Gospels and Gabbing with a ‘Genius’ in Spirituality

By Steven Libowitz   |   January 9, 2020
Elaine Pagels sits down with Pico Iyer on Thursday, January 9 at Campbell Hall (photo by Barbara Conviser)

Elaine Pagels won the National Book Award for her groundbreaking work The Gnostic Gospels and has also penned the best-sellers Beyond Belief; Adam, Eve and the Serpent; and Revelations. The Princeton University professor was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years for her incisive historical research and writing. Her recent work investigates how social history, politics, and religion interact and explores topics that include the cultural origins of western views on sexuality, of Christian anti-Semitism, and the pervasiveness of apocalyptic thinking in contemporary politics. But her newest book is much more personal, as Why Religion? addresses questions of spirituality – why is religion still around in the 21st century? Why do so many still believe? – from the perspective of her own life-shattering losses, embracing suffering as an opportunity to connect with others and the unknown.

Pagels spent close to an hour on a recent Saturday afternoon talking about the book, religion, spirituality, history, academia, and her interviewer’s own complicated relationship with the nexus of science and spirituality, all with a palpable passion that, to these ears, helps explain her popularity and success. Below are admittedly extremely curtailed excerpts from that discussion to preview her Conversation with Pico Iyer evening at Campbell Hall on Thursday, January 9.

Q. Why was now the right time to write Why Religion?, a more personal book rather than the scholarly works?

A. Back when my son and husband died, I couldn’t have written it because I couldn’t even think about it or let myself feel. But at a certain point, the things you can’t deal with, or might have buried so you can just keep going, keep moving catches up with you, and you deal with it or you don’t have a full life. So I had to go into it and explore and let it be part of everything. You can’t parcel experiences that are traumatic.

But Why Religion? is more about that question people ask me all the time. I wanted to answer it. I also wonder why religion is still around in the 21st century. And of course there’s no simple answer. One of the things is that it’s part of the way people process experiences. Most people think religions are about belief. But they’re more about spirituality and connection and having a way to be with your experiences… What had got me through very tough times was that sense of being connected with people – human beings are essentially social.

Has that worked? Do those experiences have less of a painful impact in your life now?

Yes, but I wouldn’t have written the book only for therapy, or at least not have published it. Nobody needs another grief memoir. I wanted to write about getting through things we think we can’t. And also how the study of religion plays out – I felt it was a kind of yoga for me. These are classic stories – Job or Jesus – because they speak to people in very powerful ways about real life experiences. So they had value for me in terms of thinking and struggling with my own losses. And when you write about something it puts it in a different relationship with you.

Weaving your personal story into history seems like a challenge for an accomplished academic. How did you find your way in?

It was hard because of the emotional issues that it kept bringing up. But I really wasn’t used to writing that way so it was very challenging for me, and doing it well is harder. That’s why it took about seven years to complete. It was hard all the way through, but it was necessary.

You’ve been honored over and over again, including the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years, and the presidential honor just a couple of years ago. How are you impacted by the honors and getting recognized?

I love the word recognized because it means that people know who you are – not in a fame way, but that they understand you. The awards gave me a lot of time, but recognition is also a vote of confidence. Doing creative work is tough; you could fail. So it was very encouraging to have this unexpected attention.

What can we expect from your evening with Pico Iyer?

He asked me to come speak but I told him I can’t just lecture about this stuff. It could only be a conversation. I love talking with him.

So we’re just going to continue our conversations that began when he was at Princeton last year. We have no idea what we’re going to talk about. It’ll be fun finding out.


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