Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Once Born and Twice Born
As I learn more of the Emerging Church and its emphasis on the experience or relationship with the Divine I wonder about the importance of this aspect of faith. There is no doubt about it; I am a reborn Christian. I had one of those Road to Damascus events in my life that changed my life. In my early years I am sure I was fairly obnoxious about trying to get everyone to have that same experience. There is a significant temptation to claim a ‘special’ or even a ‘holier’ experience than others who do not have the Pauline encounter
Through the years though, I have met people whose experience of God has been different from the ‘born again’ incident. They are those who have grown up in the Church. They have always known God. Rather than some dramatic sea-change the reformation that happens to those whom I call ‘once-born’ Christians is a gradual and incremental molding of their lives into what Christ would have them be.
‘Twice-born’ Christians know the moment that they first believed. They are brought to their knees and renewal is dramatic. The love that is experienced is overwhelming. It is often a mountain-top type of experience that when one comes into the mundane life in the valleys and plains, the faith then becomes a matter of remembrance rather than omni-present experience that was hoped for. The Christian life for the twice-born is often a search for another mountain-top experience through liturgy, retreat, meditation, etc. The Church becomes the vessel from which the Christ-life is lived out.
For the ‘once-born’ the experience of God is with one that was always present. This does not mean that it is static. Like Helen Keller, relationship with God is more the identification of what has always been known, “So that is who He is.” The love of God is the familiar fount from which one’s life flows. Often the identification of the once-born’s faith is with the Church. It is not only the community of the faithful; it is the place where God’s love is made manifest in word and sacrament.
In some ways there is not much difference in these ‘faith-born’ people. But when they begin to share faith, there is often misunderstanding. The twice-born do not hear the excitement that presaged their experience of God while the once-born find the ‘late-comers’ as too dramatic or superficial. There is a tendency on either side to view the other as suspicious.
I remember quite clearly as a convert in a Roman Catholic convent being viewed awkwardly by the cradle-catholics. I was not trusted because I was not of the sub-culture of those who had grown-up Roman Catholic. I wasn’t one of “them.” It was not intentional or ever mean; it was merely I had not grown up with the same experiences as they. It made it easy for me to leave the community when the time came to follow my vocation to the priesthood. However, I still miss the community.
A few years ago it was calculated that 8 out of 10 Episcopalians were something else before coming to the Episcopal Church. Often those who come to our churches today have no theological or Church background. They have either found us because of a very personal or dramatic conversion to Jesus Christ or they have been supported and come to know the warmth of God’s love by being a part of a loving Christian community in the local parish. Seldom do I find people joining the Church simply because the doctrine.
One thing I have learned is that I must listen carefully to the experience of Christ shared by my fellow church-goer. All too often our churches do not provide places where we may share the faith. It is difficult to share when our experiences are so different. In my experience of parish life, there was almost never a chance to share faith. In my current congregation I can see the love that they have for each other and I point that out. It is the practice of their faith that I see. But it is difficult to get them to describe it.
For the most part, Episcopalians have a difficult time expressing what their faith is. This is a phenomenon not just of the laity. The clergy have incredible difficulty in sharing their faith with their peers. We learn to describe it under duress during the ordination process. We sometimes are put on the spot during the interview process for a call, but we do not tend to share our faith with colleagues. We may set it up as some sort of paradigm in a sermon, but the competitive nature of the calling process roots out any possibility of sharing of faith. Consequently it is difficult for us to model this for the people of our parishes.
Perhaps one of the things that might be made a part of the training of clergy for the future is a venue for the sharing of faith. This cannot be a part of the litmus process which culls out candidates because their faith might be ‘suspect.’ It must be a place where one can practice describing their faith while trying to grow into it. It is a place where one can discuss the doctrines and see if they “fit” our experience of Christ instead of trying to fit our faith into the doctrines of previous centuries.
The future of the faith depends on how well we are able to accept different articulations of the faith. We must be a community who can not only proclaim the love of Jesus Christ, we must be a place where we can easily talk about the relationships we have with the God who is all to all.