Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The necessity of spiritual rebirth

In the third chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus holds forth his famous discourse with Nicodemus about being born, in the Greek, anothen. Does Jesus mean being born again or from above? Nicodemus interprets the former, Jesus means the latter or he means both. Nicodemus would have understood Jesus’ observation that one must be born of water to mean physical birth. It was a common term in Jesus’ day. But Jesus means more than physical birth; he means spiritual rebirth.

In much of what passes for public discourse on religion today, “born again” is either a boast or a pejorative put-down. Who constitutes the much derided and much feared “religious right?” Ah, yes, “born again” Christians. Within their own ranks, evangelical Christians frequently sneer at any confession of faith which doesn’t include some sort of personal Damascus road experience. All in all, “born again” Christianity is heavily laden with political baggage these days in the United States.

However, Jesus made no declaration of a particular political fealty as a condition of spiritual rebirth. The discourse simply makes clear that to be born again includes a personal belief in Jesus as the one by whom the world is saved (cf. Jn. 3:15-16).Within the Wesleyan system, salvation culminates in the parousia (the end of the present age), but isn’t limited to it. Salvation is worked out here and now; the Kingdom of God is to be achieved in this life, at least in part. So “born again,” to be religiously meaningful, must include not just an assurance of heavenly life, but a reorientation in this life.

An article in the “Journal of Psychology and Theology” compared survey results between persons who said they were Christians and those who did not make that claim. It also compared attitudinal scores among professed Christians by category (born again v. ethical belief system). The study defined “born again” Christians as “those who profess a personal saving relationship with Christ,” and ethical as “those who profess to follow Christian teachings as primary” (Paloutzian, 267).

The researchers wrote they expected the ethical Christians would score higher on the Social Interest Survey, motivated primarily by Christ’s ethical teachings. It was not so.
The born again group scored higher in social interest in both age groups studied, even though they are primarily committed to the person of Christ and secondarily committed to the ethics [of Christ]. These results support the notion that born again commitment fosters greater internalization of Christian ethics.
The authors claimed their study’s results were consistent with previous research. Other significant points this study uncovered were that born again commitment is more likely to mature over a person’s life than the ethical type and that “an intense, mature and personal religious commitment fosters a sense of purpose in life and a greater concern for the welfare of others.”

I believe social-justice theologies need to recover a strong notion of personal spiritual rebirth if the world is to be transformed, oppression eliminated, racism expunged, economic injustices corrected. Jesus’ teachings are powerful tools for combating these powers and principalities of the present age, but only because they are empowered by the person of the Resurrected One. Jesus is not risen because his teachings were powerful, his teachings are powerful because he is risen. There is no gospel message without an Easter morning. There is no Easter without the empty tomb.

Citation: Paloutzian, Raymond F. et. al. “Conversion Experience, Belief System, and Personal and Ethical Attitudes” Journal of Psychology and Theology, 6:266-275, Fall 1978.

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