Archive for the ‘Conversion’ Category

Some born-again Christians of my acquaintance remind me of “Agent Smith.”

They can tell me the date and place of their conversion.  But I get the feeling they have been simply born again in a form which is just a replication of their old self – plus a self-righteous smile or a judgmental frown.

American psychologist of religious education, George Albert Coe (1862-1951) wrote of the distinction between being born again and being born from above in his 1902 book, Religion of a Mature Mind.

The simplicity of the Christian life-principle has been obscured by … the employment of “born again” to represent Greek terms whose plain, literal meaning is “born from above” (John 3:3).  The disciple of Christ is one who is born from above.  That which is of the flesh is flesh, and that which is of the spirit is spirit.  The root-contrast here is not between what is before and what is after, but between a higher and a lower…  Our English “born again” has promoted and kept alive a misunderstanding closely parallel to that of Nicodemus (John 3:9).

The merely ‘born again’ date everything from an heroic past effort to throw off some single ‘secret sin’ or gross vice.  Their old victory has left them relieved but basically unbroken.  Unbroken because they interpret their moment of truth as a trade-off of sin-for-salvation. With this kind of trade-off the principle transaction is complete, and there is no pressure to seek a relation to the life that is from above until the life here below is over.  Instead of relation to God in Christ the merely born-again begin a relation to doctrine.  Doctrines like election and predestination, for example, which offer rationales for a low-octane religion supported by a poorly conceived idea of ‘perseverance’ unto salvation.

We have been looking for events and disputing about processes.  We have caused men to ask themselves, “Have I been born again? Am I sure that an event has taken place?” whereas, we should have pressed home to them the sharp contrast between a spiritual and an unspiritual content or quality of life.   What am I, qualitatively considered? Am I living the life that is from above, or that which is from below?  In the absence of the heavenly quality in the life, no experience of internal wonders is valid evidence of the birth from above. On the other hand, if I am really on the side of Christ, I am born from above, however this comes to be the state of my mind. (Ibid)

The Christian who finds no birth from above in the moment of grace gets a heart ‘born again’ as a carbon copy of his old heart, the old self, the old man – except with an urge to convince others of its own self-justifying theology (instead of the gospel of Jesus).

The habit of looking for newness instead of for heavenly quality works confusion in two directions.

First, persons who are able to answer the question of dates to their own satisfaction, meet the temptation to substitute a “has been” for an “is.” They estimate themselves by something other than the present fact; they would turn the mill with the water that is past. Something of vital power must always be lost when the spiritual life is measured by anything whatever except its own content and its fruits.

Persons of a different make-up suffer from the opposite error. Desiring to dedicate themselves to the Master, yet unable to put their experience of spiritual realities into the forms of book-keeping, they hesitate, postpone action, are harassed by doubts of their personal status. They, too, ask themselves “Have I been?” when they should rather ask “Am I?” They need to be told that whosoever prefers above all things that for which God gave us his Son, and Jesus gave his life, is born from above. The fundamental preference is decisive as to the inner quality, and the fruits are decisive as to the vigor of the inner life.

These mere born-agains will go to church often and be watching out for the 10 commandments in everybody’s life, but underneath they haven’t changed much.  As if they have the idea that living faithfully is just staying ‘judgmental’ toward themselves and others.  They may smile more often than before, but you can catch them in a big frown just as easily.

Professor George Albert Coe was born in Mendon, NY, March 26 1862 ; educated at the University of Rochester (A. B.), Boston University (S. T. B., Ph. D.) studied at University of Berlin, 1890-1891; professor at Northwestern University 1893-1909, Union Theol. Seminary, 1909-22, Columbia 1922-27.  Dr. Coe retired in 1927 and died November 9, 1951.

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S. T. Coleridge 1772-1834


I meddle not with the dispute respecting conversion, whether, and in what sense, necessary in all Christians.  It is sufficient for my purpose, that a very large number of men, even in Christian countries, need to be converted, and that not a few, I trust, have been.  The tenet becomes fanatical and dangerous, only when rare and extraordinary exceptions are made to be the general rule; – when what was vouchsafed to the apostle of the Gentiles by especial grace, and for an especial purpose, namely a conversion begun and completed in the same moment, is demanded or expected of all men, as a necessary sign and pledge of their election.  (Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, Introductory Aphorisms, XXVIII)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s religious writing has always been a bigger draw for me than his poetry.  But Aids to Reflection is not an easy read; some of Coleridge’s concerns are dated, his style is ornate, with his sentences given to long dependent clauses.  Why do I bother?

I have a peculiar brand of liberal Christianity which still has a God and a Christ, still defends a supernaturalist view of the cosmos – but cannot find a liberal church or a secular university that doesn’t demean this God and this Christ and this cosmos.  Consequently I have only a very limited contemporary intellectual mileu and am, by all accounts, an inveterate Anachronist.  My intellectual passion for over 30 years has been dominated by philosophers, theologians, preachers, writers, and poets largely born before 1900 (although I enjoy a handful born later, and a few of the oldies, even, were writing past the 1960s).

Why so few favorites born after 1900?  Well ‘the times’ change, they say.  In our secular age, fewer and fewer really fit human minds are finding the Christian churches and the life of religion and theology to be a lure to their tremendous talents.  Not that I am a talent, but only that I know a good mind when I see one.  My father-in-law, a physician, remarked recently that he has seen evidence of a similar ‘brain drain’ in medicine – I mean of the tip-top minds, the epoch-makers, he suggested that too many who 100 years ago would have seen medicine as the avenue of greatest idealism and service had been attracted (or distracted) into careers that appeared to offer the latest salaries and different fascinations.

So I go back to the age when there were still really top minds able to believe in God and push the envelope of a constructive theology.  It’s that simple.  And it was decades ago that I found in the stacks of a great old seminary library a book by Scottish professor John Tulloch, Movements of Religious Thought in Britain during the Nineteenth Century (1885).  In this precious old work I discovered to my surprise  many  inquiring religious minds which suited me both spiritually and intellectually in a remarkable way – and most of them were expressing a significant debt to Coleridge.

Awakened by a cock-crow (a sermon, a calamity, a sickbed, or a providential escape) the Christian pilgrim sets out in the morning twilight, while yet the truth is below the horizon.  Certain necessary consequences of his past life and his present undertaking will be seen by the refraction of its light: more will be apprehended and conjectured.  The phantasms, that had predominated during the hours of darkness, are still busy.  Though they no longer present themselves as distinct forms, they yet remain as formative notions in the pilgrim’s soul, unconscious of its own activity and over-mastered by its own workmanship.  (XXIX)

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