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May 16 2012

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On how I got here. Part I.

I was born in the Soviet Union into a Jewish family in the very midst of the Breznhev era—the calm, steady time of paced life, security, and assuredness of bright future. I was raised as deeply and properly communist and atheist as most of my nation, and just as critical of the missteps we had taken on the way to building the society of freedom, equality, and the fulfillment of all as I was convinced of our ultimate success. Together with my generation I hailed the beginning of glasnost’ and was stunned by the economic and social destruction that followed perestroika. In 1991, as Russian Nazis were holding rallies in the squares of Leningrad, as the rumors of coming pogroms filled the air and the pillars of socialism groaned under the burden of its weight, my family and I packed our bags and knocked on the door of the American embassy. I left the music college of the Leningrad Conservatory, my parents left their engineering jobs, my sister left the school where she was a teacher, and all of us left everything and everyone we’d ever loved and known and landed on a Miltonian cold, dark continent completely strange, without English, without money, and without a clue.

This was 20 years ago—half of my life—and much has passed and changed since then. Because of a wrist trauma during the move to America, I could not go back to playing piano, and, after a period of trying to feed my family and learning English, I started my higher education from scratch at a local community college, where I now teach evening courses and which I will always consider my second home: the place that accepted me and gave me a start when no other place would. I went on to graduate school and became a theologian. I’ve handled vegetables, served in the Army, gone to law school, lived in California, worked as a medical interpreter…

I’ve lived 40 years, and for 19 of them I wanted to die, for no other reason than hating to live. For most of them, I lived in near-constant pain. For half of them, I lived steeped in loss every minute of every day—reveling in the memories of the past never to return, dreading the inevitable parting from every treasure of the present. I lived through illness and injury, deaths and betrayals, and the collapse of a civilization. The icy hell of emigration. The humiliation and poverty of it. The uncertainty. The nostalgia. The despair.

I’ve crawled to this place, where I am, through a thorny path, rocky and steep, through the darkness, and now I stand in a meadow covered with the scars of the thicket. I’ve been given a taste of Heaven, and it is indescribable—unimaginably sweet after the long crawl. Now more than ever clearly I see: it could only be so. It had to be so. Because mine is a mountain meadow, with a view in every direction. This view is my gift, the treasure the way to which lay by a long, hard climb.

I’ve lived on both sides of an ocean—both sides of long-standing, history-shaping cultural barricades, and I’ve heard each side demonize the other, and I’ve loved them both. In 40 years, I’ve come to know and understand what drives atheists and clerics, communists and individualists, Christians and Muslims, pacifists and soldiers, elite and underprivileged. Something pushed me to comprehend “the other” by experiencing, and I went, joined, served, enlisted, applied, spoke, worked—and I knew no peace because all around me was suffering, and my heart kept breaking as people I loved kept hating each other for what they were, and I screamed at the top of my lungs, but the world wouldn’t listen. And I became a teacher.

I suppose, there is irony to the twists of my path. The atheist society that brought me up was of the highest and noblest ideals. It taught me about selfless love, respect for honest effort, sincerity, sacrifice, compassion, and the proud human spirit not to be confined. It taught me about hopeless fights for a noble cause that are never hopeless. It taught me about equality, freedom, and the fulfillment of all. It taught me to care. I don’t know what but that inextinguishable fire drove me to study religion—later, in America, after all I’d loved and tried growing up had been lost: my home, my country, my profession in music, my cherished utopia of impending communism. My innocence. All I had left was my family’s love and my apparently futile search for answers: Why? What for? How can the world be this way? I had my family and my questions, and I pursued both with the fiery intensity of lethal force. That they did not kill me is a testament only to the gentle power of His guiding hand, even when invisible.

The thing is, it was in the study of religions that I found—not the answers—the formulation of the real and deep questions I was after with my whole being, the ones that kept me up at night. What are the source and the meaning of life? Is there a reason or purpose for everything that happens? What is the nature of evil? How can the world be this way? Why? What for?

In digging into the teachings of collective human wisdom thousands of years old, I was looking for a way to believe in an ordered universe. A benevolent universe. A reason for suffering. Yet it is, perhaps, somewhat amusing that, with all my internal struggles on the subject and through my journey in theology, I might have engaged the question of the existence of God, at least outwardly, less than others of my kind. I dug around and underneath it, I sifted the soil so exhaustively that the mountain, almost literally, had to fall on my head, but much of the explicit question itself brewed under the surface of consciousness. Between the lines. Buried and disguised in pure scholarship, scholarly detachment, detached respect, respectful dialogue. Buried and disguised in the problem of evil, in the questions of ethics, in the search for the meaning of life. For most of my life I maintained to myself that there was no God, absolutely not, no such thing, I was an atheist—though issues surrounding the concept of God were so meaningful that I devoted my career to studying, teaching, and writing about them. And I maintained so until that day when I realized I had believed the opposite for some time and released myself into the utter and complete conviction of the reality of God.

Until then, I’d lived my doubts as despair. I thrashed around my mind’s cage, constructing pyramids of theories and splicing religious traditions, practicing some ritual and then another with every group in heartfelt friendship but without faith, for one question remained woefully, obscenely unanswered: How can there be all this evil, all this pain in a world that belongs to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God?

It was about theodicy. I had a problem of evil.

I rejected the concept of God because I preferred He not exist than He exist and let this happen. I didn’t want a God that I could blame. I called myself an atheist still, years and years more. Except…blame God is exactly what I did. Years, and years more. Playfully, I thought at first, addressing “our own mythological construction,” I kept addressing Him. Through the endless dark night of my soul I threw up to the heavens my rage, my resentment, my confusion, and my desperate pleas—and I called out His name, the God I didn’t know I knew was there—and I shouted at Him and yelled insults and provocations and heard in some strange, perverse imagination’s quarrel many answers in kind. “The worst atheist in the world,” somebody called me.

I hadn’t really been an atheist for the past several years. But the decades I’d spent wading through the night swamp, through the tearing winds, gathering crumbs of insight, morsels of strength, and gaining ground—miles and miles of ground—in perspective, these decades have led me now to this place, where paradox is not, where binary is not, where seemingly mutually exclusive truths are small brushstrokes in His unfathomable canvas, all fitting into the one Beauty of His Creation. All part of His whole. All good. As are we all.

To be continued…

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3 comments

  1. Mary Bryan

    Thank you for sharing this. It is exactly what I needed to hear!

  2. RitW

    Very beautifully and poetically written; truly, a captivating story.

    Questions:

    What was the context for the ‘final step’ in your journey from atheism into theism? (a conversation? a meeting?? a sermon? prayer? a verse?)

    Was there a step from theism to Christianity? Or, did you go straight from atheism to Christianity? Or, are you poly-theistic?

    Who is the God of which you write?? Is it the God of The Bible??

    1. River Adams

      Dear RitW, thank you so much for visiting again! As usual, you zero in on such crucial questions in the story that they simply didn’t all fit into one post. One such question is why my “conversion” took me from atheism to Christianity and not to Judaism or Islam or Hinduism. There were no intermediate steps: when I felt God’s presence and saw His smile, it was the smile of Jesus. This, I suppose, also answers your third question somewhat: yes, of course, I speak of the God of the Bible. He is also the God of everything else. In this, I steer by the Book of Jonah, which reminds us constantly that if we begin to think that God is of the Israel we can identify and not of someone else we think of as the enemy, we must quickly think again.
      In any case, I will make a separate essay post of my thoughts on why God revealed Himself to me through Christ Jesus and not some other way. I am Jewish after all — it would make sense, wouldn’t it? I already have writing on the subject. To say a few words to you now, I think the reasons are either very complex or exceedingly simple. On one hand, I can formulate why this tradition fits me so — its sacramentality, its mystical embrace of the transcendance and the immanence of God, its overarching emphasis on agape love… On the other hand, several times now I’ve discovered in my past the signs nearly erased from memory of His presence I wasn’t ready to understand but which pushed me to keep fighting to find Him. I keep finding poems I’d written, drawings I’d done that are essentially prayers and icons. I didn’t know why. This other answer is so simple that most of my loved ones in this modern age would shudder to hear it: it wasn’t a choice of mine. It is what I was created for. He chose me in my mother’s womb. I just had to be ready to fall in love because it takes something to understand Love.
      As for the context of the final “step” in my conversion, just like the first step, there was no event. No external push. I’d been clinically depressed for many years and going through therapy, and at that time it was bad. Suddenly and finally I felt that I’d gotten to some end point and could not be helped and felt as alone as I’d ever been. I walked out of therapy, figuratively slamming the door, and simply and instinctively descended into silence. It was about that time that I listended to myself and with a metaphorical chuckle realized that, for an atheist, I was doing a lot of yelling at God. And I sort of had to admit to myself that I probably hadn’t been truly an atheist for some time. And I decided to be quiet for a while. I just wanted to be quiet in every possible way. I think I was just ready. I just got to Mount Horeb and was looking about the cave. After about three months of this spiritual silence… Well, you know.
      I have another image in my mind often: that I broke through the wall of my self-erected cell, against which I’d been beating my whole life, on the day I grew quiet, and fell out into the light, and began to float in silence and uncertainty, and after three months landed softly straight into the hands of Christ.

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