The Religious Middle
"On Being 'Born Again': Clarification of a Controversial Phenomenon."
by Tom Meredith
During a study break a few weeks ago, I happened to stumble over the dozen or so video clips on this website. While a number of them were interesting, it was the piece entitled "6 Reasons Why People Become Born Again" which particularly caught my eye. Watching it, I decided that it was high time for me to compose another short article for "Dangerous Talk" and its supporters. As I viewed Staks' scathingly cynical diatribe, I was struck by the admixture of truth, half-truth, and downright falsehood contained in that seven and a half minute clip. The following, therefore, is a Christian attempt to make sense of the spiritual phenomenon known (often pejoratively) as "being born again."
I would like to start off by reiterating that a fair portion of what Staks suggested in his polemic is valid. By this I mean that, for some, intense exposure to religion as a child, collegiate profligacy, traumatizing experiences, and aesthetic vulnerability certainly do compel various persons to "run to Jesus" to be "born again." Undoubtedly, a number of these "conversions" are fleeting emotional experiences, which lack substance—but a significant number are not. As a critical thinker himself, Staks surely knows that a whole slew of counterfeits cannot serve to invalidate instances of "the real thing," and I would maintain that this principle is especially pertinent in the case of spiritual conversion.
There's no way around it: being "born again" is a mysterious phenomenon which, strictly-speaking, cannot be empirically proven. As such, it leaves considerable room for doubt. As a matter of fact, I believe myself to be born again, yet I question the bare existence of God nearly every day, and wonder how God could possibly have "made his home" inside of my heart (see John 14:23), given my unceasingly self-centered and prideful proclivities, not to mention my evolutionary origins. Yes, rebirth may be an enigma, but—our post-Enlightenment insistence upon "scientific proof" notwithstanding—does the mysterious cease to be true simply because it is difficult to quantify?
Contrary to Staks' bold assertion, spiritual rebirth has a lot to do with "God and the Bible." When a person (for whatever reason or reasons) sincerely entrusts his or her life to God, God sets in motion the spiritual processes, which operate to bring about an internal and enduring transformation of the whole person which is the earmark of any genuine religious conversion. In the words of the biblical prophet Ezekiel, God puts "a new heart and a new spirit" within the repentant believer, "removing from his or her body the heart of stone and giving that person a heart of flesh" (see Ezekiel 36 and 37). Christianity is not a self-help religion: it is about God making people new from the inside out. To be sure, the Christian scriptures teach that human persons must be willing to cooperate with God in the working out of their redemption (i.e. by obediently renouncing those ways of life which are contrary to truth, holiness, and mercy—see Philippians 2:12-13), but the changes wrought in the life of the person yielded to God are—from first to last—the powerful effects of God's Spirit.
As I mentioned earlier, I am wholeheartedly convinced that many so-called "conversions" appear upon closer inspection to be nothing more than intense emotional experiences that are devoid of lasting spiritual virtue and/or a reasonable foundation. I have little doubt that many of you have had frequent experience with professing "born-agains" of this stripe. In response I can only suggest that these persons are living under the illusion that their spirituality is authentic. As Jesus himself puts it, "The tree is known by its fruit" (Matthew 12:33) and, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of God" (Matthew 7:21). In other words, it is only those persons whose lives are consistently characterized by the divinely-produced spiritual fruits—patient love, self-sacrificial service of others, unfeigned humility, devotion to God, and zeal for truth (just to name a few)—who may rightly make a claim to be "born again."
Nearly a century ago the eminent American pragmatist philosopher William James pointed out that spiritual realities are reasonably demonstrated by the visible effects, which they produce. Though hardly qualifying as "scientific proof" as understood by those working in the "hard" sciences, I believe that James was onto something in his insistence that there is a spiritual realm, which can be verified by the careful scientific observer. It is only the zeitgeist of our skeptical age which strives to differentiate between—and set in opposition to one another—the "scientific" and the "spiritual," treating the former as the realm of fact and the latter as the arena of wistful fantasies which are euphemistically termed "matters of faith." This (false) dichotomy should not be allowed to go unchallenged, and it is my contention that, when challenged, it will not stand the test of critical, fair-minded scrutiny. Staks often encourages his listeners to "Be dangerous!" and I would like to close with the same word of exhortation. Let us be dangerous enough to keep an open mind and to think for ourselves about Jesus' spiritual summons to be "born again" (see John 3:1-21). Perhaps we will even find that we agree with him.