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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
Even those stories that are pure fancy have a seriousness about them. Let me give an example. In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates a man, Adam, but seeing that Adam has no suitable companion, God puts Adam into a deep sleep and then draws out of his body a rib, which God then makes into a woman. This is followed by a commentary: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” So this is a sort of explanation of the origin and nature of sexual desire. Man and woman used to be one flesh, and they desire to return to that state.
In Plato’s Symposium the same subject is addressed, but the view put forth is very different. The comic poet Aristophanes tells of how, in the beginning, the gods made human beings, and these humans were completely round. They had four arms and four legs, two heads and two sets of genitals, and they moved by bounding around like cartwheels. They were very boisterous and proud and thought very well of themselves. But they neglected to worship the gods. So Zeus decides to kill the lot of them. Some of the other gods, though, point out that, should he do that, there would be no one left to perform the sacrifices. Zeus, then, comes up with a different plan. He slices these round human beings right down the middle, then he sort of turns their arms and legs and heads and genitals around. So now these new humans, who have been very much weakened by being sliced in two, do nothing but run around looking for their other half. And that’s why there’s erotic desire.
It’s a funny story, and I don’t know whether Plato viewed it purely as a myth or as an actual event or as something somewhere in between. But what I find most interesting is that these original spheres, the first people—some of them were half male and half female, so when they were cut in two, the male halves looked for a female half, because that’s what had been cut off, and the female halves looked for a male half. But some of the spheres were originally all male and some were all female, and when they looked for their other half, the male halves looked for a male and the female halves looked for a female.
Neither of these creation myths has any factual basis, of course. But each speaks of the power and quality of erotic desire, and each carries a strong cultural message and social picture. So the garden is imaginary, but the toads—that is, the social meanings—are real. And they are very different. In the biblical story, only desire between male and female is addressed, and desire between two females or two males would be aberrant. But in Plato’s account, erotic desire between people of the same sex is as valid and natural as that between people of opposite sexes. So that’s what I meant about the seriousness of religious stories.
When New Yorker editor David Remnick profiled you some years back, you spoke of religious mythologies as being part of the “architecture of our thinking.” In other words, whether or not we believe in them intellectually or accept them consciously, they work on us unconsciously, shaping the way we understand and perceive ourselves and the world. Again, let me qualify what I said. I don’t think a culture’s religious mythology necessarily works on everyone in that culture or works on everyone to the same degree. But, yes, I think the stories and symbols of religion can affect us more deeply than we might know or believe.
When I began working on The Origin of Satan, I thought of Satan as a quaint, cartoonlike figure. So I was surprised to see the power the myth still holds. I learned that when people said things like “Satan is trying to take over this country,” they didn’t mean some kind of vague supernatural energy out there. They meant certain people who were motivated by the forces of evil, and they could give you names and addresses. The mythology of Satan clearly has a much deeper resonance than I, and many like me, had thought.
Look at the way the mythology plays in the unconscious of people, and you’ll understand the way it’s used politically. This idea of the forces of good fighting the forces of evil is something we’ve heard a lot of in recent years: “We’re going to wipe out the evildoers.” And as we’ve seen, when the rhetoric of the battle of good against evil is translated into strategic or military decisions, there’s no room, or even a reason, to negotiate.