Monday, 17 March 2014

The Experience of Being Born Again. And Again. And Again ...

As promised in the last post - something about the sermon from the evening service. I may well write about something in the morning service too and cobble together some thoughts about the uses of a word.  This post is written pretty much as the chain of my thoughts.  It's not ever going to be some polished theological gem.  Some of what follows is easy reading.  I fear some of it starts heading into the "technical" and "difficult concepts" categories.  Sorry about that.

Following the Anglican lectionary the subject of the sermon was "born again".  A phrase that strikes terror into many people - as our preacher freely admitted, giving some of the stereotypes of the born again Christian, stereotypes which unfortunately are very often completely accurate.

She talked of a mysticism oriented Catholic priest (Bede Griffiths OSB, also known as Swami Dayananda - a Benedictine Yogi) and his idea of us all being one (he'd picked it up from the Hindus who often have the right idea, in my opinion, about monism) and a view of being born again very different to that usually preached in evangelical churches.  Most evangelical churches say that God is in those who are born again.  They're of God.  But those who aren't born again aren't of God - they're lost.  In contrast, Griffiths wrote that by being born again he came to see that God is in everyone.  Most evangelicals create a duality in the human race - and back it up with Bible verses.  Griffiths sees a more important unity.  He saw a unity in duality.  A unity in diversity.  A multiplicity in the unity.  But unity came first - just as so often in the Hindu Vedic writings, supremely in the writings of Adi Shankara and Advaita philosophy.

Griffiths said "“If Christianity cannot recover its mystical tradition and teach it, it should simply fold up and go out of business” (quoted by Matthew Fox - a name that's important in my own path in the last few years) and he was called before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to defend himself before the then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).

But the sermon returned more - in the language used, if not the underlying thoughts - closer to the usual evangelical preaching of 'get born again and Jesus or the Spirit will enter in and change your life - are you ready to be born again and to have that "experience" - what's holding you back?  Get born again.  Are you ready to be born again?'  I guess our preacher is closer to Bede Griffiths in her views of "born again" than to those of most evangelicals and wouldn't condemn the non-Christian to hell or to being "them" but as yet I haven't translated the phrase into something meaningful to me - something which can incorporate my past experiences, my present circumstances, and the possibilities of the future.

I don't mean to stamp on our preacher's experiences.   I didn't know her before but the person she's become is pretty marvellous.  Overall - ignoring the embarrassing things from her past, some of which she talked of last night - her God and her belief in the story have produced a woman who anyone would be proud to know and happy to trust. 

I am sure that her "born again" experience changed her life.   I'm sure the corresponding feelings were amazing.  And if something like the traditional "I prayed and God moved" story is leading her to the greatest fullness of love, of life and of peace then that is great.  I have no problem with that.  Reality is big enough to include that story and many other stories, and such an experience can feel overwhelmingly powerful.  It can seem undeniable.  And it can set people on an entirely different road, transforming the foci of lives.  There are even cases of addicts finding freedom from addiction in these experiences, of people finding wholeness instead of mental or physical sickness. 

Is that God?  Or is that the human spirit letting go of worries of psycho-somatic problems?  Is it the "great physician" or the "great placebo effect"?  Whatever the case, to be "born again" in this way is a major event in a life.  It was certainly a major event in my life, and utterly convincing at the time - though it's easy to convince someone of something if they already believe it!

I have a personal problem with the phrase "born again" because of everything I've ever heard about it.  Indeed, the phrase was projected on the screen before the service and I nearly walked out before the service had even started.  I believe that most of what passes for "born again" or "born from above" is a sham.  I believe there are moments of deep revelation that can change a person and their outlook.  But you're not "born again" by praying a prayer of "I'm a sinner, come and forgive me because without you I'm doomed" and most "born again experiences" - including my own in 1990 - I firmly believe are a gift of our human psychological makeup rather than a gift of an all powerful supernatural being. 

I experienced something wonderful in 1990 but I now believe it came from within not without - a joy of feeling I belonged, a joy of feeling I was forgiven and that though (I thought) I was awful I wouldn't be condemned to my deserved fate.  My joy and excitement came from within, bolstered by corresponding hormones, the endorphin release.  It didn't come from an infinite God reaching in and turning me into an entirely new creation.  Yes, it was a "transformative experience" as our preacher put it and I firmly believed at the time that God, the supreme other, was the transformative agent.

My question is:  Am I born again?

I used to answer with a definitive "YES!"  I was born again in February 1990 in someone's bedroom at university.  I became a Christian then and embarked in what I saw as new life.  I've written in other posts some of the reasons I see behind my embracing of the faith.

That was a transformative experience and so it doesn't matter whether God did the work or if my own brain and body chemistry did the work.  I can truly call it in some way "born again".

But it's not the only born again experience.

I was born again last year when I embraced myself - recognising myself in the mirror at a deep level and releasing myself to be me.  If that's not a rebirth, then what is?

I was born again, gradually, when I embraced the truth that we're all "beautifully and wonderfully made" as the psalmist puts it - rather than born in sin and continuing as sinners as the Western evangelical mind puts it.

I was born again when I admitted to myself that my walk of faith has not been fully authentic for years and that it might be alright to walk a different way.

I was born again when I admitted to myself and to others that my faith is very, very different to that expressed in the traditional creeds or in the statements of faith of any of the churches I've been involved with, all of which had been evangelical and exclusive in their own ways.

I am born again whenever I recognise new possibilities for new life.

I was born again through the cognitive behavioural techniques I was taught a few years ago, the hope they gave that depression was not my end, and the tools they gave me to start winning major mental health battles.

I was born again when I sat at White Lodge as a teenager - a born again experience I rejected for over twenty years but now embrace once again.

I was born again in the process of joining the Catholic Church in 2005.  I was born again in the process of leaving the Catholic Church in 2011.

I was born again when I got married and born again when our daughter was born.  Being born again transforms life - but doesn't always make it easy or turn it into a utopian bliss factory.  Being born again is about real life not an illusion of problem free happiness.  And marriage and parenthood are real life, many of the problems in which I have repeatedly caused myself.

I'm sure I have been born again at many other times and will be born again again many more times as the spirit transforms my life - from within or without - and as the people I meet strike new chords of harmony or melody or disharmony in my heart and mind.

I am born again.  With or without "God", I am born again.  And again.  And again.

Question:  Are you born again?  And are you born again through a long birthing process or through powerful events in your life that change you for ever?


  1. If you are having doubts about being a Christian you are not born of The Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the promised Comforter if He dwells in your heart and He will only do that if you are a Christian. You are turning to the wrong places for guidance. You need to turn to Jesus, you need to turn to God for your answers. You also need to be patient for God moves in His time, not yours. Let go and let God. Meditate on His Word. If you are indeed a Christian you will already know these things. May you find that peace of mind which you seek. In Jesus' name.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. I would prefer that somebody wrote " I believe that you need to turn to Jesus."
    I am not sure that a direct instruction leads to a truth - just reflects the truth as the instructor sees it.
    Sorry Shirley to disagree - but I am happy that you are interested in Clare's road to a wise understanding of the universe.

    1. Well Grandma P, not only do I believe that Jesus is the only answer but I know it to be true. It isn't anything about understanding the universe as if that was the way to wisdom, it isn't. The love of God is the beginning of all wisdom. There is salvation and there is the wisdom of the world. Salvation is only through Jesus Christ, all the wisdom of the world will never be known but Jesus can be known. I tell it as it is, as it is written in the Word of God. Take it or leave it. This girl doesn't need the wisdom of men, she doesn't need religion and she doesn't need to keep on searching for the truth for it is already in her heart if she is with God.

      Shirley Anne x

    2. Bless you Shirley Anne.

      I understand a belief that one knows it to be true that Jesus is the only way. I had that belief. It's a belief that can inspire someone to great things. I don't have it now and speak a different story when I speak of Jesus, of the early church, of the writing of the Biblical texts. So much has happened and I had to drop that prejudicial presupposition that the Bible was literally true, that it all happened just as written. Much of Christianity begins by saying "The Bible is this ..." rather than asking the question "What is the Bible?" and being open to a range of rational answers. There are many possible answers - but it's good to remember that first century Jews didn't write history as we do today. They wrote to convey a meaning or religious message rather than to convey events that happened as they wrote, the Gospels perhaps even being in the midrashic Jewish literary form. Anyway, that's a digression.

      You say you do not need religion - yet your Bible calls you in 1 Timothy 5 to put your religion into practice and elsewhere James gives his own definition of religion.

      So how can you obey the set of books you call the "Word of God" (a common phrase in the Bible - but never used to describe itself) if you don't need religion?

      And if you look in a dictionary can you really claim to not need religion?

      Religion is "Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe." It is "A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship." It is "A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader." It is "A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion."

      Do you not, as a follower of Jesus and as someone who believes in exclusive salvation through Jesus, need these things that religion is?

      I ask these questions because I've been considering writing something about uses of the word 'religion' and the positive and negative images, the baggage, that the word raises up in us.

    3. I also question your claim that you don't need to keep searching for truth. If God is infinite and if God is truth (which orthodox Christianity affirms) then truth is infinite then the search is infinite, the journey will be eternal and there will never come a point in which you can claim that you have the truth so don't need to search further and deeper.

      I urge you to keep searching - and even within an exclusive, literal Christological story of soteriology that's a search to fill the rest of your life. I don't follow that story but know that within it there are depths of which most Christians cannot even dream, especially when the mystical heart begins to properly balance the conceptual, doctrinal head.

      Keep searching because an infinite God will be infinite in mystery, infinite in revelation. To stop searching is to deny the immensity of the God you claim to follow. It is to keep God in a narrow box in which God cannot fit. It is an arrogance that claims a monopoly on truth. It makes God cheap, small. To stop searching is stagnation. It is death.

      To keep searching, repeatedly entering, questioning, sitting silently alone with the alone. It is a walk of challenge. It is a walk of throwing away images that don't fit the bigger picture. It is supremely an encounter with the god of surprises. It is life. It is humility, an acceptance that the 'truth' we know is never the fulness of 'truth'.

      So I urge you, within the faith you follow, as your God searches your heart you must search God's heart. And search with a willingness to be wrong, a willingness to doubt your definitions, and always a willingness to be surprised and amazed, astounded at the incredible variety of the infinite. Always be excited to see a God who is bigger than you dared to imagine. And never, ever limit that God or the creativity of that which is the source of love, source of light and ground of being.

      Bless you again Shirley Anne.

      May you keep seeking truth with openness to ideas that comfort or challenge. May you experience faith in the light given by more facets of the prism of truth.

      May God's face shine upon you, revealing more and more of the infinite beyond, and grant you the peace of the widest ocean and the deepest life giving sea.

    4. A good post, Clare. I especially like the concept of being 'born again' many times during our lives and those of us who transition gender-wise know exactly how it feels. But I wonder what John meant by the phrase? Not the same as many evangelical Christians mean, I suspect. One chapter earlier, John tells the story of Jesus turning water into wine – taking the contents of those stone water jars that symbolized the ceremonial heritage of Judaism and turning it into the new wine of the Kingdom.

      Now, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night; that is, out of the darkness of Jewish tradition and law-keeping, looking for answers. Jesus, in effect, says “From where you're coming you'll never get it. You need to put to one side all you've learned from your elders and let God speak directly to you.” Perhaps today we might be tempted to use that ghastly phrase “You need to think outside the box, Nicodemus!”

      So to me, being 'born again' means putting aside my preconceptions and opening myself to the Spirit of God. Paul says much the same thing in 1 Corinthians 2.14: “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” In the synoptic gospels Jesus is recorded as saying “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it,” which amounts to the same thing – putting aside the preconceptions with which you've grown up.

      Sadly, my experience of many Christian churches is that folk rarely do much thinking for themselves, but simply accept the traditions and theology of their elders and song writers. To compound the problem, any attempt to question core beliefs is strongly resisted. So, for instance, Steve Chalke found himself excluded from the Evangelical Alliance for challenging the traditional theology of Christ's crucifixion and atonement, and the respected author Robin Parry wrote The Evangelical Universalist under a pseudonym, fearing that Christians would stop reading his other books if they thought he was a heretic.

      I venture to suggest that it is those with closed minds, who doubtless place great emphasis on being 'born again', who themselves need to be born again!


Comments are welcome. But not spam and not obscenity. It's not all politeness though - religion and politics aren't banned.