Dr. Elaine Pagels is a religious scholar, but that didn’t prepare her for personal grief.
Alex: [00:03:00] That’s a clip from the series Dead to Me, bringing a little dark humor to the very real and very heavy topic of grief. It’s a topic that I cover in today’s interview with the extraordinary Dr. Elaine Pagels, who if you don’t know a couple years back won, what is essentially the Nobel Prize for the Humanities. And kind of went to the White House and had Barack Obama put the thing on her neck and that whole thing. In the field of religious studies, she’s kind of a superstar. Everything she writes is instant New York Times bestsellers. But the last book she wrote is more personal. And it touches on this topic of grief and her loss of both her young child and then her husband. And just because she studies religion as an academic doesn’t mean that those religious texts were able to comfort her. But then her story takes kind of even more interesting turn and one that I picked up on, and that’s that Dr. Pagels had some extraordinary experiences associated with those tragic losses. And that’s something we also cover in this interview. And of course, because this is kind of what I’m interested in, tied it back to what we really might be able to understand about those experiences and why we sometimes seem unwilling to, I guess, go there all the way.
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:04:21] I had had a couple of experiences. I don’t call them mystical, because I don’t know what they were. I just call them experiences I can’t explain.
Alex: [00:04:29] That’s not good enough. It’s not. I heard an interview with you, and your being totally honest, just like you are now. And first of all hats off for you for writing about those experiences. But you were explaining the process, [and] you’re explaining going through the book, and you were saying, “Gee, I was trying to decide how much I should write about that.” And you’ve made this [Crosstalk 04:49]. Of course, as a scholar of religion, you have to be careful about what you say. As you say that we all know exactly what you mean. But isn’t that the problem? Don’t we want more? Don’t we want more from academia? Don’t we want more from scholarship than to be running and hiding from things that we cannot say?
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:05:11] Exactly. And so people have unusual experiences. I was at a conference actually held in California by the founder of Esslyn Institute there, who I’ve known for a long time, and he had psychiatrists and poets, and all kinds of people coming together, 15 of us, talking about what we call the experiences, I cannot explain. Some kind of coincidences, some kind of people who say they saw someone who wasn’t there. They saw someone who had died, who was actually present or seemed present. What’s going on here? Is it a hallucination? Is it an actual message from another world? I mean, when I was in a situation like that, I thought, I can’t tell. I can’t tell whether I’m hearing the voice of somebody who’s died, or from another world, or whether I’m just making it up.
Alex: [00:06:08] And I’m not totally sure what to make of that. But then again, I guess you’ll hear what I make of it in this interview. But again, we got to remember the source. This is a just super smart, intelligent, [and] [Inaudible 06:21] person. And the way she’s woven this into her work, The Gnostic Gospels, is just as or maybe even more revealing, in a different way. What you brought to us with the Gospel of Thomas, was that there was another way, [and] a more experiential way of working with this material.
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:06:41] Yeah, that’s right. I mean, most people think, as I said, of Christianity as just something you believe in or you don’t. The Gospel of Thomas. When I first encountered these unexpected discovery of ancient Christian gospels that would have been hidden in the desert for thousands of years because the bishops had censored them. The first line that struck me was the one that said, “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.” And I thought you don’t have to believe that. Just happens to be true.
Alex: [00:07:17] There we go. Now that’s really getting into the gnostic vibe. So before I move on to this interview with the very excellent Dr. Elaine Pagels. Let me twist that gnostic truth dagger that was aimed towards your heart with a little clip inspired by my friend Miguel Conner over at Ayaan Beit gnostic radio. This is one of his favorites from Leonard Cohen. It’s one of my favorites too. Thank you so much friends. We’re so privileged to be able to gather in moments like this when so much of the world has plunged in darkness and chaos. So ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
Alex: [00:08:22] Welcome to skeptiko, where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris. And today, we welcome Dr. Elaine Pagels to Skeptiko.
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:08:36] Thank you. I’m very happy to be here.
Alex: [00:08:38] Yes, Elaine Pagels. I mean, not only a pre-eminent figure in the academic study of religion and religious history, [and] a longtime fixture at Princeton University, but truly this kind of crossover figure in terms of cultural influencer, [with] many best-selling books, [and] major media appearances. I’ll pull up a couple of them, but PBS and rubbing shoulders with Stephen Colbert, and that kind of stuff.
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:09:10] That was fun.]
Alex: [00:09:11] You held your own really well. You had to drill down. Just plow forward. Don’t let anything pull you off. But it’s great. It’s hard to do. And a little trip to the White House in 2015, with Barack having to hang on to those metals around your neck.
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:09:31] Alex, that was the really big surprise. And it was very moving because I had such admiration for that man. And of course, I never expected to meet him especially while he was president. And then I got this message and it said, “This is not from your colleagues. This is from your country.” And I was like, “Whoa.” This is like the Nobel Prize and I thought, “Wow! Okay, thank you.” It was an amazing experience.
Alex: [00:09:56] Well, that’s fantastic and you’re really to be commended in. It’s great when someone’s work is recognized at that level. And I just wanted to emphasize again about the books because we’re not just talking about media appearances here. We’re talking about ideas, important ideas that have shaped culture. Her books like the Gnostic Gospels, beyond belief, the secret gospels of Thomas, [are] culture changers. Before Dr. Elaine Pagels, no one really talked about movies like the matrix or snow piercer and attached the word gnostic to it. Now, people just banty about, “Oh, it’s gnostic themed.” And this and that. We did it. Yeah. I mean, she didn’t invent the term, but she shifted the culture in terms of where the idea of what gnostic means. Really is traceable back to those books in a lot of respects. We can’t give you the sole credit, but to a large extent, yeah.
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:10:55] Well, it was the discovery of those secret gospels that changed everything for me. We didn’t know… I didn’t know…
Alex: [00:11:01] Yeah, but they were hidden away. They were hidden away. No one had brought them out.
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:11:05] Well, not only that, people had burned them and destroyed them and thrown them into the river. They were supposed to be buried forever, because they were called Heretical. And the word heresy – I love it – it means choice. And the bishops thought, it wasn’t good for people to have too much choice. So they destroyed these texts. And we never thought we’d see them. That was quite an amazing discovery.
Alex: [00:11:30] It was and we’ll talk about that maybe in a minute. Because I always feel like, we do need to go back to ground zero on that. And [Inaudible 11:39] library, cave, get all these things out, [and] translate them. Oh, my gosh, we have the Gnostic Gospels. Why do we call them gnostic? What does all that mean? Some of the basics, but I don’t want to go there yet. Oh, and then also, Dead Sea Scrolls. Yeah, no different cave, different set of scrolls, [and] kind of a different story. They’re not really related. They weren’t written at the same time. So a lot of times these things are kind of mixed up in all our minds, because we’re not Princeton religious scholars.
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:12:09] Yeah, they are. Well, there’s a similarity between those two discoveries though, in terms of the impact.
Alex: [00:12:16] Well, and also, there’s a big difference in terms of how they were handled, [and] how they were allowed to come to be, which is very, I think, maybe even one of the more interesting parts of that story. But I digress, because what I really wanted to talk about a lot today is this book that you did last year, why religion. Really quite an amazing book, instant New York Times bestseller, [and] on that top of the Book of the Year list of so many people. Which we should mention so many of our other books carry that same category, or [is the] best book ever, about Gnosticism, or whatever. But this book, ‘Why religion’ is really quite unique, because it is in so many ways, autobiographical, on the kind of deep [and] personal level that is just really amazing, as a parent, [and] very amazing, as someone who’s been married to my wife for a long time. It’s amazing that someone’s willing to share the amount of grief and just pain that goes through traumatic loss. But it’s not just a book about that. It’s completely intertwined, inter-woven with this work that she’s done throughout her career in exploring religion from a historical standpoint. So if you can tell people the basics about the book?
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:13:53] I never thought I would write a book like that. A personal book, which isn’t a history book at all, like the others. But what I wanted to do, and I appreciate the way you put it, is not just write a memoir, but weave it into the public life and the work and the study of religion, why that matters to me so much, and how it… I would say I work on these texts, because they work on me. And this was started as a kind of spiritual search. But the spiritual search of somebody who is more of an explorer and an outsider than an insider, and interested in both. So that was really the hardest book I’ve ever written. But it’s been a powerful experience.
Alex: [00:14:43] I can’t imagine how hard it was to write but you help us understand that at a deeper level. And one of the things I didn’t expect to hear in the book or learn in the book is the guilt and I think that’d be an interesting topic. I know that it’s very, very helpful to a lot of people who’ve encountered your book because why would you possibly feel guilty for the loss of your son, who from the time he was born, you knew he had a very severe mental medical condition. You and your husband were no doubt preparing yourself for that. And then he eventually does pass. And you feel this guilt. And then even with your husband, who dies of a very strange, [and] just sure accident almost a couple of years later. Talk about the guilt. I think it’s important, right?
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:15:40] Yes, I partly wrote it because… I was writing about some things that people usually don’t write about. And I didn’t want to write just about loss, because everybody has that, but also the surprise of being able to recover from loss that seemed unimaginable. I mean, you mentioned, we had one child then and he was six years old. And he was just born with a problem with his heart, and he died when he was six. We adored this child. We did everything we could, of course. We went all over the place trying to find medical help, and there wasn’t any. So why do I feel guilty for that? I began to realize, first of all, if you’re a parent, you have one big job, and that’s to keep your child alive and thriving. And if you can’t do that, you feel like a failure. That’s part of it, no doubt. But in our culture, I realized that I was also taught to feel guilty by stories in the Bible. For example, I was reading this story of King David. And he fell in love with a woman that was married to somebody else and got her husband killed, so he could take her as his lover and then marry her. And they had a baby before they were married. And it says, the Lord [Inaudible 17:02] the baby because of the sin of David and Bathsheba. And I thought, “Wow.” So look, there’s infant mortality in the ancient world can be close to 50%. Children before they’re five, maybe half of them die. So this culture says, and when that happens, it’s somebody’s fault. It’s the mother’s fault, usually, or it’s the father’s fault. And it blames them. And there are probably reasons for this. Because blaming people for things like that can make us more careful about things we do. But this was a case where everybody had done everything. And we adored this child. And I still felt that and I wanted to write about that and say, there’s some parts of the history of religion, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, you name it, that are very valuable, I think. And they can open up what I think of as a spiritual dimension in our life. But there are other elements of those traditions, which can be very negative. And we have to let go of them, at least I do. I had to say, wait a minute, that guilt… The story of Adam and Eve says human beings wouldn’t die, we wouldn’t have pain, [and] we wouldn’t have oppression, if somebody hadn’t done something wrong. Of course, it was Adams fault. Well, that’s just not true. I mean, death is part of human experience, as we all know. But blaming it on somebody only adds guilt on top of grief. And it happens all the time, especially when it’s a child. But in case of any loss, people say, “Why did that happen to him? How could that happen to me? What have I done? What has he done?” As though we brought it on ourselves. I mean, this is a fantasy that is sustained by some of the stories in the Hebrew Bible. And I think that’s very unfortunate. So I have to write about those two.
Alex: [00:19:06] And I’m glad that you do because another way to interpret that and the way that makes most sense to me, is that that isn’t completely unintentional. That is somewhat programmed into the system and reinforced into the system, for purposes that we can only imagine in terms of how we see religion has been used throughout history. But I thought that this topic related to your question that you asked, ‘Why religion?’ Because a lot of people would answer the why religion part and they’d say, “Elaine, this is why we need religion. This is why the community of people coming around and feeling loved and connected and guiding through grief in difficult situations.” To which you say, “That wasn’t really my experience. That really wasn’t what happened. But I appreciate.” I think you acknowledge; I appreciate that that can be a socially important part. But this other part that you’re mentioning is so powerful and so important because what it points to, undeniably is a certain indoctrination of a certain attitude about how we’re supposed to feel about ourselves in these situations and how we’re supposed to… Our role in the kind of universe in the cosmos really.
Dr. Elaine Pagels: [00:20:27] Yes. And some people are so different when it comes to these things. I mean, some people would find… They would say, “Oh, your faith must have been of great help to you.” And I’d say, “What are you talking about? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I had never felt further from anything I could call faith, then with the death of our child. I mean, that was like being at the bottom of the ocean. There was just nothing but devastation.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:20:55] but some people do right.
Elaine Pagels: [00:20:57] I mean, some people do. And I, I think that’s fortunate for them, for me, it didn’t work at all that way. And I had to say, Hey, what do I believe? Uh, I don’t even care. Um, but this isn’t unusual.
A lot of people feel that way. They feel deescalated when they have lost, they’re supposed to feel close to God or something. Well, not everybody does. So I think it’s important to be as honest as we can about the range of experiences people have. And I’m much more interested, you know, Alex experiences and beliefs, because we, in the way I asked where Christianity has been the dominant religion for thousands of years, often religions are about what do you believe?
Do you believe in God? Do you believe Jesus is the son of God? Do you believe this or that? Do you, are you an atheist? You don’t believe that’s the question people ask about religion and. I just want to think that the early Christian movement survived for 300 years and thrived and grew before there was a bunch of dogmatic beliefs that you were supposed to believe a creed before that they called it the way it was a way of acting.
It was a way of interacting with other people primarily. Um, it was a way of maintaining hope in the face of very difficult circumstances, but it wasn’t a bunch of beliefs and I think many religious traditions, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, you name it. I mean, they’re really about practice much more, and they’re about how we interpret our lives and how we live and what we do.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:22:43] Well, let’s talk about experience a little bit, both those incredibly traumatic. Grief grief inducing experiences that you encountered in your life brought about non-ordinary extended conscious experiences with them. Do you want to talk a little bit about that and what you, what you did with that? I know it was unsettling,
Elaine Pagels: [00:23:06] but yes, no, no.
It’s, it’s fine to talk about the, I was actually, when I was writing the book, I was, I was sitting in talking, having coffee with a friend of mine. Who’s a poet, um, Marie Howe, and she wrote a beautiful poem called annunciation to Murray, who was raised in a Catholic family. Her name is Mary, there were nine children, you know, and, and she was raised in that tradition.
She wrote this beautiful poem about the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, uh, and, and, and, and Mary experiences that as a manifestation of divine love coming toward her. And it was so wonderful. I said, Marie, how did you write that poem? That’s an amazing poem. She said, oh, well, something like that happened to me.
Of course. I couldn’t say that. I said, why not? She said, that’s the last taboo. I thought really the last taboo is saying that you might’ve had an experience, like a vision or something or some kind of spiritual breakthrough. I’m going to write about that. If that’s the last two and I had had a couple of experiences, I don’t call them mystical because I don’t know what they were.
I just call them experiences. I can’t explain, but well
Alex Tsakiris: [00:24:24] that that’s not, that’s not good enough. You know, I heard an interview with you. It’s not, I heard an interview with you in you’re being totally honest, just like you are now it, first of all, hats off for you for writing about those experiences, but you were explaining the process of you explaining, going through the book and you were saying.
Gee. I was trying to decide how much I should write about that. And you’ve made this work, of course, as a scholar of religion, you have to be careful about what you say as you say that we all know exactly what you mean, but isn’t that the problem don’t we want more don’t we want more from academia don’t we want more from scholarship than to be running and hiding from things that we cannot say, like you said before we turned on, you know, what
Elaine Pagels: [00:25:10] do you think.
Exactly. And, and so people have unusual experiences. I was, I was at a conference actually held in California by the, the, um, the founder of Eslan Institute there who’s, I’ve known for a long time and he had psychiatrist and poets and, um, all kinds of people coming together. 15 of us talking about what we call experiences.
I can explain some kind of coincidence is some kind of people who say they saw someone who wasn’t there. They saw someone who had died, who was actually present or seemed to present what’s going on here? Is it a hallucination? Is it an actual message from another world? I mean, when I was in a situation like that, I thought I can’t tell, I can’t tell whether I’m hearing a voice of somebody who’s died or, or from another world or whether I’m just making it up.
That’s why I called it experiences. I can’t explain, but people have them and they are important and we remember them. So that’s why I thought I’m going to write about that. I don’t know if you’ve had such experiences, but I know a lot of people
Alex Tsakiris: [00:26:20] have, you know, I recently had a chance to interview, uh, Leslie Kane, who I’ve interviewed her a couple of times.
She’s terrific. And she’s a New York times journalist and author of a couple of bestselling books. And she’s recently been involved in this. Netflix series it’s kind client reached top 10 or number one on Netflix called what is it again? Oh, surviving death. And what’s really terrific about the series is that it explores, I have 500 shows on this is real scientists in a variety of different ways, exploring the possibility that consciousness survives, bodily death and their conclusion over and over again, quite conclusively looking at it in all the best ways that science can is that in some way we don’t understand consciousness does survive bodily death.
So. It does kind of peeve me a little bit when we have to chalk it up into this category of saying, you know, things we don’t understand or a mystery, a great mystery. Of course, every everything you write about is a mystery. I would suggest that this, this is really less of a mystery than, you know, 90% of the stuff you write about.
We got Harvard neuroscience or , Harvard school of medicine, neuroscientists brain surgeon, who I just spoke to last week, Dr. Eben Alexander who’s looked at it backwards and forwards, including his own experience of dying. Cause that’s what it is. And then coming back to life, that is really some very good, solid evidence of what’s going on here.
We can’t just chalk it up to it’s a mystery. We don’t know.
Elaine Pagels: [00:28:03] Well, Um, I don’t know how it happens. I read his book and also somebody else I know, I mean, told me a story like that. A doctor, um, her husband was the, uh, president of Rockefeller university had a Nobel prize in science and she was a psychiatrist.
They’re both Jewish. And they had no expectation of survival after death, but she experienced it when she had a burst appendix. And she described going into another state entirely and being very unwelcomed to come back to this world. And after she did, she became a psychiatrist at Sloan Kettering because she felt she had something to say to people with terminal diagnoses.
And there is some, some, um, Well, I have to call it mystery because I don’t understand it not being a scientist, but I’m glad that people are exploring those things because, and also the kind of work people are doing with psychedelics is very interesting because there’s all kinds of regions of human experience.
You can read about them in William James, famous book, the varieties of religious experience. I love that book. He was a psychologist who, as you probably know, had an experience of intense depression and came out of it, sort of clinging to religious mottos. Like the Lord is my refuge. He said, I didn’t even have to believe in it, but I came out of it because somehow these, these words, these, these emotions brought me out.
So. I’m fascinated by that range of experience that we call religious experience. And many people think it is total nonsense. When I was at Stanford hospital two years ago, visiting an anthropologist friend, she arranged a meeting for me with 12 psychiatrists to talk about this at lunch at, at, at the hospital cafeteria.
So there were 12 psychiatrists and me sitting there and I said, okay, when a patient comes to you reporting some kind of religious experience, do you think the patient’s delusional? And they looked at me and said, Well, yes.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:30:19] go talk to the nurses, see what they say, go talk to people who worked, go talk to people who work in hospice, but you know, that’s kind of anecdotal, still go talk to the people at university of Virginia.
Who’ve compiled the handbook of near-death experiences that they give to medical workers and have 200 peer reviewed cases that answer this question. So the fact that there are people inside of the medical community, or in particular, you know, if you’re meeting with academics in neuroscience, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.
And I think that this is a major problem, you know, as we’ve just talked about in terms of, we were talking about actually at the beginning in academia and who do we trust and who do we know? And it’s not that easy. Let me, let me throw out something else. And I really want to get your reaction to this piece.
Cause it’s kinda my thing lately. How do you feel about this statement? We are all, all of us. Leading rich spiritual lives, whether we’re, whether we’re agnostic, atheist, the most devout, we’re all leading rich spiritual lives. That’s what the evidence seems to suggest to me. What about, what do you think?
Elaine Pagels: [00:31:28] I think that’s, that’s really a striking statement.
What, can you clarify more? What you mean by that?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:31:36] What I’m trying to draw attention to is that we can’t write history. We can’t write about the spazy and my favorite guy and not imagine what it was like for him to wake up at night. 2:00 AM in the morning and to stare at the ceiling, like we all do and wonder if everything was going to work out with his son, Titus and praying in whatever way he could, that it would.
And then thinking about that Druid priest that he ran through with a sword up in pertain and wondering how that would weigh on his soul. That is the space. I don’t know anything about the space, but I know as a dad that he had that two o’clock in the morning
Elaine Pagels: [00:32:19] experience. Well, in the ancient world, I think the sense of the presence of invisible beings was everywhere.
I mean, you know, that is
Alex Tsakiris: [00:32:30] there’s, there’s
Elaine Pagels: [00:32:30] reason to believe it’s real, you know, I think there is, but. But we are taught in this culture. At least I was brought up by scientists who had given up religion as silly old folktales. Um, we’re taught that all of that stuff is just crazy old stories and it has nothing to do with reality.
So I was brought up that way. And so when I discovered through experiences that there was a sense of a much deeper life that we live, as you say, um, that was amazing. And I felt like I’d stopped living on a flat earth. And suddenly there was, there was dimension, you know, three dimensions. And for me it was the exploration of religious, um, traditions and also fiction and poetry and music that, uh, that embodied.
And, and, and articulate, spoke to those regions of experience. So, yes, I think exploring that is something that. Well, we just need to do now. And it sounds like you’re beginning to do that much more.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:33:40] Uh, not so much me, but I’m shooting, like calling out historians who don’t include that in. If you’re not writing about that.
If you’re not considering that, even if you’re filling it, not filling in the blanks and saying, I don’t know, like I just read a biography on Caesar and we go, you know, we really don’t know what his spiritual life was, but the author did then say, but we do know that he performed rituals. We do know that.
And we do have to believe that he accepted these kinds of things because we have to at least get there and maybe get to that next level. But you know what I thought. Or what do you think about that? Do you think that’s lacking in history? Do you think that would enrich and broaden our perspective as historians?
Elaine Pagels: [00:34:23] Well, yes, but you know, in the ancient Roman empire, that, that was kind of a very widely shared perception. It’s not so much in the 21st century, although I think you’re right, Alex, that many people don’t see what’s going on. They say, oh, well, uh, religion is becoming obsolete because church attendance is down in blah, blah, blah.
Well that’s because many of those religious institutions aren’t meeting people’s needs and don’t resonate with human experience. Uh, they’re kind of fossilized, you know, and, and they, they just don’t speak to people. So I think people reject those traditional forms of. Religious practice out of an awareness that there’s more and there’s something else they’re looking for.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:35:17] Let me come at it from a slightly different direction, then I’ll let it go. I interviewed, uh, Oxford scholar and just brilliant guy really liked this guy, Dr. Gregory Shushan. And he took the near-death experience science and he took it in a different direction . He said, let’s look at it across culture and across time.
So he collected all these accounts of near-death experiences. And he looked for how they changed the spiritual practices in the spiritual beliefs of the groups. And again, this was worldwide. So in Polynesia, you know, 500 years ago before the, the, the white guys on the boats arrived and all the rest of that stuff, just what was their beliefs or south America or the native American Indians, all of them.
Right. Overwhelmingly, he came to the conclusion that almost every religious belief system that he found the foundation of their after life beliefs. We’re based on near death experiences. And this is a guy who kind of has to tow the line, right. He’s kind of Oxford. Can’t be, you know, can’t step out there and has to be careful what he says, just like you do.
So he’s not going too far with it. He’s just saying that’s where the data leads. That’s the data, that’s the data, we’re all leading rich spiritual lives. And we might have to experience death in order to fully understand that all through our life, it was there. We just didn’t acknowledge it. But that seems to be where the data leads.
And then I’ll just let it go.
Elaine Pagels: [00:36:48] That’s very interesting because it’s, what’s his field anthropology.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:36:52] Yeah, I think it’s, uh, I mean, it’s one of those crossover blended fields, but it’s anthropological work.
Elaine Pagels: [00:36:59] Uh, a colleague of mine at Stanford, Tanya Lurman. Um, I don’t know if you know her an anthropologist. She just wrote a book called how God becomes real and Tonya is Jewish and secular. Um, she said she’s always explored worlds of different groups. One of them were witches in London.
Uh, then she got interested in Christian evangelicals and then she’s interested in, uh, people in mental hospitals who hear visions, who hear voices and see visions and people in religious groups who see visions and hear voices. And whether these are very different. I mean, William James, the psychologist’s book on drivers of religious experience, as you know, those experiences and insanity, what we call insanity are closest connected.
So she’s written a wonderful book. And what she says is that people who are. Uh, self consciously cultivating spiritual experiences have to work at it. They work at it by practices of meditation or prayer or worship. They keep it up because they have to maintain a kind of state of mind that is open and receptive to dimensions of experience that ordinary people would ignore.
They just say, oh, I had a funny dream or that was weird, but they don’t in our culture. Many people just don’t consider an experience that someone in Polynesia or whatever might say. Uh, I had a visitation, uh, I heard a, I heard a voice, had a revelation.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:38:42] Yeah, that’s excellent. It is just, I’ll leave this one little piece.
Now, the interesting thing about work is the near-death experience aspect. So he layered that on top and said, I’m going to look at the visions and the revelations that are associated with people, you know, being in a situation where we would assume, you know, we can’t go back and medically analyze it, but let me move back to something that you said earlier, because I think this broader view of things, the things that you’re really bringing us, which is so wonderful and you have for so many years, it’s funny how you’ve done that.
And in the book, why religion, this comes up is that, you know, your work like with the gospel of Thomas. Is a different approach to all this stuff. And you drew us into that with that book and said, Hey, here’s someone who’s looking at the experiential part. They’re not looking at the external, how long was he on the cross?
How many times they stabbed him in the side kind of thing. And talk to us about that journey that you went through and how that informed you, you know, both personally and professionally,
Elaine Pagels: [00:39:52] you mean with, with the text or with other things
Alex Tsakiris: [00:39:55] I think what you brought to us with the gospel of Thomas was that there was another way, a more experiential way that Thomas is talking about an experiential way of working with this material.
And you brought that forth.
Elaine Pagels: [00:40:08] Yeah, that’s right. I mean, most people think as, as head of Christianity as, as just something you believe in, or you don’t the gospel of Thomas when I first encountered. These unexpected discovery of ancient Christian gospels, that we’ve been hidden in the desert for thousands of years because the bishops had had, uh, censored them.
The first line that struck me was the one that said, 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. And I thought, you know, you don’t have to believe that just happens to be true. Now I took that psychologically, but later I, I understood the text better.
And it’s partly that text is, is claims to be secret teaching of Jesus. And it could be secret teaching of Jesus. You have to remember Jesus, wasn’t a Christian. He was a rabbi. If you read the gospels in Greek, you see the word we call teacher is rabbi. So he says at one point in the earliest account, and now in the new Testament that he spoke privately to his disciples and he said, I’m giving you the secret of the kingdom of God, but I’m not telling the people outside so that they won’t understand.
They’re not supposed to understand. I’m just going to tell them parables, they’re not going to get it. And the gospel of mark, doesn’t tell you, what is the secret of the kingdom of God? Doesn’t say the gospel of Thomas claims to be what he taught privately. And it’s it’s secret teaching. And it, if Jesus taught the way other rabbis did, he would have had a, a public teaching, which you teach to the congregation and then the people you’re closest to who are your special, um, Followers and students who speak in a different way and a much deeper way, and you give them experiential tradition.
You give them what we would call mystical tradition, which goes into dimensions of reality that we can’t validate scientifically. And, and so what you find in the gospel of Thomas is a conviction that within each one of us, there’s a, a hidden link to the divine source from which we all come. And that you can, if you look hard enough and carefully enough and deeply enough, you can find a way of access to the divine source by yourself, freelance.
You don’t have to have a church or an institution or Jesus or anything,
Alex Tsakiris: [00:42:45] disintermediation spiritual disintermediation as well. I like to call
Elaine Pagels: [00:42:49] it. And I love this. I mean, it was such a discovery. What an amazing thing. This is very early teaching and it could very likely to teach you with Jesus and somebody yesterday said to me, yeah, but that’s all sort of Greek philosophy.
And I said, no, actually, if, if you look at the traditional Kabbalah, which is Jewish mysticism, well, in Jewish tradition, you weren’t supposed to write down these things. Because if you say to somebody, you have a spark of the divine in you, they can be stupid and megalomania can say, Hey, I’m God. I can do anything I want.
I mean, they have to have a certain level of maturity to understand that. So you were not supposed to write it down. You could only speak these things to people. Whose capacity to understand you can trust. So they weren’t written in Jewish communities until the year 1000 or 1300 or 1500 Spanish Jewish communities in, um, well, Jewish communities in Spain, the Sephardic communities.
And then you have these mystical books, but they are very similar to what’s in the gospel of Thomas. So these have probably been transmitted in Jewish tradition, orally, but not written out for a couple of thousand years.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:44:07] And as you alluded to earlier, this obviously goes way beyond these traditions. I think of the parable that’s attributed to Buddha, but if you look into it, I, I don’t probably doesn’t hold up, which makes it even more interesting the way we’re talking about.
But you know, the boat is all loading up the finger, pointing to the moon and he goes, all you guys are just looking at the finger and you’re not looking at what it’s pointing to. And I think that’s. That’s the essence of kind of what this is about
Elaine Pagels: [00:44:38] it is. I mean, yesterday I just finished teaching a course.
I innovated with a colleague called Jesus and Buddha, and he’s a specialist. Um, my colleague, Jonathan gold is a specialist in Tibetan Buddhism about which I know very little and he doesn’t know much about Christianity. So we thought, okay, we’re going to work. If we compare these two and we’ve had marvelous time putting Buddhist and Christian sources together and saying, Hmm, what’s similar.
What’s different. I mean, these are very different cultures, you know, in terms of the way they understand time or human lifespan or the afterlife or anything, you can name cosmology, but there are some very deep experiential similarities. And that’s what you were talking about, about how in extremely very cultures, you find similar kinds of suggestions about.
Experiences to which they refer.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:45:37] Can we pull this up?
So Dr. . Pebbles, I know you like to. Stay pretty busy. We were talking about at the beginning that, uh, I so appreciate that you are out there doing interviews like this, engaging with people and bringing this, all this good stuff to as many people as you can. What are you working on? Are you working on, you just said, but you just said you’re working on a course there and you’re, co-teaching it.
And co-developing it. And teaching it, what is really got your interest these days and what do you want to accomplish going forward?
Elaine Pagels: [00:46:18] Well, I love having these conversations, Alex, about all of the topics that you can think of that co under the spectrum of, of these traditions, the way anthropologists look at them, but the also how ICS, how they work experientially.
And, and so I’m the course on Jesus and Buddha has been wonderful to work on, but I decided I also want to, I want to write about a topic I’ve never written about directly, and that is. Jesus of Nazareth. What do we know about him actually? How do we know it? If we think we know it and, and you know, how are those stories understood and not just, what do we know about what might’ve happened or not 2000 years ago, but how, how have those stories resonated for 2000 years so that you have artists from Giotto and Rembrandt and Michelangelo and Bach and you know, uh, Jesus Christ, superstar, re-interpreting the same, some of the same stories and images and characters like Mary Magdalene, like Judas, like Jesus.
These are all pilot. These are all characters in our culture. Um, You know, how does David Bowie play pilot? It’s quite remarkable, mark Casey’s film in the last temptation. And how do others? I mean, Mel Gibson did a, a very different take on it, shall we say yes. And yet these stories play and sometimes very opposite ways.
When I was working on the book of revelation, what really struck me is it’s a wild book, as you know, um, what I realized is that it’s about monsters and demons and gods and angels, and there’s this huge cosmic battle. And they’re fighting each other until a massive conflagration and everything explodes into horrific chaos, uh, before a new world emerges.
Right. And that, that story has been used. For thousands of years by people on both sides of every conflict, meaning we are, God’s people, you, you are Satan’s people and God is going to annihilate you and we’re going to enjoy the world and we’re going to be in charge of it. And people have used these. So I’m, I’m fascinated, not only by whatever we know about what happened there in the tradition, but what we call reception history.
Why do those stories keep, keep going? Why do people return to them? What are they saying to us?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:48:54] Yeah, that’s going to be fantastic. Especially with kind of a Gnostic sensibility. Demi is your demiurge kind of Gnostic, uh, potential there. It should be, should be quite a treat. We got to look forward to that.
Elaine Pagels: [00:49:08] Well, I love to see what artists do because that’s, what’s always happened with painting, with music, with films, um, with poems. I mean, that tradition like. Every one of them has just ignited just explosions of creative energy.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:49:28] . We should interject because I think this is what you’re alluding to, but you know, a lot of the quote, unquote, Gnostic, gospels, and you can’t even, it’s just a term that we’ve applied to a bunch of different people over a pretty long period of time, but some of it reads like a pulp fiction or it reads like, you know, the, the screenplay for Snowpiercer or the matrix, you know, it’s like, they’re right there.
Like, Hey, how can we engage?
Elaine Pagels: [00:49:52] My students have been working with it exactly that way. And the word gnosis, as you know, it it’s translated knowledge, but that’s not a very good translation, you know, because you know that there are two words in Greek, for knowledge, there’s the word it Dane, which means to have seen something.
So that kind of knowledge is something you see in your mind, like. Two and two is four or cat, you know, and when we say those things, you can practically just visualize that’s intellectual knowledge, but gnosis this kind of knowledge is the word recognize the gnosis is about, do you know that person, do you know who you are?
Do you know, God is that’s the question do it’s in Spanish, it would be as opposed to set bear or Kennan as opposed to visit in German or instead of what a Safwan. So all of these languages have different ways of knowing, and this kind of gnosis is personal is it’s very essential and that’s what fascinates me.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:50:56] Fantastic. Our guest again has been the wonderful, wonderful Dr. Elaine Pagels it’s been so terrific to have you join us today. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Elaine Pagels: [00:51:08] Well, thank you. It’s been wonderful conversation. And now I’m interested in looking at, at the writings you’ve talked about. Oh, good. So you give me some new, um, new research to do.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:51:20] God. That’s sounds
Elaine Pagels: [00:51:22] great to me. Thank you. It’s been fun.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:51:25] Thanks again to Dr. Elaine Pagels for joining me today on Skeptiko.
The one question I’d have to tee up is from her fantastic quote from the gospel of Thomas. If you bring forth, what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t, it will destroy you. Why is that Gnostic? What does it mean to you? What is Gnosticism?
, if it means anything to you, what does it mean? Let me know your thoughts. Love to hear from you.
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