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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
After Jesus was crucified, his disciples were left with a terrible feeling of disappointment. The Gospel of Luke has them say, You know, we heard these things about Jesus of Nazareth. We thought he was going to be the one to redeem Israel. But we were wrong. The idea that Jesus would fulfill the role of the King of Israel—well, it didn’t happen. So they needed a different way to understand who and what he was. They needed to make sense out of this devastating event. So they changed the definition of “messiah” and created a different narrative about his role.
In Buddhism’s history, one sees the figure of the Buddha undergoing a kind of parallel transformation. Early on, he is portrayed primarily as a great spiritual teacher. But over time, the focus shifts, and the emphasis falls more on the Buddha as a cosmic principle rather than a human being. The circumstances under which the change occurs are, of course, entirely different from the case of Christianity, but the process is parallel. I’m not surprised. A religion’s symbols and stories, to survive, take on very different meanings over time. The canonical texts of Christianity or Buddhism would likely not have survived had they not been continually reinterpreted and reread in terms of the time and place of the reader. You could almost call this a process of creative misreading. For me, studying how these texts survive and transform is completely fascinating.
For most followers of most religions, it was long assumed that their sacred texts were both religiously valid and historically accurate. But modern scholarship has shown the two issues to be separate. Today, science has replaced religion as the source of our best knowledge about how the world and the cosmos work. History is better at telling us about our human past. Social systems and, to an extent, moral systems have been shown to be human creations and not expressions of divine will or natural order. So what real needs must religion fill today? Having been brought up in a family of scientists, who assumed that scientific explanations for the origins of the universe and human beings had simply rendered religion irrelevant, I’ve thought a lot about that question. The physicist Steven Weinberg says that the more we know about the universe, the more we know it is pointless. Cosmology can tell us about the Big Bang and exploding gases and how the world came into being. Anthropology and biology can tell us about human evolution. In other words, science can tell us about how things work, but it cannot tell us what any of it means.
Religion addresses a whole different range of issues. It addresses questions of meaning and value, and those are questions we still must ask. They are not out of date. Is life meaningful in some coherent way? The stories of religion articulate social and cultural values in a kind of code language.
As you say, we now experience a divide between the factual accounts given by scientific study and the stories told by religion. But for many people, those stories hold a feeling of truth, which comes from the sense of meaning they articulate.
As you were talking, I remembered something Picasso once said about art: “Art is the lie which tells the truth.” In that vein, the myths and symbols of religion can be regarded as a kind of template for finding meaning. Yes, and that’s something that science doesn’t do. The poet Marianne Moore said that poetry is imaginary gardens with real toads in them, and I think this applies to the stories of religion as well. This is not to say that all religious stories are purely fanciful; some of them may be quite accurate. But the point is that these gardens, including the Garden of Eden, contain human realities.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, you said that while you disagree with the fundamentalist view that the stories of their particular religion are all literally true, you agree with the feeling that such stories are vessels for transmitting fundamental understandings. Well, yes. But that sounds a little too pious, at least from my perspective now. I don’t think all the stories in the Bible, for example, express profound religious truth. Some of them are bizarre and maybe even dangerous. There’s no reason to assume that everything about a religion is benign. There are elements in any tradition that are malignant and can have very destructive consequences. I think there needs to be room in religion for skepticism. We need to approach the matter critically and with discernment.