Begotten Again

Now that I have retired from the practice of Law, I have less chance to meet those who used to be my daily acquaintances. So it was a real pleasure the other day to run into my former associate, Dennis Edney, as both of us were shopping for groceries in the aisles of Sobey’s, Hawkestone.

Dennis, who deserves a medal for his devotion to the principles of justice and fair play, was recently back from Guantanamo Bay, where he had had a chance, long denied, to meet with his client, Omar Khadr. Omar, as a child soldier, had been arrested and imprisoned several years ago, after allegedly throwing a grenade at a U.S. soldier who was storming his compound, causing the latter’s death.

Since then, he had been kept for years in solitary confinement at Guantanamo, subject to repeated questioning, and humiliating abuse that fell very little short of torture. All this attempted to be justified by a military tribunal which appeared to wish to ignore the Geneva Convention, the convention on the treatment of child soldiers, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the regular procedures of the Common Law.

What appalled Edney in particular was that these abuses were perpetrated by clean cut American servicemen, all of whom (like 60% of the American population) claiming to be ‘born again’ Christians.

As a clergyman, this business of being ‘born again’ really worries me. It seems to give a license to anyone who has followed a particular religious formula to live thereafter any way he or she pleases, filled with a marvelous sense of self-righteousness and superiority over the ‘unsaved’ populations of the rest of the world.

It was over Easter that I began to see where the problem lay. The Greek word (‘gennao’) sometimes translated as ‘born’ can also be translated as ‘begotten’ as it is, for instance, in the first chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Being born comes from a different but related root (‘geno’), from which we derive such words as ‘genesis’, ‘gene’, ‘genealogy’, and ‘genetics’. ‘Begetting’ happens when a father impregnates a mother. Birth, though, takes time. There’s nine months to wait while cells divide and a new body is put together in the womb before it can take place. During that time, the unborn child assembles organs of sight, of digestion, lungs to breathe with, arms and legs to move with, all of which are needed for life after birth, but have no practical use whatever until then.

Spiritual development to me seems to be analogous. The seed of faith is sown in the human mind, and gradually a spiritual body takes shape. Abilities develop within us which really are of little personal use to us for our life on earth—prayer, worship, charity, spiritual insight, and so on. That is why people ‘whose portion of life is in this world’ usually have little place in their lives for church or religion, or if they do, have this only for its social aspect. But after our threescore years and ten or whatever other length of life is allocated to us on earth, we are going to be born into another, spiritual, world, and these various attributes become essential. That then is the time when our ‘new birth’ takes place.

St. Paul reproved the Corinthians for their self-satisfaction in their highly dysfunctional church. He prayed for the Ephesians that they might be “filled with all the fullness of God”. So he tells the Philippians “I have not yet reached perfection, but I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me… Forgetting what is behind me, and reaching out for that which lies ahead, I press towards the goal, to win the prize which is God’s call to the life above, in Christ Jesus.”

Not a bad thought for any of us!

– Anglican Messenger, 2008*