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To Be Born Again

from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

June 11, 2006
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Do Christians live in two worlds? It would seem that we do. As Paul put it in the Epistle to the Romans, we all live in the world of the “flesh,” but Christians are adopted by God to live in that world according to the rules of the “spirit.” The spiritual world is not separate from the world of actual life, but has different rules, as it were. Jesus had another metaphor for this point. He said we must be born again. Poor Nicodemus thought this was an OBGYN event, but Jesus meant that we had to be born again to live according to the Spirit. Jesus made the point repeatedly that the ordinary life we live is somewhat blind to its own reality. In reality, we live in the kingdom of God, but think we live merely in the kingdoms of this world. To be born again is to wake up to our true spiritual birthright.

One of the earliest Christian heresy fights was about Gnosticism. Gnostics claimed that the spiritual world is indeed separate from the world of the flesh, and that salvation means getting out of this world into some higher one. Two moral consequences follow from Gnosticism. One is that this actual world is irredeemably evil and the other is that we do not have to do anything about that, just rise above it. What turned out to be the orthodox position in the struggle over Gnosticism says that there is just one world, God’s creation, and that it can be lived in either according to the blinkered, half-asleep ways of the world, or according to the spiritual ways in which the world is understood to be God’s Kingdom, despite how the majority look at it. The moral consequences of the orthodox view are that we should rejoice with gratitude for the goodness of the world, despite its pains and sinfulness, and that where the world is unjust, impious, faithless, and despairing, we should do something about that to the extent we can. The general meaning of the theme of incarnation in Christian history has been the commitment to redeeming the world with God’s presence that we mediate.

What is the difference between living according to the ways of the flesh versus the ways of the Spirit? The Bible contains many ways of expressing the difference, and it has been a persistent creative theme in Christian theology to this day. It’s often been preached about from this pulpit. This morning I want to take an evolutionary approach.

Some social psychologists—and I’m thinking particularly of the work of Jonathan Haidt—say that there are five general moral projects that had great survival value when our primitive ancestors were evolving human moral sensibilities in the jungles and savannahs of Africa. That was a time when people lived in small family or tribal units that competed with each other for resources of food and safety. The five moral projects in which people should be trained, encouraged, and rewarded were, first, care and nurture of one another, second, reciprocity and justice, third, articulation and defense of the boundaries of the in-group, fourth, articulation and defense of hierarchical authority and, fifth, the inculcation of disgust at the breaking of purity rules in matters such as sex, marriage, food, and the like. The inculcation of disgust might not seem like a moral project, though it often is. Most Americans, for instance, would find a diet of insects and grubs morally disgusting, although that was the original human diet; some Americans find homosexual relations disgusting, and some gays have the reverse sense of yuckiness; the passage in Leviticus that calls male-male sex an abomination says the same thing about sex during menstruation and cursing one’s parents. To repeat the list of evolutionarily helpful moral projects: care and nurture, reciprocity and justice, enforcement of in-group boundaries, hierarchical authority structures, and a sense of yuckiness about what the group takes to be “impure,” for want of a better term.

You can see why these moral projects would be virtues with great survival value in primitive conditions. Groups in which members nurture and care for one another will be stronger than groups with no mutual reinforcement. Groups in which people are just and fair to one another are stronger than those with internal strife. Groups that know their boundaries are clear about who their enemies are and can take action. Groups with organized authority structures can fight enemies and prey more efficiently than those whose actions are not coordinated. Groups that internalize their culture’s sense of purity so that deviations elicit a common, bonding, visceral disgust make the rightness of their taboos seem like perceptions rather than mere conventions. These five moral projects count as the ways of the world, with obvious worldly advantage in primitive conditions in which human moral sensibilities were developed.

Nevertheless, Christianity says that we should be born to a higher spiritual realm than mere evolutionary advantage under primitive conditions. So there are new rules for the spiritual realm. The moral project of care and nurture becomes elevated to the cardinal virtue of love and compassion. Love is the great attribute of God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son for the world’s redemption. The moral project of justice and reciprocity becomes the condition for human moral identity before God. Not only Christianity, but all the other major world religions that have spread over more than one culture have elevated these moral projects to the center of how to live in ultimate perspective.

Christianity has minimized the importance of, if not directly opposed, the last three moral projects, however. Jesus’ inclusive table fellowship directly contravened the taboos defining the boundaries of the in-group with which he was supposed to associate. He was kind and sociable to Gentiles. He said true worship would be in spirit and in truth, not in accord with religious boundaries. Christianity affirms that God creates and loves all people. Jesus commanded us to love even our enemies, those in the out-groups.

Jesus was also critical of hierarchical authority. He said the first would be last and the last first. He thought the religious leaders were hypocrites and that the political leaders led a religiously trivial kingdom. He undermined the extremely authoritarian social structures of the family in every way he could and created Christian communities as alternatives to families based on friendship and equality, where everyone washes everyone else’s feet.

With regard to the taboos of purity, Jesus lived in a Jewish society with many strictly articulated purity laws governing Sabbath observances, food, and sex. When accused of not observing Sabbath and cleanliness rules, Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He denounced the purity rules governing family identity by saying that only God was his father and that all people are his brothers and sisters. He refused the obligatory role of a married man (despite what the DaVinci Code suggests). In many instances, he subordinated the purity customs to pragmatic considerations of whether and how they serve love and justice.

To put the point more generally about being born again to a spiritual way of life, in contrast to the worldly, fleshly way, Jesus and the Christian movement he founded rejected the ancient view that morality ought to give competitive advantage to groups in hostile relation to other groups in a primitive evolutionary environment. Rather, morality ought to assume that all groups should be able to live in peace with one another. Thus the moral projects of love and justice should be applied with universal scope. On the other hand, the moral projects of protecting boundaries, establishing hierarchical authority, and internalizing impurity disgust responses, actually foster hostile relations between groups that have to define themselves over against others. Therefore for Jesus the boundaries, the hierarchies, and the purity taboos need to be undermined. In-group boundaries, hierarchical authorities, and purity taboos, in fact, keep people in bondage. Their destruction, or the reorganization of society to do without them, is the source of nearly all the liberation movements in Christian history. The spiritual kingdom of God establishes people in freedom from these worldly kinds of bondage. With different histories and symbols, the other great religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, and to some extent Judaism, say much the same thing.

Christian history, however, has always been a mixture of the merely worldly and the spiritual realms, never wholly spiritual. Although the early Church was very clear, according to Paul and Acts, that all people are welcome, Gentiles as well as Jews, rich and poor, women and men, the Church in many quarters came to define itself as an in-group over against Jews, Pagans, and, in our own time, Muslims. Under the Emperor Constantine, the Church adopted an extremely hierarchical model for its own government. The Anabaptist wing of the Protestant Reformation and later, in our time, the Feminist Movement have struggled against such authority. Our current fights over purity rules that narrowly define the roles of women, condemn homosexuals, insist on specific rules for abortion, euthanasia, and other such battlegrounds in the culture wars, show how resistant such purity-morality is to being subordinated to the dominant ideals of love and justice. Similar struggles take place within the other great religions.

Social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt suggest that the differences between contemporary conservative and liberal Christians in America amount to something like this. For the conservatives, all five of the major moral projects are of roughly equal importance. Identifying with an in-group, supporting a line of authority, and cultivating visceral disgust at breaches in the in-group’s purity codes are just as important as love and justice. Love and justice are part of the conservative gospel, but only as balanced against a need to define us against them, to have authority clear, and to “just know” in an intuitive way that one’s purity rules are right. For liberal Christians, love and justice trump the other three moral projects, and in fact often make those moral projects look immoral. I think the New Testament gospel is that we do need to be born again, to abandon the morality that serves competitive advantage in an evolutionary situation of primitive hostility, and to adopt the morality that respects all peoples as God’s children, all individuals as responsible for themselves, not to an authority, and all cultures as bearing humanity. The gospel is to live in the freedom of the Spirit.

As a somewhat slow, liberal, Christian thinker I have come to understand my conservative sisters and brothers in a new way through the distinctions I have been drawing. I never could understand before how Christians could relish the notion that other nations were evil empires against whom it is good to war, how they could draw such sharp boundaries about what kinds of people should be respected and what others should not be; but now I see that it is the in-group morality at work. I could never understand why Christians would need fundamentalistic authority for reading scriptures, or for deciding and enforcing religious and political dogmas; but now I see that it is the hierarchical authority morality at work. I could never understand why Christians would say that homosexuality is intuitively wrong or unnatural, or that gay marriage somehow threatens straight marriage, a ridiculous claim; but now I see that it is the purity disgust system of a particular culture at work. When people say that sexuality is “defined” as heterosexual, or that marriage is “defined” as between one man and one woman, they mean only that for them the alternatives cannot be imagined without a sense of disgust, an offence to their purity code. They are not claiming that sexuality and marriage ought to be defined in those ways according to moral considerations that transcend their particular purity code. Drop the culturally specific disgust reaction, drop the authority structure, and drop the boundaries of the in-group, and sexuality and marriage can be defined by whatever best serves love and justice.

Now the Christian gospel is that we need to be born again into the spiritual way of life defined by love and justice, and the virtues attendant upon them. We need to abandon the worldly way of life in which evolutionary advantage says that virtue consists in superior power at hostile competition. The message of this new birth has been at the center of the Christian gospel since the beginning. But the rebirth itself is still not complete. Is it not a sad irony that, while the great revolutions of the last century in America—for civil rights for minorities, the liberation of women, and gay rights—have been led largely by Christians, the chief obstacles to those advances in freedom and civilization have also been Christians?

I invite you, therefore, to be born again, fully and in all aspects of our lives, into God’s kingdom in which all are loved for what they are. Please do not try to escape the struggles for freedom in this world by seeking a spiritual realm elsewhere. This is our watch, and these are our issues. Jesus calls us to see that what counts in God’s kingdom is love and justice. If we lose our lives in their pursuit, we gain our new-born lives.


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