Elaine Pagels, Why
Religion: A Personal Story
Copyright © 2018 Elaine Pagels
Ecco/An Imprint of Harper Collins
Pagels is, of course, a well-known and highly successful writer on ancient religion (The Gnostic Gospels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas), ans, for anyone who knows me well. My reading this book might seem strange. I read it as a part of a reading group which my wife participates, and which I join occasionally. The book is, really, two stories, interwoven. The first is an autobiography, which is a story of her personal and professional lives.. And in her personal life, it includes two episodes of immense loss and sorrow (the loss of their son to a congenital heart disease, at age 6; the death of her husband in a hiking accident). The second is a summary of her professional life, centering on her research and writing. And the final few pages deals with what see sees as the intersection of the two.
With respect to her personal life. It was in many ways a charmed and privileged life; she earned a doctorate, met and married an exceptionally talented physicist; they both had productive research and teaching careers at prestigious universities (and were well compensated for it). Their combined income allowed them to afford a comfortable home in Manhattan and summers in the Colorado mountains or in in California. They could also afford full-time domestic help (especially for child care) and private schooling for their children. Charmed, that is, except for the deaths.
Professionally, they were both highly successful (including her becoming a MacArthur Fellow).
The book’s title might seem a bit odd; I think the book was an attempt to unite the personal (including tragic) and professional aspects of their lives. I think she meant to try to explain how religion, for her, allowed her to deal with the personal losses. I’ll confess that I have never had to deal with such losses and have no idea how I would react. For Pagels, as she tries to explain in the conclusion of the book, it was her understanding of religion and its importance, historically, that allowed her to experience the deaths of two people she loved, long before what one might see as a “normal” life-span. At the same time, I think she was trying to explain her belief that religious belief is one way, perhaps the best or only way, for people to cope with what might appear to be a harsh, almost random world.
In that way, it seems to be an intensely personal book, but one that I could only approach as an outsider. At the end, I understood her reactions and deeply sympathized with her effort to reconcile her life as it unfolded with (what seemed to be) religious belief as an emergent source of comfort and explanation. And, perhaps, if I were to experience losses as grievous as hers, I might also find peace in a belief in a transcendent power. That is something I have never been able to go, though, and not something that Why Religion made any more likely that I will ever be able to do.