Book Review: “Why Religion?” Is About Much More Than Religion

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book cover, Why Religion?Dr. Pagels has written an honest and insightful book that’s a welcome addition to the field of grief. While she does write about religion, because that is her specialty and her professional life, she writes surprisingly personally as well. It does not take long to realize that the losses in her life inform her understanding of the nature and purpose of religion as much as the other way around.

Pagels writes chronologically, both about her unfolding research regarding early Christian manuscripts and events and also about her unfolding life as a woman, a wife, and a mother. She marries a distinguished physicist, Heinz Pagels, and they become parents to their first child, Mark. Early on they learn that Mark has a rare incurable lung disease and his life will not be long. He lives to be as old as six, with numerous, anxiety-laden medical interventions. Then wife and husband undertake the journey that no parent ever wants to take—the painful, soulful journey through grief. Pagels writes poignantly about her tumultuous experience, giving expression to and validating the feelings that many bereaved people will understand and appreciate.

Thinking that the worst has by then happened, she learns that is not the case. A year later her 41-year-old husband slips while hiking with friends and falls down a cliff to his death. Widowed, with a baby and toddler to care for, Elaine Pagels confronts her terror, rage, and despair as grief strikes all over again.

Among this book’s pages, grief specialists will find frank and genuine expressions of what bereaved people often go through, what life is like for them. Grievers themselves will find confirmation of the normalcy of what they feel and think, though I would advise against their reading this book too early in their time of bereavement. But they need not wait too long, since the author offers a sure sense of authentic hope by the end of her writing.

One of the gifts of Pagels’ book is the way in which she weaves together the subjects of religion and loss. She writes from the perspective of her less-than-conventional faith system, with a ready openness to religions other than Christianity. If you’re a spiritual explorer, you’ll likely find her approach freeing and encouraging. If you’re accustomed to a traditional pattern of Christian theology, you may be introduced to occasional references, quotations, and perspectives that are new to you.

A central understanding of Pagel’s response to grief grew out of someone’s telling her that the death of her young son would teach her a spiritual lesson, so she could find meaning denied to those who had not been exposed to such a raw life experience. Pagels writes, with some feeling, “…[M]eaning may not be something we find. We found no meaning in our son’s death, or in the deaths of countless others. The most we could hope for was that we might be able to create meaning.”

That’s what Pagels’ book revolves around: how do you create meaning in the face of tremendous, unnerving loss? How do you go forward in life when you feel you’ve been knocked backward so soundly? What roles might religion and spirituality play in all this?

Early on she refers to the words of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz about how “the work of culture is to make suffering sufferable.” As she lays out her own thoughts, she seems to adopt a related idea about one of the purposes of religion—to make suffering sufferable. Hence the title of her book.

Yet she takes a step beyond this when she writes near the end of her book that, after contending with Jewish and Christian attitudes about suffering, she believes that “seen through the eyes of wisdom, suffering can show how we’re connected with each other, and with God.”

There’s a lovely story at the end of her book, as she participates in an outdoor commencement ceremony at Harvard University where she is being awarded an honorary doctorate. Her two children, now grown and married, are with her for the noisy, joyful ceremony, as are her closest friends. Reflecting upon that event, and upon her long life, and aware of those who could not be physically present with her, she quotes an ancient Jewish prayer: “Blessed are Thou, Lord God of the Universe, that you have brought us alive to see this day.” Then she offers this concluding thought: “However it happens, sometimes hearts do heal, through what I can only call grace.”

Hers is a testament to all bereaved, whatever their faith experience: “Yes, hearts can heal; they do heal. And aren’t we grateful for this reality?”

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