Born Again?

"The strength of much of conservative Christianity is that it has emphasized personal transformation while the strength of much of liberal Christianity is that it has emphasized political transformation. A politically engaged spirituality affirms both spiritual transformation and political transformation"
Marcus Borg - The Heart of Christianity

Recently the media in the United States has fixated on racial and misogynistic comments made by Don Imus about a group of minority women (link). Questions were raised about whether or not Mr. Imus should be forgiven, and if so what would be a suitable act on his behalf that would render justice to those who were aggrieved. CBS and MSNBC decided on retributive justice - Mr Imus was fired. Others believe that this was an incorrect course - Mr Imus should have retained his job and been given an opportunity to provide restorative justice to both the young women and to the society at large. The restorative justice group points to the use of similar language in the vernacular of black culture particularly that evidenced in hip-hop rap music. For example an Academy oscar was awarded for a song (link) by Rap artists which contained worse terminology than that employed by Mr. Imus

In this blog we have explored what is understood about the concept of giving and receiving forgiveness (link). The Imus story offers an additional opportunity for us to explore what is meant by the concept of being 'born again' and the implications of being born again on how one seeks to provide 'justice' in a modern society.

The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg (link) addresses both of these issues. Borg writes: Unfortunately, mainline Christians have generally allowed their more conservative Christian brothers/sisters to have a near monopoly on 'born again' language. There are a number of reasons for this. For some, the language may be too hot and heavy because of its associations with 'revivals' and a 'sweaty' kind of Christianity.

Moreover, the notion is sometimes quite narrowly defined. In some Christian circles, to be born again can mean accepting a certain set of beliefs, a particular conservative theology, often expressed in a question using a salvation formula such as, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?" In at least the first of the 'left behind' novels that have been best-sellers for the last half decade, to be born again is defined even more narrowly by being virtually equated with believing in the 'rapture' and the imminent second coming of Jesus. In addition, most of have known at least one person who was 'born again' in a remarkably unattractive way. When being born again leads to a rigid kind of righteousness, judgmentalism, and sharp boundaries between an in-group and an out-group, it is either not a genuine born-again experience or it has a lot of static in it".

What is your understanding of being born again and what does being born again mean for seeking to establish a more just society?

Posted April 13, 2007


Megan Zamprelli said...

As I mentioned before in the earlier thread I think Borg can be a bit evasive on some questions.

But one thing I agree with him is when he talks about being 'born again' is called 'the way' in other world religions such as Judaism and Buddhism.

Borg believes, and I think he is right here, that this concept is the central theme in all of the major world religions.

Maybe Borg is in fact a Christian Buddhist?


Michael N. Hull said...

An interview with Borg on the topic of his views on being born again can be read here.

In the interview he said:

Interviewer: I notice you dealt with the issue of being "born again," which is such a loaded term. Can you describe what it is to be a born-again liberal Christian?

Borg: My way of describing it is "dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity." Or to use language from Thomas Keating, dying to the false self and being born into one's true self. All of us acquire an identity by growing up in a culture. The identity we acquire produces what is called the separated self, a self that is aware of being distinct from the rest of the world. The natural result of that is self-preoccupation. We need to die to that old identity and be born into an identity centered in the sacred or God or the Spirit or Christ-which for Christians are essentially synonymous terms.

Why do we need this experience?

A very young infant experiences the world as an extension of itself. But at some point that infant or toddler becomes aware the world is separate, and not always responsive to us and our needs. That produces self-consciousness and therefore self-preoccupation. That's one of the things the Genesis story of the Fall is about. So we live our lives "east of Eden," outside of connection to God, and we become self-centered. To be born again is to undergo a transformation that leads to an identity that is a source of freedom and peace and joy, a kind of serenity.

This sounds a lot like other religious paths.

The Christian Way, or path, of being born again, and of dying and rising with Christ, is very similar to the path of transformation found in other major religions.

Why do you say that if Christianity is unique in its claims, it is "suspect"--and that because it teaches ideas, expressed a different way, that are similar to other major religions, that is comforting?

I don't want to deny the uniqueness of Christianity. I want to speak of the uniqueness of Christianity, as well as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. They are all unique in the sense that they are not exactly alike. But what I'm affirming is that beneath their differences is this common path of transformation. For me, seeing that all the major enduring religions know this path of transformation gives Christianity much more credibility than if it were to claim to know something that no other religion had ever known.

Yet that is almost exactly the opposite of what a lot of Christian leaders say.

In the mainline denominations, I'm not at all sure of that. The Roman Catholic church during Vatican II essentially declared there is saving truth in all the major world religions. I think the majority of Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians would say that.

Is Christianity one of the world's great religions, or the only true religion? This is the difference between the old paradigm and the emerging paradigm.

Peter said...

I agree with Borg that in some Christian circles, to be born again can mean accepting a certain set of beliefs often expressed in a question using a salvation formula such as, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?"

I left a church here in Ireland because of this type of thinking. This was the first question every member of the church asked a new visitor to the church or even someone they met on the street.

The final straw for me was when a woman came to a service offering prayers for healing. An elder of the church introduced himself and then the very next thing he said out of the blue was: "Given your condition have you put yourself right with God by being saved". There was no sense of love or compassion shown to the woman, only a cold impersonal (or maybe very personal!) question. The woman smiled at him and politely informed him that he should take care of his own salvation before he worried about hers.

That was it for me! I found a church that understands being born again as something as simple as turning one's heart towards love and compassion for our fellow human beings.

Take care,

Avid Reader said...


Indeed if you strip away the characters in the Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist religions and just look at their core message they all talk about 'a way' or 'a path'. In Christianity the 'way' is 'dying and rising' to be a new person while in Buddhism the 'way' is 'letting go' of the past, and the suffering. In Islam 'the way' is 'submission'.

As to Borg being a Christian Buddhist, I think it would be correct to describe him as an Agnostic Christian. Some people think that the word 'agnostic' means a person who is really just an atheist but who doesn't want to admit it.

In Borg's case his position is that there are certain things he does 'not know' and there are a lot of such things in his understanding of Christianity. For example, he will say nothing about an afterlife since he states that he does 'not know' what this entails and so he is 'agnostic' about all questions relating to this concept. His concept is that he will 'die into God' and his agnosticism means that he will leave himself in God's metaphorical hands at that point.

It's an interesting thought!


Pianoman said...

Regarding the thoughts about Imus, I'm sure he does not practice any religion but I think it is true to say that his comments to the basketball team do indicate that he has seen a "new way" to go about conducting himself on radio and TV.

So as Megan says it probably does not matter what religious beliefs one holds (if any) we all have "born again" or "transformation" experiences in our lives when we realize that some "direction" we are taking is in some way wrong or harmful and we need to take another path.

What I think is sad, and others have mentioned this in calling for restorative justice rather than retributive justice, is that Imus doesn't have a platform now to take a new direction and take others along with him.

Bet we will be talking about this next week? I doubt it.

Helen Wright said...

It might surprise you to learn that Charles McCord, the one who sat across from Imus and who has been his talk partner for many years, is a born-again Christian.

In the "Nappy-headed Hos" thread McCord is the one pictured in the middle.

Helen Wright

Desmond said...

I note that there is wide use of the term "born again Christian" these days.

Is there another kind of Christian?

After all, Jesus famously said "Do not be surprised that I tell you that you must all be born again" (John chapt 3, v 7).

Would be interested to know what other definition those who do not like the term "born again" would use to define a "Christian" and where in the Bible they would find it.

Elizabeth Murray said...

The Imus - born again - forgiveness - justice - discussion in this and the early thread (Nappy-headed Hos) has been very interesting.

The remarkable thing is that when I wanted to see leadership in this very important debate our Democrat and Republican politicians were noticeable absent (bar a couple of exceptions).

Hardly a peep out of them in case they said something that would offend one part or other of their voting base.

Where is their moral leadership? What is the stance of our leaders on this controversy?

Oh, sure they can tell us how we should think about issues that might get them votes (abortion and homosexuality to garner the votes of the Christian right for example)

But on the question of forgiveness for Imus and proper restitution to those offended, nothing!

Reason rules!

Helen Wright said...


There is a quote from Borg's book The Heart of Christianity which is quoted in the lead to this thread.

I quote: "Unfortunately, mainline Christians (in the USA I would add to be more specific) have allowed our more conservative Christian brothers/sisters to have a monopoly on 'born again' language. Moreover, the notion is sometimes quite narrowly defined. In some Christian circles, to be born again can mean accepting a certain set of beliefs expressed in a question using a salvation formula such as, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?"

I like Borg's approach - Jesus is the 'way' and in knowing this way one is 'born from above' (another translation of the Greek word that is translated as 'born again').

I agree with Borg that being born again, or born from above as I prefer to say, is central to the Christian religion and that somehow we in the mainline Christian churches here in the USA must reclaim that language as being central to our practice of Christianity. Knowing 'the way' leads to the other centrality of our belief, that of love and compassion.

We should be able to converse with others using the language of a way, or a path, or a process, leading to love and compassion as central to our belief in Jesus rather than in some rote question such as "Have you been saved?"

Here in the USA more people will be "saved" (i.e. healed in the true sense of this word) if we speak in terms of "How can we show you our love?" or "How can we offer our compassion?" That "love and compassion" being of course the love and compassion shown to us by the way we are asked to follow through Jesus.


Brian McG said...

Despite being "a more conservative christian brother" I very much agree with Borg's explanation of the term, quoted by michael hull. Being born again/from above is a description of a radical shift from a life with self as the reference point to one centred (albeit imperfectly) on God. It should not be reduced to a formula. Having grown up in Ireland I also concur with Peter's comments.I am sure I have born again friends who do not recognise their experience in these terms!

I do however have some problem with how the role of other religions fits into the picture....

Michael N. Hull said...

Brian wrote: I do however have some problem with how the role of other religions fits into the picture....


In Borg’s book “The Heart of Christianity” he explains this by saying that “Jesus is the way” should be read exactly as written i.e. the bible does not say “The way is Jesus” it says "Jesus is the way". Therefore, the question to ask is what is "the way” that is being pointed to in the NT. He finds ‘the way’ to be a ‘transformation’ in which one turns one’s heart from an ‘old way’ to a ‘new way’ and that is ‘being born again’ or ‘being born from above’.

This interpretation avoids the exclusivity of an interpretation of “Jesus is the way” meaning that unless one ‘believes’ in Jesus one can not be ‘born again’.

You might take a glance at page 119 of his book in which he says and I quote:

This process is at the heart not only of Christianity, but of the other enduring religions of the world. The image of following ‘the way’ is common in Judaism, where ‘the way’ involves a new heart, a new self centered in God. One of the meanings of the word ‘Islam’ is ‘surrender’: to surrender one’s life to God by radically centering in God. Muhammad is reported to have said, “Die before you die”. Die spiritually before you die physically, die metaphorically before you die literally. At the heart of the Buddhist path is ‘letting go’ which is the same internal path as dying to an old way of being and being born into a new. ....... This process of personal spiritual transformation – what we as Christians call being born again, or dying in rising with Christ, life in the Spirit – is thus central to the world’s religions. John’s affirmation that Jesus is ‘the way’ means that the way Jesus incarnated is a universal way, not an exclusive way. Jesus is the embodiment, the incarnation, of the path of transformation known in the religions that have stood the test of time.

That’s Borg’s approach as I interpret it. Hope this helps with your question.


Vincent Hall said...


I am curious - what from your perspective is the difference between being a "conservative Christian" and a "Christian"?


Avid Reader said...


Your question to Brian .... My view is that a 'conservative' Christian would take a very literal approach to the bible. Borg is certainly not a 'conservative' in this sense of the word. I would suspect that the most 'conservative' members of the Christian family would read the creation story (or should I say stories as there are two of them) as factual and historical. Borg on the other hand would see the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection as metaphorical.

Borg would argue that conservative Christianity has concentrated primarily on personal transformation (hence the concentration on "have you been saved" language) while liberal Christianity has concentrated more on political transformation (hence the emphasis on health care for everyone, no war in Iraq, money spent of programs for inner city schools etc)

I'm surprised none of you has raised Borg's political views given that in the referenced book he is quite outspoken that the present social systems that we have in the West, and in the USA in particular, are managed, according to Borg, by wealthy power elites to benefit their own interests.

Another criticism he has of Christians is that while most are comfortable with the charitable parts of the Christian message they are quite uncomfortable with the justice parts of the message. Christians will happily give money, and they will happily run programs to ease suffering (food kitchens, or family abuse shelters) but when it comes to changing the political power structure to work on aspects of social transformation they shy away from such steps.


Helen Wright said...


Good point! It was neatly summed up by the quote from Bishop Camara of Brazil:

"When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist."


Vincent Hall said...

The political aspect of what it means to be a Christian needs to be pushed to the forefront.

I heard this morning in the discussion about the 30 people shot in Virginia that an analysis had been done of previous similar shootings. It turns out that in a high proportion of these cases, including the Columbine school case, the perpetrators practiced shooting people using video games.

This raises the question as to what Christians should be doing to the power elites that are making profits from the sale of these games!

Regarding the Imus case we find that hip hop music routinely degrades women by referring to them as 'hos' and 'bitches' and I was shocked with they lyrics of the hip hop song that won an Academy Oscar. Have you read the lyrics? The first verse is atrocious:

"You know it's hard out here for a pimp (you ain't knowin)
When he tryin to get this money for the rent (you ain't knowin)
For the Cadillacs and gas money spent (you ain't knowin)
Because a whole lot of bitches talkin shit (you ain't knowin)
Will have a whole lot of bitches talkin shit (you ain't knowin)"

This raises the question as to what Christians should be doing to the power elites that are making profits from the sale of these CDs.

I'm not advocating censorship but I do advocate doing everything to cause the corporations producing this rubbish to suffer some economic consequences.

We may not be able to ban guns but there are other ways to tackle this cancer in our culture.

Any suggestions how to proceed?


Joan Ferguson said...


I would add this to your comments:

Snoop Dog said: "We rappers are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about hos that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing shit, that’s trying to get a nigga for his money'. These are two separate things. First of all, we ain’t no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls. We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel."

Why is he allowed on any airwaves? Do Christians have nothing to say about this coming from his "soul"?


brian mcg said...

Vinny, I was copying Borg's use of the term conservative to give readers a general idea of where on the spectrum I, as an evangelical (the term we would more often use in the UK),am coming from. I guess Avid reader summed it up pretty well in his second paragraph. There is perhaps an interesting debate to be had about the differences between the two sides of the Atlantic. In the UK I would say there is a fairly substantial move among "conservative/evangelicals" to address the issues once thought to be the preserve of the "liberals" I know of Jim Wallis in the USA but have the impression that "conservatives" there are still less likely to engage in institutional or societal change than in England.

Thanks Michael for the further quote from Borg on other religions. I will respond on this later!

Joan Ferguson said...


Brian seems to indicate that he has a problem with how other religions fit into the picture about Jesus being the way. How do you overcome the specifics of the statement “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”?


Michael N. Hull said...


Here is a link

to an interesting sermon which I think responds to your question.