In a certain sense, every Christian is Jewish. This is something I could have told you years ago—I’m a scholar of religion, after all. But it’s possible to know a thing without fully comprehending it. While I knew that Christianity started out as a sect of Judaism, I did not realize the depth of their connection until they came together in my one heart.

A Jew by birthright, I am connected to a nation spread around the globe, to a mythos and a vast history. It is the fabric of me, undeniable and inescapable, and as definitive as my humanity, my womanhood, or my Russian culture. Yet raised in the secular society of the Soviet Union, I would not have known fully what it meant to be a Jew if I hadn’t been reminded of it since early childhood by the pervasive anti-Semitism of the people I lived among. This is a common experience of Jews in diaspora. Observant or not, we come to understand our Jewishness through rejection; we learn our past through its history of disaster and flight, looking back toward ancient roots and preserving tradition in order to hold on to ourselves.

I am also—by conversion—a Christian. This double identity has been a challenge at times. Trying to explain to my Christian friends that I was not about to cease being a Jew, and to my Jewish friends that I was not betraying my Jewishness, I used to talk about Love and the great, abstract and mystical vision of reality—the oneness of all things. And I pointed out that Jesus was a Jew. But only recently did I suddenly and truly grasp what this meant to me. The realization took place not in my mind but in my heart, and like all great realizations, was obvious and simple: Jesus is not just compatible with my Jewish heritage; he is my heritage.

As a Jew I am one of Jesus’ people, the people he asked to hear and carry his message. I am the inheritor of the Scripture he quoted, of the law he obeyed, of the history that shaped him, and of the prophetic word that titled him messiah. Jesus made an extended Israel, with all of humanity invited; every soul that wants to belong to him belongs by definition, and so I belong to him with countless brothers and sisters. We are all Israel in Christ. But I also have the blood of Abraham running through my veins. I am the inheritor of the covenant, with the burden and the pain of it already on my shoulders, and I spent decades struggling with the meaning of that burden before collapsing—like Simon, like Mary, like Matthew and Paul—at Jesus’ feet.

Being a Catholic Jew is not the extent of my oddity. I am a strange bird in the Catholic Church of today, when more are leaving than coming—for I am not just coming, but doing so with a call to vows, in discernment of religious life. After a lifetime of atheism, I found the meaning of existence one night on the floor of my little apartment, in the quietest, simplest, most ecstatic moment I have ever experienced—a still, small voice and a series of answers to my questions. At almost forty years old, I had fallen in love. And I realized that I had never been alone.

People call this my “conversion experience,” appropriately enough, I suppose. It was my first day of peace, the moment that stilled the echoing mayhem of despair in my mind and steeped my whole being in the warm light of Love personified—the day I understood enough to understand that I would never understand. But perhaps my conversion began long before that day, in the years I spent searching for answers—frantic, enraged, at times suicidal—and throwing up rhetorical demands to the heavens I thought to be cruel or indifferent. Or perhaps there is no such thing as conversion. Perhaps there is only a path for each of us—one so convoluted at times that when it finally leads us to that meadow, soft with wavy grasses and caressed by sunshine, we cannot believe we haven’t been turned around. I wonder if there isn’t only one path for each of us, and it leads to God.

Born in the Soviet Union in the midst of the Brezhnev era, I was raised in the customary Communist and atheist way of my nation; and while critical of the missteps taken on the way to building a society of freedom and fulfillment, I was convinced of our ultimate success. Together with my generation I hailed the beginning of glasnost, only to be stunned by the economic and social destruction that followed perestroika. That destruction was accompanied by a surge of rabid anti-Semitism. In 1991, as Russian Nazis were holding rallies in the squares of Leningrad and rumors of pogroms filled the air, my family and I, bruised and frightened, packed our bags and knocked on the door of the American embassy. I left the Leningrad Conservatory Music College, my family left their careers, and all of us left everything we’d ever loved and known, to land on a continent completely strange to us, without English, without money, and without a clue.

This was twenty-two years ago—more than half my life. Because of a wrist injury suffered during the move to America, I could not continue playing piano, and after a period of trying just to survive and to learn English, I started my higher education from scratch at a local community college. I went on to graduate school and eventually became a theologian. Along the way I worked at a farmers’ market, served in the Army, went to law school, did a stint as a medical interpreter: I became an American, in other words, the adopted daughter of a nation that wanted me when my own didn’t. I now teach Catholic studies at a tiny and beautiful college. And sometimes I find myself musing on how I got here.

The atheist society that brought me up aspired to the highest and noblest ideals. It taught me about selfless love, respect for honest effort, sincerity, sacrifice, compassion, and the proud human spirit. It taught me that hopeless fights for a noble cause are never hopeless. It taught me the importance of equality, freedom, and the fulfillment of all. It taught me to care. Later, in America, after all I’d loved while growing up had been lost, I fell back on apparently unanswerable questions that kept me up night after night: Why? How can the world be this way? I had two things, my family and my questions, and I clung to both.

Those questions drove me to study religion. I see now that in digging into the teachings of collective human wisdom accumulated over millennia, I had all along been looking for a way to believe in an ordered universe—a reason for suffering—even as I insisted that there was no God. An atheist theologian, I thrashed around in my mind’s cage, constructing theories and splicing religious traditions, practicing one ritual and then another with every group in heartfelt friendship but without faith, for one question remained woefully unanswered: How can there be all this evil, all this pain, in a world that belongs to an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God? 

Like many before me, I rejected the concept of God because I preferred he not exist than that he exist and let evil happen. I didn’t want a God I would have to blame, so I called myself an atheist. And yet blame God is exactly what I did. I threw up to the heavens my rage, my resentment, my confusion, and my desperate pleas; I called out his name, this God I didn’t know I knew was there, and I shouted at him and yelled insults and provocations—and heard, in some strange and perverse quarrel of the imagination, many answers in kind.

In truth I hadn’t really been an atheist for several years. But the decades I’d spent leaning into tearing winds and steadily gaining ground—those decades led me to where I am now, this place where seemingly mutually exclusive truths are small brushstrokes on God’s unfathomable canvas, all fitting into the one Beauty of His Creation.

My family members remain atheist, and they love and support me. But they think I forgive God too much.

Do I forgive God? Indeed. But I don’t think it’s too much. Too many of us walk through life drying up and dying because we can’t forgive. I spent most of my life blaming God for this world’s pain, and on the day they call “conversion,” when my heart quieted and allowed itself finally to feel his touch, we forgave each other.

I accept now that this world is not perfect. Nothing temporal can be unchanging; nothing changing can be perfect. By the very virtue of pouring forth this temporal universe, God accepted its imperfection. 

Is our suffering, then, part of the design? God’s collateral damage?

I don’t know how the world works, but I know—I feel with everything I am now—that God is not an absentee landlord, an uncaring observer of suffering. In the years when I could not forgive him for the evil of this world, my mind kept going back to the places where pain was being inflicted on people by people, the powerless tortured by the powerful, and I could find no justification for God if he was present and watched and did nothing—or if he was absent and did not watch.

I understand now that my binary way of thinking was flawed. The world is not God’s toy. Rather it is a continuation of him, and the expression of his nature, permeated by and filled with him. God doesn’t watch the suffering of the world. He feels it, just as he feels its joy.

At creation the world lost its eternity in God but gained its fluidity in time, and began to change and develop, so that at the end of time it could become a thing more beautiful than we children of imperfection can imagine—so that it could flow back into God’s eternal reality and enrich it with its uniqueness, its temporally experienced love.

I have forgiven God for the pain of the world, and I believe that he has forgiven me for my imperfection. I have forgiven God because our pain is his pain, and he endures it for the sake of the beauty, the love, and the promise the world contains. He has forgiven me because he was just waiting to, because all things imperfect in me are temporary but my love is not. My personal story might be viewed as a thorny path through the collapse of a society, the humiliation and poverty of emigration, through uncertainty, nostalgia, and despair; but it brought me here, to my meadow view, and this view is my gift and treasure.

Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2013-02-22 issue: 

Maria Kaplun teaches Catholic Studies at Rosemont College in Rosemont, Pennsylvania.

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