“ After the final no, there comes a yes,
And on that yes, the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is the present sun. “
– Wallace Stevens
Why are people religious ? For some, there may have been a solid consistent upbringing within a given faith tradition, i.e., Catholicism, Judaism, Protestantism. For others the affiliation may come from the perspective of culture or ethnicity. Increasingly, for a lot of young people growing up now, there is no religious affiliation. These people have been referred to as the Nunes, i.e. ,affiliation.
Professor Elaine Pagels, The Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor Of Religion at Princeton University in her book “Why Religion “, shares her autobiographical story of becoming a historian of religion. She shares her grief regarding the loss of her six-year-old son, Mark, due to pulmonary hypertension. Subsequently, her physicist husband, Heinz ,dies tragically as a result of a hiking accident in Colorado.
Losses like these can be devastating to any human being. Pagels shares her struggle dealing with sadness and anger regarding the deaths of her son and husband. She poignantly observes her son ,Mark, saying to her:
“I’ll love you all my life and all my death “ ( P. 86 )
“ Why Religion “ also incorporates reflection by Professor Pagels on her scholastic work including “ The Gnostic Gospels,” Adam And Eve And The Serpent”, The Origins Of Satan “and “Revelations’. She masterfully weaves her commentary regarding the “ secret’ gospels, i.e. ,Gospel Of Thomas, Gospel Of Truth, etc., into this conversation of dealing with the fundamentals, the absolutes in life while negotiating traumatic loss.
Professor Pagels answers her question “ Why Religious “ with honesty, imagination and rationality.
‘ Am I religious ? Yes, incorrigibly, by temperament, if you mean susceptible to the music, the rituals, the daring leaps of imagination and metaphor so often found in music, poems, liturgies, rituals and stories,-not only those that are Christian, but also the cantor’s singing at a bar mitzvah, to Hopi and Zuni dances on the mesa of the American Southwest, to the call of prayer in Indonesia. But when we say “ religion “, what are we talking about ? ‘ ( P. 32 )
The Gospel of Thomas asserts that “ But the Kingdom of God is within you and outside of you. Once you come to know yourselves, you will become known. ‘”
Pagels echoes the sentiments of this text when she reflects upon her journey of continuing in her life after the loss of her son and husband.
She references Viktor Frankl who wrote:
“ We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life-daily and hourly.. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems, and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. “ ( P. 153 )
Perhaps developing a life and faith that embraces imagination, wonder and also rationality might be a means to help us navigate the channels of life, to learn how to walk without a map.
May the holy light encircle and illuminate the way for all of us.
May it be so.