Meara Sharma writes about culture and the environment. She is also a radio producer and a senior editor for Guernica, a magazine of global arts and politics.
A few months ago, I went rafting down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Coursing past the vast buttes and peaks of orange and gold, black and red, I was intrigued to learn that the canyon’s oldest rock layers are named after Hindu deities. Vishnu schist, Brahma schist and Rama schist — some 2 billion years old — form the base of the canyon, as if the mile-high walls that lay bare the Earth’s geologic history are held up by the gods themselves.
These Hindu names can be traced to geologist Clarence Dutton, who, in documenting the physical features of the canyon in the late 1800s, concluded that “the most sublime of all earthly spectacles” demanded an appropriately majestic nomenclature, one that denotes the holy Himalayas and the East.
Of course, the Grand Canyon has been sacred to Native Americans for thousands of years, a land imbued with spirituality long before Dutton’s naming. But I was struck by this explicit convergence of geology and religion. It suggests a recognition that no matter how much we codify this place, no matter how far our scientific understanding progresses, it will always hold a kind of underlying mystery, an ineffability that is truer than certainty.
The mystery undergirding lived reality — why we die, why we suffer, why we love — is at the heart of acclaimed historian Elaine Pagels’s new book, “Why Religion?: A Personal Story.” Pagels is a professor at Princeton; winner of the Rockefeller, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships; and author of several books, including the National Book Award-winning “The Gnostic Gospels,” about secret texts that support a multifarious and mystical understanding of Christianity, and “Adam, Eve, and the Serpent,” about the creation myth’s effect on Western sexual attitudes. In “Why Religion?,” an intimate, evocative memoir, Pagels turns her tools of analysis inward. She threads her own story of spiritual discovery, love and staggering loss with the subject of her life’s work: how we create religion and how religion, in turn, creates us.
Pagels grew up in mid-20th-century Palo Alto, Calif., a place that “was like living inside a giant marshmallow, the hard edges — race, poverty crime — covered with soft, sugary pillows.” At 15, she stumbles upon the famous evangelical preacher Billy Graham, whose passionate, politically charged sermons shake her to her core. “After living in a world that felt flat, where emotional intensity was suppressed,” she writes, Graham’s potent language “opened up worlds of possibility.” Thus begins a lifelong fascination with the spiritual dimension of human existence.
“Why Religion?” traces Pagels’s journey through graduate school and into the world of academia, where she delves into ancient “heretical” texts that upset Christian orthodoxy and celebrate personal exploration and agency. The sexism she experiences as she succeeds professionally leads her to examine how women in early Christianity pushed back against gender inequality thousands of years ago. Along the way, she marries a charming quantum physicist who was also “hoping to understand something fundamental.” Love, work, the big questions of humanity: It all seems so elegantly intertwined.
But then, her life takes a biblical turn. Her son Mark is born with a fatal heart condition, a reality that shatters normalcy with “dark currents of terror.” As he grows, Mark seems precociously aware of his fate. He dreams of being left at a cemetery. He tells his mother, “I’ll love you all my life, and all my death.” A day later, at age 6, he dies. Pagels recounts this period with clarity and slight detachment, moving swiftly over marital strife and her tendencies toward alcoholism and depression. “I can tell only the husk of the story,” she admits, comparing it to “being burned alive.”
The next year, her husband, an avid hiker, falls to his death from a mountaintop. What follows is bewildering confusion, memory lapses, sleeplessness, friends appearing out of nowhere, hallucinatory encounters with her dead husband and the constant intervening force of reality: At this point she has two small children to raise. Her struggle to climb out of interminable darkness is harrowingly palpable. Eventually, she channels her experience into her work. She probes how grief is often shadowed by guilt and how ancient folk tales have instilled the notion that suffering is a punishment for sin (consider the familiar refrain “What have we done to deserve this?”). Filled with rage at her situation, she examines how Satan was invented as a figure on which to place blame. Religion, she comes to realize, is about engaging the imagination — which, regardless of one’s beliefs, is essential for confronting the starkest of realities.
Pagels briefly acknowledges how religion is used to justify violence, noting, for example, how President George W. Bush’s intelligence briefings would begin with a quote from the Bible to suggest that God had sanctioned the Iraq War. But that isn’t her focus. The title “Why Religion?” may be a misnomer, because the book neither endorses nor indicts spirituality. It’s not even about religion as a set of beliefs or traditions. Rather, it is about how a spiritual sensibility can create space for vital ambiguity, contemplation and gnosis — knowledge of the heart — particularly in the face of that omnipresent human experience, suffering.
In that way, the book is also about community. Pagels returns repeatedly to the ancient Christian texts that speak of God not as a remote, overarching entity but something deep inside us all. As goes a saying in the Gospel of Thomas: “Within a person of light, there is light. If illuminated, it lights up the whole world; if not, everything is dark.” In the bleakest of moments, such words helped Pagels “dispel isolation and turn me from despair, suggesting that every one of us is woven into the mysterious fabric of the universe, and into connection with each other, with all being, and with God.” This web was made manifest, too, in the many friends who held her through loss, the people who cared for her children, the colleagues who understood her needs. Pagels’s life is lived in communion, and this is what saves her.
Religion as a tool for openness and interconnection: This may sound absurdly naive, given how politicized religion is today, how it seems to be the root of endless bloodshed. But in a sense, Pagels invites a reframing. Perhaps the fundamentals of religion — searching, questioning and reflecting in service of something larger — are precisely what we need now. Because we don’t know all the answers. Fixed assumptions, entrenched opinions: These are getting us nowhere in politics, in policy, in social life. Perhaps, as the Gnostic Gospels suggest, the first step is clear-eyed humility. “Recognize what is before your eyes, and the mysteries will be revealed to you.”
By Elaine Pagels
Ecco. 235 pp. $27.99