Features January 1989
Trouble in paradise: the gospel according to Pagels
On Adam, Eve & the Serpent by Elaine Pagels.
It was only to be expected that Elaine Pagels’s new book, temptingly entitled Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, would be showered with all manner of adulation. When her previous book, The Gnostic Gospels, appeared in 1979, it too was greeted by a chorus of critical and popular acclaim. It scooped up both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award in 1980, became something of a best-seller, and greatly boosted the reputation of its thirty-seven-year-old author, then chairman of the department of religion at Barnard College. The following year, 1981, Professor Pagels was visited by grace in the form of a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, a grace soon compounded by an offer from Princeton University, where she is currently the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion. How could Adam, Eve, and the Serpent fail to be declared (as it promptly was) a “masterpiece”?
In the preface to The Gnostic Gospels, Professor Pagels tells us that she is interested primarily in “how gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy—and what this tells us about the origins of Christianity itself.” This is a fair enough precis, but it leaves unanswered the question why these brief, scholarly meditations on rather esoteric topics should garner so much attention beyond the studious enclaves of professional historians and specialists in the development of early Christian doctrine. No doubt part of the answer lies in Professor Pagels’s rhetorical skill. Like her late husband, the physicist and writer Heinz Pagels, she is a gifted popularizer, able to present the most unpromisingly recondite material in a lively and engaging manner. Thus while The Gnostic Gospels rests on a foundation of extensive scholarship—as is indicated by Professor Pagels’s two earlier and more technical books on related themes as well as by the hundreds of learned endnotes with which she garnishes The Gnostic Gospels—the book reads in parts like an adventure story.
It opens with an account of an Arab peasant’s accidental discovery, in 1945, of a cache of thirteen leather-bound papyrus books and loose papyrus leaves in the desert near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. “Shortly before he and his brothers avenged their father’s murder in a blood feud,” Professor Pagels tells us, “they had saddled their camels and gone out to the Jabal to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops.” Happening upon a large earthenware jar, the peasant smashed it and was disappointed to find that it contained not gold but ancient papyri, which he brought home and dumped by the kitchen oven. In the following weeks, much of the papyrus that had survived buried in the desert for some fifteen hundred years went up in smoke: dried papyrus leaves make excellent kindling. But after the brothers had dispatched their father’s enemy—hacking off his limbs and ripping out and devouring his heart, Professor Pagels cheerfully informs us—fear that the police would search the house and confiscate the books led the man who had discovered the papyri to entrust his find to a local priest.
In the course of various dramatic vicissitudes, which Professor Pagels relates with considerable élan, the books were recognized for what they were: Coptic translations of fifty-two gnostic Christian texts, including several gospels, collections of sayings attributed to Jesus, and sundry spiritualistic poems and discourses. The lost originals of some of these works—written, like the New Testament, in demotic Greek—may date from as early as the late first century, the same period in which the canonical Gospels were composed. Twelve of the thirteen books were eventually acquired by the Egyptian government; the thirteenth, which was smuggled out of Egypt, was bought by the Jung foundation in Zurich.
While greed and professional rivalry repeatedly delayed publication of the Nag Hammadi texts (a full translation into English was not complete until 1977), they were at once recognized by scholars as a find of great importance. Not only did they vastly increase our firsthand evidence of gnostic writings, but, since what is deliberately excluded from a body of doctrine can often illuminate what is included, they also shed a good deal of light on the consolidation of orthodox Christian doctrine in the first few centuries following the death of Jesus. Not that it is easy to summarize the main tenets of the Nag Hammadi texts. Like most gnostic writings, they are full of obscurities and elusive portents. Here is a snippet from the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, a dialogue between a student and his spiritual master:
I have found the beginning of the power that is above all powers, the one that has no beginning . . . . I have said, O my son, that I am Mind. I have seen! Language is not able to reveal this. For the entire eighth, O my son, and the souls that are in it, and the angels, sing a hymn in silence. And I, Mind, understand.
As Hans Jonas points out in his classic work, The Gnostic Religion (1958; revised edition, 1963), the term “gnosticism” refers first of all to a species of arcane religious teaching that flourished in the Hellenized Near East from about 80 to 200 A.D. A composite of Christian, neo-Platonic, and Eastern ideas, gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, “knowledge”) tends to be radically dualistic and to teach that the key to salvation lies in a secret knowledge revealed only to the initiated few. Taken together, gnostic texts contradict one another wildly. But, as the quotation from the Discourse may suggest, one recurrent theme is that the division separating man from God, the human from the divine, is an illusion that will dissolve with the enlightenment that gnosis brings. Hence the gnostic adept is invited to believe that genuine self-knowledge is at bottom an awareness of one’s own divinity. Perhaps this helps explain why gnosticism has enjoyed such a vogue recently among certain literary critics, pre-eminently the redoubtable Harold Bloom, who has even favored us with a novel subtitled “A Gnostic Fantasy.” (A phrase that might serve well as an epigraph to his collected literary criticism.)
In any event, gnosticism was early on condemned as heretical.
In any event, gnosticism was early on condemned as heretical. Already in the late second century, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons wrote a five-volume treatise entitled The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge that undertook to show that gnosticism was “absurd and inconsistent with the truth.” Nor need one look far into the gnostic texts to appreciate why orthodox Christianity proscribed it. Naturally, the Church frowned upon the habit of self-deification and the claim to be possessed of a secret knowledge that guaranteed salvation. It is precisely this aspect of the gnostic teaching that lets us understand why Hans Jonas concluded that gnosticism tends to exclude the idea of human virtue as generally understood and encourages a libertinism that borders on “moral nihilism.” After all, if one is divine, the moral constraints governing mere mortals must seem eminently dispensable. The Church also took issue with gnosticism’s tendency to equate the material world with evil, as well as its disturbingly revisionist readings (what Professor Bloom would no doubt call “strong” readings) of Scripture. For example, one Nag Hammadi text, entitled the Testimony of Truth, retells the story of the Garden of Eden from the point of view of the serpent—traditionally a gnostic symbol of wisdom—who emerges as the embattled harbinger of enlightenment and liberation, opposed to the tyrannical character called “the Lord.”
And it is here, in gnosticism’s revisionist readings of Scripture, that we touch upon a second, and perhaps more important, reason for Professor Pagels’s popularity. For both The Gnostic Gospels and her new book are admired not only for their scholarship and entertainment value but also for their message, their stance, their . . . well, what can only be called their politics. As Professor Pagels notes in some prefatory remarks to The Gnostic Gospels, the book had its genesis in her research into the relation between politics and religion in the formation of Christianity. As one reads through The Gnostic Gospels, it soon becomes clear that her interest in political matters is not purely historical. In her concluding pages, she insists that she does not “side” with gnosticism over orthodox Christianity. Anyone who is as “powerfully attracted to Christianity” as she is, she argues, must recognize the theological and organizational structure of orthodox Christianity as “a major achievement.” Yet one wonders. If The Gnostic Gospels can be said to have a thesis, it is that the suppression of the gnostic heresy in the second and third centuries deprived Christianity, and by extension the entire Western world, of an important source of moral freedom and spiritual vision.
In the course of developing this thesis, Professor Pagels tells a familiar story. In its early years, Christianity was pluralistic, open to many conflicting versions of Christ’s spiritual message. This openness was discarded when the Church became institutionalized and transformed its teaching into rigid dogma enforced by the growing temporal power of the Church of Rome. In the beginning, Professor Pagels explains,
those who identified themselves as Christians entertained many—and radically differing—religious beliefs and practices. . . .
Yet by A.D. 200 the picture had changed. Christianity had become an institution headed by a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, who understood themselves to be the guardians of the only “true faith.” The majority of churches, among which the church of Rome took a leading role, rejected all other viewpoints as heresy.
Professor Pagels’s expertise naturally discourages the non-specialist, such as the present writer, from quibbling with the details of her presentation: her knowledge of the field is evident on every page. Yet even the non-specialist is led to wonder whether she doesn’t sometimes overstate her case. In the introduction to The Gnostic Gospels, for example, we read that “by the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense.”
Really? Let us leave to one side the question of whether one may speak of “the police” in the sense intended here without being anachronistic. What about the more general historical observation that “by the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion” Christian leaders were imposing their religious views through force? As Professor Pagels herself notes in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Constantine is generally thought to have converted to Christianity around 313. That same year saw the proclamation of the Edict of Milan, which formally enfranchised Christianity without, however, declaring it the official state religion. Item four of the edict announces that “notwithstanding any provisions concerning Christians in our former institutions, all who choose that religion are to be permitted to continue therein, without any let or hindrance, and are not to be in any way troubled or molested.” Item six goes on to insist that “all others are to be allowed the free and unrestricted practice of their religions; for it accords with the good order of the realm and the peacefulness of our times that each should have freedom to worship God after his own choice.” There is nothing here about heresy or forbidden books, let alone calling in the police. Yes, after Christianity became in effect the state religion, toward the end of the fourth century, it did everything it could to consolidate its power and to suppress heresy, sometimes brutally. But did this not happen well after the conversion of Constantine?
Let us leave to one side the question of whether one may speak of “the police” in the sense intended here without being anachronistic.
This may seem to be a niggling point. But it highlights the polemical motivation underlying Professor Pagels’s exposition of gnosticism and its relation to orthodox Christianity. The polemic is skillfully and subtly advanced, relying as much upon dark hints and questionable generalizations as on reasoned argument or historical evidence. Thus Professor Pagels writes that “those who called gnosticism heresy were adopting . . . the viewpoint of that group of Christians who called themselves orthodox Christians. A heretic may be anyone whose outlook someone else dislikes or denounces. According to tradition, a heretic is one who deviates from the true faith. But what defines that ‘true faith’? Who calls it that, and for what reasons?” But the real questions are: Why did a wide range of orthodox Christian thinkers condemn gnosticism as heresy? Has the Church ever taken the notion of heresy so lightly as to regard “anyone whose outlook someone else dislikes or denounces” as a heretic? And, far from being the product of an arbitrary whim, as Professor Pagels suggests, is not the accumulated weight, wisdom, and insight of tradition the standard and measure of “true faith”?
Not surprisingly, Professor Pagels’s program to rehabilitate gnosticism tends to proceed by casting doubt on the legitimacy of the tradition that condemned it. As she notes in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, “whether these writings—or which of them—contain authentic teaching of Jesus and his disciples we do not know, any more than we know with certainty which sayings or teachings in the New Testament are authentic.” In one sense, of course, Professor Pagels is quite right: independent evidence—evidence, that is, apart from the Bible—about the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is almost nonexistent. But her observation is not purely historical; rather, it is meant to establish a kind of parity between the orthodox and the heterodox. Indeed, it is revealing that the word “orthodox”—which Professor Pagels repeatedly reminds us literally means “straight thinking”—emerges as a term of censure in these pages, where “heresy,” “gnostic,” and their cognates are generally terms of admiration. (It is also instructive to consider Professor Pagels’s use of quotation marks in The Gnostic Gospels and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Why, for example, do key terms like “heresy,” “true faith,” even “nature” and “human nature” so often appear in quotation marks? Is it because Professor Pagels wishes to suggest that what has been called heresy is not really heresy, that “human nature” is merely a convention, a social construction?)
Unfortunately, Professor Pagels’s campaign against orthodoxy also seems to have led her to indulge in some rather heterodox notions about what counts as orthodox. “Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator,” she writes: “God is wholly other. But some of the gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.” Again, one wonders. For while it is true that many gnostics taught that self-knowledge is tantamount to knowledge of God, it is by no means clear that the “orthodox” Christian position holds that God is “wholly other” in the strict sense Professor Pagels intends. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example—to take one incontrovertibly orthodox doctor of the Church—explicitly maintains that God is intelligibly present to mankind and that the human intellect can meaningfully “participate in the divine vision.”
Professor Pagels also faults orthodoxy for being insufficiently sensitive to what I suppose we must call “women’s issues.” She develops this theme at some length in a chapter entitled “God the Father/God the Mother,” where she laments the “absence of feminine symbolism for God” in orthodox Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Acknowledging the reverence of Catholics for Mary, for example, she nonetheless points out that if Mary “is ‘mother of God,’ she is not ‘God the Mother’ on an equal footing with God the Father!” (It would be difficult, I think, to overestimate the resentment compressed in that exclamation point.) And so it happens that one of the wonderful things about at least some gnostic texts is that they “speak of God as a dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements.” Never mind that other gnostic texts are far more disparaging of the feminine than orthodox Christianity ever was—the moral is clear: “the Nag Hammadi sources, discovered at a time of contemporary social crises concerning sexual roles, challenge us to reinterpret history—and to re-evaluate the present situation.”
Professor Pagels also faults orthodoxy for being insufficiently sensitive to what I suppose we must call “women’s issues.”
It is worth pausing a moment to consider these “challenges.” Exactly how would Professor Pagels have us “reinterpret” history now that we have the benefit of these gnostic texts? As a prolegomenon to contemporary feminism, perhaps? And how should we “re-evaluate” our present situation? As an occasion to liberate ourselves from the strictures of an orthodox tradition that has suppressed heresy just as it has oppressed women? In her new book, Professor Pagels comes close to arguing just that.
The announced purpose of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is to explore “how certain ideas—in particular, ideas concerning sexuality, moral freedom, and human value—took their definitive form during the first four centuries as interpretations of the Genesis creation stories, and how they have continued to affect our culture and everyone in it, Christian or not, ever since.” Like The Gnostic Gospels, Professor Pagels’s new book manages to be engagingly written and informative without being unscholarly or unacademic: buttressing this text of one hundred and fifty pages are nearly five hundred erudite endnotes, referring the reader to everything from the writings of the Church fathers in the original languages to works of contemporary historical research and feminist tracts with titles like In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. Professor Pagels has provided a vivid sketch of Judea under Roman rule, and her account of how the moral teaching of early Christianity departed from both that of the Romans and that of the Jews is deftly handled.
But like its predecessor, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent also has a definite political subtext. Noting that “abrupt changes in social attitudes” regarding sexuality have taken place recently and have deeply affected the way we in the West think about a host of issues, including “marriage, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, and gender,” Professor Pagels begins by asking: How did the way we have come to think about such issues arise in the first place? For an answer, she turns to the orthodox reading of the first three chapters of Genesis. How, she wonders, did that reading itself become orthodox? How did rival readings differ from the orthodox interpretation? What, in this age of “abrupt changes in social attitudes,” can we learn from these rival readings? These are the main questions that motivate her book.
Of course, the traditional interpretation of the Genesis account of the creation of the world and mankind is hardly calculated to please our modern sensibilities. Apart from God’s stirring command in the first chapter that man “fill the earth and subdue it”—which is very much in accord with the ambitions of our scientific, technological approach to reality—the account of creation in Genesis will strike many as downright reactionary. Not only is the challenge to “subdue” the earth considerably toned down in the second chapter, where man is merely given leave to “till” and “keep” the garden of Eden, but the account of the creation of woman, formed from one of Adam’s ribs to be his companion and helper, cannot be edifying to champions of feminism. Then, too, there is the story of the fall of man and his permanent expulsion from paradise. It is bad enough that Eve, as the first to yield to the serpent’s blandishments, implicitly gets most of the blame; but even worse is the seeming disproportion between the offense and the punishment: to be banished forever from paradise, saddled with pain, conflict, and mortality, all for a single act of disobedience.
The basic plot of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is itself a familiar variation on the story of the fall, replete with the prospect of redemption in the last act. It goes something like this: In the first two centuries following the death of Jesus, Christians were a diverse, noble, but persecuted lot, who tended to champion moral freedom and other good things; believing that the kingdom of God was at hand—that the Second Coming was just around the corner—many of the more enthusiastic Christians abstained from marriage and sexual relations, not because they thought sexuality was inherently evil but because they thought it a distraction from their spiritual vocation; as the Second Coming repeatedly failed to materialize, however, the Church grew ever more powerful, institutionalized, and intolerant of diversity; with the arrival of St. Augustine, intolerance was elevated into dogma, as Augustine effectively denied free will, equated sexuality with sin, propagated the dour notion of original sin, and set about persecuting those who disagreed with him; since Augustine’s unpleasant view of human nature won out and became accepted as orthodox, Western civilization has been burdened with a bleak, patriarchal, and repressive view of sexuality and human nature for over sixteen hundred years; due to our recent enlightenment, however, we are now at last in a position to question, and even, perhaps, to correct, the baneful effects of that Augustinean legacy—“to reassess and qualify,” as Professor Pagels puts it in her epilogue, Augustine’s “singular dominance in much of Western Christian history.”
As in The Gnostic Gospels, Professor Pagels makes her case here mostly by indirection. But while she is too wary simply to assert her allegiances, she makes her preferences abundantly clear. We have many asides about “male domination” and so on, as well as numerous comments of correct ideological sentiment but questionable historical subtlety. For example, early on in the book we read that the common Jewish practice of “both polygamy and divorce . . . increased opportunities for reproduction—not for women, but for the men who wrote the laws and benefited from them”—as if women, too, did not “benefit” from the laws. Sometimes, when she has occasion to deal with gnosticism, Professor Pagels waxes misty. Comparing a gnostic reading of the Genesis creation story with the traditional interpretation, for example, she enthusiastically points out that the gnostic reading is “not so much history with a moral as myth with meaning.” What exactly this portends is not immediately graspable—except, of course, that myths with “meaning” are to be preferred to histories with only a “moral.” But Professor Pagels proceeds to expand on the virtues of the gnostic method of interpretation: “Read this way,” she explains, “the text became a shimmering surface of symbols, inviting the spiritually adventurous to explore its hidden depths, to draw upon their own inner experience—what artists call the creative imagination—to interpret the story.” How much pleasanter to be “spiritually adventurous,” to indulge “what artists call the creative imagination,” than to be content with ordinary reading and so unexciting a thing as a moral.
A good example of the tenor of Professor Pagels’s discussion is provided by the opening of her fifth chapter, “The Politics of Paradise,” which begins her re-evaluation of Augustine’s theological and social legacy.
Are human beings capable of governing themselves? Defiant Christians hounded as criminals by the Roman government emphatically answer yes. But in the fourth and fifth centuries, after the emperors themselves became patrons of Christianity, the majority of Christians gradually came to say no.
It is a bit difficult to know quite how to respond to this flourish. Since human beings always have governed themselves in one way or another, it is clear that the question is mostly rhetorical: “Are human beings capable of governing themselves according to a scheme that I consider appropriately liberal and enlightened?”—something like that would seem to be the real tendency of her question. Professor Pagels’s chief argument is that as Christianity became institutionalized, it switched from being a religion of “moral freedom” to being “an ideology . . . of universal corruption.” Instead of believing that “the ‘good news’ of Christianity meant autonomy,” as she tells us some early Christians did, Christians increasingly held, after Augustine, that mankind was hopelessly depraved and required the strong hand of an authoritarian government to restrain it.
“Freedom is sufficient for evil,” he wrote.
While Professor Pagels does not go so far as to assert that Augustine promulgated the doctrine of original sin because it accorded with the nefarious, authoritarian forces of the Empire, she clearly suggests that Augustine’s theology was officially preferred to its competitors in part because it provided a convenient rationale for “the uneasy alliance between the Catholic churches and imperial power.” Throughout her discussion of the consolidation of orthodox Christian doctrine one finds odd formulations that compromise on accuracy and precision for the sake of innuendo: “Augustine . . . having denied that human beings possess any capacity whatever for free will, accepts a definition of liberty far more agreeable to the powerful and influential men with whom he wholeheartedly identifies.” (It may be worth noting that Augustine did not exactly deny “that human beings possess any capacity whatever for free will”; rather, he denied that man could achieve the good through the unaided exercise of his will: “Freedom is sufficient for evil,” he wrote; “for good it is not enough unless it be empowered by the Omnipotent who is good.”)
Now there are many things that might be said about Professor Pagels’s exposition. One might, for example, inquire to what extent any form of traditional Christianity would equate human freedom with autonomy, since it is a basic tenet of Christianity that the moral law comes not from humanity but from God. It is in this sense that Augustine castigated the desire for autonomy—the desire, that is to say, to found morals not on God’s law but on oneself—as an example of pride. For “what is pride,” Augustine asked in the City of God, “except a longing for a perverse kind of exaltation? For it is a perverse kind of exaltation to abandon the basis on which the mind should be fixed, and to become, as it were, based on oneself.”
But more generally, one might ask whether, in reading the development of Christianity in the image of Augustine, Professor Pagels has not tended to conflate the origin of certain Christian doctrines with their mature form. Indeed, much of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent seems predicated on a kind of genetic fallacy, confusing the historical and social circumstances of a doctrine’s origin with its meaning. But, here as elsewhere, the reasons one might advance for justifying certain beliefs or doctrines are quite distinct from the story of how they happened to arise. Furthermore, it is not clear that, on these issues, Augustine’s teaching has been quite so dominant an influence on mainstream Christianity as Professor Pagels would have us believe. She herself notes that “orthodox Christians affirmed the natural order” in a way that Augustine would find unacceptable. Or consider the issue of free will. It is true that in his late works Augustine greatly circumscribed the efficacy of man’s will, believing, as he put in the City of God, that “creation has been so made that it is to man’s advantage to be in subjection to God, and it is calamitous for him to act according to his own will.” But it is by no means clear that Augustine’s position on this point was accepted by the Church without serious qualification. To turn again to Aquinas, one notes that while he often appeals to Augustine’s authority, he happily parts company with him when it suits his own interests—the interests, that is to say, of orthodoxy. Thus Aquinas affirms that man has free will, pragmatically observing that “otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards and punishments would be in vain.”
Yet the real burden of Professor Pagels’s argument with Augustine does not turn on this or that theological nicety but on a deeply felt conviction that the Augustinian legacy has helped to perpetuate divisive social and political structures as well as a general sense of spiritual impotence. “What, then,” she steps back to ask at one point, “can remedy human misery? How can anyone achieve internal balance, much less establish social and political harmony between man and woman, man and man? Augustine’s whole theology of the fall depends upon his radical claim that no human power can effect such restoration.” As this passage suggests, implicit in Professor Pagels’s discussion is a version of what we might call the Perfectibility Thesis, the notion that human nature is infinitely malleable and, indeed, perfectible, that evil is a remediable part of human nature, and hence that what the tradition calls original sin is reversible.
In one form or another, this optimistic—some would say naive—view of mankind has exercised a tantalizing appeal for millennia.
In one form or another, this optimistic—some would say naive—view of mankind has exercised a tantalizing appeal for millennia. In Augustine’s time, one of its chief representatives was the British monk Pelagius, who proclaimed the natural goodness of mankind and denied the doctrine of original sin and hence the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism. Nor is it surprising that, despite her demurrals, Professor Pagels should come down firmly on the side of Pelagius in her discussion of Augustine’s criticism of Pelagianism. Pelagius has always been a hero of those inclined to a rosy view of human nature; and the fact that his controversy with Augustine led to his exile has also made him into something of a heterodox martyr as well. At the center of Pelagius’s teaching was the conviction—the “terrifying” conviction, as one commentator put it—that “since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.” Because Pelagius regarded sin and evil as remediable accidents of human nature, because he believed in the natural goodness of mankind, he had no patience with sin, weakness, imperfection. As Peter Brown notes in his excellent biography of Augustine,
for the Pelagians, man has no excuse for his own sins, nor for the evils around him. If human nature was essentially free and well-created, and not dogged by some mysterious inner weakness, the reason for the general misery of men must be somehow external to their true selves; it must lie, in part, in the constricting force of the social habits of a pagan past. Such habits could be reformed.
Thus there is a reason that orthodox Christianity has traditionally regarded the fall as felix culpa, a happy fall. Not only did man’s expulsion from paradise present the possibility of redemption, but it also removed from mankind the burden of believing that perfection was within its grasp. Since man is inherently fallible, needy, prone to sin, his failure to avoid evil or achieve perfection is an accepted part of the orthodox vision of humanity. It is here, whatever one’s theological predilections or commitments, that one sees the profound psychological truth of the Genesis account of the origin and nature of mankind. And it is from this perspective, as Peter Brown goes on to note, that “the victory of Augustine over Pelagius was also a victory for the average good Catholic layman of the Later [Roman] Empire, over an austere reforming ideal.”
One important way in which the Perfectibility Thesis expresses itself in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is the assumption that since our attitudes toward sexuality, gender, and so on are the result of accidental historical decisions that were basically political, we can now change them for the better, i.e., change them to accord with our own more enlightened blueprint of human nature. This, of course, is a thoroughly political ambition, and it is most instructive to consider how Professor Pagels deals with the implications of her argument. In a revealing passage near the end of her introduction, she takes issue with the “misunderstanding” expressed by one of her colleagues who, responding to this book and to The Gnostic Gospels, contended that religious ideas cannot be reduced to political “agendas.” Professor Pagels is quick to agree—who wants to be accused of reducing things to political agendas?—but then goes on to argue that “religious insights and moral choices . . . coincide with practical ones.” The reader who wonders what this exquisitely vague formulation might mean is given a clue in the next paragraph. “What I am thinking of,” she explains, “is what the anthropologist [sic] Foucault calls ‘the politics of truth’—that is, what each of us perceives and acts upon as true has much to do with our situation, social, political, cultural, religious, or philosophical.”
The reassuring emptiness of the explanatory phrase—“has much to do with our situation,” etc.—does not alter the fact that what the “anthropologist” Michel Foucault meant by “the politics of truth” was simply that truth has no independent value or existence, that at bottom truth is a kind of political or social booty appropriated by those in whose hands cultural power has been concentrated. It follows from this, as Foucault points out in his well-known essay “Truth and Power,” that his aim is not to emancipate intellectual inquiry from politics—an idea he discards as a “chimera”—but to detach “the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.” In other words, from this point of view truth is merely a pawn in a struggle that is essentially political, and since the “social, economic, and cultural” interests it serves “at the present time” are repressive, one is licensed to emancipate truth from those ruling interests and to put it in the service of other, more laudable, “forms of hegemony.”
Professor Pagels concludes Adam, Eve, and the Serpent by claiming that the important thing is not taking “sides” on these “specific issues” but rather the “recognition of a spiritual dimension in human experience.” It is a curious irony, then, that the unremitting message of her book is that the “spiritual dimension in human experience” is inextricably political, that without recourse to specific—and specifically political—issues, human spirituality remains in thrall to what Foucault, indeed, called the politics of truth.
- Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, by Elaine Pagels; Random House, 189 pages, $17.95. Go back to the text.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 5, on page 18
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