“The role of tragic victim isn’t one I wanted,” Elaine Pagels told me when I spoke with her by phone. “I didn’t want my life to be defined by loss.” The loss and grief Pagels was referring to is the subject of her latest book, Why Religion? A Personal Story. In the space of a year, Pagels lost her 6-year-old son, Mark, to a rare pulmonary disease, and her husband, Heinz, to a hiking accident in Colorado. The book is a moving account of Pagels’s journey to become whole again after unimaginable loss. It’s a book that Pagels, author of the acclaimed The Gnostic Gospels as well as seven other books about religion, never imagined she would write.
Elaine Pagels’s provenance these days is New Jersey. She serves as the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation professor of religion at Princeton University. But Pagels is a California native, born and raised in Palo Alto. She came of age when Berkeley and San Francisco were the epicenter of the 1960s youth scene and young people were questioning the fundamental underpinnings of American society, including racism and the war in Vietnam. One of her friends was a musician named Jerry Garcia who had recently been discharged from the U.S. Army. Pagels was always fascinated by the deep questions religion posed and by how different traditions used rituals, music, and stories to answer those questions. As a teenager she was influenced by evangelical Christianity and the spiritual dimension it opened for her. She earned her undergraduate degree at Stanford and took a master’s in classics there as well before moving on to Harvard. Her original application for the doctoral program in the study of religion was rejected. “In our experience,” the rejection letter read, “women students always have quit before completing the degree.”
Undeterred, Elaine earned her doctorate. After seven years of marriage to Heinz Pagels, a physicist, Elaine discovered that she was pregnant with the couple’s first child. By then, she had taught at Barnard College and published The Gnostic Gospels. Heinz had penned a book of his own about quantum physics. The couple had a rich, full life, and when their son was born, they seemed to have it all. But Mark was born with a hole in one of the walls of his heart. Ironically, while Mark was recovering from surgery, Elaine learned that she had won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. Not long after that, however, Elaine and Heinz were dealt another blow: Mark was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, a rare, fatal condition. He would live a few years more before succumbing. About a year later, Heinz set out for a fateful hike on Pyramid Peak.
Elaine Pagels survived unbearable grief. She rediscovered the capacity for joy. The wisdom she gained through loss makes her a wise elder and a living example of grace. Elaine Pagels will sit down with Pico Iyer at Campbell Hall, UCSB, on Thursday, January 9, at 7:30 p.m., for what should be a remarkable conversation.