Last Friday I was browsing through the “Religion” section in Swansea’s Waterstone’s bookshop, amused to find Alister McGrath’s new book on “The Protestant Revolution” wedged among some Buddhist texts, when a guy reading from a Bible he’d taken from the shelf started talking to me. Having established that I was a Christian, he asked me if I was born again. “Is there any other kind of Christian?” I responded.
My point was that “being born again” is not a distinct category of Christian, demarking one kind from another, it is simply a vivid image for being a Christian as such. A born-again Christian is, in fact, a tautology, like wet water or a round circle.
The term “being born again”, of course, comes from John 3:3ff., where our Lord says to Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being gennethe anothen.” But here is the irony: anothen can mean both “again” and “from above”, and Nicodemus actually takes the wrong semantic option (inanely asking, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”), as is clear from Jesus immediately speaking of “being born ex hudatos kai pneumatos (of water and Spirit)”, and then, first, contrasting what is “flesh” with what is “Spirit”, and then, second, relating what is Spirit to what is from “heaven”, i.e. to what is “from above”.
All of which is not to deny that “rebirth” is a powerful and biblical image for being a Christian - it most certainly is. But if Jesus is speaking of any “experience” in John 3 - which is the bottom line for self-styled born-again Christians (and what my bookshop interlocutor was really enquiring about) - it is not a subjective one that is de rigueur in order to be a “real” Christian, but the quite objective experience of baptism, as is clear from the Johannine reference to “water and Spirit”.
Coincidentally, when I came home from Waterstone’s, I had my lunch and then continued reading Jon Meacham’s excellent, judicious historical study of faith and poltics in the US, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2006). Writing of Lincoln (who never belonged to a church) and the Civil War, Meacham observes that “The slaveholders were far from godless - which offers a cautionary tale about the uses of religion in public life.”
He then tells the tale of Frederick Douglass, who “experienced the bitter mix of slavery and faith firsthand. During the summer of 1832, in Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass’s master went to a Methodist revival meeting and, Douglass recalled, ‘there experienced religion’ [my italics]. On hearing the news, Douglass said that he hoped that the conversion might lead to emancipation or, failing that, at least to a gentler life for the slaves on the place. ‘I was disappointed in both these respects,’ Douglass wrote. Christianity ‘neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before.’” Mind, the master would quote scripture as he beat his slaves til the blood ran.
By way of contrast, Meacham cites John Quincy Adams, the sixth President, whom William James would describe (according to psychological type) as once-born rather than twice-born. Post-White House, at the age of seventy-four, finding “impulses of duty upon my own conscience, which I cannot resist,” Adams defended before the Supreme Court the slaves who had mutinied on the Amistad. He represents, suggests Meacham, “a particular breed of believer, one who takes solace in scripture but does not necessarily think the Bible is the only field of battle in life’s wars.”
Jesus said, at the climax to the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Moral: If you, as a Christian, are asked whether you are born again, the answer, depending on the circumstances, is either (a) “Well, yes. Duh!”, or (b) “Well, yes. But so what?”