English 233: Introduction to Western
Humanities -Baroque and Enlightenment
Extra credit Option on
The Impact of the Enlightenment on Modern Biblical Scholarship:
Elaine Pagels on Augustine's concept of
[Note: Students who write more than once on this extra-credit assignment are allowed to do up to two of the topics A, B, C, D, etc., though it is not permitted to do both subtopics under Topic D.]
Elaine Pagels (b. 1943) is a student of early
Christian communities who first made her mark in the academic
world with her studies of the "gnostic gospels," a
collection of ancient papyrus texts discovered by a peasant in a
cave in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945. Her
special focus came to be on the relations between religion and
politics during the first 4 centuries of the Christian era
(c. AD 30-430). In addition to her prolific
output in the scholarly journals, she has published a series of
highly regarded expositions of her views for lay
audiences: Most famous among these are The Gnostic
Gospels (1979) and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988),
a study of early Christian controversies over the issues of sex,
gender, marriage, and politics controversies that exhibit
a lively variation among positions and outlooks but that shared a
common point of reference in the Genesis account of the Creation
and Fall of the First Parents. Different positions
arose and flourished or were banished to the margins at different
times between the era of Jesus and the death of
St. Augustine, and Pagels' interest focuses on the larger
social factors that may have disposed adherents of different
tendencies to find these to be speaking convincingly to their
personal experiences, and which may help explain why one
particular position, that of Augustine, finally succeeded in
imposing itself as the only orthodox one, with immense
ramifications for Western societies down to our own day.
Augustine's theory of
original sin not only proved politically expedient, since
it persuaded many of his contemporaries that human beings
universally need external government which meant,
in their case, both a Christian state and an imperially
supported church but also offered an analysis of
human nature that became, for better and worse, the
heritage of all subsequent generations of western
Christians and the major influence on their psychological
and political thinking. Even today, many
people, Catholics and Protestants alike, regard the story
of Adam and Eve as virtually synonymous with original
sin. During Augustine's own lifetime, as we
shall see, various Christians objected to his radical
theory, and others bitterly contested it; but within the
next few generations, Christians who held to more
traditional views of human freedom were themselves
condemned as heretics ("Introduction,"
This is a fascinating book throughout, and students who have completed any one of the courses in the Western Humanities sequence are equipped to read it with enjoyment and insight. Partly as a sample to entice you to acquire the complete work from the library or bookstore, and partly because the subject of her final chapter raises issues that emerge again during 17th-century controversies we have been studying, I have focused this assignment on her final chapter, "The Nature of Nature." (As it happens, you'll also get an example of the way I go about annotating my own books.) I've also provided Pagels' "Epilogue," in which she discusses the distinction and relationship between "historical investigation" and "religious inquiry," which is one of the most striking legacies of the Enlightenment period.
You may acquire copies of these from the Arts & Sciences Copy Center (Eisenhower 11.)
The choice of topics. Study carefully these excerpts from Pagels' book (i.e., both Chapter VI and the Epilogue). Then write a well-organized single-spaced page (standard margins, 12-point type or 10 cpi) this is of course meant to be a rough guide in which you do one of the following tasks.
Topic A. Summarize the main points on which Julian of Eclanum's picture of nature and of the moral order of things differed from that of Augustine. Then ask yourself which of these views would seem most sensical to (choose one) Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, or Renée Descartes. Explain your answer.
Topic B. Despite Julian's vigorous defense of an alternative picture of the nature of Nature, many people evidently found Augustine's picture more attractive. How did Julian himself account for Augustine's own attachment to his views? (Can you locate anything to suggest what Augustine might have thought motivated Julian to persist in his views?) Summarize Pagels' theory as to why the Augustinian picture of nature might have been attractive to (a) to people in positions of political authority and (b) to ordinary people. Does she herself seem more inclined to Augustine's picture or to Julian's? Conclude by stating your own view: do you find Augustine's picture of nature convincing? attractive? (These are not necessarily the same!) How convincing do you find Pagels' account of the attractions of Augustine's picture? Try to go beyond mere declaration, and state at least one definite reason.
Topic C. In the course of
their dispute, Julian and Augustine develop quite
different readings of certain key passages in the Old and
New Testaments. Pick one from each (a passage
from Genesis, say, and one from either the Gospel of John
or the Letters of Paul). For each passage you
choose, cite at least one specific point (word, phrase,
issue) on which they develop divergent
interpretations. Summarize the interpretations
they give. Do they argue for their
interpretation or against their opponent's, or do they
just assert their readings? Do their different
readings presuppose different prior understandings of the
nature of God's character, or of His Providence, or of
crucial moral notions such as the conditions of
responsibility or of justice in punishment?
Topic D. In her Epilogue, Pagels says that one of her friends surprised her in his response to an earlier draft of her book: "What, then, are you saying?" he asked. ""Whose side are you on? Are you saying that the real Christianity is more like John Chrysostom and the Pelagians (God forbid) than like Augustine? Or are you just saying that they all made interesting and different, but all politically and motivationally mixed and a little bit crazy, responses to what they took to be the gospel." Answer one of the following:
Topic D-1. Does
Pagels answer, or evade, this question, in the
course of her Epilogue? What answer
would you say is supported by her chapter on
"The Nature of Nature"?
Topc D-2. What does Pagels think "historical investigation" is capable of disclosing, about "real Christianity"? How is this illustrated in her chapter on "The Nature of Nature"? What does she think it is not capable of deciding? Does she give any indication of the sort of inquiry that would be capable of deciding these other questions? Is there any hope for these questions to be decided on a some kind of rational basis? some other basis? What light (if any) does the passage she cites from William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience cast on this problem?
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This page last updated 09 December 2001 .