This is the season to talk about rebirth, while spring is starting to blossom in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere! It’s been on a lot of folks’ minds, I’m noticing. And the idea of being reborn is a central idea in Christianity that we may carry with us long after leaving the religion.
Today I’ll show you why the Christian narrative of rebirth is a false promise, one that isn’t fulfilled by the actual lived reality of the religion–and also why I don’t think it’s all that great of a promise anyway.
A New Creation.
Life can get pretty hectic for most folks. We’ve got a billion things flying at us every day, it seems. We have dozens of moral decisions to make every day, if not way more. Some of them are very minor–a white lie about feeling fine when we’re really blue, taking the last chocolate caramel, or saying that a co-worker’s hair looks great when we’re wondering what on earth she was thinking. Some of them are a lot bigger–flirting with someone who isn’t our partner, ducking out of a responsibility at the last second, or fluffing a deadline (ouch).
Every time we don’t quite live up to our own expectations, whether it’s a small matter or a large one, we suffer a little bit of damage to our self-perception. That damage builds up over time if it’s not dealt with until we feel downright wretched.
Making matters more difficult, most of us also face disappointment as we get older. The relationships we thought would last forever, end. The truths we were so certain of in our youth, turn out to be more nuanced than we like. The dreams we had for our futures turn to dust, with reality often nowhere near as glamorous, fun, or exciting as we’d once thought. Social changes may bring our positions of privilege low; changes to society itself may mean that we need to seriously examine and amend the way we interact with others. People who formed the mainstays of our lives when we were youngsters die or get seriously sick, and suddenly we may find ourselves thrust into roles that we’d never imagined for ourselves: caretaker, nurse, full-time childcare provider. Little wonder that many older people pine for the “Good Ole Days,” when things seemed easier and simpler and they were still riding the crest of a massive wave that showed no signs of petering out.
More than that even, though, it can be tempting to want a do-over.
A reset. A new beginning. A fresh start. A second chance.
A group that can offer that do-over can start looking very appealing indeed–to those who don’t know better.
A Dreadful Offer.
Part of our tasks as humans, as we get older, is to learn to deal with those routine disappointments and to forgive ourselves and learn to make amends for mistakes and errors. Neither of these skillsets is an inborn talent, really; both can be learned, honed, and applied.
Most of us learn on the fly as we get older. We have a few break-ups, some business deals go sour, we buy a MLM “starter kit” and make our friends mad before realizing it’s dumb, have an elderly relative die, start and change new jobs, move cross-country, travel, have wild sex with absolutely inappropriate people, buy Cruel Shoes, and other stuff like that.
Life itself shows us the way.
Minor disappointments in our childhood teach us to handle the bigger ones later. The minor sins of our youth teach us to apologize, make amends, and move forward when we’re adults and take the last bagel at work. The transgressions we resist as kids and the goals we work toward show us how to manage our impulses and look at the long term as adults. The fears we work through show us how to get through the bigger ones that loom over our entire species. The learning we internalize and the empathy we feel for others breaks through our errors and–if we’re honest–help us refine our worldview and appreciate our place in the tapestry, and understand what we bring to the table and need from it.
Every heartbreak we survive shows us that we are stronger than we ever thought possible–and that somehow the morning dawns and the evening wanes into dusk even when the world feels like it’s falling down around our pretty ears. More than anything, we need to know that. Getting up and moving forward after some tremendous pain is one of the hardest things anybody can do, and it’s not something that comes naturally.
It is our parents (if we’re lucky) who help guide us through those earliest, smallest troubles, so that when we’re older and don’t have them to protect us, or face a problem they can’t solve for us, we can navigate on our own. They show us how to apologize when we’ve done wrong, how to fight battles when we know we’re in the right, how to concede and win graciously, how to seek help when we’re overwhelmed, and how to evaluate claims. Then they watch us completely ignore all of that when we charge out into the world, and all they hope is that we remember eventually what they tried to teach us.
And we generally, eventually do.
So yeah, life isn’t all sugar-spun candy and Party Cake Peeps, but it’s what we’ve got, and though our individual lives might vary a lot, pretty much all of us get the same sorts of experiences.
That’s the human situation in a nutshell, and one wishes one could greet newborns as Kurt Vonnegut once suggested:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies. “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Watch out for groups that claim to sneak you out of that universal experience, that promise to show you a way out of having to face those troubles, heartbreaks, problems, and situations, that try to impress upon you rules that don’t actually exist except to benefit the people trying to make you follow them and grant you membership in a tribe that fancies itself the dominant one in our culture.
If you try to insulate yourself or your loved ones from the human situation, you never learn the lessons humans have to learn. You never grow. Never know. Never understand. You are a perpetual child–even though once we stop being small children, the adults in our lives stop being, in their turn, near-gods in their power and puissance. You end up putting your faith into an entity who doesn’t actually appear to exist, hoping that entity might maybe possibly save you from the human experience itself. (Guess how well that works?)
By pretending to offer protection from the human situation and a hard-reset on life’s troubles, by acting like their ideology can create for you a new beginning and make you a whole new person, these groups are doing you no favors whatsoever.
An Impossible Offer.
Christianity is probably what springs to mind when someone says “redemption” or “new birth.” The idea of a “second birth” is one of the most central ideas in Christian ideology–and it is indeed so central that the first requirement for escaping Hell is to become a “new person in Christ” through a confession of faith and baptism (though the exact requirements vary by denomination–strange, considering how important this ritual is to the religion as a whole). There are likely more Christians who believe Satan is actually a good guy than who believe that a second birth is unnecessary.
Lifelong Christians “get saved” as children (and increasingly younger, I’m noticing), while adults are converted from non-belief or poached from other churches. Often you’ll hear either group describe their experience as being “born again”.
By telling Jesus telepathically that you are very, very sorry for offending him back before you even thought he existed, and declaring telepathically to him that you totally believe in him (while leaving out your terror of Hell, because obviously you aren’t converting just because you’re terrified of Hell, riiiight?), then dunking yourself in water that is totally not like a bath or a swim because a ritual prayer is said over you while you do it, then you are promised that you can become a totally new creature, start off fresh, and be washed clean as snow.
Except that doesn’t really happen, and even Christians themselves concede that point when pressed.
Thom Rainer of Lifeway Christian Resources, a media and research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, regularly writes about churches filled with awful people. One Christian blogger blames the preponderance of “mean Christians” on Christians in Name Only, because TRUE CHRISTIANS™ wouldn’t ever do anything mean… unless they’re having a really bad day; he eventually weakly concedes that his tribe “could do better” in how it interacts with others. Another wrote about cringing when one of his tribemates was cruel to a server in a coffeeshop, using it as an illustration about how awful Christians can be toward others.
One uncharacteristically honest Christian even admits that there is no difference whatsoever between the lived realities of Christians and non-Christians. As he writes, “there’s no visible difference” between the two. And as most of us could tell him, many non-Christians get asked if we are Christian because we appear to embody the qualities that Christians (mistakenly) think are unique to themselves or even best exemplified by them.
One of the hardest things I saw as a Christian was someone converting to my religion and declaring that their depression, anxiety, addictions, violent tendencies, sexual desires, or diseases were cured now and that they would go forth and never ever have to deal with that stuff again because Jesus had taken it all away. I knew even then that leopards don’t change their spots. For every Christian who actually seemed to succeed at long-term personality changes, there were a hundred or thousand who totally did not manage the trick. I’m not exaggerating, either; I know of exactly one person who seemed permanently different after conversion, and even she admitted that she struggled with her old proclivities often. Everybody else was either great at pretending they were better, while their intimate friends knew the truth, or else they flat-out failed over and over again to manage even the veneer of the Happy Christian Illusion.
I might have seen the truth early on, but I didn’t know then to ask the question I should have been asking all along:
Why Doesn’t Jesus Seem to Be Changing Anyone?
If Christian leaders and evangelists were honest, their promise would run thusly: Telepathically tell Jesus this canned ritual prayer and perform this ritual bath, and he will magically change you! Unless he doesn’t, in which case you have to learn–with his help of course–how to be a better person. And if you still don’t manage to accomplish a permanent change, then you’ll be accused of sinning somehow and told to do more extra lots of the stuff that totally failed the first time to help you become a brand-new person, and eventually he’ll magically fix your problem. Maybe.
There doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit of difference between “trying to change a lifelong habit with Jesus” and “trying to change a lifelong habit without Jesus.” In fact, belief in Christianity’s supernatural claims seems to accomplish exactly diddly divided by squat when it comes to making personal progress of any kind in life.
While the behavior of Christians is not, in and of itself, evidence that their supernatural claims are not true, their behavior as a group certainly speaks not only to how much they themselves believe their prattle but also to exactly how well their ideology helps them make positive changes in their lives and teaches them empathy and compassion toward others.
And there’s a reason for that.
When someone says the Sinner’s Prayer and gets that ritual dunk in water, there’s nothing supernatural going on. It may be intensely spiritual and have great significance for the believer, but nothing’s magically rewriting their DNA or erasing the influence of their past.
When that person gets dried off, dressed, and headed for home, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, nothing has happened to change their social support network, their general outlook on the world, or their physical preferences.
“Jesus” doesn’t make that person’s sex organs fail to respond to stimuli that used to get a reaction. “Jesus” doesn’t stop that person from craving the substances that once fed their addiction. “Jesus” doesn’t stop that person’s frustration levels from rising until they explode into violence. “Jesus” doesn’t implant any new coping strategies in that person, or give that person different hormones, or change that person’s sexual orientation, or make that person magically able to withstand their old temptations.
And worst of all, most cruelly of all, “Jesus” doesn’t magically wipe away all the aches and pains and hurts and fears and trials and cruelties and dishonesties and betrayals and disillusionments of that person’s lifetime.
That is why an older Christian lady I spotted on social media over Easter wrote heartbreakingly about how she “knows” she’s been forgiven by her imaginary friend for whatever “sins” a sweet 75-year-old lady could commit, but she can’t seem to make herself feel that way. There’s a reason why she can’t, of course, but her solution is to do more of the stuff that hasn’t made her feel forgiven yet. That’s all she’s got in her toolbox. She had to “give those feelings to Jesus,” as she wrote, but it was clear that she had no idea how that was done.
I bring her up because she’s very representative of her faith system. (I’d link you if I could, but it was on a particular social media site and I’ve got no idea how to search there for past blogs or if it’s even possible to do so.) She’s not saying anything I didn’t notice over and over again both as a layperson and as someone who had a lot of friends in ministry:
After that rush of euphoria is over with, Christians often find themselves right back where they were before conversion.
In fact, they aren’t actually remade into new creations, but they don’t know that. A lifetime of social conditioning in Western culture has told them that such a reset button exists, and it’s not until they understand that it doesn’t that they can begin progressing. When someone realizes that the religion does not in fact deliver a “new birth,” the door is opened to questioning whether or not a “new birth” is even really that great of an idea.
God Damn It, You’ve Got to Be Kind.
There is no artificial reset button.
Welcome to the human situation, babies. There’s no indication that any supernatural beings are standing by to make our piddling little troubles easier or help us lose 10 pounds or find us parking spots or send us a perfect spouse or make our depressions or addictions lift or bring our abusers to justice.
This certainly appears to be it.
And that’s enough. It’s much more than most of us will ever come close to exhausting.
You, me, everybody, all of us, we’re in this life together. When we make mistakes, we have to admit it and try to make it right. When we feel heartbreak, we’ve got to reach out to those real people we love to help us ease that pain. When we suffer catastrophic loss, we must face the maelstrom squarely, get through it as best we can, and pick up the pieces afterward–and if we’re lucky, I mean really lucky, we’ll have help doing it.
That help won’t be coming from any supernatural beings, though, nor from magic rituals.
It’ll be coming from plain ol’ people like you and me.
When we see someone err, we’ve got to react appropriately: either by getting ourselves away from them, bringing them to justice, or giving them the support they need to make amends and apologize if need be. When we see someone’s heart break, we’ve got to ease that pain if we can. When we see people suffer catastrophic loss, we’ve got to help them pick up the pieces afterward if we are able.
God damn it, we’ve got to be kind.
We weave a web of support for ourselves, with no gods needed, when we act with compassion and empathy where we can–even and especially toward ourselves.
That’s the change that is real. That’s the change that lasts.
It’s not a reset button.
It’s much better than that.
Don’t talk to me about the incomprehensibly childish desire to start one’s life all over again. I wouldn’t be reborn even if it were possible. I don’t want to be “a new creation” or a “child in Jesus.” I need the terrible lessons I’ve learned, the skills I’ve gained through navigating troubles, the mistakes I’ve made, and yes, even the losses I’ve suffered. They weren’t fun to go through, but they made me the person I am today.
I will not surrender my maturity, experience, and hard-won wisdom to someone else just because it’d really help them out if I would.
And I don’t recommend you do so either.
Only one party benefits from that transaction, and it is not the person doing the surrendering.
Beware any group or person who tells you that their product or ideology can erase your past or create for you a new life. Only desperate people who never learned how to deal with their own lives’ trials are tempted by such offers; people who understand how important their past pains and mistakes are laugh at the very idea of starting over and having to do that all over again! There’s a reason why older people are happier, and I doubt it has a thing to do with Jesus.
So… how do you deal with those trials? We’ll talk about that the next time we touch on happiness. I can’t promise anybody universal answers, but I can certainly talk about what I’ve been up to on that front. See you on Thursday! Bumble says “SQUEAK!”