Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine professor of religion at Princeton University and winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Gnostic Gospels (Random House, 1979), is scrutinizing the value of belief in her latest book, Why Religion?: A Personal Story (Ecco, Nov.). In it, Pagels describes the loss of her six-year-old son due to a rare disease in 1987, as well as the shocking death of her husband the following year, and how she got through it.
In your experience, what does religion offer?
I think religion can provide us with a narrative for how we can understand the world and find meaning, express our pain, and find joy. Religion doesn’t have the exclusive on that, but it does provide a rich framework in which people can draw from and connect to each other.
How has your understanding of God evolved throughout your life?
I don’t think a lot about that question. Instead, I explore how the understandings of how views of God have changed throughout the history of Christianity. On a personal level, I focus on practice rather than belief. There is an incredible power to the communal nature of religious practices.
After the deaths of your son and your husband, how have you resolved the problem of evil? Why do bad things happen to good people?
I struggle with that question and I can’t claim to have resolved it. [But] I cannot accept the idea that there is an anthropomorphic God who plans or sends specific punishments on people for transgressions. I don’t find that persuasive.
What do you want readers to learn from your book?
What I take away from all of this is the sense that we can get through things we didn’t think we can possibly survive. If you had told me before what would happen to me, I would have thought that I couldn’t survive it. But people do, and I did, and people can survive even worse things than what I went through. Loss that involves violence; I think it’s astonishing that people survived things like death camps, but they do, and they continue their lives and make families, and that gives me hope. When we were dealing with our son’s illness, my husband said, “Everybody’s life has something like this in it.” Everyone has loss and pain and suffering. How do we do that without going into despair–how do we maintain hope and joy? How do we have courage? That is what I’m exploring in my book.