MOYERS: Back in 1945, a Bedouin peasant in Egypt wandered into a cave and made a stunning discovery. There, in an earthen jar, were ancient manuscripts that had been hidden for centuries. Some of them shed new light on early Christianity. One of them was the Book of Thomas, the witness of one of the lesser known disciples of Jesus.
Thomas' depiction of Christ, including the secret sayings of Jesus, goes to the heart of an old question: is religion what we believe a set of doctrines on high to which we pay fidelity or is it what we discover for ourselves through personal experience?
The scholar of religion and historian Elaine Pagels has taken the Gospel of Thomas and interpreted it through the prism of her own life and wisdom in a remarkable new book, BEYOND BELIEF. Educated at Stanford and Harvard, Elaine Pagels first came to wide public attention with her book THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS. Her other books include ADAM, EVE, AND THE SERPENT and THE ORIGIN OF SATAN. She teaches at Princeton University and has been a frequent guest of mine.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
PAGELS: Thank you.
MOYERS: The subtitle. BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS. What is the secret Gospel of Thomas?
PAGELS: The Gospel of Thomas is a quite amazing text. It consists of just… it starts with the words, "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke. And Thomas wrote them down." And all it is, are sayings of Jesus. But unlike the Gospels in the New Testament, like Matthew and Luke, this one has not public teaching, but secret sayings. It speaks about a Jesus who speaks about every one of us coming from God's primordial light. It speaks about all beings coming from God. The New Testament Gospel of John says Jesus is the light. Everything refers to Jesus. Jesus teaches you have to believe in Jesus, you have to follow Jesus. This Gospel is not about that.
Here Jesus says… he talks about a way. And says, "You have to find your way. You can find the divine light within yourself. Within everyone. Within all being."
MOYERS: How did it go so long unknown? Undetected? Unobserved?
PAGELS: Well, this gospel has a mystery behind it. Because apparently, this and many others were circulating among Christians very early in the movement. But they were disliked by some of the church authorities. So, one of the archbishops, in the year 367, wrote a list to the monks in Egypt. He said, "Get rid of all those illegitimate secret books you like so well. And keep these." And the ones he said to keep are the ones we call the New Testament.
All the other books, including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, many others, were burned, thrown away, and so forth. But somebody disobeyed the Archbishop. And instead of, you know, burning these Gospels, buried them where they were found in 1945.
MOYERS: So, do you think the Gospel of Thomas, which lay hidden for all these years, may well have been written… likely was written by somebody close to Jesus, or who knew someone close to Jesus?
PAGELS: We don't know who wrote this Gospel, any more than we know who wrote any of the others, actually. They're all attributed to disciples. But we don't know.
It's not unlikely or, put it differently it's likely that some of the sayings here are sayings that Jesus spoke. In fact, many of the sayings are the same as you'll find in the Gospel of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament. And some of them are quite different. They're not simple. They're kind of puzzles. They're koans. They're meant to be struggled with.
MOYERS: Koan that's a Buddhist term, isn't it?
PAGELS: It's a Buddhist term. It means it's not a clear saying. But it's a puzzling saying. It's powerful. In these sayings, Jesus says things like, "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."
Now, when I heard that saying, I thought, "I don't have to believe that. I just know that's true." And that could be true on a psychological level. And I think it's also true on a spiritual level. That we need to find spiritual resources within ourselves. And according to this kind of source, the reason we can find it within ourselves, is that we come from that source.
MOYERS: Why isn't the official Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas?
PAGELS: That would make a very interesting Bible. But I think that the people like the Archbishop, who called books like this illegitimate secret Gospels, thought that it was dangerous to say, "Well, you could go off and find God on your own. You don't need the beliefs that the Church establishes. You don't need the Bishop, you don't need to go to church. You don't need to be baptized." I mean, to say that might make the church less important. And he was not an Archbishop to take that lightly.
MOYERS: So, this was about what year?
PAGELS: That was the year 367. It was after the church had become the religion of the Empire. It was the beginning of the establishment of Imperial Christianity.
PAGELS: And it was at that point that the New Testament as we know was shaped. So, this book is about how Christianity as we know is shaped. It's quite a remarkable tradition. But there's so much that was left out of it. And that's what I'm writing about.
MOYERS: What does this tell you, this Gospel of Thomas, about the story of the Christian movement?
PAGELS: What fascinates me here is that so much of Christianity has turned into a set of beliefs like, if people say, "Are you a Christian?" And if you then say, "Well, what do you mean by that?" They'll usually say, "Well, do you believe that Jesus is… whatever… the son of God."
Christianity becomes just a set of things you believe in. It's almost an intellectual kind of abstract issue. But these texts don't talk about what you believe in. They talk about what you experience, what you know on the level of the heart.
MOYERS: Did you ever have an experience like that?
PAGELS: Yes. I think for anyone who has a sense of discovering another reality in this ordinary reality that we share, these texts speak deeply about that.
MOYERS: The poet Rilke talks about, "every angel is terrifying." That this experience that we have, that we cannot define, is one that turns up upside-down. Tears us apart. Shatters our world. Shatters our identity. Shatters our loyalties. Is that what you're talking about?
PAGELS: Well, I just have a sense that, you know, I'm curious about what is religion about, you know? Why do some of us still engage it? It's not because it's a set of old beliefs, or old ideas. Or even particularly the view that this is the only true religion. Many of us no longer accept those views. But this speaks to the heart of our experience, when we're trying to deal with our lives. At least it speaks to me that way.
MOYERS: In the opening of your book, you tell a story. I've marked… it's a cold February day, right?
PAGELS: That's right.
MOYERS: You're out running, in New York. And you stop to warm yourself, and to take a breath in a vestibule of a church. Read this for me.
PAGELS: This is on a morning jog in Central Park. I came into the back of the church just to warm up. I was startled.
"Standing in the back of that church, I recognized uncomfortably that I needed to be here. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears on a child. And here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control, or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope. Perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt the day before."
MOYERS: What did you feel the day before? What was going on?
PAGELS: The day before, my husband and I had been at the Babies Hospital up at Columbia Presbyterian. And we heard that our only child had a lung disease that was untreatable, incurable, invariably fatal. He was two years old. And we were devastated.
MOYERS: And this was on your mind, obviously, when you were out running. And you… it was a coincidence you stopped in this church.
PAGELS: I was out running in the morning. I couldn't sleep well. I happened to stop in this church because it was cold, and I was startled at how moved I was by the worship in progress. And the thought that came to me was, "Here's a family that can speak about death."
MOYERS: The church family.
PAGELS: Many families don't, you know? And mine was not very different from many others, which death is hardly spoken about. But I realized that in that community, one could deal with the terrible needs that we have, when we face that kind of vulnerability.
MOYERS: But why was this new to you, Elaine? Because you had joined an Evangelical Church when you were a teenager, if I remember the story, then a couple years later one of your closest friends had died.
PAGELS: Yes. This was a friend of mine, he was 16 years old. Killed in an automobile accident. And I went back to the evangelical church, I guess looking for comfort. And the people there said, "Well, was he a Christian? Was he born again?" And I said, "No." And they said, "Well then he's in hell." And I thought this does not make sense to me. This is not a community in which I can worship. It didn't make emotional or intuitive or religious sense to me.
MOYERS: So there was no room for discussion? They didn't want to talk about other possibilities?
PAGELS: There was no discussion in that kind of group. So I decided to strike out on my own and try to find out, what is it about religion that's still compelling? I mean, it has to do with the way we feel, and the way we dream, and the way we experience our lives. So that just as, you know, we dream the way people dreamed thousands of years ago, we dream about our hopes and fears. I mean, Sigmund Freud says dreams express our deepest and most instinctive wishes.
And he thought those wishes were all illusions and fantasy and delusion. And he thought religions born of those dreams were also, you know, fantasy and illusion. We should grow up and give it up.
So I was brought up to think that, too. And what I discovered is that we still have those kinds of visions, those kinds of hopes and dreams. And religious tradition is an enormous reservoir of ways to deal with reality. Not just, as Freud says, to avoid it, or hide from it. Or fool ourselves. But actually ways that people cope with the painful realities of our life. And actually can transform them.
MOYERS: And is this what was happening, confronting the painful realities, when you stood in that vestibule, at the back of that church?
PAGELS: Indeed. I mean, in that context, there's a way to deal with even the possibility of losing one's only child, which is what we were facing. And yet there was a kind of hope. I mean, these ancient stories in religion speak to our desire. But they move us toward hope.
You take the Passover story, which is, you know, celebrated every year in Passover. It's about a people in bondage and oppression, moving out of bondage and oppression to deliverance and freedom. Or you take the story of Jesus. It's about a man who suffers the worst things one can imagine, you know? Arrest on a false charge. Torture, abandonment by his friends. A terrible, painful death. And yet, that story goes on to speak about hope. And that, in some ways, speaks to what we need to hear, sometimes.
You know, if you look at the image of a mother and child, for many people this will remind us of Mary and the child Jesus. Two thousand, 3000 years ago, it would have reminded people of the Goddess Isis and her son, Horus. But before it was Isis and Horace or Jesus and Mary, it was any mother, and any child. So anyone who had been a child, or anyone who had been a parent could identify with that very powerful and simple picture. What is more fundamental? So, that picture is one in which, anyone can see his or
her life played out.
MOYERS: And yet your son, Mark, subsequently died.
PAGELS: Indeed. I mean, people suffer that, and there is no magic resurrection there. Nothing at least that we can see in that way. And yet, there are means there that people have used for thousands of years, to go on and to engage our lives with the lives of each other. And…
MOYERS: But if you have hope, and yet your son dies, what does that do to your hope? I mean, if this experience is the experience of human beings, isn't it invented? Aren't we inventing it, then? I mean, aren't we inventing hope?
PAGELS: Well, we may be inventing hope. But hope actually invents itself, you know, in our lives. And it isn't just a fantasy and a fallacy. Because yes, in this case, that child died.
And yet, one has to go on living. And there are ways to do that, and have hope. And many people know that. I mean, many people engage that in different ways. But I found these ancient traditions have resources that can actually engage us on that level.
MOYERS: After the death of your son, your husband Heintz fell to his death in a climbing accident in the Rockies. I mean, what did that do to your beliefs?
PAGELS: It shattered my beliefs.
PAGELS: And beliefs were not for me any more the point. It's, how do you live, you know, with your belief shattered? And I discovered that these traditions are more than beliefs. They have paths and ways to go more deeply than, for me, than any beliefs could.
MOYERS: So, you're reading the secret Gospel of Thomas not merely as a scholar, or not exclusively as a scholar. But because you find something in it that speaks to your life.
PAGELS: I find in it the capaci… I mean, maybe we do invent the meanings, you know, with which we continue. But actually, that's what human beings have always done, and probably need to do. And I think we do find meaning in that way. I mean, my late husband and I went on to adopt two other children. And to love those children, and those children were part of our lives. And they're still very much part of mine. And part of a new family. So, it's astonishing how people move and transform. And the ancient words in that marvelous text do speak to that.
MOYERS: Do you have sympathy for people who stay with tradition? People who have lost loved ones find consolation in what they believe. Do you have sympathy for those people?
PAGELS: I have sympathy for anyone who finds consolation anywhere we can. And many people do find it in religious tradition as it has been. I mean, I love much of that tradition. But somehow, that just didn't speak to me in the way that it does to some. Maybe they're lucky. But it impelled me to find what I think of as something more than that.
MOYERS: You write, "Most of us, sooner or later, find at critical points in our life, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists."
PAGELS: Yes. I think many of us find traditional religions will take us perhaps part of the distance we need to go, and not the whole distance. And many people, of course, have given it up altogether, and think it's completely useless. And so, however we approach that, I mean, I think many of us have to try to bushwhack, so to speak, on a spiritual level.
MOYERS: With no road map.
PAGELS: Exactly. Or with only the vaguest of road maps. And try to find paths that may be different for each of us. And for people of different traditions. There are so many people who both… I'm thinking Jewish and Christian, people who've given up religious belief altogether, who for example, find themselves doing meditation in a Buddhist style. Or in any other kind of way. And yes, I think spiritual exploration takes many forms. It often engages many traditions. And some people make fun of that, and say this is convenient, or this is cafeteria-style religion. I think this is simply the kind of exploration we need to do in the 21st century.
MOYERS: What is the difference between faith and belief?
PAGELS: Faith is a quality of relationship. Right? One has faith. And faith can be verified in experience. If I have faith in you, or you have faith in me, it can be betrayed, or it can be verified.
Belief can be a system. It can be, but many people say Christian tradition traditionally said, "Well, believe in this. You have no verification, but you're just supposed to take it on somebody else's word." That's very different from verifying in experience the faith that comes through relationship with another person, or with a divine source.
MOYERS: So, faith requires practice to validate?
PAGELS: It requires practice and experience and intuition.
MOYERS: Intuition, which is?
PAGELS: A kind of spiritual intuition. Many of these sources talk not about believing in God, but about a human capacity. Which here is described as something each of us has. To experience a connection with God, that happens just because of the nature of our being.
MOYERS: It seems very risky, when you're out there alone without any belief system to hang on to deal with what life does to you.
PAGELS: I think that mourning is the most difficult time to have any sense of belief. And…
MOYERS: The period of mourning a loss.
PAGELS: For some people, they do manage to, as they would say, strengthen their belief in that time. That was not the case for me. I mean, it just seemed that belief systems were shattered. And were very superficial, compared to the depth of that kind of emotional experience.
MOYERS: When you walked out of that church, that cold February day, what did you do differently?
PAGELS: Well, for one thing, I walked back in sometimes. And I gathered with people there, and I found that there were resources in that tradition and in those kinds of community, that become enormously helpful. And when we had to face our son's death, it was there that we went to gather with our friends for a service that could bridge what had seemed to be an absolutely impassable abyss you know, losing one's only child at that point.
MOYERS: And it was the experience, more than what anybody said, or what the Apostle's Creed offered?
PAGELS: I found words at that point quite inadequate, and quite distant. And anyone who's been in the depths of that ocean knows what that's like. And so there, one has to find something, I think, that goes beyond it.
MOYERS: Elaine Pagels, BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
PAGELS: Thank you.
MOYERS: That's it for NOW. I'll be going over the weekend to pbs.org to read your emails. Thanks for watching, and writing.
I'm Bill Moyers. Good night.