A Bible-denying academic searches for comfort in quasi-spirituality

“Why Religion?: A Personal Story”
by Elaine Pagels
ECCO/HarperCollins, 2018, 235 pp.

1 Star

You may not be familiar with the author of this memoir, religious history professor, Elaine Pagels,* but she made a huge splash in 1979 with her book, “The Gnostic Gospels.” First, a little background:

A farmer by the name of Muhammed al-Samman discovered a collection of 52 ancient manuscripts, mostly Gnostic discourses, near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The Gnostics were a first and second century AD heretical sect that propagated the divine potential within each person that could be released through the acquisition of ascending levels of secret knowledge. Sounds quite a lot like the advocates of today’s New Age philosophies. The manuscripts were eventually secured by museums, but not before several were haphazardly destroyed. Scholars began the task of translating and analyzing these Gnostic manuscripts and Pagels’ book brought them to the attention of the general public.

Elaine Pagels (b. 1943) was a bit of a celebrity following the publication of “The Gnostic Gospels.” I was increasingly interested in the Bible and spiritual matters at the time (although it would be a few more years before I accepted Christ), so I attended her guest lecture at the University of Rochester in 1979 or 1980. Pagels claimed that the early-church patriarchy persecuted the Gnostics and repressed their writings as part of a competitive power grab. Although the academic dismissed Christianity as just another set of ancient myths and fables, she somewhat admired the heterodox Gnostic writings because of a few allusions to God being a female. Pagels subsequently wrote several additional books, which continued to rationalize away the early-Christians as just another group of ancient, unsophisticated people attempting to explain the complicated world via religious myth.

Recently, I noticed Pagels’ “Why Religion?: A Personal Story” at the bookstore and discovered our library had a copy. Hmm. A personal story about religion? What’s Pagels up to now? In this memoir, Pagels describes events in her life that took place thirty-years ago. First, the Pagels’ son, Mark, died in 1987 at the age of six after a long illness, leaving the parents devastated. Only one year later, Pagels’ husband, Heinz, was killed in a hiking accident. Pagels attempted to cope with the horrific double-loss via, among other things, psychiatric consultations and long, silent meditation sessions with Trappist monks. She states that she also found comfort in the “divinity within” messages of the Gnostic writings. Pagels alleges that her dead child and her dead husband mystically contacted her to reassure her of their well-being.

So the bottom line to this book is that Pagels now believes in a quasi-spiritual, supernatural dimension, but still dismisses the Bible as ancient folklore. She urges the reader to get their “faith” and comfort, wherever they may find it, except in a personal faith in Jesus Christ and Biblical Christianity. Sounds like Oprah.

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” – John 14:6

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” – Matthew 7:13-14

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.'” – 1 Corinthians 1:18-19

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” – Matthew 24:35

*Before starting her academic career, Pagels had briefly “dabbled” in evangelical Christianity as a teenager after attending a Billy Graham crusade in San Francisco in 1958 and claiming to have been born-again.

Elaine Pagels


20 thoughts on “A Bible-denying academic searches for comfort in quasi-spirituality

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Sally! It was sad to read of Professor Pagels’ search for some type of meaning and comfort in a life untethered from God’s Word and Biblical faith.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “Sounds like Oprah” I second that brother! What a tragic story, the irony in excepting that the early church was attempting to grab power while accepting the Gnostics on face value seems to be lost to many. And yet, we know it’s the suppression of truth in unrighteousness. Thank you for sharing this book, and her story, with us!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, sister! It’s a sad testimony, but one that would play well on TV talk shows. Oh, I forgot to mention that she was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2016 by President Obama for her scholarly contributions. Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow you went to a lecture by Pagels back in the day! I think her popularity is unfortunate for spreading the popularity of Gnosticism and questioning of the Orthodox Christian truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RE: went to lecture by Pagels

      Yeah, I was getting curious about the Bible at the time, but the lecture was definitely not what I was expecting.

      The world honors her because the vast majority of people also believe in a hodgepodge pseudo religion and she gives it a certain degree of “credibility” with her lofty credentials. I forgot to mention in the post that president Obama awarded her the 2015 National Humanities Medal for her “contributions.”

      Liked by 1 person

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