ph), whose name means God manifest — an extraordinary monk — and we meditated for about an hour, there was a great deal of sense of support in the silence of that communal meditation. And I felt that I dared — this was not a conscious choice — I’d felt that I allowed that image to go where it was going, to actually envision the whole accident.
It felt to me as though I actually saw it happen, although as I said later to a counselor that one of my friends referred me to — a grief counselor — she said, well, people don’t really think someone has died. They don’t really believe somebody has died until they can actually envision the whole event. And when someone dies, say, in an airplane accident, it’s very hard to do that.
So somehow, I think we need to be able to imagine and experience as much as possible of what happened because it’s a constant preoccupation for people in grief. And when that happened, it was shocking. It was also some kind of release because that’s what happened. I said to the grief counselor, well, everything about it seemed completely realistic except there was so much blood. That couldn’t have been realistic. And she looked at me and said, that’s what happens in this kind of accident.
GROSS: So once you had that kind of image completed with the moment of impact and the blood, did the tape loop stop?
PAGELS: That’s an interesting question, Terry. I hadn’t thought of it. It certainly was never as obsessive as it was before. I don’t go through that tape loop now.
GROSS: So you’ve spoken of meditation, of prayer. Where are you now in terms of your religious life?
PAGELS: I love my work because it allows me to explore the religious life of countless people in countless ages, in different traditions. I find that there are important elements of my experience that resonate with what I hear in Jewish and Christian and Buddhist tradition. I think of it as Marianne Moore says of poetry. She talks about poetry as imaginary gardens with real toads in them.
And I think, well, the gardens may be imaginary like the Garden of Eden, but there are human realities in the story that I connect with just the way that, you know, you and I would connect with the real truth, say, in a poem, in a writing of fiction, in music. And it touches us deeply even though the poem and the fiction may not be literally true. When you’re dealing with matters of this kind of experience, they can’t be articulated in some direct way. You know, as Emily Dickinson said, you tell the truth, but tell it slant, you know? You have to put it into metaphor or into silence or into some kind of image or story.
GROSS: So you find the stories powerful and meaningful, but you don’t believe in God per se. Is that a good description?
PAGELS: I don’t — people ask about believing in God. You know, Terry, I think that belief is overrated. Talking about religions as if they were about belief takes an image that’s basically forged in Christian tradition and applies it to Judaism, applies it to Buddhism or Hinduism. And in other traditions, belief is not so much the center as practice — saying the prayers, saying the Shama or going to worship, participating with others in certain acts, prayer.
Those things I think are more meaningful to me than sets of beliefs. I react the way I do because Christianity in particular was formulated in the 4th century as a set of doctrines in the Nicene Creed, as you know. And, you know, that’s all very nice for the 4th century, but I don’t find that a compelling statement for me. So I don’t think it — for me it feels like so much a matter of what you believe but how you engage these traditions, how you live into them and share them with other people. But that’s why for me it is not simply one tradition that speaks to it.
GROSS: So when you describe your version of religion as a practice, are there things — are there rituals or ceremonies or prayers from whatever religion that is a part of your practice, or do you see, like, scholarship as being rituals or ceremonies or prayers from whatever religion that is a part of your practice, or do you see, like, scholarship as being the practice — like, understanding and making connections as being the practice?
PAGELS: I do it all (laughter). I love scholarship and research. It’s a wonderful part of my life. I go to an Episcopal church often. I love the music. I — the person who’s the priest there is a man of spiritual depth, which I deeply appreciate. I go to yoga almost every day. That’s a physical and also contemplative practice — meditate sometimes. I walk in the woods, see my friends — I would say all of it. I don’t mean to mean that this is — it’s all part of a whole mosaic of different parts of one’s life. But I do have a sense that seeking for what I would call a spiritual dimension and engaging it is something that is very important to my life. That’s why I said — when people say, are you religious? I say yes, incorrigibly. That doesn’t mean that I, you know, go to church every day. It means that I’m enormously susceptible to what you spoke of before — the music, the rituals, the traditions, the prayers that I find there and also, too, those that we create. I wrote about also creating rituals, and many people do that. Many artists do that. And what many artists do is, feels to me, very closely akin to what I’m talking about.
GROSS: You end your book with a Jewish prayer. Blessed art thou, Lord God of the universe, that you have brought us alive to see this day. What does that mean to you?
PAGELS: As I wrote, it’s very surprising to me that long after these events happened, I feel alive and well. The children that I had to raise are alive and well, that people can recover from things that seemed impossible to recover from. I did see other people go into despair. And that, for me, seemed like a real possibility. I didn’t want to go there (laughter). I wanted to find an alternative to that, to find a way to live with hope and joy and courage. And that prayer speaks to coming out of that kind of isolation and fear. It speaks about gratitude for how we get through things.
GROSS: Well, Elaine Pagels, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and for reflecting so much about your life, your grief, the role of religion in your life as a scholar and just as a person. And thank you for writing your book.
PAGELS: Well, thank you. I really loved talking with you about it.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org
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