Atheist/AgnosticConversion StoriesMuslim

Confessions of a Graduate Student

Dr. John Babak Ebrahimian
December 7, 2020 No Comments

I was born in in Tehran, Iran in 1968 to a Muslim family. My parents placed my sister and me in a Christian school to learn English. There we sang Christian worship songs each morning before going to class. It was there that Jesus entered my life when I was ten years old. We celebrated Christmas as an extended family with my mother’s sister, husband, and son. Those years were probably some of the best years of my life.

Then the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution occurred. The school got shut down, and I lost all my friends. They each went back home. I was placed in a British international school to continue my studies in English. The new school had to obey the law where the Islamic Republic regime mandated us to read and study the Quran. I disliked the new school culture which had no Jesus. I felt I had lost Jesus, but Jesus had not left me.

In 1980 we left for Paris to get our Green Card, so we could immigrate to the United States of America. I lived in Paris from 1980 to 1984. During this time I was interested in Buddhism and dreamt of becoming a Buddhist Monk. I even met the Dalai Lama. My parents took us to Notre Dame to celebrate the midnight Mass one year and I visited the Chartres Cathedral with my school. I would sometimes visit a nearby church to kill time and one day I found a rosary without knowing what it was. Then, in 9th grade I was influenced by our neighbor who was a Marxist and spouted Marxism.

Providentially, one evening I saw Bernard Pivot’s television program Apostrophes where famous thinkers, philosophers, and intellectuals were interviewed. As a teenager I was interested in becoming an intellectual and I was hungry to learn and get all the knowledge I could from everywhere and everyone. The episode that night was on two great French thinkers who taught at Stanford University in California. I saw Professor René Girard being interviewed by Bernard Pivot at Stanford while they were riding their bikes around the campus. Needless to say the name René Girard and the image of him biking around Stanford campus burnt itself on my mind — I had no idea what they were talking about as they were biking but Professor Girard seemed happy, joyful, peaceful, and free.

By tenth grade, I had satisfied all my requirements to graduate and was accepted by the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. In 1984, we immigrated to the US, and I started my studies at Stevens Institute of Technology. I had an Indian-British Christian roommate, and we became very close friends. I also had a good Jewish friend and one good Hindu friend. God was definitely not in the picture, except we had an Armenian math professor who would throw Christian InterVarsity dinner parties at his apartment, invite us, and try to convert us to Christianity. We knew the reason for these dinner parties, but we went because of the Armenian pizza he served and the board games we played. At one point, he managed to give me some Bible study books and started doing Bible study with me. Eventually, he gave up as he saw he was getting nowhere with me. He was an excellent teacher — if not one of the best around, who everyone went to for help before final exams. He stood out as a great Christian in helping students and having parties, but his evangelical approach didn’t work. That first year in America, my parents had some American guests over for dinner and the topic of religion came up. They asked me what my faith was and my response, without missing a beat, was, “I am a Christian Buddhist.”

All was fine at Stevens Tech. My small group of close friends challenged and entertained me. But something serious was still lacking. Stevens was a technical school and I was missing the arts and humanities. So I decided to apply to transfer out of Stevens to Cornell University where I did my undergraduate studies in French Literature and Comparative Literature and theatre directing.
The fad back in the 80’s was deconstruction and Jacques Derrida came to lecture. My senior thesis advisor was a deconstructionist and big fan of Derrida so I met with Derrida during his office hours. If you are “lost,” academia can be a ruthless place pushing and dictating its “isms” to you without you being aware of it: structuralism, semiotics, deconstructionism, new criticism, Marxism, feminism, colonialism, post-colonialism, etc.

Professor René Girard, the man I had seen on the television program biking around Stanford, came to Cornell to visit a class but I missed him. I was too involved doing theater and being a “deconstructionist.” Lost in academia, I applied to graduate schools to study theater or literature. I took a year off after I graduated and worked as an assistant-director in the theaters in New York City. Liviu Ciulei was a world-renowned film and theater director whom I assisted and he taught me a great deal about theater, cinema, and art, but he was, as with most directors, a humanist, if not an atheist.

I started my Ph.D. degree in the Department of Drama at Stanford University and took all the directing classes and theory classes. I was also a literary theorist enthusiast and met Professor René Girard in the fall of 1991 after one of his lectures in his Shakespeare class, though I never had a chance to take any of his classes while I was in the Drama Department. I had worked with all the literary theory professors but him and wanted to at least meet him and say hello, though he was not in my department.

In my second year, I transferred to the Department of French and Italian. My new Department accepted all my credits but required me to take an exam for my Master’s degree. This was in the summer of 1992. For the preparation of my Master’s exam, it occurred to me that I was in a new department and could actually meet and study with Professor Girard in person. I made an appointment with Professor Girard’s secretary to meet with him.

At our meeting, he warmly welcomed me and we began talking about Shakespeare and his theory of “mimetic desire.” The discussion was so filled with life, knowledge, and light that it left me changed. I had never met a professor who could discuss literature, theory, and life interchangeably, with so much ease and love. After my first meeting with him, I asked if I could meet with him again. He agreed, so we met again the next week.

Our conversations soon became weekly encounters over lunch or coffee at the student coffee house. We first focused on his book on Shakespeare, Shakespeare: A Theater of Envy. I was still scared and hesitant to think about and talk about God and religion. But then after several weeks, when I had gotten to know Professor Girard and liked and trusted him, I began studying and asking him about his book, Things Hidden Since The Foundation of The World. This is the book that caused a scandal when it first came out in 1978 where he explains the process of hominization (the process of becoming humans from animals), how the Bible, and more specifically Jesus, by His innocent death and Resurrection uncovers the scapegoating process in human culture.

If I had any doubts or fear about God, I was relaxed enough and at peace to ask Professor Girard about them. In a “godless” academia, I didn’t have any time to think about the existence of God and was surrounded by professors and students who spouted theories which had no relation to Jesus, God, or the Bible and assumed there was no truth. All my professors who taught literature, philosophy, theater, and the arts were in one shape or another atheists: they believed “the truth” did not exist and everything was subjective and open to endless interpretation. My adviser in the French Department was a fallen-away Catholic and he proudly claimed to be an atheist. He attacked Professor Girard because of his Catholicism and Christian faith and worked against admitting graduate students who wanted to work with Professor Girard. In short, I was developed and trained in such a climate and milieu and took pride to be a great literary theorist who knew everything, gave good papers, and presentations, and was considered a super star by my professors and fellow students alike.

That summer was a summer of grace; I could ask anything about Jesus, God, the Bible, and the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. In my one-to-one conversation and study with Professor Girard, I could ask him about God and his theory of mimetic desire, which explains why the Bible is not a myth but is the truth, that there is a God, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and is the Messiah. As we conversed, the dark heavy cloud was lifted off my shoulders and I was freed and brought to peace.

One afternoon at the student coffee house, I asked him, “Professor Girard, if you say God exists, then why did He let World War II take place?” I wanted to know if there was indeed a “God,” “what kind of a God would it be who would let the holocaust happen and take place?” He looked at me in a calm, peaceful manner and replied: “When God created Adam and Eve He gave them complete liberty and freedom of choice. If He had chained them to Himself, then it wouldn’t have been love.” His answer satisfied me, and I then wanted to know more about Scripture.

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As with all great theories and theorists, his theory of “mimetic desire” starts with a very simple premise and discovery and expands to elaborate “things hidden since the foundation of the world” — a quote he borrowed from the Gospel of Matthew 13:35 for the title of his book.

He discovered that human beings desire by imitating other people’s desires. (You can find this as early as newborn children who imitate their parent’s facial expression, language, sounds, and words and when they get older they imitate their parent’s sense of style or career.) This mimetic or imitative desire soon leads to competition, rivalry, and envy, which leads to conflict and violence. Examples can be found in high school sports and high school students applying to colleges. Everybody wants to be the best, so they become rivals and envy each other. On a larger scale, this envy and rivalry goes on so much that by the end one of them needs to be scapegoated and get killed and sacrificed by the other!

We can find this as early as early on in the Bible, when Cain envies his brother Abel to such a degree that he finally kills him. Absolutely horrific, but true! More examples of this scapegoating and sacrifice can be found in archaic myths and human society, history and culture in abundance.
What makes this violence more horrific is that it is contagious: it starts to multiplyO and spread like a plague and infect the entire society! Then someone or a group of people has to be sacrificed or expelled from the community to bring about peace and order back into the community.
In closely reading and examining the Scripture, Girard finds that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have the same structure, themes, and stories of sacrifice and violence as the archaic myths, except there is on one clear and bold difference. Whereas in archaic mythology, the victim-scapegoat is seen as guilty and needs to be sacrificed, the God of the Bible takes the side of the victim and defends him against the accusers from being scapegoated. For example, the Book of Psalms and Job clearly demonstrate the God of the Bible siding with and defending the scapegoat.
Having made this discovery, Girard then proceeds to look at the New Testament Scripture to uncover how Jesus Christ fulfilled the Old Testament and uncovered the scapegoat mechanism once and for all by His death and Resurrection. Understanding how the innocent Jesus — both God and man — was scapegoated and crucified (sacrificed) was a very powerful and illuminating way of understanding the Bible for me. Studying and talking about the Bible with Professor Girard and learning how to read the Bible through his theory was the first part of my conversion: what I would call my “intellectual” conversion to Christianity.

By the end of the summer, I had learned more about life, psychology, theater, literature, religion, and human beings more than any university class, professor, or seminar could have ever taught me. Through his mentorship and friendship, he had taught me and brought me to the Christian Faith and introduced me to Catholicism. I consider that summer as one of my key foundational and formative moments in my life. It was the first part of my conversion to the Catholic Faith: the “intellectual conversion.”

My meeting and encounter with Professor Girard that summer brought me back to Christianity and introduced me to Catholicism. For my Master’s exam, I asked Professor Girard to be one of the four faculty members sitting on the exam.

The exam, thanks be to the grace of God, went very well and I passed. What stuck me during the exam was that Professor Girard’s claim “that there is only one truth for any given text” — a radical claim in academia which claims and supports liberal approaches and open and multiple interpretations for any text; thereby you can say anything you want, play devil’s advocate, and teach and misguide your students. Of the four professors on my Master’s examination, three of them accepted any answer I gave as long as it matched their thought and ideology. On the other hand, Professor Girard who was a solid thinker and had developed his own theory of mimetic desire, was adamant on a singular interpretation of the texts and could use his theory to interpret the texts and guide students. Despite his success and fame, his openness about his belief in Catholicism and Christianity had “blacklisted” him in academia.

Having found my Christian faith again, one day while walking him back to his house, I asked, “Now that I am a Christian, do I need to get baptized?” He gently responded, “Yes, you should.”
I now needed to take some time from school to digest and think about my life. Before leaving, I asked if Professor Girard would agree to be my advisor. He agreed, so I took the winter of 1992 off and went back to my parent’s house in New Jersey. There I kept in touch with him as I searched for my dissertation topic, read the Bible every night, and went to the local Catholic church, The Church of Presentation, down the road where we lived.

Early on, in reading the Gospel of Matthew, I came across the passage where Jesus gets baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. I, too, wanted to get baptized just like Jesus, so in one of my conversations with Professor Girard, I asked him if he could baptize me. He replied: “I can’t baptize you, but I can be your godfather.”

When I returned to Stanford in spring of 1993, I continued to search for my dissertation topic and worked with Professor Girard on a weekly basis. I also started attending Mass at The Memorial Church, the campus church located on the quad at the heart of the campus. I loved the music with guitar and the joyful songs, the priests, and young student congregation. They all reinforced my discovery of Catholicism in spirit and practice. At the same time, I started attending meetings with other graduate students from all Christian denominations – Lutherans, born again Christians, Presbyterians, and Catholic-students with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The group helped me a great deal and strengthened my Christian faith as we discussed Scripture and prayed together. At times I would attend their church with some of them. In addition, my love and fire for Christianity led me to attend the Taizé services at the Memorial Church and talk to Protestant ministers. I also met a Methodist minister on campus who kindly took time to explain the theological differences in the different Christian denominations.

I was strengthening my Christian faith, though I quickly realized there was no core principle, no one leader in the different Protestant faiths since they disagreed and had fights with one another. At least in Catholicism we have one central authority — the papacy, which has taught, developed, and handed down the faith to this day, from Jesus to Saint Peter onwards. It is and has been “apostolic.”

While I had a wonderful fellowship with the InterVarsity Christian community at Stanford, I knew I wanted to become a Catholic because Professor Girard was my model and shepherd who had brought me to Christianity and Catholicism, especially after my illuminating conversations with him that summer of 1992. I also knew I wanted to become a Catholic when I read Jesus telling Peter, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Matt 16:18). I knew right from the start that I wanted to be in the Church where Peter was the first Pope. I even toyed around for a long time taking my Christian name after him, because I identified with his passionate love and zeal for Jesus and Peter’s betrayal of Him as well. In the end, though, the name John won because of his Gospel which focuses on “the Word” and “love” and his First Letter where he writes “God is love.” This was still all in the intellectual realm for me though. I knew I wanted to become a Catholic, but I also knew I still needed more guidance, mentorship, and help in becoming one. I was now entering and walking the second level of my conversion, the level beyond my “intellectual conversion.”

When I returned to Stanford, one day I asked Professor Girard if I could come to Mass with him. He once again graciously agreed. The next Sunday, he and his wife, Martha, picked me up and we went to St. Anne’s Church in Palo Alto. There I started attending the High Mass with beautiful Gregorian Chants and incense. After Mass, there was a wonderful coffee hour where I would continue to discuss Catholicism and Christianity with Professor Girard and other members of the congregation. Going to Mass with Professor Girard at Saint Anne’s was what sparked my “spiritual” side of my conversion. I discovered and fell in love not only with the tradition, rituals, and culture, but most importantly with what makes Catholics different from other Christian denominations: the Eucharist. The Eucharist, which we Catholics celebrate, receive, and consume during Mass, is the Blood, Body, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.

When Catholics go to Mass, we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. As Christians we find this in the first three Synoptic Gospel Mathew, Mark and Luke:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”(Matt 26:26-29, cf Mk 14:22-25, Lk 22:14-20)

This said, only Catholics (and Orthodox) believe the bread and wine truly becomes “the Body and Blood” of Jesus Christ. This is what we call “transubstantiation.” It is when the priest prays over the bread and wine and calls upon the Holy Spirit to descend and change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It is a living daily miracle that occurs at every Catholic Mass.
I had attended other services of other denominations and they celebrated by passing out crackers and grape juice in small plastic cups. While I can respect them, I could not take it seriously or participate with them. The Catholic Mass is the truthful presentation of the Eucharist as it was established by Jesus two thousand years ago and handed down to this day. Protestant churches have no central authority and apostolic authority rooted in Jesus and Peter.

The more I saw the participation of the congregation at the Mass, the more I desired to become a Catholic so I could receive the Body and Blood of Jesus. I longed to be a member of the Church that gave us the saints. I wanted to join my Catholic brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church. I was ready to become baptized when my parents objected; they didn’t want to see me get baptized as they lived in the Islamic Republic of Iran and didn’t want to lie should anyone question them about their son’s religion. This objection created a spiritual stumbling block in my life. I knew I was a Christian, and I knew I wanted to become a Catholic and get baptized. As a result of their objection, I met with my Methodist pastor friend and asked him if he could baptize me. He agreed and baptized me at his home with two of my friends on June 8th, 1995. It was a relief. I was baptized but was still not a Catholic. That had to wait.

I continued to go to Mass with Professor Girard and his wife and finally entered the Catholic Church on September 9th, 1996. I was baptized and confirmed on the same day at Memorial Chapel by an African priest. I took the name John after St. John the Evangelist and took St. Francis of Assisi as my patron saint. Years later, I learned about the Catholic poet and playwright, Paul Claudel’s quote, “God writes ‘straight,’ using ‘crooked lines.’”

Since being a Catholic, I have served as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, spent time with the Franciscan Fraternity, made a feature documentary film on St. Francis of Assisi, “In Search of Francis of Assisi,” and am currently a permanent member of The Society of St Vincent de Paul.


Dr. John Babak Ebrahimian

John Babak Ebrahimian, Ph.D. has taught literature, the Bible, theater, and the cinema at Stanford and Columbia Universities and Queens College. He is currently making a tribute film to Professor René Girard and writing a book, From Envy and Rivalry to Peace and Freedom on René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. His film In Search of Francis of Assisi can be viewed and is available on Amazon Prime.