An Autobiographical Soteriology
I became a Christian in what is perhaps one of the most non-religious places in the world: the drama department at New York University. NYU is a place where there is great passion for progressive social and political change, but where any question about religion is most often answered with the standard response, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” which can usually be interpreted as meaning that the one questioned smokes pot and listens to Bob Marley on at least a semi-regular basis. It still seems ironic to me that this, of all places, was the setting of my Christian conversion. The story goes something like this: I was raised in a non-religious family. My father is a devoutly atheist Jew, my mother a wounded ex-Catholic who doesn’t believe in God but won’t say so for fear of going to Hell. When I was thirteen or so I decided there must be more to life than my parents were letting on, and I began an exploration of religion and religious communities, active in turns in Taoist, Hindu, Muslim and Bahá’í communities before settling on Buddhism at the end of high school. I don’t know why I never explored Christianity or Judaism in my early religious search—perhaps I figured that the religions that let my folks down couldn’t have had much to offer me. I arrived at NYU as a practicing Buddhist. Some of my first college friends were people who, mysteriously, seemed to be compassionate and intelligent people despite their Christianity, a contradiction that intrigued me. I continued to beleaguer them with questions and probe them for ideas, and soon I began to realize that much of their compassion and integrity was drawn precisely from their faith, and I became even more fascinated. Finally, one of these people (the person who, unbeknownst to me at the time, would six years later agree to become my wife) convinced me to read a gospel with an open mind and an open heart—to let Jesus speak for himself. I settled on the Gospel of John. The result was a total head-over-heels falling in love with Jesus. It’s difficult to explain exactly what that means, except to say that it was sort of like having one of those rare encounters with a work of art or literature that simultaneously takes your breath away, leaves you momentarily incapable of rational thought, and completely changes the way you view yourself and your world. Given that my conversion was the result of a visceral, non-rational response to the person of Jesus, theology was something of an afterthought. As I began slowly to put together the basics of an intellectual understanding of my newfound faith, I saw that like most world religions, the message of Christianity was grounded in an assumption about what’s wrong with the world, with humanity in particular, and how that problem is to be solved. I recognized Jesus Christ immediately as Love incarnate, and I heard him saying that somehow, whatever was wrong with the human race would be addressed by the power of Love. More than that, I could not say. As I delved deeper into the field of Christian theology, I began to see that the atonement, Christ’s work on the cross, seemed to be the locus around which the rest of Christian tradition revolved. The way the atonement was typically explained, however, left me completely unsatisfied. How another innocent person’s murder was to somehow solve the problem of my transgressions seemed illogical and rather cruel. John Calvin told me that “Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.7). But it seemed nearly impossible to sustain a firm and certain knowledge of the benevolence of a God who wills the gruesome torture and execution of his children. This dilemma eventually led me to this class and...
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