Sometimes I wonder if change in the individual is really possible. When Jesus says in John chapter 3 verse "you must be born again" I'm wondering what he is really saying. When I searched the internet on this scripture, I noticed many articles came up. For example "how to be born again". There was even one site with the steps detailed with large descriptive drawings. It sort of struck me strange that something which is supposed to be so transforming could be reduced to five steps. I was wondering if maybe the sense of Jesus saying "you must be born again" was really like saying "turn the moon into cheese" and you can be saved, or another way of saying that what you ask is really impossible or at least highly unlikely. If you look back into Mosaic law and realize the strict rules and consequences of breaking the law, and how many infractions result in being put to death, you may have the sense of the impossibility of personal reformation. Is it really possible to reform a child molester? Is it really possible to reform a thief? Is it re ally possible to reform a drug addict or alcoholic, or a natural born spouse abuser? I do not doubt the regenerative powers of Jesus Christ to change an individual. But I'm wondering how much of this "born-again" formula is primarily semantic and at best a statement of intention to reform. Being "born again" seems to imply an instantaneous change. I do not doubt that instantaneous change is possible. I do not know many people that this has happened to. I may be one among thousands or millions who has been able to observe this firsthand.
It was in the life of my father. After his encounter with Jesus Christ, I believe he was really "born again." One day he was a rabble rousing, fast driving, beer drinking, "life of the party" person and the next day it was like Al Dallas walked out and somebody else walked in. (A study of "walk-ins" is worth mentioning at this point). He became somber, slow driving, quit his job, and made mom's marital bliss turn into a nightmare. It was really a something to behold. It was not just a statement of intention, it was the change for real.
I've spent a good number of years serving the Catholic Church, although I did not formally convert to that religion, I can tell you that there is not a specific teaching regarding being "born again". It is more a matter of "formation." When I first heard that word in the Catholic Church I was left rather flat with the banality of the word in contrast with the radical change that I had seen with my father. I think the more common idea is that change is possible over a long period of time with continual exposure to higher ideals as in the Catholic experience of going to mass regularly, listening to the Scriptures, weakly admitting your failures, throwing yourself at the mercy of God and "hoping" for salvation. (The idea of "hoping" was really foreign to me being raised in a conservative Pentecostal environment. I mean, you were either saved or you weren't!) But as time wore on, I began to assess the Catholic people as the most even-tempered, patient, loving people, that I had ever met. I have attempted to assign reasons for this. One, is their uncontested obedience to the Pope. This idea is generally extended to the local priest who makes unilateral decisions all the time. If you contrast that to the arguing and bickering that goes on in so many other Protestant churches as if everybody's opinion matters, as in a democracy, you can sense what kind of a "formation" that would lead to.
Well, back to my dad. He changed for good. He went on to develop spiritually to a very high degree. And for the years that followed his "breakout, or breakthrough" experience of being "born again" he was pretty strict with the family, attempting to reform them, and conform them to his new ideals. There was a very high price for that but that is the subject of another essay. I'm happy to say there was a softening in his later years and attitude which I think more accurately reflects the real spirit of Jesus.
So, back to the discussion of the "born again" experience. I think in today's world it is more of a label. If you stop and think of some of the supposed mainline religious people you know, you would have to admit there are some pretty mean spirited people out there who claim to be "born again." So much so you may even question whether they are "Christian" or not. It was mainly as a result of my father's radical experience that I began to think, "Is this an experience confined to the Christian religion?" To answer that question, I soon found myself immersed in the study of Eastern mysticism and the path of the Yogi and a systemized search for a non-christian description of the "born-again" experience. I'm not going to get into that now but as per the main topic of this essay, suffice it to say that I think that true change in an individual is rare. I've noticed that most people's personality at age 12 is pretty much the same as when they are 72. Even Paramahansa Yogananda said that it takes 1 million incarnations to see an essential change in an individual. I think we should keep trying to be better individuals, but as Alan Watts said so colorfully, "try to be good, but don't try too hard."