Born Again

In Sunday School recently we discussed the story of Nicodemus, whose encounter with Jesus is depicted in John 3. In this famous encounter, Jesus tells Nicodemus that being “born again” (or “born from above,” as most interpreters probably correctly argue) is a prerequisite for “see[ing] the kingdom of God.”[1] A member of my ward argued against a view he sees as prevalent in which being “born again” is seen in typically evangelicalistic terms as a one-time event at which time a person is first and finally saved. This class member worried that a) not every LDS has such a powerful spiritual experience, and b) even those who have such a powerful spiritual experience will often waver in their sense of having been born again.

I agreed with this gentleman, a view that has been strengthened by my study of early Mormon adoption theology. I believe that we can see in our birth as Christians something that is both spiritually powerful and flexible enough to deal with the inevitable waxing and waning of spiritual ardor we will experience as the children of God.[2]

I hear in John (whether textual scholars agree with me seems peripheral to the point I want to make) the announcement to a thoughtful, well-educated man accustomed to thinking of himself as an Israelite (and thereby a citizen of Yahweh’s kingdom by birth) that the kingdom to which he should belong is both greater than any earthly political consideration and available to those who are willing to become God’s children by a new or spiritual birth. Such individuals become God’s chosen people by a miracle as powerful and inscrutable as the wind, an image early Jews associated with the divine breath of life. Juxtaposed with the elemental imagery of cosmic breath is the image of parenthood and childbirth, and those images draw me more powerfully.

I confess that, while I am a parent, I am not much of a parent. I have no great experience nor set of wonderful parenting skills[3], but it occurs to me that birth is a mechanism by which a lineage is established, a way to create or confirm a particular kind of relationship. In my limited experience, parenthood is anything but monotonic. There is delirious sleeplessness in the endless hours before dawn and the sublime sanctity of a child slumbering peacefully with its head nestled on your upper arm. There is the tearfully exquisite encounter in which a child tells the parent that she loves him “forever” and the misery of the same child shrieking that the parent is “bad.” Through the sometimes staggering vicissitudes of mortal life, a parent remains a parent, and the parent is the touchstone in a child’s life.[4]

When I hear John tell us, through the meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus, that I will be born again, I hear him promise that I will be God’s son. That I will love him and sometimes hate him, that I will be drawn to him often but will at times struggle to understand who he is or who I am, that there will be times that I am his troubled teen or his prodigal come home after years for a feast of his finest lamb. There will also be times when we will beam with pride and satisfaction at each other, that there will be no greater truth than the reality of a parent and a child. But what will not change is that I am his child, and he is my father. That much I will always have, as a child “born again from above.”

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I apologize for my brash disrespect for American culture but have been so busy at work I couldn’t write my monthly Fast Sunday post until I got home from work today. I heartily congratulate the exemplary athletes who dutifully and cheerfully showcase the finest in American mass marketing year in and year out.
[1] See, e.g., the NET Bible for John 3 for relevant points presented succinctly.
[2] I’m using this in the general sense of adoption and am not trying to answer the inevitable and unanswerable debates about the meaning(s) of Divine Unity or Trinity.
[3] If I believed in reality television, I would believe that I probably represent the kind of parent to whom Nanny 911 is routinely dispatched.
[4] I feel great sympathy for people whose experiences with parental or filial relationships are miserable rather than joyful. I myself have spent decades wishing my father had not been profoundly mentally ill. Nevertheless, in my own experiences with parenthood I believe I have seen glimpses of a glorious ideal toward which we all, regardless of our nominal family circumstances, can joyfully strive.

Comments

  1. nat kelly says:

    This is wonderful, Sam. A great way to view faith.

  2. Thank you for this thought-provoking meditation.

    It strikes me that life is saturated with birth, death, and re-birth. Sometimes it will be through a powerful spiritual experience, other times through more subtle yet powerful assurances of familial belonging to the family of God as a son or daughter of God. But more generally, the experience of time itself is movement in, through, out of, and back into death, birth, and re-birth. With each decision I make I am eliminating certain paths and giving birth to other paths. With particularly crucial decisions and experiences, a part of me might die, sometimes quite painfully, while with other experiences and decisions I am given new life and re-born and restored. Throughout my life multiple selves are born and die; I am not the same person I was 10 years or even 5 years ago, both biologically and spiritually, though a thread of DNA and character might remain constant. It’s absolutely significant that the scriptures/gospel contains these important motifs of a lived life.

  3. I always viewed Nicodemus’ response as sarcastic but in recent years I see the sincerity of his question given how novel the concept is that Jesus was teaching.

    I linked to Karl D.’s notes on Lesson 5 over on Natalie’s thread but they are relevant here too. Karl points out helpfully in Section 3.3.3 of the notes a point that really resonates with me:

    Cultural anthropologists note that Jesus lived in a honor/shame society and that birth status was, to a large extent, the single factor that determined a person’s honor rating. The honor status of a child was always the same as the family in which he or she was born. Thus being born again or born from above has the potential to dramatically alter the honor status of a person. Is this cultural backdrop important? Does it help us understand why this discussion is so difficult for Nicodemus? How would Nicodemus’ world change if he accepted the message of Jesus? (http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2011/01/24/new-testament-lesson-5-kd-john-3-4/)

    Assuming that Nicodemus was of high birth in Jerusalem society (which is supported by the text), perhaps he was simply shocked at the idea of being “born again” — would he lose everything his high birth has given him, including his identity? Would he belong to his birth family, would he have their name and status?

  4. Jacob B, I absolutely agree. Images of memory, decay, and transformation through time are central to the experience of mortality. john f I think John is portraying Nicodemus as really struggling with the meaning of birth and identity.

  5. The parental and filial tropes of belonging are beautifully expressed. These do seem to represent the default setting of Mormon-style belonging. Yet, when I read this in relation to “firestorm” I can’t help feeling that we need greater expansion of belonging beyond these terms. Could we imagine a place or a way in which a recluse/shut-in “belongs,” for example? In other words, could we get back at least a small amount of our lost “theocentric” world? That shift could help Mormons to entertain the belonging of singles-by-choice; gays and lesbians; and women who would prefer a presiding role, and men who would prefer not. Shilling for Dialogue: Y’all definitely need to read Sam’s brilliant piece–along with equally brilliant companion pieces–in the upcoming Spring issue.

  6. You guys might be interested in D.A. Carson’s commentary on the passage, establishing a link between Ezekiel 36-37 with John 3.

  7. “between Ezekiel 36-37 and John 3″, that is

  8. Lovely piece Sam. It resonates. “Born again” has become a cliche, and this perceptive look opens it up to important and radical meanings.

  9. I appreciate your insights. “Such individuals become God’s chosen people by a miracle as powerful and inscrutable as the wind” was particularly beautiful to me. It is evident that the new birth spoken of is a voluntary one and is one required of anyone wishing to belong to Gods Kingdom. But the miracle of how that happens is a wonderful mystery to me, yet I have felt the power of it- much like the wind.

    We have a young lady in our ward who was just baptized after she turned 18 and in so doing was disowned from her family. She is still in high school and is having to look for places to stay. Reading this article and particularly the comment by John f. brought to light that this young womens valiant testimony is a powerful example of one who is born again- willing to put off earthly parents to belong to the kingdom of God. Thankfully, most of us will never be required to do that, but I think that being born again is an personal pledge of allegiance to God above all else.

  10. Really wonderful insights Sam. I love your disclaimers too.

  11. While too busy straining at gnats to pay due attention: I’m more than grateful for this gracious and amazing forum, for its uncanny capacity to keep messages on point. So, with a morning’s reflection to clear my throat (and get the point)–The conceptualization of a lifestyle of rebirth was probably too radical ( as Jonathan observed) for me to apprehend instantly. Now I should very much like to hear more development on this subject, which–once I get past it’s radicalness–strikes me as more tenable, do-able, and practical consideration, as opposed to the “once-in-a-lifetime” conceptualization. Thanks, too, for responses by Aaron, Klove and Jacob.

  12. Thanks for the kind words, all.

    Brent, I ponder this a lot lately and find that this non-pietistic approach to the birth from above takes just as much energy as the more neo-Victorian, sort of pietistic approach, but it’s channeled in rather different ways. I have a lot to continue to try to understand and continue to feel quite blessed by the Restoration in which I am finding my way as a child of God.

  13. In our class Sunday, we also discussed the “radical” nature of this new teaching. Our instructor speculated that this may have been the first time that anyone had heard the phrase “born again” or “born from above”. I had long considered Nicodemus’ question not as much as sarcastic, but rhetorical, and in this context it makes more sense.

    The type of parent and family that we experience here has always resonated with me in regards to how I should view my Heavenly Father, so thanks for adding some more substance to that thought.

    In a slight side note, I know that much has been made in our LDS culture of Nicodemus being a coward, and a furtive, nighttime visit to the Savior. Evidence in the book of John would seem to indicate differently. In the next chapter of John (4:1-2, JST), we find that the Pharisees are already looking for a way to take Jesus life, so discretion is not surprising. In John 7:50 Nicodemus takes issue with how his peers are planning on taking Jesus, and at the end, Nicodemus is with Joseph of Arimathaea in preparing Christ’s body for burial (John 19). Nicodemus would appear to be somewhere in that process of being born again.

  14. Nice one Kev– er Sam.

  15. Hate to say it but this episode can only be fully understood from a Gnostic point of view. Jesus explains that a person on born of the spirit is blind to spiritual things, a key tenet of Gnosticism. The demiurge, the God of this world, was blind to spiritual things. Being born of the spirit gives you the power to understand things of the spirit. Jesus uses the symbolism of the wind.

    In Greek, spirit and wind (air) are the same. It is a pun that Nicodemus can not comprehend the wind (spirit).

    Being born of the spirit is the entrance into the higher realms of comprehension. It is a perversion of Paul’s teachings that all you have to do is accept Jesus as your Savior and you will be born again. The true proof of that birth is the understanding of the deeper things of the Spirit and the understanding of God, who is, in Gnostic terms, the Prime Spirit.

    This passage in John would, in my estimation, more or less be the same as Joseph’s pronouncement

    “If any man does not know God, and inquires what kind of a being He is,—if he will search diligently his own heart—if the declaration of Jesus and the apostles be true, he will realize that he has not eternal life; for there can be eternal life on no other principle.

    “My first object is to find out the character of the only wise and true God, and what kind of a being He is. …

  16. Sorry,
    NOT born of the spirit

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