Why Religion?

Elaine Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton University known for her bestselling writing on the gnostic gospels, secret ancient texts considered heretical and omitted from what is now the New Testament. These eliminated texts contain many voices (Jewish, Christian, Egyptian and Greek) speaking about the early Christian movement. An example from the gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus as saying, “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.” Pagels has long contemplated the meaning of these and other texts.

In her latest book, “Why Religion? A Personal Story,” Pagels ponders the relevance of religion. Her husband Heinz, a theoretical physicist and the executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences, agreed there are metaphysical questions that no other discipline can answer. But still Pagels wants to know, why does religion persist? With all we know centuries later, with the mass of scientific revelation, what do we want from religion?

She begins to answer this question in a time of intense personal struggle. Pagels’s life was shattered when her 6-year-old son Mark died from a disease stemming from a serious heart problem. She and Heinz shared the experience in a way that seemed to tighten their bonds. They neither denied their grief nor were being consumed by it. They refocused their energy toward raising two adopted children and returning with hope to their beloved summers in Colorado.

The next year, Heinz died in a mountain-climbing accident. Pagels endured extreme emotional turmoil – guilt, anger, grief. Seeking a way through, she turned to the Trappist monks of Snowmass Monastery. There, with Father Keating and Father Joseph, she experienced the supportive silence of communal meditation and released the neverending tape she had been playing in her head, an imagined image of Heinz’s fall to his death.

She also turned to devoted friends and explored ritual, yoga, art, music and poetry. She continued to study religion and the stories that influence our response to death. Genesis says we die because of sin, that we are guilty. Pagels realized the psychological power of this story and became aware that her feelings of guilt were an unconscious (and relieving) substitute for the alternative feeling of helplessness.

She contemplates how most religious traditions struggle with the existence and meaning of suffering. Pagels herself gravitates toward a concept of suffering, not as a state that teaches you a spiritual lesson, but a place from which there is potential to connect more deeply with others. She acknowledges that it is suffering that most fully demonstrates that deepest connection.

In a recent interview with Terry Gross, Pagels shares another guiding concept that “people can recover from things that seem impossible to recover from … to find a way to live with hope and joy and courage.”

We live in a world that repeatedly asks us to make sense of pain and loss, to heal and recover and move on. “Why Religion?” should ring bells for anyone seeking meaning within that suffering.