Why Religion? Elaine Pagels’s title asks. The whole book, published in 2018, is the answer, but there’s one sentence that distills it all: “While I work on these sayings, they work on me.”
Pagels, professor at Princeton, recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, National Book Award, Guggenheim Fellowship, Rockefeller Fellowship, and the National Humanities Medal, is a public intellectual of the first rank. Her studies of early Christianity, especially Gnosticism, some of them New York Times bestsellers, have managed both to reorient scholarship and to instruct a non-academic audience. I am honored to count her a friend.
In this most recent of her books, she demonstrates how the familiar "objective/subjective" dichotomy is a category mistake. It's not the scholar over against, outside, "looking at" the material (in her case, ancient texts). It's the material and the person in a kind of dance, in which each gives signals to the other. Scholarship as choreography.
Religion is a conversation in which, as Goethe’s Faust puts it, “What you have as heritage take now as task, for thus you will make it your own.”1 Pagels brings to her work a personal history of extraordinary accomplishment – and excruciating loss: a young son to an incurable illness and a year later her husband in a mountaineering accident. Certainties evaporate, abysses loom. Her recounting is vivid, unflinching, self-evidently honest.
There are moments of illumination, too, enough to signal that quantum entanglement may happen in the macro world as well as the subatomic. Pagels wrote to her friend Nelle Morton to say that the night before her son’s surgery she’d felt Nelle and other women somehow present. There arrived, while Pagels’s note was on its way, one from Morton, saying that she and the women in her “sister circle” had met that night, sitting on the floor of her living room in California, to pray.
But “flashes of insight would vanish, like water falling through my fingers, leaving only hints, guesses—and hopes” – a deft echo of Eliot’s lines from “The Dry Salvages”: “These are only hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses; / And the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, / Thought and action.”2 Toward the end the book makes a natural segue to persuasively contrarian readings of many ancient texts (including biblical ones), where the work Pagels does on them and the work they do on her weave together in a contrapuntal music that would do Bach proud.
In her earlier works Elaine Pagels demonstrated what a great scholar does. In this book, subtitled A Personal Story, she shows us who a great scholar is.
1 Quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan (who considered these words the motto of the scholarly life) in The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 102.
2 T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952), 136.