The Damascus Road: On Being Born Again

I have done some fairly heavy-duty thinking about how to start off the new year’s blog programme. I am not big on new year’s resolutions: if you have to wait until a new year to make an important change in your life, then you don’t fully buy into the necessity for change, in my opinion, and are therefore more likely to fail. So I won’t write about resolutions. Still, the promise of new beginnings and a clean slate is enticing, and I want to start the new year off by writing something that speaks to that.

 

I have picked up several new readers in recent posts, and it would perhaps be fitting to restate what it is that I see my blog as being about. When I started off, I didn’t really have a clear purpose for writing, other than that I love writing and felt compelled to connect. Lately, that has changed. I have come to see the purpose of my blog as a vehicle for converting Christians to Christianity. I have spent a good deal of my adult life in Christian education, and as a consequence, a good deal of my friends come from various types of Christian backgrounds. And they are good people, and I don’t wish in any way to question their sincerity or devotion or faithfulness. But I do find it sad, I need to confess, that this devotion is not to Jesus, but to a twisted post-Calvinistic, Janus-faced God (to quote Michael Hardin). And I really, really want them to see how much this understanding of God limits them. The reason I post the links to my writing on Facebook at all (I am really not good on social media – Facebook is good for reminding me when people’s birthdays are, but I am a bit suspicious of it otherwise) is that I hope that some of them will read my posts and start to find God. If you have read this far, I will assume that there is a part of you that – like me – longs to understand who created us. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, despite the revolutionary teachings of Jesus, the church turned away from a God of love and went back to that ancient idol – the God of wrath. I see my blog as one of the many voices attempting to tear that idol down.

 

So today I want to talk about conversion, being born again. A common experience for pretty much all the Christians I know (whatever their doctrinal backgrounds) is some sort of point of conversion: a sense that they were starting new in Jesus. Having thus been “born again”, they see it as their highest calling to bring others to that same experience. In many ways I am not much different. I, too, long for people to come to see God the way I have come to know Hen (for those unfamiliar with my writing, ‘Hen’ is a Swedish, gender-neutral pronoun; I only refer to God in the masculine when I wish to emphasise a problematic understanding of Hen). But we differ in critical ways too: I don’t see conversion as a choice between competing ideologies, resulting in damnation or acceptance by God. Conversion is critical because it affects our understanding of God, others and ourselves, and therefore has profound ramifications for our quality of life.

 

I believe, though, that modern Christianity has a completely faulty understanding of what conversion is, of what it means to be “born again”. It has come to mean an intellectual acceptance that Jesus is God and believing that he was punished by God for our sins, instead of us. It is associated with saying the “sinner’s prayer”, buying into Miserable Worm Theology, and trying to be perfect. It has come to mean never questioning the Bible, rejecting everyone who thinks differently, and closeting oneself off from the rest of the world. I want to challenge that.

 

If we are to frame a proper understanding of what being ‘born again’ is, perhaps there is no better place to start than with that most famous of conversions, Saul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and his subsequent rise to prominence as a key figure in the early church. I must give credit at this point to Derek Flood, whose commentaries on Paul form the basis of the ideas that follow.

 

One of the most important things to note is that Paul’s conversion is not a renunciation of his Jewish heritage. At no point does he reject his Jewish faith or the Hebrew scriptures. What he does reject is the violent interpretation of them that he had previously held. In other words, Paul does not convert from one religion to another, but shifts the way in which he understands his own faith. It is no coincidence that the words Christ speaks to Paul on the road to Damascus are “Why are you persecuting me?”(Acts 9:4). The challenge that Jesus issues to Paul is not to examine his personal holiness, it is not forcing Paul to confess that Jesus is God, it is a confrontation of Paul’s tendency to interpret his faith violently, to sanction violence in the name of God. After Damascus, the change that happens in Paul is not simply a realisation that Jesus is God: it is a radical shift in the way he lives out his faith as a result of that realisation. And that shift is not a shift towards the pursuit of personal holiness. He already has that: consider Paul’s description of himself in Philippians 3:5-6:

 

“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”(my emphasis)

 

To put it differently, Paul’s ‘born again’ moment is not an acknowledgement that Jesus is God; it is not the adoption of a different faith; it is not confessing that he is a sinner and that Jesus died in his place. It is a rejection of the notion of a violent God. The thing that Paul believes makes him the ‘worst of all sinners’ is the former violent expression of his faith and his belief that God sanctioned this: “I do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9). Paul’s conversion does not lead him to finding Jesus in the Jewish scriptures; it leads to his radically reinterpreting them to show that God rejects sacralised violence.

 

For example, when Paul makes the radical comment in Romans 15 that the God of the Jews loves the Gentiles equally, he quotes several passages from the Jewish scriptures. He deals with those scriptures in much the same way Jesus does, for example, in Luke 4: he omits the references to God’s violence:

 

“For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: “I destroyed my foes. They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—to the LORD, but he did not answer … He is the God who avenges me, who puts the Gentiles under me … Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” [quoting Psalm 18:41–49]

 

Again, it says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.” [Deuteronomy 32:43]

 

Paul does something similar when he quotes Deuteronomy 32 in Romans 12:19-21. The original passage depicts a brutally violent God, smashing the Gentile enemies:

 

35It is mine to avenge; I will repay.  In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.”
36 The Lord will vindicate his people and relent concerning his servants when he sees their strength is gone and no one is left, slave or free. 37 He will say: “Now where are their gods, the rock they took refuge in, 38 the gods who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offerings? Let them rise up to help you! Let them give you shelter!

39 “See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life,  I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand. 40 I lift my hand to heaven and solemnly swear: As surely as I live forever, 41 when I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me. 42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.”

43 Rejoice, you nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people (Deuteronomy 32:35 – 43)

 

It’s awful! and we stubbornly cling to half-baked arguments (based on the notion that God endorses retributive justice) that this can somehow be reconciled with a perfectly loving God! But Paul, the one who had violently persecuted the early church in the name of God, as a direct result of the challenge Jesus posed to him on the Damascus road, now no longer believes in a God of violent retribution. God, Paul has come to realise, as demonstrated in Jesus, shows only grace and mercy – even to Hens enemies. So instead, Paul urges the church in Rome not to pursue revenge, not to engage in sacralised violence, but instead, to live a gospel of peace: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”.

 

So let me begin the new year by stirring a bit (but with no malice or condescension intended). It is my deep desire that my Christian friends be ‘born again’ and come to know Christ. There is a profound liberation in understanding that God is love, that Hen does not look like the monster in so many of the Biblical descriptions, but rather that God’s ethic and Jesus’s are identical. I sincerely wish that you will come to reject the blood-soaked and brutal God you have been raised to believe in, an idol that offers only the illusion of life, and come to a place where you can follow the path of love and peace that Jesus promised was the way to life in abundance. I know it feels to many of my Christian friends and readers (whom I will regard as friends, although we have never met) that I am heretical. I know many of you feel deeply uncomfortable with what I have to say and don’t know how to begin expressing that to me. I have been there too. Letting go of paradigms that seemed absolute is scary. All I ask is this: dare to look for God again. Dare to start framing your theology not around the Bible, not around your fears of damnation or your desire to be good, but around Jesus. Ask yourself this question: if Jesus is the fullness of God revealed, what does that mean about God? I am not asking you to abandon your faith. I am asking that, just as Paul did, you see that it might be possible to shift the way you understand it.

 

And please talk to me. I am on this journey too, seeking after the heart of God. And I am not claiming to have definitive answers, only questions that demand different answers from the ones I have been given. But I do have very definite opinions (not answers), and I can only test their validity when they are thrown up against contrary ones. So if you have questions about what I believe, I will explain my reasoning, and where you disagree, I am open to hearing it. And although it will always be my hope that you will, I won’t expect you to convert to my way of thinking, nor do I believe that you are destined to fry because you won’t. Here’s to a new year of peace and forgiveness and seeking. Shalom.

 

 

 

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