Pagels unravels a tangle of collective feelings about good and evil, like an archaeologist of the Western mind. She explores the history of ancient concerns - What dangers must we fear? What limits on ourselves must we observe, or lose our souls? To these fearful questions, answers have accumulated in our minds for at least 4,000 years. Pagels sifts the residue of ancient texts, exposing the choices we have made. In the growing legend of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, she finds a powerful cautionary tale. If the original sin was seeking knowledge of good and evil, what does that say about sanity? There are many ways to interpret this tale, but how was it actually interpreted by religious and political leaders over the course of history? Pagels documents the rise of a religious doctrine against the perils of freedom.
For peace and unity to prevail, most leaders of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim communities have felt it essential that ordinary people must doubt their own ability to know right from wrong. They needed to see that free will was the root of evil, and obedience the cardinal virtue of religion. As Augustine put it,
"... obedience ... is, so to speak, the mother and guardian of all the virtues of a rational creature. The fact is that a rational creature is so constituted that submission is good for it, while yielding to its own rather than its Creator's will is, on the contrary, disastrous." (The City of God, 14:12)
So the people must cease trusting their own minds, and turn for guidance to a higher authority. But which external authority should they follow?
In this great inquiry, as usual, Pagels combines the roles of textual analyst, literature critic, anthropologist, and even social therapist. Her work remains important and relevant decade after decade.
--author of Correcting Jesus