Sunday, 16 February 2014

Nicodemus, William James, and the God of Abraham

Ricks Institute
Virginia, Liberia
Established 1887
Recently I watched and listened as a visiting missionary stood in front of more than one hundred Liberian pastors during a Q & A session at the end of a three-day conference for rural pastors at Ricks Institute.
From a Tuesday morning until noon on Thursday the pastors were invited to participate in four different experiences. During the days there were consecutive sessions of Bible Study (Philippians), a workshop on preaching, and lectures on apologetics. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings the pastors and others from the Ricks Institute community joined in worship.
"Allah" in Arabic
After a series of questions about the content of the teaching sessions, a pastor stood to ask a question about an issue that had not been broached in any presentation: “Is the God of Mohammed the God of Christianity?” 
In the context of West Africa—especially in many communities in Liberia—the question is more than an intellectual exercise. Both Islam and Christianity are foreign religions in sub-Saharan Africa. They came with missionaries from Arab lands in the Middle East and Christian lands in the West. The pastor’s question was at least about a theological assertion, often couched in exclusivist terms. But, the question had (and has) a broader horizon. Christians and Muslims in Liberia share land, government, economy, hopes and dreams, as well as sorrows. Beneath the apparently simple appeal for a “yes” or “no” about the God of Mohammed, there remains the larger and more critical question: “How can Christians and Muslims live together in peace?”
The missionary on that Thursday morning was adamant in his denial of any relationship between Allah and the God Christians claim is made known in history through Jesus of Nazareth, confessed to be the Christ. His denial began and ended with a doctrine of exclusion and never moved from that sharp center into the equally important questions of worship, prayer, attention to the poor, alms, and the quest for spiritual maturity.
The Liberian pastor deserved more. He needed more. I am confident, too, that he wanted more. At least he needed some guidance toward a way to reflect upon how Christians and Muslims strive to live out their convictions in Liberia with the integrity of their faiths.
 That need is my impetus as I explore Nicodemus, William James, and the God of Abraham. 
Representation of Nicodemus
and Jesus (John 3)
The Gospel of John is rife with misunderstandings, both those embedded intentionally in the narratives by a creative author and those carried away from the narratives—also often intentionally—by equally less-creative interpreters. In the first of seven dialogs in John, Nicodemus carries the burden of misunderstanding and, too, becomes the standard bearer for those whose intention is to perpetuate the error instead of, like Jesus in the narrative, to shed light on Nicodemus’ confusion.
Take a moment to read John 3:1-21, but do yourself a favor and don’t read the version you usually read. Avoid the King James Version [KJV] or the New International Version [NIV]. Try the American Standard Version [ASV] or either the Revised Standard Version [RSV] or the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]. Try The Message, too!
The phrase “born again” found in KJV and NIV does not appear in ASV, RSV, NRSV, or The Message. Instead, a comparison reader will find “anew” [ASV] or “from above” [RSV], [NRSV], and The Message.
In John 3:4 Nicodemus misunderstood “anew” or “from above”; it was Nicodemus, not Jesus, who thought about returning the womb to be born again. Jesus gently chides Nicodemus for the misunderstanding, but uses the error to shed light upon an insight larger than physical birth, symbolized by “water” (v. 5), and that is of “spirit birth” (v. 6).
Alas, characteristic of the Gospel of John, Jesus’ gentle chide adds to the confusion! Before Nicodemus can ponder the differences between “again” and “from above,” Jesus uses the word, pneuma, which can mean one of three things: wind, spirit, or breath. Poor Nick. He concedes to the confusion and exclaims, “How can these things be?!” Never again in the passage does he speak. Instead he listens as Jesus elaborates upon “heavenly things” (v. 12).
“Born againism springs from John 3. At best it is a phenomenon that owes allegiance to Nicodemus’ confusion. At worst it is a quip mined from the ore of “heavenly things” that fails miserably at retaining the context of demand and responsibility that come “from above” when one is “born anew.”
Edward Wilmot Blyden
In early February 2013 I was in Freetown, Sierra Leone with my colleague, Olu Q. Menjay. We had crossed into Sierra Leone from Liberia and travelled the bush roads to Freetown on a pilgrimage, of sorts. Olu and I have shared interest in Edward Wilmot Blyden, a nineteenth century giant whose contributions to education, diplomacy, African identity, and religion continue to demand attention. We were excited in our journey because in Freetown we were to meet Isa Blyden, the great-granddaughter of Edward Wilmot Blyden.
Our day with Isa Blyden was full of challenges and discoveries. The highlight was a visit to a mosque in Freetown in the Foulah district where Blyden lived the last years of his life, creating an educational system for Muslim children that still is a model program a century later.
Blyden was a Christian (Presbyterian) missionary who was a pioneer in Christian-Muslim relations in West Africa. He understood that Christianity and Islam could contribute to the betterment of colonial and post-colonial West Africa. He lived and died forging mutual respect and understanding among Africans whose traditional religions had been challenged and transformed by the foreign religions (Christianity and Islam) in their midst.
After our visit to the mosque, which included some rich conversation with the imam and some men who had gathered for afternoon prayers, Isa was telling me and Olu about new tensions in the Foulah Town area. “There are too many ‘born agains,’” she said. I pressed her clarity. “The ‘born agains’ are Muslims from the Arab world and Christians from the West who want to politicize their religions and make them rivals rather than partners.” Then and now I see her point. It is further evidence that “the born agains” are not interested in “heavenly things.”
William James
William James, pioneer in psychology and personality, offers a different way of describing and understanding the phenomena of what he termed “once-born” and “twice-born” personalities. And, yes, they are personalities. In his now-classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (the 1902 Gifford Lectures), James organized his observations and analyses of experiences and responses to the divine and/or religious teachings. The “once-born” and the “twice-born” occupied his attention in four of the lectures.
The once-born, by James' description, live in a box of sorts. He writes:
In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values which naturally they appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth. Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account (Modern Library edition, 163).
By contrast James describes the twice-born:
In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount and transient, there lurks a falsity in its very being. Cancelled as it all is by death if not by earlier enemies, it gives no final balance, and can never be the thing intended for our lasting worship. It keeps us from our real good, rather; and renunciation and despair of it are our first step in the direction of the truth. There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other (Ibid.).
Of the two types James observes that the first tends to be happier with life while the second tends to bend under the burdens of life’s ambiguities. In the end, however, James observes that the twice-born are healthier once they make or find peace with life’s mysterious multivalences.
Applying James’ observations and analyses to the narrative about Nicodemus in John 3, it appears that the born-agains are once-born; the born anew (or from above) are twice-born. Born-agains—as the term is used in this post—live in a world of pluses and minuses, all of which are clear (to them). The born anews, however continue to live in the midst of an ambiguous world. As twice-born the face daily the tasks of personal and corporate integration of multiple values, all ordered from a “higher” perspective.
Head of Paul
Paul must have been twice-born (but his term was “new creation” [2 Cor 5:17]), especially with regard to the God of Abraham. He finally was able to reconcile the pluses and minuses that his background gave him. As a once-born Pharisee who could not have any compassion for the Gentiles,  he emerged twice-born, a new creation, who was able to see that the God of Abraham was the God of the Gentiles, too. Then, wonder of wonders, he chided the Gentiles (more forcefully than Jesus chided Nicodemus in the Gospel of John) for their arrogant disdain for all things Jewish. Paul’s chide of the Gentiles in Rome fills three chapters (see Rom 9–11).
Romans manuscript
To the Romans Paul wrote: “The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their [the Jews] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercer shown to you, they too may receive mercy. So God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom 11:29-32).
Although Paul knew nothing (of course) about the God of Mohammed, he did pause to reflect upon Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. In Galatians Paul offers a midrash on Hagar and Sarah and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac. He says that the two women (and their sons) “are two covenants” (Gal 4:24), one a covenant of slavery and the other a covenant of freedom.
Hagar, Ishmael, and the Angel
Genesis 21
Indeed, the narratives in Genesis about Hagar (see Gen 17 and 21) are couched in the God of Abraham making promises to Hagar regarding the son she bore Abraham. And, too, Ishmael, Hagar and Abraham’s son, bears the mark of the covenant with Abraham—circumcision—before Isaac.

That Liberian pastor deserved more than he got from the missionary. He needed more. I think he wanted more. Perhaps . . . another missionary in the future will do better with the question. Better yet, perhaps . . . a Liberian pastor/teacher will offer a more reflective response to a question that presses hard upon all Liberians, Christian or Muslim.


  1. Would Paul's words to the Corinthians, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known," be evidence of his twice-born view? Yes, while he does not seem to have many questions about his past, he does not mind speaking of mystery as it relates to the future: "Behold I tell you a mystery…" (1 Cor. 15:51).

    It seems that college for some, seminary for others, upsets the simple world of the first-borns. Should I say, it used to be that seminaries upset the simple world of the first-borns. Many still do, but now many only reinforce the simple equations of life that students arrive with. Because people enter college and seminary young, for many nothing has yet happened to upset their world or test their faith. So many have not yet embraced mystery because every things still adds up in their simple world. Everything can be explained. Every thing must be explained. Every problem has an answer. So naturally, there would be a simple answer to the pastor's question to the missionary and not a complex one.

    There is a time when some realize that being first born is not enough and it causes a crisis of faith. For others, when that point is reached, the next step seems like another conversion experience. I embrace the twice-born concept. But it took a while to become comfortable with mystery and ambiguity. That wasn't part of the faith I was taught.

    We can know enough within the framework of mystery to believe and affirm the One who said we must be born of the Spirit, and to live as He has asked us and taught us to live, but we should also remember that the Wind cannot be captured in a box. The Spirit comes and goes as He pleases. Any one who thinks they know exactly what the Wind will do, where He will go, who He will affect is in denial that God can ever be intimately known, although He can know us that way.