Friday, March 03, 2006

The Born-Again Experience: a secular account

Christianity – especially conservative Christianity – can’t be understood without accounting for the born-again experience. The potency of conservative Christianity comes from the life-changing experiences it can induce, not from the reasonability of its theology, the inherent sense of its dogma, or the virtues of its leaders. Someone whose life has been changed for the better will accept whatever worldview promises to maintain and build on that change, and will happily explain away any logical inconsistencies and paper over any institutional flaws.

Liberal religion shoots itself in the foot if it pretends that the born-again experience is just a myth or illusion. To the people who have experienced it, the born-again experience may be the most important single event in their lives. When you tell them it didn’t happen, you’re just telling them that you have no idea what you’re talking about. And if your argument against their religion ignores the experience, it is irrelevent.

Conservative Christian leaders gain credibility because they can explain this powerful experience within a worldview that grants it an appropriate degree of importance. In my opinion they use that credibility in destructive ways, but they’ve earned it. Instead of denying the experience, liberal religion needs a better, cleaner explanation, one not encumbered by theological and social baggage that comes with conservative Christianity.

Such an explanation needs to start with a description of the problem that the born-again experience solves.

The Ego/Shadow problem
Being human, we all have certain character flaws that are fairly obvious to anyone who really knows us. I have them, you have them – everybody does. Those flaws cause us to screw things up. We miss the opportunities to do the good things we might have done. We do bad things that cause other people distress. When we think about those things, we feel guilty, ashamed, and unworthy.

So mostly we don’t think about them. We certainly don’t talk about them. Instead, we develop an Ego complex: a telling of our story in which we are good people and all the bad things that have happened really weren’t that bad or were somebody else’s fault. The Ego may not be the hero of this story, but it certainly is a sympathetic protagonist.

And it’s fictional. It has to be, because (no matter how honest or well-intentioned we are) life is not a story and a person is not a character. When you think of your life as a story and identify with the main character of that story, you’re creating fiction.

That’s the normal human condition: a surface description of ourselves as good people (the Ego), balanced by an unarticulated, mostly unconscious knowledge that we’re making it all up. Some part of our being (maybe a large part) is left out of this I’m-a-good-person story. In Jungian terms, the Shadow.

Not talking about the Shadow doesn’t make it go away. It continues to be part of us, and to do things that the Ego story has a hard time accounting for. The more we need to portray the Ego as totally good, the less convincing our story becomes. The dissonance created when we tell this less-than-credible story is always at least mildly disturbing, and can be downright debilitating.

Some people have a worse case of Ego/Shadow duality than most, especially if their flaws are more obvious or they have less of what it takes to face those flaws consciously. Addicts, for example, tend to have a really bad case. Alcoholics, compulsive gamblers – they cause a lot of pain to the people close to them, and they have no genuine confidence that they can solve their problems by facing up to them. Maintaining the separation between the Ego and the Shadow can start to feel like a survival issue: “If I really admitted how awful I am, what choice would I have but to die? How could I claim I deserve to live?”

And so, the worse my semi-conscious sense of guilt is, the harder I work on maintaining my Ego.

The insufficiency of will power
The idea that I would have to die if I recognized my true faults is part of the same illusion that formed the Ego to begin with. The Ego, basically, is an explanation of why I deserve to live. But life isn’t something I earn, it’s just something I have. (The Christian notion that life is a gift of God may or may not be true, but it works psychologically.) Deserving and living don’t even play on the same stage. Deserving is a judgment about the past, while living happens in the present. Deserving is about our story, living about ourselves. No matter what you’ve done up to now, you could simply live in this moment and choose to do the best with it that you can.

But the conscious decision “I’m going to live in the moment and do the best I can” does not by itself heal the Ego/Shadow duality. It’s like deciding “I’m going to lose thirty pounds” or “I’m going to quit gambling.” It sounds great, and you may feel completely sincere when you say it, but who is really making that pledge – the complete human being who is you, or the fictional main character of your Ego story? Is this an expression of your true will, or just dialog?

In most cases it’s dialog. The Ego is pledging to defeat the Shadow once and for all, not to heal rift that created the duality to begin with. In order to work, a decision like this has to come from your whole being; and if your whole being is split, how can the two halves get together to make a decision?

In order to heal the split, you have to step outside your Ego. And since you consciously believe that your Ego is your Self, it seems like you have to look outside yourself for salvation.

The power of love
The easiest way to overcome the Ego/Shadow duality is through healing love. Even if I can't acknowledge the existence of my Shadow and face my faults directly, I may still be able to face a reflection of those issues in someone else’s eyes. If I can realize that some other person loves me, and if I can accept that they see my flaws, then I can begin to acknowledge my Shadow through them. The healing begins, then, as a process of projection: I accept the possibility that my flaws do not annihilate my worthiness, because I can imagine both of them existing together in the mind of the person who loves me.

In order for this process to work, the lover has to have certain qualities – or at least I have to believe s/he does. (The actual healing, naturally, has to happen inside me, not inside the other person. And so the key facts are in my imagination of the other person, not in the actual person.)
  • Love. The other person has to really love me, and not just be pretending. The love has to be visible, obvious, and tangible, so that I cannot deny it.
  • Insight.The whole point of the Ego story is to fool people (especially myself) into thinking that I’m lovable. If the person who loves me isn’t very insightful, s/he may have been taken in by my story. And that makes it more important than ever to keep the story going, so that s/he doesn’t see the Shadow and realize how wrong s/he has been to love me.
  • Worth. The healing won't work if the other person loves me because we’re both losers. If my lover deserves nothing better than my Shadow, or if loving me is simply part of his/her pathology – then the love is not healing.
Perfect love
Now imagine the perfect healing love. Take Love, Insight, and Worth and extend them to infinity. What do you get?


In the Christian worldview, Jesus is the most worthy being in the Universe: the only begotten Son of God. He doesn’t just have insight, he’s omniscient: He sees and knows and remembers everything about me – even things I don’t recognize or remember myself. And he expressed his love in the most tangible way possible: He chose to suffer and die so that I wouldn’t have to spend eternity in Hell.

If you can imagine those three properties fully, the born-again experience happens. It can happen in an instant, like a thunderclap: Your Ego and Shadow both get projected onto a perfect being who unifies them. By looking at yourself through the eyes of Jesus, you can see yourself as both flawed and worthy. You can acknowledge the guilt of your past without being overwhelmed by it in the present. And you can face the future as a flawed-but-worthy person, taking one step at a time.

Your sins, in other words, are forgiven.

But is it real?
At this point, the Believer and the Unbeliever start an argument. The Unbeliever says: “This can’t work because Jesus isn't real. I mean, maybe there was a man named Jesus who lived a long time ago, and maybe he even was crucified like the story says. But he didn’t rise from the dead, so he can’t love you because he’s not alive. Moreover, he’s not the only begotten Son of God and isn’t omniscient. So this whole thing can’t work because it’s based on nonsense.”

And the Believer counters: “But it did work. My sins are forgiven and I have a new life. So Jesus must have risen from the dead and be alive today. He must be the omniscient Son of God. It must all be true.”

Both of them miss an important point: The Ego and the Shadow are fictional characters. They exist in the imagination. The rift between them exists in the imagination. The healing really happens, but the place where it really happens is in the imagination. The Believer has been healed by imagining a being who has the three qualities of love, insight, and worthiness in infinite quantities. Whether such a being really exists may still be an open question, but the healing would have worked regardless.

Two challenges
And so, I believe I have explained the born-again experience without explaining it away. The Unbeliever is still faced with a challenge: In some situations, believing only what is provable may not be the most effective way to live; you may need to take an imaginative leap in order to be healed. The Believer who has taken such a leap may have made it to a desirable place, and it’s not obvious how you can follow.

But the Believer is also faced with a challenge: The explanation given by some particular sect or minister is not the only one possible, and not the only one that accounts for your experience. Your healing is real, your new life is real, and you are correct to think of the experience as one of the most important things that ever happened to you. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept all the theological and institutional baggage that comes with fundamentalist or pentecostal Christianity.


LaReinaCobre said...

I like the way you laid this out, Doug. Very accessible. I've definitely had the experience of being born again, but it's happened more than once, and sometimes it's been a very, very slow birth. Basically I had to do the things you said, without Jesus. I finally accepted the Love of my family and my closest friends, whose insight I respect, and whose relationships are not co-dependent ones.

It was a real leap of "faith" to simply accept that I didn't have to deserve being alive. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that, but it's a far cry from constantly feeling that I had to be perfect in order to have worth.

In any case, thanks for the work you obviously put into this piece.

PeaceBang said...

I appreciate your analysis, which uses psychological insights but respects the ultimately religious/spiritual nature of a born-again experience. In my experience, religious liberals employ psychology in obnoxious, haughty ways to explain AWAY the legitimacy of the born-again experience. Which just leaves them looking like idiots who have put the idol of Jung or Freud or whoever in the place of Jesus.

chutney said...

Thank you, Doug. Excellent, excellent, excellent work.

Jaume said...

I guess you mean "American Christianity" or simply "Evangelicalism". I live in the country that was once called "the most Catholic country in the world" and I have never met a born-again Christian. As for the power of the experience, for what I've read, I agree. That is why I think it is important for UUs to have powerful New Member ceremonies. We need more initiatory rituals that have an impact on people's psyche when they join us, not just signing the membership book and paying to the treasurer.

Bill Baar said...

You don't have to believe in anyone's born-again experience.

It's usually pretty tangable event; obvious in the changed life.

It's concrete and not abstract.

arulba said...

I very much like the way you have laid this out. But, is there really such a big gap between fiction and reality? I've heard tell that prior to the Israelites being known as Israelites, they were slaves without identity. It was the metaphorical story of walking through the desert to freedom that made them a people. Where does myth end and reality begin? As Joseph Campbell says, most of us greatly misunderstand the meaning and power of myth and metaphor.

Wonderful post. I'm sure I'll be referring to this one frequently, too!

bohemiantroubadour said...

Ask the Pope is very silly. Why do Unitarians even bother contemplating religion? It sounds as foolish as Baptists? Merely a reflection.

Saint of God said...

Good explanation of "Born Again" but what about the bible being so incredibly accurate in any way you wish to scrutinize it? How about the bible telling the story of being born again and of the works of God in our history? Or the 1500 years, 40 authors, 66 books, speaking of the Christ from Genesis 3 through the last page.

Jesus didnt deny that there were other ways to change and improve your life beside Him. He just said it was useless to do so.(Matthew 12:43-45) This is why secular psycology is so successful today.

Look at just born again and you may have a very subtly deceptive piece here, even to the born again christian. But look at the entire picture and this sounds as foolish to the christian as those who claim born again isnt real.

So, deal with the bible, the history of our world testifying to the Lord, and the born again experience and while you are at it... explain the total eclipse of the sun during a full moon (which science states is impossible) the moment Jesus died and the earth quake that happened at the same time... explain all of this together with the born again and you may succeed in deceiving even the elect, if that were possible.

May the Lord bless you and keep you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift His countenance upon you and give you peace.

Doug Muder said...

Saint of God,

I'm not getting what you mean by "the Bible being so incredibly accurate".

"explain the total eclipse of the sun during a full moon (which science states is impossible) the moment Jesus died and the earth quake that happened at the same time"

My explanation is pretty simple: It didn't happen. Is there any reason (other than the Bible account itself, which would be circular evidence) to think it did?

XY said...

Well, this is actually quite a very interesting and respectful view of the Born Again experience; a far cry from the usual secular attempts at explanation, which are, 9/10 times just chalked it up to wishful thinking by the willfully ignorant. However, there are a number of factors that have been missed, one of them is that most born again Christians will profess to not deciding to turn to Jesus, but being called and selected, often even against their intuition or will, thus the term, "Saved by the Grace of God." And while you correctly identify the born again experience as being the primary reason that Christians take the tenants of their faith to be literal, it would be interesting to see a secular explanation for the truly marked changes in a person's character and lifestyle after being born again, and if the process is a purely secular one, why can it not be extended to purely secular people, to improve their lives? Also, born agains have a strong commitment to God, and though they are 'saved' they want to please the living God they feel in their hearts. They often describe a strong love of life, a strong, positive viewpoint on life, and a declared faith in the fact that once the mortal life ends, they will continue on into the afterlife; indeed many state that they look wholeheartedly forward to the experience of dying, even while they are by no means 'dead' in their mortal lives, but markedly more vibrant and alive.

Also the experience of being born again doesn't always happen when the person knows exactly who or what Jesus is, which ratifies the concept of God calling the saved person.

Overall I think it's a great job at trying to rationalize the experience, and you deserve massive kudos for just declaring it as a valid experience (whereas I said most liberals and unbelievers scoff it away, to their own folly). But I think there's a lot more to it.

Doug Muder said...

Reply to XY:
Events that happen in the unconscious usually appear to come from the outside. Falling in love, for example, is often described as something that happens against a person's will -- hence the belief in an external goddess of love, like Aphrodite.

What drives me (and a lot of people) towards a secular explanation of religious experiences is that all religions (including atheism) have them, even though their explanations of them can't all be true in the same universe. Every religion's experiences have unique aspects, but the qualities you note -- lasting character changes, a renewed love of life, making peace with death -- are not unique to Christianity.

William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" was the first serious secular attempt to deal with the universality of religious experiences. A century later, it is still a great book.

XY said...

To Doug:

I'm not sure I can remember the last time I saw someone gain a new love for life because they were born-again atheists, which invalidates the idea that all religions are inherently the same and can be objectively explained by secularism. In fact religions can be quantitatively weighed, and there is certainly an economical evolution to religion in which joy is the currency and attaining it in the most efficient way is the motivator for religious evolution.

But, as to the subject of this secular explanation of the born again phenomena, its valuable in that it treats the experience as valid. As for explanation, I don't think one can understand it unless they either undergo it or really believe that the world is more than matter and extends into the realm of the supernatural.

Peace - Xy

Doug Muder said...


I think you should meet more atheists. They might surprise you. I run into people all the time who were raised with an oppressive God looking over their shoulders, and felt liberated to live life to the fullest after a conversion experience in which they realized they did not believe in God.

Having participated in a wide range of religions and met a diverse grioup of people, my experience doesn't support any hierarchical view that would postulate one religion as inherently more advanced than another.

Doug Muder said...

When I made my last comment I didn't have an appropriate quote at my fingertips; now I do. This from The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville:

"My faith, if occasionally laced with doubts, was strong until around age eighteen. Then I lost it, and it felt like a liberation -- everything suddenly seemed simpler, lighter, stronger, and more open. It was as if I had left childhood behind me, with its fantasies and fears, its closeness and languorousness, and entered the real world at long last. ... Such freedom! Such responsibility! Such joy!"