This question bothered me then, and bothers me even more as I consider the multiple theological, social, even psychological distortions and misunderstandings built into this simple phrase.
At its most basic, the term ‘born again’ is a metaphor; a spiritual experience made more concrete, vivid and memorable by its correlation with a physical, if not biological event both personal and individual as well as universal.
If we exist, it is because we have been born, whether we remember it or not. But being born was never our decision, and who we were born to, and under what conditions was also not our decision.
Biologically and spiritually, no one is born in isolation; everyone is born into a family, a neighborhood, a community.
Being born is no abstraction; nothing is more messy, difficult or dangerous than being born.
To be born, to belabor the obvious, is, at best, a slow, fumbling, always precarious beginning.
And it is a beginning; one that, like every pivotal point, is the ragged uncertain starting position whose final destination, and certainly the journey, is the ultimate unknowable.
I don’t know about anyone else, but any given day of my life takes me into territory far beyond words – my life in summary, in total or even in retrospect, is, to put it simply, indescribable.
What comes after life could only be more so.
Perhaps our lives are made up of approximately equal parts of what we have decided and what we have been given or has happened to us.
None of us chooses to be born, and we certainly didn’t choose our race, genetic background, natural born health or birth circumstances.
Perhaps our spiritual ‘birth’ is somewhat the same.
Could it be possible that our spiritual ‘birth’, in the same way, is not entirely our own doing?
And our spiritual ‘birth’, like our natural birth is the ultimate, if involuntary, introduction, if not absolute enmeshing with existing relationships and communities.
As we mature, our ‘birth’ becomes less and less relevant. Our individual character and our place in our community is earned or made, perhaps deliberately, by us, but never exclusively by our own hands.
Our mandate, after being ‘born’ is not to stay an infant forever, but to grow, reach, develop and make our distinctly individual way in the world.
Being born, physically or spiritually, is an act, but only an opening act, to a far larger production whose full scope we couldn’t even begin to anticipate.
The question “Have you been ‘born again’?” is usually presented as a yes-or-no question.
It is, of course, far more than that; but perhaps it is easier, and certainly far less awkward, than asking (or attempting to measure) if one is spiritually mature.
Being born, for each of us, at every level, is an explosive, irreversible experience that sets each one of us on an unchartable trajectory.
“Don’t look back” the Bible tells us.
“This is the day that the Lord has made” the Psalms remind us.
Life is a wild ride and to live well, and fully, requires our full attention.
The purpose of birth is to literally deliver us into life.
The purpose of life is not to focus on being born – that happened long ago – but to live in motion and in the hands of God – who knows our origin and our destiny far better than we ever will.