... impossibility ... July 17, 2008
If ever we were to ask them, it is highly likely that anyone who practices a religious belief, no matter the ilk, be it Christian, Muslim or Jew, would very likely argue that they were at least attempting to be spiritual, to somehow get beyond the bounds of the flesh, the ordinary and mundane, and make an investment in a higher plane, a more permanent future.
Whether they would be so pretentious as to actually say that they were being spiritual, it is a good bet that, on some level, they are thinking it.
One of the strongest arguments against this kind of thinking is based upon some words that are reported to have issued from the mouth of Jesus:
That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit
(Gospel of John 3:6)
This is without question one of the best things that Jesus ever said (assuming of course that he actually said it, which is highly doubtful).
With a small handful of words, Jesus provides us with a compelling reason to steer completely away from the conscious (deliberate) practice of any kind of religion.
What does it mean exactly that "that which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit it spirit"?
In modern parlance, Jesus was simply saying that "apples are apples, and oranges are oranges."
They are not the same!
This is the essence of Jesus' words, words that, like so many others he spoke, were disarmingly simple, yet every bit as profound.
But their simplicity is deceptive. With the application of some basic logic, it is easy to see that Jesus was suggesting that, because the flesh is not the spirit (because it is flesh, remember), it cannot know (see) spirit (or spiritual things).
Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, a man who came to him "by night" in an apparent state of confusion, not quite understanding Jesus, what he was all about.
Jesus was trying to explain something to Nicodemus, to make something clear to him. And what he essentially told him was that flesh and spirit are not the same thing. They are different. Apples are apples, and oranges are oranges. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit is spirit.
Just before he offered these simple words to Nicodemus, he had told him that,
... unless a man is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.
(Gospel of John 3:3)
Nicodemus did not understand what he meant and challenged Jesus about the possibility of a person - an older person - entering his mother's womb again.
By broaching the subject of natural childbirth, it is all too clear that Nicodemus was thinking in terms of the flesh. (Could anything be more "of the flesh" than the reproductive process?)
Jesus responded with a statement that, to modern ears, is a little confusing. He assured Nicodemus that a person must be born of "water and spirit" to enter the kingdom of God, which appears to be a clarification of what he had previously said about simply being “born” again.
Being born of "water and spirit" suggests being born of "flesh and spirit." Remember, he is comparing the flesh and the spirit (or the natural and the supernatural) in this passage. He has not suddenly gone off on some obscure tangent and begun talking about water baptism, which is what some commentators on this passage claim.
It sounds a bit strange, but Jesus was telling Nicodemus that, "Yes, you must exist as a natural-born person of flesh (i.e., born of water) to qualify for entrance into the kingdom of God, but that natural-born person must undergo a supernatural birth, become a supernatural-born person, to enter the kingdom of God, a supernatural kingdom."
So how does this suggest that we should have nothing to do with practicing a religion? It's very simple. In our present incarnation we are creatures of flesh. As such, we only know matters of the flesh. When we talk we are engaging in a fleshy activity, no matter what we happen to be talking about. (This is even true of prayer, just another form of talking.)
We may think that we are talking about spiritual things, but are we? Perhaps. But even if we are talking about spiritual things, the talking alone does not thereby make us spiritual. There is, in fact, nothing that we, as creatures of flesh, can do, no action that we can perform, to become spiritual beings.
As creatures of flesh, spirituality is, in fact, beyond us, something that we are not at present (in the flesh) capable of, any more than we are capable of flying by dint of our own volition, without a flying machine.
Did we have any say-so, any control, over the matters of our natural birth? What makes us think then that we will have any input regarding the spiritual one?
Is there any suggestion in this passage that there is anything that we can do, any action that we can perform, that will thereby somehow transform us into spiritual beings?
I think not.
Jesus goes on to describe what it would actually be like to be born again (as a spiritual being):
The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but
do not know where it comes from or where it is going; so is everyone who is
born of the spirit.
(Gospel of John 3:8)
Do you believe that you have been born again, of the spirit? If so, you should be able to be like the spirit, in the same way that you are like the flesh now. You do fleshy things because you are born of flesh (that which is born of flesh is flesh). If you were born of spirit (born again), you would be able to do spiritual things.
What exactly are these spiritual things?
The wind blows (moves) where it wishes.
Does the flesh move where it wishes? The flesh is constrained by the physical parameters of the flesh. The spirit is completely unconstrained.
The spirit moves where it wishes. The flesh is traceable. It leaves footprints, fingerprints, DNA, pheromonal residues.
But the spirit leaves no traces. We do not know where it comes from or where it is going.
So is everyone who is born of the spirit.