Exploring an eternal question

why religionWhy Religion? A Personal Story

(Harper Collins, 2018)

Rob Roi

About 30 years ago I began to have questions and doubts about my faith. I was having trouble understanding the Bible and the Christian religion with its dogmas and creeds — I wanted to understand more. 

Then I heard an interview with New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, who had just published a book entitled The Historical Jesus; the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. 

Well I got the book. I didn’t understand much of it — Crossan wasn’t writing for a layperson like me. 

However, one thing that did jump off the page was the Gnostic Gospels. I’d never heard of them, so I asked Derek Pringle, our rector at the time, and he told me to get the book The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. It was the beginning of my journey into the history of Christianity.

I have just finished reading Pagels’s latest book, Why Religion? A Personal Story. 

In the first part of the book she explains how she wanted to find “the real Christianity”, moving away from her background of the evangelical faith and church dogma. She joined Harvard University to study and find the essence of Christianity. 

In her search she found cabinets filled with secret gospels she’d never heard of: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Truth, with many others – all stamped TOP SECRET and only available to scholars. 

She was “blown away” when she began to read the Gospel of Thomas, a list of 114 sayings of Jesus. She quotes # 70, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

She explains that these gospels are called the Gnostic Gospels, gnostic meaning knowledge or insight. 

In 1945 a farmer found them at Nag Hammadi, an Egyptian village. They were hidden in a cave, sealed in a six-foot jar. They were hidden because two powerful bishops named Irenaeus and Athanasius called them illegitimate secret books. They considered them heretical and ordered Christians all over Egypt to reject the books.

Pagels decided to share her findings, and so published her first book The Gnostic Gospels in 1979, despite the negative response from some of her colleagues.

She continued her memoir of loss, spiritual struggle and insight. A rare lung disease killed Elaine Pagels’s six-year-old son, and about a year later her husband fell to his death while mountain climbing. Through rage and terror and despair so overwhelming that it made her faint, she held on. 

“I had to look into that darkness,” she says at the opening of her new memoir, Why Religion?, “I could not continue to live fully while refusing to recall what happened.”

Pagels acknowledges that “no one escapes terrible loss,” but as a popular historian of religion, she gives us a unique reservoir of spiritual wisdom to bear on the thousand natural shocks that flesh is bound to encounter. 

She kept studying the Gospels, the letters of Paul, the Gnostic texts and the insights of Buddhism and Trappist monks until she understood that suffering is an essential and common element of human life. 

She ends the book with an ancient Jewish prayer, “Blessed art Thou, Lord of the universe, that you have brought us alive to see this day”.

The Reverend Rob Roi is a parish deacon at St. James’ Dundas.