Why Religion?
November 11, 2018 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Finding the Heart - Elaine Pagels: "Religion often frames suffering as punishment. A family tragedy taught me otherwise."
posted by kliuless (12 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is fairly standard Christian doctrine, at least in the liberal Catholicism in which I was raised. C.S. Lewis does a good job of explicating it in The Problem of Pain. God is saind to love you so much that He progressively takes everything away from you that might distract you from Him.

I am pretty sure that a story about an invisible man who builds a woman, loads her with gifts, and then takes them all away one by one, right down to her children, right down to her body, so as to get her attention, remaining silent and invisible the whole time, would have to be a horror story. This is not a problem with the doctrine. It is an advantage of the doctrine. The world is horrible in a number of respects, and one of religion's functions is to show just how it is horrible. The part where religion tries to make horror tolerable is a necessary part of making it clear. You have to be able to stand knowing.

A lot of Christian and Jewish and mysticism is basically people shouting at the air: "What!? Why? What you you trying to convey? What am I supposed to be doing? Why won't you just talk to me?!"
posted by ckridge at 9:54 AM on November 11, 2018 [21 favorites]


Heads up that the "family tragedy" (actually two unrelated family tragedies in fairly quick succession) involves the death of a child and a spouse.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:57 AM on November 11, 2018 [2 favorites]


The world is horrible in a number of respects, and one of religion's functions is to show just how it is horrible.

This. I think it's interesting that so many Christians seem to miss it, when the central figure of Christianity is betrayed by one of his own in a plot orchestrated by the religious hierarchy to marshal the state into torturing him to death. And that's not exactly the only place where suffering of decent people is examined in the Bible.

There's something depersonalizing in a number of senses about Buddhism that's often put me off it a bit, but one way in which it functions really well is the immediate focus on coming to grips with suffering as a fact of life and the understanding that whatever redemption is available comes with accepting this simultaneously to searching for practices that can transcend it.

I think this is there in Christianity as well -- Christ is a figure who accepts his betrayal, torture, and ultimate destruction, and yet somehow rises to transcend all of that, and there are no shortage of bible-derivable practices that involve individual redemptive work. But there's also frequently something about Christianity as practiced where required engagement with work that redeems life gets transferred over to the Deity or the cosmology or someone else has to do and redemption is pushed off to the afterlife.
posted by wildblueyonder at 12:48 PM on November 11, 2018 [3 favorites]


This is fairly standard Christian doctrine, at least in the liberal Catholicism in which I was raised.

I think in my flavour of Catholicism suffering was a good in itself.
posted by biffa at 12:53 PM on November 11, 2018


"But there's also frequently something about Christianity as practiced where required engagement with work that redeems life gets transferred over to the Deity or the cosmology or someone else has to do and redemption is pushed off to the afterlife."

I think that happens with Buddhism in China and Japan, too, but less here, because we got wild, nonconformist, immigrant roshi who taught a less institutionalized, more active Buddhism.

Christians, and monotheists in general, are pretty good about opposing suffering with charity, but there are real problems with charity. Everyone wants to give it, but no one wants to take it. That's a sign that something is badly wrong.
posted by ckridge at 1:41 PM on November 11, 2018 [2 favorites]


The betrayal, torture, and death of Jesus was all preordained as a required sacrifice to a harsh and vengeful god to erase the sins of the original humans, Adam and Eve, who didn’t follow his orders. Judas was just doing what had to be done in order for the sacrifice to occur. The Jewish priesthood was just doing what was required to make the sacrifice happen. They were just pawns in the game. This god required both the shedding of blood and death in order to appease his wrath. A symbol of torture and death was chosen as the symbol for the religion thus event spawned. To benefit from this sacrifice you have to believe that this event occurred, accept the victim as your savior, and generally live a moral life. Generally... as followers of this faith have shown in many cases an intolerance for people who are different than them. In their minds they say god will punish these people with eternal torment. The central paradox of Christianity is how can an all powerful and loving god create such a miserable world? Two thousand years of theology hasn’t solved that problem.

I don’t see how Buddhism has depersonalized suffering. The Buddha said all life is suffering, for each and everyone of us, personally. He also said that there is a way out of this suffering, but each of us must personally take responsibility for making that happen by following the path he described. In some sense, we are responsible for our own suffering. By following this path we can alleviate our own suffering and not cause others to suffer.

Suffering is real. Religion of all sorts has tried to deal with this reality. In most cases it has done it by positing some “reality” only real because you believe it so.
posted by njohnson23 at 2:19 PM on November 11, 2018 [3 favorites]


As a renowned scholar of the Gnostic Gospels, it seems like the demiurge and archons would be her go-to explanation for suffering. Of course, I don't think she even mentions the archons in her book on the gospels, so I'm also not surprised.
The article made me cry.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 2:32 PM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]


"The betrayal, torture, and death of Jesus was all preordained as a required sacrifice to a harsh and vengeful god"

I perceive that you were raised by conservative Christians. The way they told it to us was that Christ came to let us know that there are matters compared to which suffering and death are inconsequential, and found to his dismay that he was going to have to teach by demonstration. The key moment in this way of telling the story is not the crucifixion, but the resurrection. We tortured him to death, and he forgave us and came back to us, not just because he loves us that much, but because torture and death just aren't all that important compared to love.

Insane fucking religion. Good story, though.

Anyway, that demonstrates what Christianity uses in place of meditation: fiction. The story is that dying is like going to another adjacent room, getting a satisfactory explanation, and living there forever. It is a surprisingly convincing story, because it is impossible to imagine a state of non-being. If you think in images more than in concepts, an afterlife seems the only possible state of affairs.
posted by ckridge at 2:35 PM on November 11, 2018 [10 favorites]


I mean, you can't imagine experiencing an ongoing state of personal non-being, but if you've ever had a dreamless night's sleep, you can pretty easily imagine non-being and what the process of entering it will be like.
posted by Scattercat at 4:55 PM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]


Pagels is one of my favorite writers about early Christianity. She is brave, and she is a great thinker and writer.

I think of Buddhism's discussion of suffering, as an enlightened discourse about the workings of the central nervous system, and that all the signals are the same impulses, and we have the ability to interpret our understanding of our experiences, in a light that allows for joy and living of this life, in spite of, or because of it.
posted by Oyéah at 5:18 PM on November 11, 2018 [3 favorites]


I’ve never heard of the Church of the Empty Tomb. No, not raised by conservative Christians. I have a degree in religious studies from UC Santa Barbara, where I mainly studied Eastern religions and perhaps what might be called the psychology of religion, why people are religious. How you deal with suffering, an almost intractable problem for us all, can say a lot about what lies inside you. A lot revolves around placing blame, the usual human reaction. How you deal with other’s suffering also says a lot about what’s inside you. Giving real comfort to another is far more real and valuable then the now common “thoughts and prayers.” In either case, you don’t need religion to be a good person to yourself and to others.
posted by njohnson23 at 5:26 PM on November 11, 2018 [1 favorite]


I don't wish suffering on anyone.

I never see Elaine Pagels name, tho, without thinking of this book:

Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category by Carl B. Smith

Anyway, even if she works in a really weird topic, I hope she's okay
posted by ServSci at 8:57 AM on November 12, 2018


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