Elaine Pagels is the author of numerous articles and five books and is well known for her work in translating the Nag Hammadi Library, translations which contradicted the image of the early Christian Church as a unified movement. Pagels published the results of her scholarship in The Gnostic Gospels, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and The National Book Award and has been published in ten foreign languages. She is also the author of The Gnostic Paul, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, and The Origin of Satan and now, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. The recipient of the MacArthur Prize, she has also received awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening. I'm Bill Moyers. What's worse: to do something wrong and be punished for it, or to be punished for something that you didn't do at all? Well, the question can be the stuff of comedy, as anyone knows who remembers the story of Tom Sawyer and the sugar bowl. But it's also at the heart of some of our deepest questions about God and humanity, sin and justice, damnation and grace. Tonight I’ll talk with a historian of religion about how the early Christians faced the realities of suffering and guilt, and how their answers still affect us today. Join me for Part II of a conversation with Elaine Pagels.
[voice-over] For many of us, the oldest story of all is the story of Adam and Eve, God's first couple. It's a short story that has cast a long shadow across our understanding of good and evil, sin and guilt, men and women. The serpent tempts Eve to seduce Adam into eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. As punishment, God drives them from the Garden. The Serpent is cursed to crawl forever on his belly, the man to suffer and toil for a living and the woman to endure childbirth in pain and to be ruled over by her husband. The story of Adam and Eve long has intrigued Elaine Pagels for its influence on Western culture and our attitudes toward human sexuality and the different roles of men and women in marriage and society. When Pagels set out in her new book to examine the story of Adam and Eve, she discovered some insights about herself. Pagels is an acclaimed scholar of religion at Princeton University. She lives in New York City, where we met for this conversation.
[interviewing] Have you found out anything about yourself as a woman from studying the Adam and Eve story?
ELAINE PAGELS: Oh, certainly. That was one of many ways that story engaged me, because of attitudes it expresses about women, most of them highly negative, and which I had totally rejected, you know, as a 1970s feminist that didn't believe those anymore. What I discovered was that they sometimes emerged unexpectedly, you know. When I had children would find my attitudes about women negative in a way that troubled me.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
ELAINE PAGELS: Thinking about women as gullible or weak, or total stereotypes that had nothing to do with my reality or what I thought I believed. These are just kind of cultural stereotypes that I found emerged quite unconsciously. And I discovered they didn't emerge from nowhere. They come out of a culture which tells women --
BILL MOYERS: They have a history.
ELAINE PAGELS: They have a history, and these myths are kind of like the dreams of a whole culture, so they're kind of in the air. And although my family wasn't particularly religious, I heard many of these same stereotypes about women that I found among the second-century rabbis.
BILL MOYERS: Eve had brought sin into the world. Eve had misled -- and in fact in my own church, in the Southern Baptist denomination, women cannot be ordained today because, as the resolution of the Southern Baptist Convention said, 'By woman did sin enter the world."
ELAINE PAGELS: Right.
BILL MOYERS: But that has to change the way you look at women all through time.
ELAINE PAGELS: Of course. Some of the Letters in the New Testament say that they aren't to teach because they're gullible and irrational and so forth. In fact, one of my tutors from Oxford wrote the same thing in a review of my first book in the Times Literary Supplement, that women are very susceptible to heresy and that explained part of my attraction to some of these things. I mean, I'm saying those altitudes which look sort of ridiculous and outdated, nevertheless, are far too much part of our culture not to be pervasive. So, I started this partly as a kind of exploration -- I was going to say exorcism -- of some of these altitudes, and saw where they came from.
BILL MOYERS: Did you succeed?
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes. I think when one sees how these cultural influences play on us, it's easier to sort of bring them to consciousness and say, "I accept this," or "I reject it." It's when they're unconsciously influencing us that they're most powerful.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that the interpretation of the Bible historically, that put women on the margin of the church, of religion, kept you from being more fully committed as a Christian?
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, I wasn't brought up either to be a Christian or to be involved with it that way. I was brought up in a family that was kind of Protestant but nominally so, and to think that religion was for people without an adequate education. To believe that there was -- as they thought, since the Enlightenment -- there was magic and superstition, and then religion, and then science. And so eventually religion would wither and die out of its own absurdity. And what happened to me was different, you see. I found I was fascinated by religion. I just discovered that it was something I had to work on. I mean there are many other things that I love and that fascinate me, but these issues about, say, human nature; about the way we interpret the universe; about the way our personal images in our dreams are connected with the dreams of our culture and our religious traditions; the way that this plays off against Buddhist tradition. These are the issues that I like to explore.
BILL MOYERS: What you're saying, if I hear you, is that the picture of Adam and Eve is not just a picture on a canvas, and not just the jacket of a book, but it's a picture in the mind, in the memory, in the history of the race, of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
ELAINE PAGELS: It's very deep, I think, in our culture, and in all of us. Not in all of us to the same extent, but I found to my own shock that my attitudes about being a woman in 1980 or whenever I started this work had to do with very ancient stereotypes, many of which I totally disagreed with intellectually. And I didn't like them, you know, but there they were. And one has to look at that. And then that many of our political institutions, too, and people who would not consider themselves religious in the least, nevertheless, had adopted attitudes which are just there in the culture, which come out of that ancient story.
BILL MOYERS: There are women today working in your field who are trying to create a new canon of spiritual literature. They're using poetry, parables, old hymns, ancient hymns to the goddess, to try to create a spiritual literature that puts the female back in the center of the religious world view. Are you attracted to that effort?
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, I think it's an interesting one, and in some ways I find it attractive. I was surprised, for example, in Egypt, to go to -- in one of the museums in Luxor, in upper Egypt, there was an image of Hathor, and she is a goddess who appears in the form of a cow. Now, I'd always thought of cows as rather comical characters, you know. A goddess in the form of a cow didn't sound attractive, sounded more like Walt Disney. But this cow was sculpted in ebony and had gold horns and a moon disk in her horns and was beautiful, wise, maternal; an extraordinary being was in that sculpture. And I was very moved by that sense of this feminine power that came in that sculpture, and also some of the Isis figures, as well. So I found that I was very much attracted to some of those images. So, I have some sympathy with that point of view. On the other hand, for me it doesn't work to just make up a canon, and exclude a lot of the rest of our cultural tradition.
BILL MOYERS: Just recently, the Pope said that women couldn't be ordained as priests because "our Lord was a man." When I heard that I wondered why would one also not say that, if Christ was a celibate, as is believed by the church, He can't represent those others who are not celibate?
ELAINE PAGELS: Absolutely. I was thinking, when you said that, of the end of Mary Gordon's novel, one of her novels, in which she says Christ was a Jew. Now, would they say that one couldn't be a priest if one weren't Jewish? It's, of course, what the tradition chooses.
BILL MOYERS: What the tradition chooses, that's an interesting term. Because what it means is someone at some time said, "This is going to be the official view of reality, not that."
ELAINE PAGELS: Right. And the fact is that when you look. at the history of Christianity you see not a single possibility as "the Christian view" of "X", you know, but many, many different points of view, many arguments about points of view. That's what I find in the history of Christianity. And some of these become dominant, and they do so for certain -- I think there are certain historical, political, social reasons that one can see why certain viewpoints, at a certain time, will become the church's official line.
BILL MOYERS: And those that lost out will become the heresy.
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes, and have. And sometimes what was originally fundamental church teaching becomes heresy later.
BILL MOYERS: Right now, evangelical Christians still believe that the story of Adam and Eve provides a frame of reference, it provides a setting, it provides a way of making sense of things that informs life, and they present this story as if it had universal validity; and they have the comfort of a way of seeing, of a support system, that others who are looking for a new story don't have.
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, that's true. And also there are many people who don't see what many of those evangelical Christians do, which is they defend the story as literally true. But what they're also saying -- and, again, I don't happen to agree with them -- but what they're also saying is this story is fundamental because it articulates basic values about, say, the nature of human dignity, the nature of human beings. And there, they're right. I'm convinced they are right because the story is a vehicle of fundamental attitudes about human nature, about human value, about human world, about so many things.
BILL MOYERS: They also say that once we lose that notion of Original Sin, which is in the story of Adam and Eve as interpreted by church tradition, we lose the governor. And they say, look around at society today. Look at an, look at politics, look at morality, look at culture at large, and what's happened is the governor's been taken off. The restraint's been removed. Anything goes and society is collapsing. You and I might say it's changing, they would say it's collapsing because this old story no longer conveys the cohesion, the coherence, that it used to do.
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, what struck me is that that old Story didn't have one message. What I began to look at is how did Christians read it from the time of Jesus, say, for the next 400 years? And I began to see that is was read many ways. I mean, Jesus read it with a certain -- he invoked it for a particular purpose, and Paul invoked it for other purposes, and other Christians read it in a whole variety of different ways, with whole senses of different possible ranges of meaning, and sometimes totally contradictory. It becomes very hard to say, "The Bible says this." When you look at the history of Christianity, you see that what the Bible says has been interpreted so many ways. Then one has to acknowledge that one chooses an interpretation.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think happens to a society like ours at the moment, when, say, half the population is still wedded to the old story, still believe it, still holds to it, the other half has jettisoned it and is out there looking for a different story? You see evidence of that in our society every day. There's a whole new movement of people like Thomas Berry, who says the old story -- it functioned. We could wake up in the morning and know where we were in the universe because of this story. We could answer the questions our children asked. We knew our place in the world because the story told us who we were and where we are. Now he says, and they say, the old story is not functioning, not functioning properly. We need a new story.
ELAINE PAGELS: So, what do you choose?
BILL MOYERS: What do you choose, that's the question? How do we find a new story!
ELAINE PAGELS: I don't think that we can just choose a culture -- you know, it's not like picking a different tie. I think what happens for many of us is much more powerful when you can change the whole meaning of the story, you can turn it upside down, you can invert it completely, like -- well, I don't know if you know the story of Lilith.
In Chapter One of Genesis it says that God made Adam in his image, male and female. He created them. And then in Chapter Two it says that Adam was alone, and God wanted to make a companion for him, and so He made all these animals, and none of them were a suitable companion for him, and finally, at last, as almost an afterthought, He made a woman. And rabbis said, "Now, wait a minute. There was a woman in Chapter One. Why did He make another woman in Chapter Two? Adam was all alone again." And so they concluded that Adam's first wife had been created in Chapter One, and she had been until Now, why? So they developed a story about his first wife, her name was Lilith, and said that she'd been insubordinate to her husband. And she said, "After all, you made us both on the same day. Why should I serve him?" So, they said God was so angry at this kind of attitude on her pan, naturally, that He blasted her out of existence and turned into a great female demon and she became a witch and the inspirer of men's sexual fantasies and the one who destroys the infants of respectable women in childbirth.
Anyway, Lilith becomes, in the Middle Ages, an image of the kind of female that a good Jewish girl docs not become -- insubordinate, seductive and so forth -- and Eve is the good one. Now, in the 20th century there are Jewish feminists who have chosen her name as the name of their journal. There's a Jewish feminist journal called Lilith. So they're choosing Lilith as an image. And, I'm saying, it wasn't just a misogynist story, because in the Middle Ages, and in the time in which the stories of Lilith were told, infant mortality was 50 percent, approximately. Half the children would die at childbirth, or soon after. And people would say, "Why would God let this happen? How could it happen?" And the answer was often, "Well, because this couple has opened itself to the evil power of Lilith." And that is either because the man has been unfaithful to his wife, either in fact or in fantasy, or the wife has been insubordinate. And if you can think of a couple to whom neither applies, you know, it would be rather rare, one would think. And so, this grief would be interpreted in a way, first that there's a moral reason for it, and second that the reason would reinforce the society’s expectations of proper marital behavior.
BILL MOYERS: Did you come to any conclusion on suffering, because Augustine taught that suffering was the consequence of our sin, was the consequence of our depravity; that it wasn't just a random event in our lives.
ELAINE PAGELS: The Genesis story says that there wouldn't be death or sickness or suffering in the world if it hadn't been for sin. And I was intrigued by that and had to struggle with it, as many people do, when it comes close to home. And one goes through some difficult, painful experience and says, "Why me'? Why would that happen to me'}" And many people, son of instinctively it seems, tend to blame themselves for what looks like misfortune that they did not cause. And so, I began to reflect on how our culture, in fact, has taught us that suffering and death and disease are not natural. They're not part of nature. They were actually only brought in because of human guilt and sin. And I think that that attitude can lead people to blame themselves in ways that are not useful and not constructive. So, I was fascinated by another Christian theologian, whom I wrote about there, who took a very different point of view; that suffering and death are very much pan of the mortal condition, and God offers means of healing and redemption and, perhaps, integration of suffering.
BILL MOYERS: This was Julian, whose message seems to me that suffering is because life is.
ELAINE PAGELS: That suffering is part of a natural condition. It's part of being a moral creature. It's not because we sinned, but because we're the kind of beings we are. That it is a natural phenomenon. And I find that that seems to me to make a lot of sense in terms of what we know about biology, for example. And it also has psychological implications, too; an acceptance of suffering, not in terms of guilt, but in terms of natural process.
BILL MOYERS: But is it possible that the older view that came with Augustine did serve the human need of explaining suffering'?
ELAINE PAGELS: Absolutely. But --
BILL MOYERS: "I don't understand what's happening to me but I accept it because I am fallen, I'm a pan of the sinful world, and it just must happen to those of us -- sinners must be punished."
ELAINE PAGELS: It's Genesis that says that. And what it says is that there is a reason. I mean, it's reassuring in that sense, and it also says that your action or my action is important, that it is major input, you know. That if you are at fault because some catastrophe strikes, then it makes you an important agent in that act.
BILL MOYERS: You have experienced suffering. In the last year you lost your husband and lost your child.
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Did you learn from the experience of life something about suffering that you didn't learn in your scholarship'?
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, yes, of course. I mean, that's where one learns initially anyway, I think. I was thinking of the old saying, "There's nothing like hanging to clarify the mind." And, certainly for me, much of what the book articulates on that came out of struggling with the fact that my son, whom I adored, had a terminal -- had an illness that was untreatable. And, yes, I had to struggle with that question, and with the question of guilt, which almost comes up like a reflex. Like, "Why is this happening to me," as if there was something wrong. In fact, I read an article that indicated that when there's something wrong with a child, the mother, not the father, but the mother, always takes blame for that. It's like a reflex. And so it was illuminating to me to look at the ancient controversies in the history of Christianity and see that there were people who were saying something very different about the nature of suffering. Because I found that very useful and much more true to my own experience.
BILL MOYERS: People like Julian?
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes. People like Julian. I was not expecting or wanting to like another heretic. But I was surprised to see that he was saying something that connected very deeply with my own experience. And it was a way of dealing with this almost automatic reflex of "What have I done that this thing happened," which I found to be useless and not a helpful response in any way.
But I also realized that, at a certain point -- and this happened with my son -- I realized that I was making myself feel guilty and that I would rather feel guilty than helpless. And the real truth of it was that I was totally helpless, as only a parent is when there is something terribly wrong with one's child, you know. I mean, the helplessness is awesome, and also it's unacceptable. And, therefore, it was even easier to feel guilty than it was to feel helpless. And I discovered that, in fact, I was not alone in that at all, and this desire to say, "I'm powerful," in a situation -- I mean, even if I'm guilty it's better than not having any input.
It made me think of the practice of the Hopi when every morning, I'm told, they go out on the mesa and make the sun rise. And people have said, "Well, what would happen if, some morning, you just didn't go out there and do that?" And they say, "And plunge the world into darkness for the sake of your stupid experiment?" I mean, the sense of being that important also comes -- the guilt involves a sense of importance in the drama, do you see what I mean? And acknowledging that one is not guilty also means that one is, in fact, quite powerless. And I realized that, for me, the only way to stay balanced in the situation was to acknowledge, over and over, that I was, in fact, powerless. And that was a sane and balancing act.
BILL MOYERS: And so you come to the conclusion that?
ELAINE PAGELS: That dealing with that sense of helplessness is very much pan of our condition. Religion is often a way of disguising it, a way of avoiding it, a way of pretending that we're not, and guilt certainly is that, in my experience.
BILL MOYERS: So that the image of Adam in the story could be of a defiance of God. "I am not going to take it lying down. I am not going to be helpless in the Garden of Eden. I want to do something about it...
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, when people confronted the realities of mortality, of disease, of human vulnerability in the universe; to say, "Why do we suffer this way?" And say, "Well, we do because it was up to us," you see, "Adam sinned." It makes the human being much more important, much more powerful in the universe than we may be in fact. And so I think that story has a very deep psychological appeal.
BILL MOYERS: That may have been the human need that it served, which was to help us come to terms with our impotence, our helplessness, by saying, "It really isn't our fault. There was nothing we could have done about it anyway." It's easier, I guess, as you say, to feel guilt than it is to feel--
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, let me say a good word for guilt. I mean, I'm not, by the way, saying that guilt is all bad I mean, there are times when guilt is appropriate, when a person has violated another person, say, then guilt is very appropriate -- or oneself. But I'm talking about cases where a disaster happens, like an act of God that we call it, and people, nevertheless, still feel guilty. In those cases, I think, guilt is very damaging and useless. I mean by useless it vitiates our energy in ways when we may need it. And I discovered that there are other interpretations of that story which I found useful and, as I say, balancing, which talk about the human condition as a mortal condition and God as a sort of source of healing and power in the universe; death and mortality as pan of a condition that we all share as a very normal and natural pan. What struck me as interesting about Augustine's theory, and peculiar, is that he says that neither mortality nor sexual desire are natural, and that tells you a lot about the attitude about sexuality that many people have adopted in Western culture, whether they're Christian or not.
BILL MOYERS: At what price, do you think?
ELAINE PAGELS: Well, who can put a price tag on it? But I don't think it's had a very good influence.
BILL MOYERS: If that's what you're taught, that you should feel guilty because it's something you did wrong, guilt can be forgiven. Guilt can be removed. Whereas if you are aware of being helpless, helplessness continues.
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes. It's just pan of our nature, yes.
BILL MOYERS: On the other hand, if you can accept death, you can affirm life.
ELAINE PAGELS: I would think so. And, you know, I wonder how many people today actually believe that mortality is not pan of the human condition? I mean, think about it.
BILL MOYERS: Well, there's a lot of denial that still goes on.
ELAINE PAGELS: Yes, perhaps. It doesn't work for me anymore.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From New York City, this has been a conversation with Elaine Pagels. I'm Bill Moyers.