Yes, I greatly admire the depth and complexity of Elaine Pagels’ writing, though I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading her memoir.
As human beings, we struggle so hard to find the pathway to peace – not just political or military peace, but personal peace. A sense of connection to God and the universe. A sense of meaning and purpose. A sense of having done the best you can despite your mistakes and your suffering. Our poets and artists and musicians dedicate themselves to this pathway and try to show us the fleeting images of peace they sense in the world around us. They offer us glimpses of the Divine so we can find the courage to keep going on a journey that’s admittedly difficult.
A number of years ago, I was reading In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004). Near the beginning, Crossan and Reed wrote this:
“Paul’s essential challenge is how to embody communally that radical vision of a new creation in a way far beyond even our present best hopes for freedom, democracy, and human rights. The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace . Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus’ footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace . A subtext of In Search of Paul is, therefore: To what extent can America be Christian? (page xi)”
I can still remember how strongly I reacted to this paragraph. I sensed it was wrong, but at the time, all I had to go on was an insight that if Jesus could describe the pathway he was teaching, it would read like this:
Peace through personal responsibility in the sequence of education, mentorship, personal responsibility, then peace.
To approach peace through anti-intellectualism would mean you’d have to ignore the needs of the first step, education. But to approach peace only through the intellect, without the guidance and care of an experienced mentor, would quickly drive you off the pathway and onto the shards of intellectual hubris and status addiction.
The role of religion, when done well (and so often it’s not done well), is to be a mentor – to help individuals parse their knowledge and experience (“education”) so they can make it to the all-important stage of personal responsibility. From a purely intellectual point of view, personal responsibility looks easy and straightforward (just be obedient and follow all the laws, right?). But this a flawed understanding of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility, from a Divine point of view, is expressed well in Mark 12, where there are only two commandments. Just two. Yet figuring out how to balance your heart and mind and your soul and your strength and understanding with love is no easy task, as we all know from personal experience.
The skin in the game you mention? It’s with you all the time when you choose the path Jesus taught. So you make mistakes. And you get hurt. And things don’t work out the way your happy little head thought they should work out. But if you stick with it, and allow not only your human teachers but your beloved God to become your mentor, you’ll eventually discover you’re not so bad after all from God’s point of view.