As a child, religion scholar Elaine Pagels had very little exposure to religion. Her father, a biologist, brought her up to think that religion was obsolete and the Gospels were “just crazy old folk tales.” All that changed after she heard the Reverend Billy Graham speak when she was a teenager. She was stunned by his revelatory words and in a moment, she says her world was “forever changed.”
In her latest book “Why Religion? A Personal Story” Pagels recounts her own journey into faith, how surprised she was by her ability to get through the tragedy of losing her son and her husband, and why she did not give up on God.
KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Pagels about her book and why she thinks that believing in something is less important than you might think.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: What were some of your early memories about religion? You went to see Billy Graham speak in a huge stadium out on the West Coast, why was that such a formative experience for you?
Elaine Pagels: “I did, I was quite stunned. I was 14 years old so when Billy Graham says you can have a totally new life. You can just live on a whole different scale and come out of your family and your ordinary world — it was absolutely wonderful. He said you can be born again and I just thought that was great and it sounded wonderful. So it was very emotional, there was this tremendous emotional power, the music and the preaching of Billy Graham, because he was pretty remarkable in those days.
So I felt like I was living on a much bigger scale, bursting out of a world that was almost flat; a flat earth that didn't have any kind of spiritual dimensions. My parents were horrified, which may be added to the pleasure of, to some extent, or to the excitement of it. I suddenly felt I was in a world where there was God, there was Satan, there was Jesus and I had this new family in Christ. It was quite marvelous for a while.”
For a while? You talk about your friendship with Paul, a young artist and free thinker who tragically died in a car crash. Describe what happened with your Born Again friends?
Pagels: “This was a close friend in our group who was killed in an automobile accident after a party in Palo Alto. I went back to the church and told them this had happened and they said ‘that's terrible. I'm so sorry. Was he born again?’ I said ‘no, he was Jewish.’ ‘Well then he's in hell.’ I felt like I'd been smacked in the stomach, I was really shocked. So I walked out of there and never went back. I knew whatever had drawn me there had nothing to do with what they said and I just didn't trust any more of that, so I left.”
For those who have not heard of the Gnostic Gospels, what are they and why did the Gospel of Thomas specifically speak to you?
Pagels: “They were discovered in the same year as the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in Israel around 1945 and 1946. There was another discovery in Egypt, of a huge library of over 51 ancient texts. Most of them are religious texts attributed to Jesus and his disciples, some are Jewish text and some of them are sacred to the God Hermes, or, the god Asclepius, the Egyptian and Greek gods because these came out of Egypt about 2000 years ago, and among them were some texts that were called Gospels and they claimed to be about claimed to be about Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas was just a list and these are the secret teachings which the living Jesus spoke, and which his disciple Thomas wrote down.
I started to read these and what struck me was one thing in which Jesus 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.’ And I thought, ‘oh, you don't have to believe that, but it just happens to be true.’ It struck me psychologically.
This also had a theological dimension to it but this saying seemed truly powerful to me. There were similar sayings like this in which Jesus said, ‘just look at what is right in front of you and the mysteries will be revealed to you.’ These are like Buddhist Koans, wisdom sayings, but they really spoke to me. And that's a whole different kind of teaching that I've never heard and that I discovered had been completely suppressed by the bishops of the church thousands of years ago. That's why we never knew about it.”
I've heard you say when talking about religion and in your own life, that belief is overrated, and perhaps what's more important is what we practice. Can you explain?
Pagels: “I'm glad you brought that up. When you talk about religion, some people think about stuff like Jesus being the Son of God and this and that or you mean, do you believe in God or do you believe in this and that. Well, that's what people ordinarily mean by religion.but that’s not what I mean.
When I think about religious traditions, I think about cultural traditions, that consist of practices, prayers, rituals, ways to meditate and ways to act. Because really, it's Christianity that became identified with a set of beliefs. For example if you're a Christian, do you believe in God, do you believe Jesus is the Son of God? That to me is not the focus.
It's about a set of understandings, a set of values and a way of living and experiencing life that you find for example, in Buddhist practice, you find it in Muslim practice, you find it in Jewish practice and in Christian practice. Judaism is not primarily focused as I understand it on belief, it's: ‘are you kosher, how observant are you or are you not observant?’ It's what you do, or not do. It's not simply about a bunch of beliefs in your head, which is the way people ordinarily take it. That's why I mean that belief is overrated.”
Can one be a part of a church and engage in the rituals without having a certain set of beliefs?
Pagels: “Yes absolutely you can participate. I actually like rituals very much, not all of them as some of them are very boring but a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, a wedding, a funeral, these are powerful in every culture and they're created as a series of acts to help people through transitions. Transitions into birth into marriage into adulthood into death. They have great effects but you don't have to believe in them in the sense of having a set of beliefs in your head. I find that a pretty superficial understanding of what these traditions are about.”