The born-again experience can be sudden and dramatic. It can involve a dramatic revelation, a life-changing epiphany, as in the case of Saul on the road to Damascus, an experience through which he became Paul. Such dramatic conversions continue to this day; some people can name a day or even an hour when it happened. There is no reason to doubt that such "sudden conversions" occur. William James not only reports many such experiences, but speaks of them as one of the most remarkable psychological phenomena known.
But for the majority of us, being born again is not a single intense experience, but a gradual and incremental process. Dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and living into a new way of being, is a process that continues through a lifetime. The Christian life as it matures is ever more deeply centered in the Spirit-that is, centered in the Spirit of God as known in Jesus, the Spirit of Christ.
For most of us, this takes time. And even for those who can name an hour when they were born again, the process of living into the new life takes time. Of course, progress is not automatic; one can thwart it, obstruct it, impede it. But in the Christian life, aging, if not interfered with, has a way of deepening our centering in the Spirit. The messages and lures of youth and middle age are muted; we can rest more and more in God, more easily be in silence with God. And by being more centered in God, our lives are transformed. As the Christian life matures, we begin to experience the self-forgetfulness that accompanies a deepening trust in God.
The born-again metaphor not only applies to a single dramatic event or a lifelong process, but also to shorter rhythms in our lives. It is a process that may occur several times in periods of major transition, whatever the cause.
It even applies to the micro-rhythms of daily life. Martin Luther, a major spiritual mentor in my childhood, spoke of "daily dying and rising with Christ," and in language that sounds a bit archaic, of "daily putting to death the old Adam," the old self in us. By adding "daily," Luther echoes the gospel of Luke.
The "dailiness" of the process fits my experience, as it does that of many people I know. In the course of a day, I sometimes realize that I have become burdened, and that the cause is that I have forgotten God. In the act of remembering God, of reminding myself of the reality of God, I sometimes feel a lightness of being-a rising out of my self-preoccupation and burdensome confinement. We are called again and again to come forth from our tombs.
This process of personal spiritual transformation-what we as Christians call being born again, dying and rising with Christ, life in the Spirit-is thus central to the world's religions. To relate this to John's affirmation that Jesus is "the way": the way that Jesus incarnated is a universal way, not an exclusive way. Jesus is the embodiment, the incarnation, of the path of transformation known in the religions that have stood the test of time.
Seeing this commonality between the way of Jesus and the ways of the world's religions is sometimes disconcerting to Christians, given our history of "Jesus is the only way." But the commonality is cause for celebration, not consternation. Not only does it mean, to echo an exclamation in the book of Acts, the Spirit has gone out to Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and so forth, but it also adds credibility to Christianity. When the Christian path is seen as utterly unique, it is suspect. But when Jesus is seen as the incarnation of a path universally spoken about elsewhere, the path we see in him has great credibility.