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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
I remember one night in 1995, during the time I was working on the book, reading an article by Cyrus Vance, who was then trying to negotiate a settlement among the warring factions in the former Yugoslavia. After becoming completely frustrated by the obstinacy of the political leaders, he went to the religious leaders, the Croatian Roman Catholics, the Serbian Orthodox, and the Muslims, and he said, You’ve got to help stop the bloodshed and get the factions to come to some agreement. But the response from each of the three groups was the same: You don’t understand. We can’t compromise with those others—they’re devils.
Each of those religious groups has within it this paradigm of good versus evil. It’s not a complex way of viewing the world, and it can be incredibly dangerous as a way of dealing with complex conflicts. And it concerns me, because I see an increase in the way the power of affiliation has come to work through religion.
That is a big change, because it had long seemed that religion had all but ceased to be a significant force in history. Throughout the twentieth century, economics was seen as the engine of history. Even the religious wars of the past—the Crusades, say—were viewed as really being about land and resources and treasure. Over the last couple of decades, religion has reasserted itself in world affairs. But the way this is happening is, as you point out, troubling. Do you think that this situation places new demands on those of us who seek to bring a modern critical outlook into religious life and practice? Yes, I do. People who have come to recognize the need to engage the spiritual dimension of life while also maintaining a critical perspective have something to contribute to the religious conversation. As I said earlier, I was raised in a family where it was thought that reason had superseded religion. Those who, like my family, believe in rationalism, often regard science and religion as opposites, and so they underestimate, or entirely disregard, the power of the spiritual dimension. And, of course, many religious people see the same opposition between science and reason, on the one hand, and religious faith, on the other. They just see it from a different angle.
But it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. There are many ways to practice a religious life. Religion is not at all as narrow as many people, religious and secular, believe. Religious experience is something deeper and more compelling than what can be expressed in any particular set of beliefs.
When I began work on my book on the Gospel of Thomas, Beyond Belief, I was struggling with the question of what I loved about Christian tradition and what I could not love. Writing the book helped clarify for me that what I could not love was the rigid dogma and the idea that Christianity was the only path to God. And what I loved was the power of the tradition to move us, and even transform us, spiritually. But I don’t think that this is true only of Christianity. A religious tradition contains forms and teachings that can lead people into the spiritual dimension of life. In today’s world, that capacity and that experience need to be affirmed.
According to Thomas
Jesus said, "Whoever knows everything, but is lacking within, lacks everything." (Thomas 67)
Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things. I am all. From me all came forth, and to me all extends. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there:· (Thomas 77)
He said to them, "What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it." (Thomas 52)
"For this reason I say, whoever is [undivided] will be full of light, but whoever is divided will be full of darkness." (Thomas 61)
Jesus said, "If two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to the mountain, "Move from here! and it will move." (Thomas 48)
From Beyond Belief, © 2003 by Elaine Pagels, published by Random House
Image 1: The title page of the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi Library, courtesy of the institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont, California.