Due to a hectic schedule I haven’t had much of a chance to put together a post this week. As a result, I’d like to briefly comment on something that has been kicking around in my head for a bit.
Chapter three of the John’s Gospel contains the familiar story of Nicodemus’ clandestine visit to Jesus in the night, where Jesus teaches Nicodemus that he must be “born again”, and that he [Jesus] was sent out of God’s love for the world. It’s a story that gets frequent airtime in Sunday school classes the world over, and the wordplay between “spirit” and “wind” (they are the same word in Greek: ἁμαρτία) is frequently commented upon; however, I’d like to focus a bit on different wordplay in the chapter, specifically verses 3-7:
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above’…”
The King James Version of the Bible translates “born from above” as “born again”, and that is the wordplay I want to briefly mention. The Greek word used here by the author of the Gospel of John, is ανωθεν, which can mean either “again/anew” or “from above”. The King James Version translators rendered it “again”, and that seems to be the way in which Nicodemus is depicted as understanding it; however, Jesus is speaking of being born of the Spirit, or being born from heaven. We, as adults, have already been born (of the flesh), but Jesus is depicted here as stating that we must also become new creatures born of the Spirit; so we must be born again, and also be born from above.
I’ve recently thought about what this might mean in the context of Jesus’ command for us to become like little children in order to behold God’s kingdom. We typically think of this in terms of being innocent, or, in the case of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, of being obedient and submissive to authority, which he equates with yielding to the Spirit. However, I’ve recently been thinking about it in terms of a sort of naivety, where we slough off our biases and grown-up ideas in favor of embracing the workings of the Spirit, which rarely operates according to our plans.
Children identify themselves in relation to their parents. It is only as we grow up and embrace our self-consciousness that we begin to separate ourselves from our parents. Perhaps this is what Jesus is getting at: that, spiritually speaking, we need to return to that oneness with He who gave us life. Indeed, even as we grow into adulthood we become crusty, more closed-minded, and apathetic to grand visions or utopias. The realities of mortal life have disabused us of our grand visions and we settle into the established processes and power structures of this world. Perhaps Jesus is prodding us from our slumber, telling us that we must spiritually become children again, awake to the new vision of God’s kingdom, with its power structures and processes foreign to this world; where love and humility, rather than pedigrees and competition, are the traits required for success.
Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, makes some observations along these lines:
But the process of growing up, of learning about this world, is a process of increasingly forgetting the one from whom we came and in whom we live. The birth and intensification of self-consciousness, of self-awareness, involves a separation from God.
The birth of self-consciousness, of the separated self, is one of the central meanings of the Garden of Eden story. It is our story.
The birth of the separated self – what we call “the fall” – is something we go through early in our own lives. We have all experienced this. Moreover, it cannot be avoided; it is utterly necessary. Imagining that Adam and Eve could have avoided it misses the point. We cannot develop into mature human beings without self-consciousness. And yet it is a “fall” – into a world of self-consciousness and self-centeredness, estrangement and exile.
The world of the child, with its mystery and magic, is left farther and farther behind.
Perhaps that is the story of the Prodigal Son – the story of our estrangement and exile due to our hubris, coming to ourselves, and then being reborn into the family of God and seeing the kingdom as already present. It is the realization that perhaps our way of doing things, while maybe tried-and true-here, is not the way of God, and we need to “reboot” or “pivot”, as it were, becoming children born from above. Only after doing so will we know how to operate according to the rules of God’s kingdom, behold its majesty, and embrace its possibilities.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.