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Renowned scholar of Christianity Elaine Pagels explains how historical study can rescue religion from dogma in an interfaith dialog with Tricycle's Andrew Cooper
By her own account, Elaine Pagels is “incorrigibly religious.” For her, the historical study of religion is a passionate pursuit, one that engages the whole of one’s being. The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Pagels is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost scholars of the history of early Christianity. Indeed, it would not be an overstatement to say that she has forever altered how we understand the historical foundations of Christian tradition. In the process, she has eloquently demonstrated how understanding humankind’s religious past can pave the way for a more inclusive and open-minded understanding of religious life today.
Pagels earned her doctorate in religious studies from Harvard in 1970. During her graduate studies she encountered the Nag Hammadi Library, a then little-known body of texts named after the Egyptian town near where they were accidentally unearthed in 1945 by a local farmer. These texts, while contemporaneous with the canonical texts of the New Testament, provide a vastly different view of Jesus’ life and teachings and of the early community of his followers. The Nag Hammadi manuscripts demonstrate that early Christianity, far from being the unified church of legend, was a movement that teemed with diversity. Comprising gospels, mystical tracts, poetry, and mythic tales, these writings were denounced and eventually banned by early church leaders, as they sought to consolidate their authority and establish institutional orthodoxy. Pagels devoted herself to the study of the Nag Hammadi writings, and in 1980 she won the National Book Award for The Gnostic Gospels, a landmark work of scholarship that revealed to the world the spiritual richness of these suppressed texts.
In the years since then, Pagels has continued to explore how the ideas and events of the ancient world shape our lives today. Taking a stance that affirms the value of religious traditions even as it holds them up to rigorous critique, Pagels’s work demonstrates how religions—and Buddhism is certainly no exception—selectively shape perceptions of their past in order to make points about the present. Her work carves out a space in which we can regard religious traditions with both a greater appreciation for their benefits and a keener eye for those aspects that serve a narrow ideology.
In February, I had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Pagels. In conversation, Professor Pagels demonstrates many of the same traits that characterize her writings: an imposing intellect, a storyteller’s gift, and a love for her subject. Although we explored many topics, the red thread running through our conversations was the idea that the study of our religious history reveals new possibilities for engaging the spiritual dimension of our present-day lives. —Andrew Cooper
You’ve observed that many historians of religion are mainly concerned with debunking traditional religious beliefs. But you seem to approach historical scrutiny as a means of actually enriching the life of religion. As you say, it is not my purpose to debunk religion. But historical study places a religion into a context that many of its followers may not have considered, and by doing so, it places into question elements of its traditions. In the case of Christianity, that comprises two thousand years of history. Historical study shows that what we call, say, Christian tradition or Buddhist tradition in fact entails a huge range of practices and beliefs. When Christians discuss Christian tradition or Buddhists discuss Buddhist tradition, they usually make many unconscious and implicit selections out of that range. Historical study shows that the background is denser and more complex than we might otherwise assume. It brings out otherelements of the tradition, elements that are not ordinarily in the foreground. We can, therefore, understand more clearly the social, cultural, and political situation in which particular practices and beliefs emerged.
Historical study should have the effect of making what is very familiar look different or even in some ways strange. Demonstrating contingency, by shifting the picture maybe half a degree, gives one a very different perspective. Religions are continually being reinvented, rediscovered, revised, and transformed, and it is useful to be aware of this. But religious orthodoxy often is based on a pretense that just the opposite is true.
One can certainly find this in Buddhist history. As schools and movements have emerged and vied for legitimacy and institutional power, they’ve constructed a story of the past to give them a privileged standing in the present. For a Buddhist school or doctrine to be seen as authoritative, it must in some way be traceable back to the historical Buddha. So scriptures that appeared centuries later were said to have been hidden or kept secret until the world was ready. Or Zen, since it had no central scripture, fabricated a lineage of transmission. But whatever the strategy, legitimacy is established by rewriting or obscuring or otherwise fiddling with history. And lacking the tools of modern scholarship, after a generation or two, who would be the wiser? The Church father Tertullian said, Christ taught one single thing, and that’s what we teach, and that is what is in the creed. But he’s writing this in the year 180 in North Africa, and what he says Christ taught would never fit in the mouth of a rabbi, such as Jesus, in first-century Judea. For a historically-based tradition—like Christianity, and as you say, Buddhism—there’s a huge stake in the claim that what it teaches goes back to a specific revelation, person, or event, and there is a strong tendency to deny the reality of constant innovation, choice, and change. So the idea of historical contingency can be very threatening. But it is important, because it fosters a broader, less sectarian view.