What does it mean to be “born again”, to be “born from above”? If you’re an Evangelical or Baptist, you may have already answered that for yourself. However, if you’re a Catholic or a mainline Protestant then the phrase probably isn’t a normal part of your spiritual vocabulary and, indeed, might connote for you a biblical fundamentalism which confuses you.
What does it mean to be “born again”? The expression appears in John’s Gospel in a conversation Jesus has with a man named Nicodemus. Jesus tells him that he “must be born again from above”. Nicodemus takes this literally and protests that it’s impossible for a grown man to re-enter his mother’s womb so as to be born a second time. So Jesus recasts the phrase metaphorically, telling Nicodemus that one’s second birth, unlike the first, is not from the flesh, but “from water and the Spirit”. Well … that doesn’t clarify things much for Nicodemus, or for us.
What does it mean to be born again from above? Perhaps there are as many answers to that as there are people in the world. Spiritual birth, unlike physical birth, doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. I have Evangelical friends who say that for them, this refers to a particularly powerful moment within their lives when – like Mary Magdalene in the garden with Jesus on Easter Sunday – they had a deep personal encounter with Jesus that indelibly affirmed his intimate love for them. In that moment, in their words, they “met Jesus Christ” and “were born again”, even though from their childhood they had always known about Jesus Christ and been Christians.
Most Catholics and mainline Protestants do not identify “knowing Jesus Christ” with one such personal affective experience. But then they’re left wondering what Jesus means exactly when he challenges us “to be born again, from above”.
A priest I know shares the following story. His mother, widowed some time before his ordination, lived in the same parish where he had been assigned to minister. It was a mixed blessing: nice to see her every day in church but she, widowed and alone, began to lean pretty heavily upon him in terms of wanting his time. He, the dutiful son, now had to spend all his free time with his mother, going with her for meals, taking her for drives and being her one vital contact with the world outside the confines of the seniors’ home where she lived. During their time together she reminisced a lot, and not infrequently complained about being alone and lonely. But one day on a drive with her, after a period of silence, she said something that surprised him and caught his deeper attention.
“I’ve given up on fear,” she said, “I’m no longer afraid of anything. I’ve spent my whole life living in fear. But now I’ve given up on it because I’ve nothing to lose. I’ve already lost everything: my husband, my youthful body, my health, my place in the world, and much of my pride and dignity. Now I am free. I’m no longer afraid.”
Her son, who had only been half-listening to her for a long time, now began to listen properly. He began to spend longer hours with her, recognising that she had something important to teach him. After a couple more years, she died. But by then she had been able to impart to her son some things that helped him understand his life more deeply. “My mother gave me birth twice: once from below, and once from above,” he says. He now understands something that Nicodemus couldn’t quite grasp.
We all, no doubt, have our own stories.
And what do the biblical scholars teach about this? The Synoptic Gospels, scholars say, tell us that we can only enter the kingdom of God if we become like little children, meaning that we must, in our very way of living, acknowledge our dependence upon God and others. We are not self-sufficient and that means truly recognising and living out our human dependence upon the gratuitous providence of God. To do that, is to be born from above.
John’s Gospel adds something to this. Raymond E Brown, commenting on John’s Gospel, puts it this way: to be born again from above means we must, at some point in our lives, come to understand that our life comes from beyond this world, from a place and source beyond out mother’s womb, and that deeper life and deeper meaning lie there. And so we must have two births, one that gives us biological life (births us into this world) and another that gives us eschatological life (births us into the world of faith, soul, love and spirit). And sometimes, as was the case with my friend, it can be your own birth mother who does the major midwifing in that second birth.
Nicodemus couldn’t quite get past his instinctual empiricism. In the end, he didn’t get it. Do we?