Elaine Pagels | Critical Review by Judith Ochshorn

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Elaine Pagels.
This section contains 2,169 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Judith Ochshorn

SOURCE: "The Triumph of Pessimism," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, No. 7, April, 1989, pp. 21-2.

In the review below, Ochshorn considers Adam, Eve, and the Serpent a fascinating account but finds some of Pagels's arguments troubling.

Elaine Pagels' new book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent] describes, in rich historical detail, "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."

Some of these ideas expressed new attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, marriage, divorce, procreation, family and celibacy, making for "a revolution in sexual attitudes and practices" as Christianity spread. And as Christianity moved from being a dissident, outlawed sect to being Rome's imperial religion in the fourth century, the discussions and disputes over these issues were rooted in diverse, often conflicting interpretations of the Genesis creation story.

The outlook of "orthodox" Christianity was formed during its converts' persecution by Rome and in its disputes with other Christian communities later declared heretical. Pagels devotes more than half her book to arguing that in its reading of Genesis, Chapters 1-3, this early orthodoxy came to be marked by an optimistic view of human nature, a belief in the moral freedom and the infinite worth of the individual. This sets the stage for her description of the later collision between orthodox ideology and Augustine's new, far more pessimistic and punitive, view of human nature. Why, asks Pagels, did the church leadership, then the laity, embrace the Augustinian doctrine?

Adam, Eve and the Serpent is full of the high drama of women and men who literally staked their lives on their interpretations of the creation text. Pagels' story opens at the beginning of the Common Era, when Jesus broke with his fellow Jews in his attitudes toward divorce, family and procreation, exhorting his followers to abandon family ties and responsibilities and follow him into the new age. When he suggested that celibacy might be preferable to marriage "for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven," and Paul urged celibacy over marriage in preparation for the imminent end-times, they fueled a 200-year-long debate that pitted ordinary family and sexual affection against celibacy. Radical, ascetic Christians advocated celibacy as the only way to expunge the sin of Adam and Eve, and because Jesus prohibited divorce, some married converts, women as well as men, even practiced abstinence.

Such a life was described in "The Acts of Paul and Thecla," an enormously popular story that circulated widely within a century of Paul's death. Thecla was allegedly a young virgin who deserted her mother, rejected her fiancé and a potentially wealthy marriage, braved rape and the death sentence of the Roman state (from which she was miraculously rescued), all to follow the virginal life preached by Paul. When he refused to baptize her she baptized herself and later became a teacher, holy woman and saint of Eastern churches.

Pagels explains the appeal of Paul's endorsement of asceticism and celibacy for women like Thecla who chose freedom from traditional gender roles:

she—and thousands like her—welcomed such radical versions of the gospel…. Their vows of celibacy served many converts as a declaration of independence from the crushing pressures of tradition and their families, who ordinarily arranged marriages at puberty and so determined the course of their children's lives. As early as the second century of the Christian Era and thereafter, Christian celibates may have invoked Thecla's example to justify the fight of Christian women to baptize and preach. Even two hundred years later, Christian women who chose the way of asceticism, whether living in solitude at home or in monastic communities founded and often financed by wealthy women, called themselves "new Theclas."

In the century following Jesus' death, even while celibacy and asceticism were on the rise, the author of the Gospel According to Matthew qualified Jesus' absolute prohibition of divorce by adding that it is permissible in cases of "immorality." Likewise, he has Jesus enlarge the Christian community, shortly before his call to his followers to abandon earthly ties, by adding the admonition to "honor your father and mother." In effect, Pagels observes, Matthew has Jesus make room for those living ordinary lives with their families as well as those who aspire to spiritual perfection through asceticism. By the second century most Christians agreed with the moderate Clement of Alexandria, who held that Adam's sin consisted essentially of disobedience and was sexual only in form, and that the significance of the story of Adam and Eve was that it showed people were morally responsible for their choices between good and evil—choices, he emphasized, which were freely made.

However, Pagels points out that even Clement, one of the most liberal fathers of the church, established damaging norms for Christian behavior that have endured for two thousand years. Greatly ambivalent about sexuality, he wavered between denunciation and praise of celibacy and he encouraged sex in marriage only if it was without passion and for reproduction alone. He endorsed patriarchal marriage because he believed in male superiority and in the justice of punishing Eve and all women for her sin. Yet he read Genesis I as a text showing all people were equal since God formed humanity in his own image. This belief in equality was consistent with what Pagels considers Christianity's two cardinal tenets up to that time: a deep commitment to moral freedom and a belief in the infinite worth of individuals:

for nearly the first four hundred years of our era, Christians regarded freedom as the primary message of Genesis 1-3—freedom in its many forms, including free will, freedom from demonic powers, freedom from social and sexual obligations, freedom from tyrannical government and from fate; and self-mastery as the source of such freedom.

The Christian martyrs' defiance of Rome in the arena showed their faith in God's assurance of moral freedom. They could battle against wild animals because they were convinced conversion and baptism gave them the power to overcome pain, suffering, evil, even death. Pagels sees this early insistence on individual moral freedom as central in orthodox doctrine, and leading to the suppression of early Christian groups who did not share this belief—Gnostic Christians, for example, who differed fundamentally from the orthodox in their contention that we have some freedom to make moral choice but aren't absolutely free to avoid all suffering, which is built into the structure of the universe.

In the fourth century Augustine entered the debate over human nature and moral freedom. He believed that Adam's sin, freely chosen, was and would forever be transmitted through sexual intercourse (or semen) to all of his progeny; and that from the moment of conception, or the materialization of (shameful) sexual desire, all of us are infected with original sin and deprived of free moral choice. Augustine's contrary interpretation of Genesis argued that suffering, sin, sexuality and death were consequences of human guilt and sin—divinely imposed to punish Adam's original sin—not natural occurrences. God allowed Adam to sin in order to demonstrate that people could not be totally free, and that, poisoned and corrupted by original sin, people needed to be governed by church and state in order to be saved.

Pagels argues that this theory legitimized Christian obedience to Rome, by breaking with the tradition that celebrated moral freedom:

Augustine says, in simplest terms,… [that] human beings cannot be trusted to govern themselves, because our very nature—indeed, all of nature—has become corrupt as the result of Adam's sin. In the late fourth and fifth century, Christianity was no longer a suspect and persecuted movement; now it was the religion of emperors obligated to govern a vast and diffuse population. Under these circumstances … Augustine's theory of human depravity—and, correspondingly, the political means to control it—replaced the previous ideology of human freedom.

Thereby, she concludes, Augustine helped establish the hegemony of the Catholic Church (which became the state religion as Rome became a Christian state), excluding those of his Christian rivals who held more traditional, optimistic views of human nature; and his view has held to date.

But why did the church, in the fifth and sixth centuries, choose to adopt what Pagels sees as Augustine's "extraordinary" ideas, rather than discard them as alien to Christian tradition? "People," she conjectures,

need to find reasons for their sufferings … people often would rather feel guilty than helpless … such guilt, however painful, offers reassurance that such events do not occur at random but follow specific laws of causation; and that their causes, or a significant part of them, lie in the moral sphere, and so within human control.

Her analysis of the triumph of Augustine's views leads Pagels to detect a great paradox at the heart of Christianity, a paradox which becomes the book's main theme. On the one hand the religion adheres to Augustine's doctrine that after Adam no one can choose not to sin. On the other, it is shaped by its early commitment to moral freedom and human responsibility for moral choices freely made, and by its stress on the infinite worth of each individual created in God's image. Pagels argues that, though eclipsed by the Augustinian view of human nature, Western Christianity's earlier emphasis on individualism and moral freedom has remained influential, with echoes in the American Declaration of Independence, in Jefferson's thinking and in other developments in the modern concepts of individualism and liberty. Her position, then, diverges from that of those feminists who reject Christianity as irredeemably patriarchal, and who believe its patriarchal character derives from its cultural context or male mistranslations and misinterpretations of divine intentions.

There are a number of fascinating things in this book. It is dense with accounts of those who, as martyrs, ascetics, gnostics and fathers of the church, acted out religious beliefs about human nature, defied social conventions, took great personal risks, or participated in fierce controversies over ideas in the focus on Genesis. These few pages in the Hebrew Bible, never again mentioned in the rest of that document and referred to by Jesus only once, have been used ever since to justify male dominance and female subordination. It is striking that, as Pagels notes, when Christianity was in its formative stages, some Christian Gnostic texts portrayed Eve positively as the source of spiritual renewal. Her analysis of Augustine's long battle to impose his theory of original sin both relativizes and demystifies it, especially for women.

Despite the elegance of Pagels' argument, it has some troublesome elements. She virtually equates the early Christian commitments to human freedom and to the infinite worth of the individual. Certainly there is a basis for this equation in parts of the Gospels, orthodox and gnostic alike, and it is true that part of the attractiveness of Christianity to its many early converts was its emphasis on living the "good life" in Christian community on an everyday basis. But it was precisely in everyday life that the promotion of moral freedom was not necessarily the same as the protection of individual worth. Much of the assessment of Christianity as a champion of moral freedom and human worth depended on who was doing the assessing.

Nowhere in the extensive theological discourse on Genesis 1-3 is slaveholding, for example (cited by Pagels), attacked as oppressive to some individuals (also created in the image of God). Declining to take a position on concrete issues is, of course, a position in itself. That Christianity promoted the moral freedom of slaves in the fourth, as in the nineteenth, century did not affect their material conditions. Similarly, the Christian image of women that identifies us all as daughters of Eve or urges our salvation through emulation of Mary has hardly promoted a belief in the infinite worth of individual women. And while asceticism may have been sexually democratic, it was not the way of life chosen by most who remained within patriarchal marriages.

Pagels' book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent] is about the power of ideas. She rightly claims that from the time the Church triumphed politically in the fourth century, "Christian attitudes began to transform the consciousness, to say nothing of the moral and legal systems, that continue to form Western society." And she credits the early Christian tradition for its influence on later philosophies that championed "the absolute value of the individual." But there is another face to that influence. Just as belief in the universal capacity for moral choice did not guarantee respect for the worth of all individuals, the concept of moral freedom, while important, did not touch issues of oppression, power and powerlessness. Augustine's view, adopted by the Church, has seen women as only instrumental in men's struggles with sex and sin. Historically we have been considered more responsible for and vulnerable to sin than men, dangerous to men's pursuit of righteousness and destabilizing to society (witness the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century witchcraft persecutions). The history of Christianity has been more complex, contradictory, flawed and punitive than Pagels seems to think.

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This section contains 2,169 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Judith Ochshorn
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