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The Divine Intercourse

Elaine Pagels talks about religion and the world, and why we turn people into devils.

Belphegor the Demon, from Dictionnaire Infernal, 1863. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Belphegor the Demon, from Dictionnaire Infernal, 1863. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Andrew Solomon: I’ve read your books for years. One of the things that I’ve always found so compelling about your writing is how the issues you address in these books, from Adam, Eve, and the Serpent and The Gnostic Gospels to you latest book, The Origin of Satan, seem to apply to so many things going on in the world today.

Elaine Pagels: As I’ve often said, I am not an antiquarian. I don’t write and teach about these subjects because I’m an antiquarian. I got interested in them because I live in today’s world.

AS: Let’s talk about how some of the issues you raise in your books apply to today’s world. I’m particularly interested in one of the central ideas in The Origin of Satan, which has to do with what you call “demonization.” In that book you describe how Christianity introduced the idea of a universe divided between the forces of good and evil, and you go into how the act of demonizing something or someone created the foundations for a polarized view of the world. In thinking about all this, I was struck by how that polarized view is so prevalent today. The notion of the demon is very strong today. It’s used to much in politics; it seems to be the driving force of so many of the cults that have been building up in recent years; it comes up so much in the movies — and it seems that anytime sex or sexuality comes up in an open way, there’s someone out there talking about the devil’s work. The discourse is not just a matter of, “we disaree,” but, “They are evil, and what they are doing is morally wrong.”

EP: Oh, yes — this pattern of demonizing one’s enemy is very much present in people today, and in many different ways. For example, I was traveling between Egypt and Israel when I was working on The Gnostic Gospels, and at that time, because of the ongoing war in the Middle East, you had to fly to Athens. You couldn’t go that fifteen minutes across from Cairo to Jerusalem. In the Mideast, I saw the way that Muslims and Christians fall into this language of demonization. With Jews, it’s really only a few extremist groups who describe their enemies as intrinsically evil. But for Christians and Muslims, the centerpiece of their cosmology involves the idea of a universe divided between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Without Satan there’s no drama there. There’s no story. But when you have a divided universe like that, what you’re also seeing is a divided social world in which “these are God’s people; these are Satan’s people.”

AS: How profoundly different is the notion of “we are God’s people; those are Satan’s people” from “we are God’s people; those are not God’s people,” which seems to be the structure that exists in the Old Testament?

EP: It is different. In the ancient world, the idea of “we are God’s people; they are not God’s people,” the “they” are often considered sort of subhuman. One sees this in a culture like the Egyptian culture, in which Egyptian simply meant “human.” Therefore, in the Egyptian culture, if you’re not Egyptian, you’re really not fully human. [laughs] This approach seems almost universal: that every tribe and people will think, Our people are people, and your people are crocodiles. Maybe not crocodiles, but sort of animalistic, inferior, you smell bad, that kind of thing. That seems like an instinctive, almost species kind of protection. What is quite different is when you introduce the idea that others are evil. Then you introduce the possibility that is attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John, in which he says, “Whoever kills you will think he’s doing God a service.” That is, you introduce the possibility of acts directed against people — violence, murder, even genocide — in the name of a moral cause. This kind of hostility can be used to justify war.

For example, in what used to be Yugoslavia, there are three groups at war — Muslims, Roman Catholics, who are mostly Croatian, and the Serbians, who are mostly Orthodox Christians. I was very struck by an article that was written by a noted statesman who was trying to negotiate a peace settlement. Along with the various political leaders, he went to the leaders of the Orthodox church and the Serbian church and the Muslim religious leaders and said, “We need your help, too. Stop the fighting.” Their response was the title of the piece: “They Call Each Other Devils.” He said they all call each other devils.

I would never suggest that Christianity or Islam invented hostility. Hostility is as old as the species and as contemporary as can be. We see the rhetoric used effectively, again and again, in the world of politics. Many people sort of snickered at Ronald Reagan’s comments about the Soviet Union being the “Evil Empire.” To them it was a kind of embarrassment. But that rhetoric worked because there are millions of people in this country for whom that view resonated with their religious background and their worldview. Or, during the Gulf War, which happened while I was writing The Origin of Satan, Saddam Hussein talked about the United States as the great Satan. Meanwhile, President Bush was calling on his constituency and talking about Saddam Hussein as the devil. [laughs] There may be a lot cynicism in this political rhetoric, but politicians know how it works.

AS: On the one hand, that rhetoric can be used cynically. On the other, people do identify strongly with notions of being on the side of good as opposed to evil, don’t they? I know that as an American it was part of my upbringing.

EP: I think that our sense of American nationhood is really bound very deeply to the whole biblical story about the promised land the way that the Puritans saw it. That’s part of our national myth, and this idea that we are good and not evil like other nations has been part of our self-perception virtually since the country was founded. Of course, for many of us, during the Vietnam War there was the twin effect of inheriting this self-perception while being implicated and caught up in a war that many people saw was wrong. I would say the moral principle of the forces of good against the forces of evil worked pretty well in the case of World War II. There really were evil forces in that war. Some people totally misunderstood what I was doing in The Origin of Satan. As if to say, “Well, she just thinks evil doesn’t exist, and by constructing this social framework to explain our religious and cultural perceptions of its origin, she deconstructs the whole idea of evil so it seems like it’s not really there.” If they say this, of course, they haven’t read the book. I mean, what kind of fool would say that evil doesn’t exist? If you look at World War II, the model of evil in my book was partly made for explaining things like the phenomenon of Nazism. Nazism was one of the clearest examples of evil in this century, and of where we as a country were doing what was good by finally joining in the fight against it. But in Vietnam, that same reasoning didn’t apply. Then, after Vietnam, we had a president who, despite his protests, was indeed a crook in many ways. [laughs] Vietnam and the events that followed sort of opened up a much more ambiguous world. And now we are trying to deal with many similar or unrelated ambiguities all over the world. That’s very difficult. To do it, if it’s going to happen, requires becoming much more conscious of how we perceive our enemies and how we perceive ourselves.

AS: I am not religious, but I went to services for Yom Kippur. There is all of that considering of what you have done that is evil in the course of this year, and of asking forgiveness for it. I was looking around the temple and thinking about the question of how much evil I had actually done this year as opposed to other years, how much I had done as opposed to how much evil other people standing in that room had done, as opposed to how much evil people in general had done. The question of whether one is evil, whether evil is a matter of being, or whether it’s a matter of behavior, is something that I know you’ve struggled with in your writing. Can you talk about it?

EP: As I understand it, the idea of recognizing one’s own capacity for evil goes back culturally to the Jewish teaching, which is that every person has within them an evil impulse and a good impulse. It is not that we are inherently evil. I mean, Christians get into original sin in a way that I cannot agree with. When I think of evil, I don’t think of any ontology, any way of being. I think of acts. So where that question drew me was back to the Gospel of Philip, which is one of the gnostic texts. And what I mean by that is back to oneself. That is, to one’s own capacity for evil. I take that seriously.

One of the elements of the institutionalized forms of Christianity and the Christian tradition that disturbs me is the way it suppresses people’s own awareness of their greed, of their rage, of their fear, of all the impulses that lead people to violate others. Somehow, becoming aware of the sources of one’s actions seems to me very important. How a society does that is a huge question.

AS: I think that if other people weren’t taking your views and applying them to social situations, it would have been difficult for you to achieve the popularity that you’ve achieved as a scholar. What is your view of why so many people find your books to be so exciting?

EP: I think that the response to my work has to do with the implicit issues it raises, because whatever a person’s religious background or affiliation, each book raises questions that bother me, and I assume they bother other people, too. For instance, my book on the gnostic gospels raised what was, for me, an urgent issue today: the need to explore some kind of spiritual dimension. I had been brought up to expect that this dimension was nonexistent, because of the difficulties that exist with all the institutions that claim to offer access to such things.

AS: Your description of the discovery of those gnostic texts at the beginning of The Gnostic Gospels is so riveting and draws one in so entirely. It also becomes, in some sense, a metaphor for your own life. Of course, I’m aware of the terrible tragedies that you’ve been through in your personal life. How much do you connect your historical reading of this material to your own personal experience?

EP: That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer. Writing comes out of one’s whole experience. Terrible loss in only part of it, and you don’t experience terrible loss without extraordinary people in your life. That is a part of my personal story, and it’s very much the fabric on which every chapter in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent was written. As I wrote, I knew exactly how that book related to my son, Mark, and his life. We were told when he was two that he wouldn’t live. So, for example, in the chapter called “The Politics of Paradise,” I look at Augustine and Chrysostom’s views on sexual passion. The primary passion I had to deal with at the time was grief.

One of the major inroads I had in writing Adam, Eve, and the Serpent was the experience of bereavement and of how, when people experience things that are very difficult, there’s often a tendency to blame oneself or another person. A couple of years later, I remember, my friend, when she was ill with cancer, was told by her doctor it had to do with her bad attitude. Her cancer had nothing at all to do with that, and blaming her was just idiotic. At the end of this devastating illness, she decided to take her life. On the day she died, she said to me, “I have this horrible fear that God will turn his back on me.” I said to her — because she wasn’t terribly religious, but those moments are pretty powerful — “If you thought of God as a female, do you think she would do that?” She was quite stunned and said, “No, I couldn’t imagine that.”

For me, institutional religion was very little help in the throes of my son’s death. Some people think it is a great consolation. They are very lucky. I did not find it to be that way. But it depends on what one means by the term religion. For me, the sense of despair was involved with a sense of being disconnected, of living in a random universe in which one is isolated. I worked on these gnostic texts because they worked on me. They speak about a connectedness with all beings, with participation in the life of the universe and with whatever is beyond the universe. Why do we need to think about those things? I can’t answer that definitively, but they are very sustaining.

AS: I know so many people today who are, as you say, looking for a “spiritual dimension.” One of the most obvious reasons is AIDS, and how do we deal with all this loss, and all this ignorance, and the demonization of those who have the disease? The desire to go beyond spiritual emptiness and to have a sense of a larger connectedness seems to be something many people are feeling in many, many ways. In this light, I love the passage you quote in The Gnostic Gospels and The Origin of Satan from the Gospel of Thomas.

Nag Hammadi Codex II, folio 32, the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Nag Hammadi Codex II, folio 32, the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

EP: “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.” I just know that’s true.

AS: It seems eminently true to me. It’s also disappointing to me that that sentiment, because the Gospel of Thomas didn’t make it into the New Testament, has not been available in the Christian tradition. Because it balances other things in the New Testament so beautifully and so eloquently.

EP: In a way, I feel that when Christianity suppressed the gnostics — who thought of themselves as Christians — it cut much of the heart out of the Christian movement. What remained are sets of dogmas and beliefs and some extraordinary stories and writings and enough hints and clues and relics of religious experience to have sustained millions of people for a couple of thousand years so far. But what was lost was very, very beautiful and useful. Those original gnostic texts show us how the architecture of our culture, through the architecture of the cultural mind, was constructed. Through these texts you see what shapes it could not take, what stresses were on that building, what rooms were closed off, where there was no access. You see the limitations of that structure that came to be the dominant structure.

AS: We now live in a time when religious argument is being frequently used by the right wing to accomplish what is, to me, a demonic and evil purpose. It is upsetting to hear all of this Christian language being used politically for purposes of oppression. In The Origin of Satan, what you describe as the original impulses toward demonization are really shown to have occurred at a time when the Christian church was in crisis because, at that time, when it was still getting organized, it had so few followers. And, as you explain in the book, one of the means it used to really strengthen itself as an institution, in order to recruit followers, was to use the idea of good and evil to rid itself of those elements it viewed as too radical. Those groups that were suppressed and demonized seem to have represented a more individual and personal approach to religion and to looking at the world. Today it seems like so many of the same things are going on. Can you talk about that a little bit?

EP: I think acts of oppression do happen in times of crisis or perceived crisis, as did this suppression of gnosticism. I don’t know if the churches are in crisis now. I suppose one could say that everything is always in crisis. And in order to change, we have to amplify and open up our perceptions in ways that they have been closed down. I think it’s rather sad that we have religions that are closed off to many people because of the serious deficiencies of these institutions. Somehow religion can do what good therapy might do.

AS: Do you think the issues you raise can or will be addressed by the practicing church?

EP: There are some indications of this. For example, the Southern Baptist Church finally apologizing, at the National Baptist Convention, for racism, and making a public acknowledgment of their collective sin. Isn’t it about time to say that Christianity has been a major prop in legitimizing slavery, homophobia, and segregation of various kinds? Of course, in the hands of people like George Fox, the father Quakerism, and many abolitionists, Christianity was used against racism and slavery. But many have used it in favor of those segregationist attitudes.

AS: The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa has also finally acknowledged the error of preaching racism. But the struggle that’s going on there is a clear example of how deep the structures of demonization are once they’ve been set up.

EP: It reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago with [former federal judge] William Wayne Justice, who was called “the conscience of East Texas.” Apparently somebody asked him: What did you people think about the judicial decision in Brown v. the Board of Education?” He said, “Well, they didn’t like it one bit to have to go to school with these other people. But they didn’t object because they knew it was right.” Then he said, “What they really couldn’t stand were those kids with long hair in the high school.” [laughs]