Most of the time, I think that people who live in Christian cultures – both Christians and non-Christians – would mightily profit from a moratorium on reading, commenting on, and preaching about certain biblical doctrines and ideas. Which doctrines and which ideas? The list is far too long to even list, much less annotate. So instead, I will pick a specific example: being “born again”. I make bold to assert that we would all be better off if, for perhaps a generation or so and per impossibile, Christians stopped talking about being “born again”. We – meaning “all inhabitants of a Christian-dominated culture” – think we know what the New Testament means by the phrase “born again”. We don’t. In fact, we have, at best, only the palest and most emaciated notion of what the term means, the same level of knowledge that a person who knows only the Russian alphabet has of Dostoyevsky: we know almost nothing. And I am tempted to remove the “almost”.
I had suspected as much for a long time, in a kind of tacit, unarticulated way. What forced this conviction to full consciousness were three experiences: (1) my experience of what I will venture to call (something very like) kensho at my late father-in-law’s memorial service in 2008; (2) remarks by Sensei Bruce Nakamura, of the Buddhist temple in Hilo, HI, marking the one-week anniversary of Dad Iwashita’s passing; and (3) my experience at the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas in Galway, Ireland. All three of these experiences were, and continue to be, deeply transformative – in fact, I am still very much involved in “unpacking” them. But none of the three comport with the “born again” paradigm as expounded in popular Church culture. I consider myself – yes, to be sure – “born again” as a result of all three. I have no quarrel whatsoever with the terminology of “born again”. But the popular Christian culture misses the Jewel in the Lotus by warping the nature of the experience, turning it into a recipe, a prescription, a formula, a step-1-step-2-step-3 algorithm instead of a living and dynamic reality. The primal numinosum becomes as prosaic as a formula for calculating logarithms, whereas the Fourth Gospel’s depiction is immeasurably more elusive.
The problem originates, I think, with the biblical text that is the taproot of all “born again” rhetoric: Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in the third chapter of the Fourth Gospel. Instead of reading Church culture out of this text, we reverse the terms of this transaction and read Church culture into it … then we pretend – mostly unconsciously – to “discover” Jesus’ teaching about being “born again” by reading out of the text the meaning we have latently hidden, Easter-egg-hunt like, in it. In a strange kind of way, this is quite understandable: the cultural interpretation of John ch. 3 is 2,000 years old, and it is next to impossible to swim against this exegetical current. Unless an actual incorrigibly individual experience of the numinous, almost at a single stroke, revolutionizes one’s understanding. Part of being born again, I am finding, is discovering how to take biblical texts  less literally, but, for that very reason,  more seriously. Ditto Qur’anic and Buddhist texts. “Old things are passed away; all things are become new”. On the far side of my “kensho” experiences, it became evident to me that being “born again” is immeasurably more subtle than the institutional Church’s often-prescriptive conception gives it credit for being.
For one thing, the relationship between being “born again” and God is much more tenuous than the orthodox account would suggest. You know the conventional conception, at least as I learned it as a teenager and young adult, and as virtually all adult Christians learned it: you cry out to God, repent of your sins, confess your faith in Christ, and you are … born again … in an instant. You are a new child of God, and your spiritual Father is God, Who then “zorches” you into the Kingdom. The reason we interpret John ch. 3 this way is because we surreptitiously import into the text a clandestine but pretty comprehensive trinitarian theology: no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (Jn. 3:5). (Trinitarian theology is one of those Easter eggs we clandestinely hide in the text beforehand, and then interpret out of the text as if it were a new insight.) But in the actual Greek text, the word translated “Spirit” is (a) uncapitalized, (b) unaccompanied by a definite article (“the”), and (c) also the Greek word for “wind”. “Born of water and the Spirit” is gennethe ex hydatos kai pneumatos. So a more accurate translation would read “born from water and wind”. Drop the definite article, render “Spirit” as “wind”, and the connection with God is severed. Finally, remember the context: to “see the Kingdom of God” (idein ten basilean tou Theou). Idein is translated “see”, but it means, more generally, “to grasp cognitively”, “to be aware of”, rather like the German word Begriff, meaning “concept”. We eiselthein – literally “come / enter into” — the Kingdom of God by a wholesale, bottom-up cognitive reorientation. The entering is a seeing: we see differently.
So what is the bottom line? Two parts … (1) in the first few verses of John ch. 3, the subject is not (yet) God, except indirectly, because (2) Jesus is referring, not to some moral reformation (which comes later), but to what we today would call “an altered state of consciousness” in which, as William Blake said in the same context, “the doors of perception [are] cleansed [so that the] world [appears] … as it is, infinite”. (The story of Zacchaeus in Luke chapter 19 is an elegant illustration of this: yes, Zacchaeus undergoes a profound moral transformation — but only after and because he saw Jesus differently. Likewise, the Philippian jailer undergoes a moral transformation after seeing that there had been no jailbreak, in particular, that Paul and Silas had not fled.) In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge began to act differently after he came to see differently.
But how and why does this cleansing of Blake’s “doors of perception” happen? In many ways, this is the most beguiling aspect of the whole issue for me, and that for quite personal reasons. The short answer is to say that this “zorch-ing” of one’s perception of the world is – to recur to Christian terminology – entirely gratuitous, unexpected, impossible to anticipate, and perhaps above all, entirely independent of human control. In other words, it is sheer grace. Again, the institutional conception is a poor thing by comparison. I was raised to believe that God being gracious to me simply means that, whereas God would be altogether justified if He (God was always male) chose to utterly destroy me, He nevertheless declines to do so. A cognate of this conception is still a dominant way of conceiving grace in much Christian, especially Reformed Protestant, theology: grace is God’s merciful refusal to whack me. So God whacks Jesus instead. Hence grace.
This is perhaps the area where my experiences at Dad Iwashita’s memorial service and commemoration, and my encounter in St. Nicholas Church, worked the most profound change. Now I see grace as the tendency of the world, at any moment, for no perceptible reason – and certainly least of all because of anything I do – to reveal itself as timeless, as intimately connected with me, and to see human relationships in that light. Grace, I believe now, is the altogether gratuitous, lightning-sudden revelation of relationship. Grace is simply sui generis: it just whacks you up upside the head. This will sound strange coming from an “Enlightenment-philic” person like me. But while I still believe passionately in the Enlightenment’s emphasis on empiricism, rationality and respect for evidence, I now believe, equally and in parallel, not that grace is irrational and least of all anti-rational, but that it is “trans-rational” or “para-rational”. “The wind blows where it will, and you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going”. Yes, from a pristinely rational standpoint, we are indeed isolated Leibnizian monads, individual Cartesian cogitos forming an archipelago of sentience. But occasionally, for entirely unaccountable reasons, we are revealed as more. We are connected. These flashes of insight – what Wordsworth, in the great Prelude, called “spots of time”; what C. S. Lewis called “joy” – are entirely unpredictable, and utterly beyond human control. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going (Jn. 3:8).
To enter he basileia tou Theou – the Kingdom of God – is to have one’s cognitive faculties reoriented so that one is receptive to those flashes of insight. Yet that very reorienting is itself not something one controls. That capacity to reorient seems to be programmed – “hard-coded” as it were – into fundamental reality. We are in essentially the same position as the Japanese farmer in the great “Ox-Herding” series of paintings: frantically searching for the Ox, only to discover that the finding of the Ox was the Ox finding us, knowing the way Home, and carrying us Home on its back, once we learn to sit calmly and pay attention. “The eye with which I see God is the Eye with which God sees me.” — Meister Eckhart (But in the mystical Economy of the Kingdom, we would never have had that insight unless we had engaged in the prior frantic search. Nothing is wasted.) So why is everyone not subject to such bursts of insight, such bo-tree moments? My theory: everyone is. “Always already”. Such moments are occurring all the time. But we must be receptive to them. We must learn the humble skill of paying attention. (“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless.” – T. S. Eliot) We cannot control grace. Least of all can we command experiences like that of Thomas Merton on a street corner of Louisville, KY, in 1958.
To be “born again” is to learn to pay attention.
James R. Cowles
Sunrise … Dick Mudde … Public domain
Jesus and Nicodemus … Henry Ossawa Tanner … Public domain
Buddha … Jem Flynn … Public domain
Tetragrammaton … Author unknown … Public domain