Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A fine but flawed book

Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?  A fine but flawed book.

A recent (2018) book by Elaine Pagels, Why Religion?, has garnered great reviews.   It’s a brave book, telling the story of the death of her six-year-old son from a long illness, and then her husband in a hiking accident, both in the space of about a year.  It’s been almost thirty years since these tragedies, and the reader gets the sense that it took her this long to tell the story.  Or rather, to weave her story of loss together with the place of religion in her life, and our collective lives.

I admire the book, but I have a problem with it.  She seems unaware that people who are not well-off and famous might have a different experience of loss.  She aims to be realistic about the politics of religious belief, but perhaps there is also a politics of loss, or better a political economy of loss.  About this she says not a word. 

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Basics of Bonhoeffer

Basics of Bonhoeffer.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a systematic thinker, and I’ve had difficulty finding the themes that connect his thought.  One problem is that his early writings, such as The Cost of Discipleship, differ from his latter writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison, written in the two years between his arrest and murder by the Gestapo when his link to the plot to assassinate Hitler was uncovered. 

I’ve focused on his Letters, which ask how a Christian is to live in a world that barely pretends to believe in God, a question that has become more pressing in recent years, at least in the Western world.  I believe these themes summarize the thought of the mature Bonhoeffer, who died at the age of 39.  To speak of the “mature Bonhoeffer” who died so young might sound silly, but by then he had been a mature thinker for years. 

An earlier post addresses The Cost of Discipleship; another post addresses his religionless Christianity.”

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The Unknown Thomas Merton

The Unknown Thomas Merton.  In the late 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s, Thomas Merton was the most well-known and admired Catholic monk in North America.  Seven Story Mountain, his autobiography written while he was still young, was one of the best-selling books of 1949, going on to sell over four million copies.  It has never been out of print.  During his lifetime he published over 70 books.  He belonged to the Trappist order, remaining at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, United States, from 1941 until his sudden death in 1968 at 53 years.  In his later years he became interested in Zen Buddhism.  It was at an ecumenical conference in Bangkok that he was accidentally electrocuted. *

A lonely man

These facts tell us virtually nothing about who he was, nothing interesting anyway.  Merton’s mother died when his was six, and his father died when he was sixteen, leaving him well provided for.  Even before his father’s death he was raised by a series of relatives and at boarding schools.  During his entire life Merton never worked for wages, but there are more important things in life than money, such as a stable home and loving parents.  Merton had neither.

In a previous post I discussed Merton’s mystical version of Christianity.   This post tries to figure out who he was as a man.  The simplest and most important thing to say is that he was terribly lonely, longing for love.  His solution, which never really worked, was to abandon himself to God, thus eliminating his needy self.   One of his biographers writes that “when the Gethsemani gates closed behind him, Merton tasted freedom even though he was within four walls.”  (Shaw, loc 925) If we can understand that, we can understand Merton. 

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