States of Grace

Why Religion?: A Personal Story BY Elaine Pagels. Ecco. Hardcover, 256 pages. $27.

The cover of Why Religion?: A Personal Story

It’s probably Elaine Pagels’s fault I’m a Christian, if I am. When I was in college, one of my professors quoted the Gospel of Thomas in class. I don’t remember which passage he recited, but I remember that it sounded nothing like the gospels I had grown up with. If anything, given my limited repertoire at that time, it reminded me of Kafka or Beckett—terse, enigmatic, wry, gnawing at the edges of the mystical. I lit up like a pinball machine. I needed to hear more. One thing puzzled me: I hadn’t been the most diligent or devout catechumen, but I knew the Bible contained no Gospel of Thomas. Maybe in some version of the Apocrypha? I asked the professor about this mysterious gospel after class, and he directed me to Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels.

Discovered in 1945 by a farmer digging under a cliff outside the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi, the so-called Gnostic Gospels—neither all gnostic nor all gospels—sent the scholarly domain of religious studies into a tizzy. Here, buried for centuries in an earthenware jar, was a gold mine: ancient Coptic translations from the Greek of secret gospels, poems, cosmologies, myths, magic, and mystical guides, mostly unknown since antiquity. References to some of these texts survive in early Christian writings, mostly in the course of denouncing them: The second-century bishop Irenaeus sneers at the “heresies” of the Gospel of Truth and the Apocryphon of John; the brilliant third-century theologian Origen mentions a “Gospel according to Thomas.” But the texts themselves had been assumed long lost—banned and burned as, in Irenaeus’s words, “an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ.” Some brave monk must have defied the order to destroy them, secreting them in a hillside, where they lay unread for 1,600 years.

Detail of Saint Thomas from Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper, 1445–50, fresco, 14' 10" × 32'.
Detail of Saint Thomas from Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper, 1445–50, fresco, 14' 10" × 32'.

On the evidence of these documents, the early Jesus movement was crazier and more diverse than modern people knew. Instead of instructing readers in what to believe—as Paul of Tarsus does in his canonical letters—many of the texts stress the importance of gnosis (which Pagels translates as “insight” or “understanding” rather than the more usual “knowledge”). Some of the texts are not Christian at all, while others seem to reveal the influence of Buddhism. When they do touch on doctrinal matters, it is not hard to see why bishops trying to unify a persecuted church under a single banner of authority would have objected to their heterodox teachings. The Gospel of Philip, for instance, says:

Some say the holy spirit inseminated Mary.
They are wrong and don’t know what they are saying.
When did a woman ever get a woman pregnant?

Other passages deride the notion of bodily resurrection and claim that Jesus often kissed Mary Magdalene “on her mouth.”

The most beguiling feature of the gnostic texts is their cryptic chutzpah. “God is a man-eater,” Philip tells us. “So people are sacrificed to him.” The Gospel of Thomas, especially, defies the expectations of readers of the New Testament. Although it contains several sayings familiar from the canonical gospels, much of Thomas is parsecs away from Matthew’s moral instruction, Luke’s diegesis, or John’s poetic supernaturalism. Only Mark’s dark, riddling ambiguity approaches Thomas’s strangeness. “These are the hidden sayings that the living Yeshua spoke and Yehuda Toma the twin recorded,” it begins. Yehuda Toma—Judas Thomas, or Judas the twin—was said by early Syrian Christians to have been Jesus’s twin brother. The gospel takes the form of a series of logia that resemble nothing so much as the koans (“public cases”) of Zen:

Yeshua said, “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.”

In another verse, Jesus asks his disciples to compare him to something. One says he is like a messenger, another a philosopher. But Thomas says, “Rabbi [or ‘teacher’], my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”

Yeshua said,
I am not your rabbi.
Because you have drunk, you are intoxicated from the bubbling spring I tended.

And he took him and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him.

When Toma came back to his friends, they asked him,
What did Yeshua say to you?

Toma said to them,
If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me,
you will pick up rocks and stone me
and fire will come out of the rocks and consume you.

Here was a Jesus a callow undergraduate like me could get behind—no cross, no resurrection, no final judgment, just a poetic weirdo peeling back the bark of the manifest world to taste the sap beneath. No doubt there was something of the noxious spiritual-but-not-religious tendency in my response; indeed, the Gospel of Thomas is beloved of New Age bricoleurs(see—or don’t—the execrable Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas by the “modern mystic” Tau Malachi). But as I’ve lived with Thomas for two decades, it has come to seem far from the sort of spiritual comfort food Americans seek in, say, Coleman Barks’s deracinated translations of Rumi. It is a demanding, often maddening text, elitist and vulgar in equal measure. It insists that what we need is what we already have—“what is within you.” “Yeshua says, One who seeks will find. For one who knocks it will be opened.” But such assurance is hard to trust. John Ashbery’s anxieties weigh on the one who seeks: “But will he know where to find you, / Recognize you when he sees you, / Give you the thing he has for you?

In her new memoir, Why Religion? A Personal Story, Pagels recounts how, when she encountered the Nag Hammadi texts as a graduate student at Harvard in the 1960s, they upended everything she thought she knew about Christianity. In a sense, they determined the course of her life: Her Gnostic Gospels, published in 1979, just two years after the first English translations were made widely available, introduced the Nag Hammadi texts to the popular imagination. It also made her a star. The book was a best seller that won both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Though skeptically received (the book proved Irenaeus was right, Raymond E. Brown said in the New York Times Book Review, “to regard the gnostics as the crazies of the second century”), The Gnostic Gospels remains a trenchant consideration of “how gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy—and what this tells us about the origins of Christianity itself,” and specifically about “how politics and religion coincide in the development of Christianity.” In each of her subsequent popular books—on Adam and Eve; on Satan; on the Book of Revelation—Pagels has circled back to the gnostic scriptures like a compass needle.

In 2003’s Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, she contrasts Thomas with its dialectical twin, the Gospel of John, in order to tease out her attraction to the desert’s hidden heresies:

What matters in religious experience involves much more than what we believe (or what we do not believe). What is Christianity, and what is religion, I wondered, and why do so many of us still find it compelling, whether or not we belong to a church, and despite difficulties we may have with particular beliefs or practices?

In Why Religion?, Pagels, now seventy-five, pursues these questions by turning to her own life. She has always been a seeker, not a believer. As a teenager growing up in Palo Alto, she tagged along with friends to see Billy Graham at the Cow Palace, which led to an evangelical stint as a “Bible-believing Christian” at Peninsula Bible Church. In Menlo Park, she befriended a brilliant young musician named Jerry Garcia. After another friend’s untimely death in a car crash—in which Garcia was thrown through the windshield—Pagels’s evangelical friends informed her that, because he had been a Jew, he was in hell. She left the fold to wander the wilderness of San Francisco, before studying dance at the Martha Graham School in New York. Having decided that she was a good dancer, but not good enough, Pagels applied to Harvard’s doctoral program in the study of religion, hoping to work with the New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl, who wrote to her:

Ordinarily we would admit an applicant with your qualifications. However, we are not able to offer a place in our doctoral program to a woman, since we have many qualified applicants, and are able to admit only seven to our doctoral program. In our experience, unfortunately, women students always have quit before completing the degree.

Stendahl followed up this casual misogyny with an offer to admit her the following year, if she was “still serious.” She was.

At Harvard, Pagels discovered her professors’ “file cabinets filled with facsimiles of secret gospels I had never heard of.” She had found her vocation. She began to wonder why we should care whether a bunch of fourth-century bishops approved a given text, and just whom the charge of “heresy”—from the Greek hairesis,“choice”—was meant to protect. The tussle over the canon has always been political. As late as the Reformation, Martin Luther was dithering about whether Revelation belonged in the New Testament; he finally decided to retain it, using it to attack the legitimacy of the pope.

But Why Religion? is, as the subtitle has it, a personal story—you could call it a dark night of the soul. As harrowing as the opening chapter is—as if a friend’s death and institutional chauvinism were not enough, Pagels was sexually assaulted by a professor of divinity in her first year—there is much worse to come. At the memoir’s core is an excruciating, unthinkable double tragedy. Pagels (née Hiesey) married theoretical physicist Heinz Pagels in 1969, a year before receiving her Ph.D. Their son Mark was born, with a hole in his heart, in 1980. When he was two, he was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. He died at the age of six. Fifteen months later, Heinz, forty-nine, fell to his death while hiking in Colorado.

It is no surprise to learn that Pagels turned to the Book of Job. She thought of suicide, as who would not, but she and Heinz had adopted a daughter before Mark’s death and a son not long after. She couldn’t go on, she must go on. Out of her private hell, eventually, came a book on “the social history of Satan,” not because she believes in the devil but because for the first time in her life she understood how such belief might arise. The truth—that there is no dark, malign force to blame when our lives are ripped open—is hard to face. The Origin of Satan is a book about how Christians throughout history have used the figure of Satan—who appears in the Hebrew Bible only as a sort of minor functionary, “a storytelling device,” as Pagels has it—to justify pogroms and crusades. Satan is the Jews, the infidels, the heretics—even the Catholic Church.

Surely the concept of hell has produced more atheists than Feuerbach and Nietzsche combined. As the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes, “The God in whom the majority of Christians throughout history have professed belief would appear to be evil.” This is, upon the merest reflection, rather obvious. The god of hellfire and damnation cannot be the one intended by the Johannine “God is love.” He would appear rather, as Hart points out, to be the one from whom souls need saving.

When she was informed that her dead Jewish friend was doomed to eternal punishment, Pagels writes, she left Peninsula Bible Church “and never went back.” Such insane beliefs “had nothing to do with what had drawn me to that church, and to the faith we’d claimed to share.” The wonder is that, even after Mark and Heinz were torn from her, she retained, if not precisely that faith, then something like hope, something that kept her searching. There is a suggestion of rebuke in Pagels’s title. “Why religion, of all things?” Heinz asked her on one of their first dates. But Pagels dwells in possibility, with no time for the smug acolytes of scientism—their name is legion—who regard all forms of religion as apotropaic fairy tales. She recounts several visions and prophetic dreams, neither denying that they could have arisen from her troubled imagination nor affirming that they must have.

Ours is, of course, an age of barbarous superstition—surveying a journal of opinion, for instance, I discover that human beings are genetically hardwired for tribalism. What I learned from Pagels’s book in college, and then from the hidden gospels themselves, and then from myriad other sources, is that there are ways of being religious that are “beyond belief.” All they require of you is that you listen for the still, small voice that is already within you. “Recognize what is before your eyes,” Thomas’s Yeshua says, “and the mysteries will be revealed to you.” “Wherever you turn,” says the Qur’an, “there is the face of God.” The Nag Hammadi text called Allogenes, or “The Stranger,” describes “a stillness of silence” in which “I knew my true self.” The voice of that stillness is often too small to hear, but it has yet to ask me if I’m “saved.”

To many—materialists and believers alike—this is so much woo-woo. I confess it sits somewhat uneasily with my Marxism (though Hart is right to insist that apostolic Christianity teaches, without equivocation, that “all goods should be held in common”—omnia sunt communia, as sixteenth-century German theologian Thomas Müntzer never tired of quoting). But “some of us need heresy,” as Pagels puts it—“choice, that is.”

Such needy heretics will find much to choose from in Why Religion? It is an uneven book, occasionally perfunctory, and it ends with a thud in Harvard Yard, where Pagels is receiving an honorary degree alongside Oprah Winfrey, who “spoke with candor, humility, and humor, encouraging the graduates to persist, as she has, through difficulty and failure.”

But it is a book entirely free of false comfort. There is no pious uplift in Pagels’s struggle with, and partial triumph over, grief and despair. There is just, sometimes, something she “can only call grace.” Losing Mark, she finds herself telling a friend, was “like being burned alive.” Dante, quailing before the refining flames of Purgatory’s seventh terrace, feels “like one placed in the grave.” But Virgil coaxes him on, and he suffers the fire. And he comes out the other side.

Michael Robbins is the author of two books of poetry and the essay collection Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017).