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The self and being “born again”

26 July 2011

In my daily perusal of TED this past week, I found the following talk by Thandie Newton which lead me to reflect in an email to my friend A. that if I’ve ever heard a better non-Christian explanation of how I see sin and salvation, I do not remember it.

After thinking about this for a few days, I looked back to one of my favorite books, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg (New York: HarperOne, 2003). Borg sets forth his vision for what Christianity offers the modern world through many of the major themes of Christian thought: faith, the Bible, God, Jesus, conversion, the kingdom of God, thin places, sin, salvation, and practice. The passage which sprung to mind comes from the chapter on conversion, “Born Again: A New Heart”:

Why do we need to be born again? Why do we need to die to an old way of being and an old identity and be born into a new way of being and a new identity—into a life centered in God, in the Spirit, in Christ? The reason is because of something that happens in us very early in life and then is intensified by the process of growing up.

What happens early in our lives is the birth of self-consciousness. By this, I mean simply self-awareness, that is, awareness of the distinction between self and world. How early this happens we cannot say with precision, but it clearly seems to happen in the preverbal stage of life. A newborn infant is not yet conscious of being a self. With good parenting, infants initially experience the world as an extension of themselves…But at some point, infants in the process of becoming toddlers become aware that the world is separate from themselves.

Several years ago I was told a sort about a three-year-old girl. She was the firstborn and only child in her family, but now her mother was pregnant again, and the little girl was very excited about having a new brother or sister. Within a few hours of the parents bringing a new baby boy home from the hospital, the girl made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. Her insistence about being alone with the baby with the door shut made her parents a bit uneasy, but then they remembered that they had installed an intercom system in anticipation of the baby’s arrival, so they realized they could let their daughter do this, and if they heard the slightest indication that anything strange was happening, they could be in the baby’s room in an instant.

So they let the little girl go into the baby’s room, shut the door, and raced to the intercom listening station. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the baby’s crib, and then they heard her saying to her three-day-old brother, “Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.”

This story is both haunting and evocative, for it suggests that we come from God, and that when we are very young, we still remember this, still know this. 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. Adam and Eve, living in a paradisiacal state, become conscious of opposites, of good and evil…

The birth of the separated self—what we call “the fall”—is something we go through early in our 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 sense of separation and self-concern is intensified by the process of growing up. Commonly called “socialization,” this process involves internalizing within the self the central “messages” of one’s upbringing. At a foundational level, socialization includes language, whose labels and categories intrinsically divide up the world. It includes a worldview, an understanding of what is real and possible. And, significantly, it includes messages about who we are and what we should be like: parental messages, cultural messages, and for some of us religious messages…

[T]hroughout this process, we fall farther into the world of separation and alienation, comparison and judgment—of self and of others. We live our lives in relation to what Thomas Keating calls “the false self,” the self created and conferred by culture. Or, to use language from Frederick Buechner, we live our lives from the outside in rather than from the inside out.

Our fall into exile is very deep. The biblical picture of the human condition is bleak. Separated and self-concerned, the self becomes blind, self-preoccupied, prideful; worry-filled, grasping, miserable; insensitive, angry, violent; somebody great, or only okay, or “not much.” In the dark, we are blind and don’t see. We live in bondage in Egypt, in exile in Babylon, and sometimes we become Egypt and Babylon. We can even be both victim and oppressor. Especially as groups, we can be brutal and oppressive. There seems no evil of which we are collectively incapable.

Blaise Pascal (1623-62), a French mathematician, philosopher, and mystic, marveled about our capacity for good and evil: “Our greatness and our wretchedness are so evident that the true religion…must account for such amazing contradictions.” The biblical vision of our amazing contradiction is that we are created in the image of God, but we live our lives outside of paradise, “east of Eden,” in a world of estrangement and self-preoccupation. It is the inevitable result of growing up, of becoming selves. None of us, whether success or failure, escapes it.

Thus we need to be born again. It is the road of return from our exile, the way to recover our true self, the path to beginning to live our lives from the inside out rather than from the outside in, the exodus from our individual and collective selfishness. To be born again involves dying to the false self, to that identity, to that way of being, and to be born into an identity centered in the Spirit, in Christ, in God. It is the process of internal redefinition of the self whereby a real person is born within us.

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