We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, March 9, 2012

Born Again: A Different Take

Jesus & Nicodemus
Things aren't necessarily what they seem to be or what most people (or tradition) say they are.  Take, for example, our understanding of the term, "born again."

In his famous discussion with the Pharisee, Nicodemus, which is recorded in John 3:1-21, Jesus insisted repeatedly that in order to have a full life with God Nicodemus had to be "born again."  At least, that is how the King James Version translation of John 3:1-21 puts it in verses 3 and 7.  According to the KJV, in verse 3 Jesus says, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." In verse 6-7, he says, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again."  Interestingly, the American Standard Version (ASV)  and the Revised Standard Version (RSV) both translate "born again" as "born anew."  That change in translation evidently reflects the meaning of the original Greek as well as does "born again".  It is an important transition because both the ASV and the RSV are revisions of the KJV and stand in what we might term "direct lineal descent" from the KJV.

The most recent descendent of the KJV, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) further revises "born anew" into "born from above," which Robert V. McCabe in an article entitled "The Meaning of 'Born of Water and the Spirit' in John 3:5" says is an equally valid translation of the Greek.  So, in the NRSV Jesus says in verse 3, ""Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." In verse 7, he says, "You must be born from above."  The Message (MSG) and Laughing Bird (LB) paraphrase versions of the passage also translate "born again" as "born from above."

The point is that there is an important difference in our understanding of what it means to be "born again" as opposed to "born from above."  If we are "born again," our original birth is superseded and, in a sense, rejected as being inadequate.  In recent centuries, this sense of what it means to be "born again," has led to the idea in many Christian circles that one must undergo a conversion experience, an experience that involves rejection of the past and embracing a "born again" life in Christ.  The meaning of the original Greek allows such an interpretation of the idea of being "born again."  It is not wrong to argue that Jesus was demanding a conversion experience of Nicodemus.

If, however, we translate the original as meaning "born from above," we can understand Jesus' meaning in another way.  Just as our physical bodies are born, so too must our spiritual nature go through a birth process.  The Laughing Bird paraphrase thus has Jesus saying, "“Listen again, for it is important that you get this. There is only one way into the full life of God, and it is through a birth of water and Spirit. A baby that emerges from a womb got its body from the bodies of its parents. But a growing person is not just a body, and the life-force within them emerges from the womb of the Spirit. So don’t be surprised that I said you have to be born from above." (verses 5-7)  We have a physical birth.  We experience a spiritual birth.  The experience of our first birth, thus, is the model for our second birth.  There is no rejection of our previous life involved.  Following Christ is more of a bringing to completion the birthing process.  This feels more like Genesis 1 where God created the physical universe and humanity and found these things, these physical things, "good" (meaning aesthetically pleasing, beautiful).

In Christian circles, we often talk about repentance as being taking a "U-turn" away from the way we were going and toward God's way.  But, maybe we can just as well look on repentance as a process of growth, coming to fruition, or maturing.  We don't do a "U-turn" so much as we follow the path upward.  When we graduate from college, we don't somehow reject or renounce our high school diploma.  In fact, we build on it.  As we seek to be "born from above," we build on the life given us through our first birth.  Obviously, some things are going to change.  But rather than reject our first birth, we embrace it and seek to be crafted into something still more aesthetically pleasing and beautiful through the work of the Spirit on us.

For some, the idea of being "born again" best describes their experience and journey.  For others, the life of faith is more like being "born from above."