Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the
without being born from above” (John
3:3). kingdom of God
While all the Gospels are theological/spiritual renderings of the story of Jesus, John’s Gospel stands apart from the Synoptic Gospels (called as such because they share a common view of Jesus). It is packed with theological symbolism and double meanings.
For example, when John tells us that Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was a member of the official Jewish council, comes to Jesus by night, on one level he comes secretively concealing his actions from the other Jewish leaders, but on another level it is John’s way of telling us that he is in the dark about spiritual reality. He is spiritually unenlightened.
The phrase “born from above” contains a double meaning, which is lost in translation. It could just as well be translated (as it is in many translations), “born again/anew.”
Also, in this Gospel, misconceptions and false assumptions abound, and we are invited to join the story and consider how those depicted in the story mirror our own misconceptions and false assumptions.
When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” he assumes he knows. In the course of the conversation, Jesus exposes how little he knows. When Jesus speaks of being born again/from above, Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” He thinks he knows, but he doesn’t know.
And that, of course, describes all of us to one degree or another. One bit of perennial wisdom goes like this: To know that we don’t know is to begin to know. The more certain we are that we know, the little we actually know.
When John’s Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again/from above/of the Spirit to see the kingdom of God, he is telling him (the reader) that in order to experience and participate in God’s will, in order to share in God’s vision of a just world made whole and right, one needs to have one’s mind opened and heart enlightened to the Divine Reality without and within.
There is no one way to understand the kind of spiritual experience this imagery points to. John’s Jesus says it’s like the wind; it’s sort of mysterious and ambiguous. We can’t see the wind, but we can feel it and see the effects of its presence. We can’t really explain it or understand it, but we can experience it.
One way to apply this is as follows: (It’s not the only way by any means—but it is a way that I have found helpful.)
A newborn experiences the world as an extension of himself or herself. Newborns have no sense of self-consciousness. But in the process of growing up, they become more and more aware that the world is separate from themselves.
Every human being, unless one is severely mentally impaired, becomes self-aware. Unfortunately, the process of becoming self-aware also makes one self-centered. It’s inevitable; it’s the way we have evolved as a species. One can explain this psychologically, socially, or theologically, but it is inevitable. Everyone eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the process of becoming a separated self, one becomes a self-centered self.
We hear and receive “messages” about life from our parents, siblings, peers, teachers, friends, from communities, organization, and groups we participate in, people who are popular and have a certain charisma and influence over us—there are many sources. As a result, we are socialized into a way of thinking, feeling, and behaving. We receive both good and bad messages. It is especially difficult for those who receive more bad messages than good, particularly those who grow up in abusive situations where they are bombarded with negative input.
So, all of us develop a false self. The false self is the self that is shaped and conferred upon us by our culture as we internalize all these messages. For example, we may be socialized to think that we have to win at any cost—it’s all about winning. When we internalize that message it becomes part of our false self. We may be socialized to think that love is something we have to earn and so we go through life thinking we have to prove ourselves, be successful, or achieve high marks in order to be loved, which may be why some people have a hard time believing God would love them unconditionally.
Marcus Borg, in his book, “The Heart of Christianity,” tells the story about a little girl that made a strange request of her parents, just after they brought home from the hospital her new baby brother. She wanted to be alone with the baby with the door closed. This made her parents a bit uneasy, but they had just installed a new intercom system and so they agreed.
With her parents listening ever so closely, the little girl crept into the baby’s room. They heard her footsteps moving across the floor and they imagined her standing over her brother’s crib. Then they heard her say to her three-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.”
This story, says Borg, evocatively suggests that in the process of growing up, of being socialized into our world, we forget the One from whom we came and in whom we live. In the process of becoming self-aware we become less and less God aware. In becoming self-conscious we become less and less God conscious and we experience this as a kind of separation from God.
This is why we feel alienated and separated from God. Not that we actually are. The divine DNA, the Divine Spirit is in all of us. But we, nevertheless, feel separated.
This image of regeneration, of being born again/from above is a metaphor that speaks to our need to be awakened to divine reality. It speaks to our need to become God-conscious, aware of and consciously connected to the Divine Reality that is all around us and with us and in us every moment.
As Christians we call this Divine Reality the Holy Spirit, the divine nature, or the “the living Christ,” because it is through the sacred tradition of Jesus of Nazareth that we come to know and experience God.
A great illustration of our need for divine awareness can be found in the final book of “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis (I refer to this in the chapter on faith in my book, “Being a Progressive Christian”).
A group of dwarfs are huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black, smelly hole of a stable when in reality they are out in the midst of an endless, grassy green countryside with sun shining and blue sky overhead. Lucy, the most tenderhearted of the Narnian children, felt compassion for them. She tried to reason with them. Then frustrated she cried, “It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers!” But all they saw was pitch blackness.
Aslan, the Christ figure, was present with them, but they weren’t able to see him. When Aslan offered them the finest food, they thought they were eating spoiled meat scraps and sour turnips. Then, when Aslan offered them the choicest wine, they mistook it for ditch water.
Why were the Dwarfs so blind? Why couldn’t they see? The one constant refrain on the lips of the dwarfs was: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They lived by that mantra. They were too self absorbed, too caught up in their own individual and group concerns and agenda (group think) to be aware of the beauty and Divine Reality in their midst.
Spiritual teachers tell us that it often takes great suffering or great love to open our minds and hearts to the Divine Reality all around us and in us. Why is that? Because great suffering and great love are experiences that have a way of pushing us outside our false self (our little self or ego-driven self) and jarring us awake to a wider vision and larger story.
This is a journey where each new experience of awakening, of enlightenment, builds on previous experiences and in the process we grow, we are changed, we become more. The spiritual life is a pilgrimage that includes many moments and experiences of awakening. We must be born again and again and again . . .