In this week’s daily emails, I have been sharing about how there is more than one way to understand basic ideas of the Christian faith. The dominant American Protestant narrative is in large part a conservative Evangelical one, and many who end up rejecting that narrative feel they have no choice but to reject Christianity as a whole. Yet, Christian tradition and scripture offer many different ways for a person to remain Christian without holding on to a narrow and exclusive perspective.
This week I’m sharing my reflections on Marcus Borg’s book Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—and How They Can be Restored. I’m not a fan of all of Borg’s writings, but I do feel this book is a great resource for people who are looking to expand their understandings of some of the central terms of Christianity. On Tuesday, I shared about Borg’s views on “salvation,” Wednesday “the death of Jesus.,” and Thursday “faith.” If you missed those emails, you con find them on the church web site at the new “Church Blog” set up by Kathy Hendrix and Sara Riggs. Today I’ll be sharing about Borg’s views on being “born again.”
I grew up Southern Baptist and proudly understood myself to be “born again.” By this, I understood myself to have made a “profession of faith” in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This understanding was in opposition to Catholics and some Protestants (I had no idea what the Orthodox church was) who taught one was a Christian when they were baptized as infants or young children. The profession of faith was made when one reached “the age of accountability” or when one was old enough to make their own decision about what they believed. I don’t recall ever learning about the idea of confirmation in Catholic and Protestant churches which is largely the same principle. When I did learn of it, confirmation was dismissed as not a true “profession of faith” but just something people raised Catholic were expected to do. It was an empty ritual, just another box on the checklist of sacraments needed to get to heaven.
In time, I began to see that most of the criticisms levelled at denominations who practiced infant and/or child baptism along with confirmation could likewise be levelled at traditions like mine which emphasized professions of faith (often described as “getting saved” or being “born again”). Southern Baptists (and Disciples of Christ!) have “baby dedications” in which a new child is presented to the church, thanksgiving to God for this new life is made by parents, family and congregation, and then commitments are made by parents and congregation to raise that child in the faith until they are old enough to make their own decision. This is essentially the same thing that happens in an “infant baptism” just under a different name. Of course, Catholics have a different meaning for “sacrament” than most Protestants, but in terms of function and purpose it too is largely the same.
A problem with the “age of accountability” is nobody can agree when that actually occurs, since some children develop faster than others. Being the son of a Southern Baptist minister, I recall praying with my father to “accept Christ” and be “born again” at the age of 4. Later on I had to admit I didn’t fully understand the decision I was making and so on multiple occasions I “rededicated my life to Christ,” which I guess means I was “born again” again and again. Working in Baptist churches, routinely nervous parents would bring young children to me and other church staff anxious that their child was old enough to “accept Christ” but had not yet done so. Would little Jonny or Sara go to hell if they died? I was grateful when I worked in Methodist and Disciples churches which had something like a “pastor’s class” or “confirmation” in middle school, so at least parents could rest easy before their children reached that age. Similarly, I always enjoyed teaching confirmation classes as a United Church of Christ minister which usually happened in the 8th grade.
All of these events I was a participant in or an officiant of tended to focus on beliefs. Certainly feelings were involved, as an Evangelical/Southern Baptist I was relieved to be going to heaven. Of course every time I committed a sin, I worried that I still wouldn’t get in the pearly gates. When I heard sermons about being “born again,” described in terms of being a “new creation” in Christ I knew I continued to do the same “sinful things” as I did before. There was nothing “new” about me. I took my religion far more seriously than my peers, who considered themselves “born again” because they prayed a prayer at church or youth camp. For them, it was a one-time thing that ensured they were going to heaven that they seemed to give little thought to as they went about their lives.
Sadly, I feel sure many of the kids I’ve taught in confirmation classes or pastor’s classes viewed it much the same way as my peers. Although, the classes I’ve taught in more moderate to progressive Christian churches didn’t seem to produce any kids worried about going to hell, as I did growing up, I wonder how many real life transformations occurred at the moment those kids made their confessions of faith on confirmation Sundays.
I find it helpful to read Marcus Borg’s description of being “born again.” He notes that the words “born again” have become largely a negative term to people who are not members of the Religious Right. It’s associated with a particular kind of Christianity rightly understood as intolerant, unwavering on particular political issues like abortion and homosexuality, committed to a literalistic reading of the Bible, and a militaristic understanding of the end of the world. That’s too bad, because it is a beautiful and important Biblical image.
It comes from John chapter 3 where Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus’ words about being “born of the Spirit” as literally being physically born a second time. The Greek words originally translated as “born again” in many English translations really should be translated “born from above,” meaning born of the Spirit (which Jesus says three times in the chapter). Borg notes what John calls being “born from above” is in many ways the same idea as what Paul talks about being “in Christ” or “dying and rising with Christ.” None of these concepts refer to a one-time confession of belief in order to get a person into heaven. Instead they are talking about a transformation of the self by God from a life lived for a person’s own benefit to a life lived for the benefit of others and all God’s creation. In sum, this transformation is a movement from an unhealthy obsession with self to a healthy love for one’s self, others, Creation and most of all, God.
The New Testament writers understood this transformation happening now in this world but only completed when this world is totally transformed by God. They understood that this transformation of being “born of the Spirit” or a “new creation” was not a finished product. The people Paul called the “body of Christ” he also criticized for some pretty lousy behavior. This transformation is not a one-time thing but a process that continues all our lives.
As I described, in my teen years, I “rededicated my life to Christ” again and again. I took my religion way too seriously. I thought I had to be perfect and I knew I wasn’t. I thought I had to believe completely without doubts, but I had plenty. So, I walked the aisle at youth rallies at Worlds of Fun’s amphitheater, at revival services, at youth camp, etc. because I thought being “born again” was a one-time deal that I had to get right or I might spend eternity in hell.
Along the way, various ministers tried to assure me of God’s grace, but the language of the Evangelical world we were in was absolute. It wasn’t until my college years I met a minister who explained Baptists needed more options on how to respond to God. In a typical service if one felt God move in one’s heart, there were only three responses one could make:
If I knew it wasn’t option one or three, I was left with only option two. My minister friend said we needed a fourth option: “I want to be the best follower of Jesus I can be from this moment forward.” That’s not a one-time decision to be “born again” but an openness to the new life God offers in new ways every day.
Borg notes that being “born from above,” “born again,” or “born in the Spirit” all points to participating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We become passionate about what Jesus is passionate about, namely being transformed by God in order to help the world be transformed by God. This transformation from one identity to another happens every day, every moment we open ourselves up to God’s radical love for us, others and all of Creation. It’s not a “Get Out of Hell Free” card but becoming a whole different person. That new life happens at any moment and all moments throughout our lives.
Grace and Peace,
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