As I complete another full year of my own life, and in the wake of the celebrations of the nativity of Jesus, I have been pondering what it means to be born, spiritually speaking. For birth, like life itself, is easily taken for granted. Actually it is a great mystery, in the best sense of that word. Like gender, it is not simple or straightforward, as many assume. Rather, it is a continuing revelation and developmental process. Indeed I am currently very struck by how my baby grandchild is changing every moment, in response to every encounter and their growing awareness of self. It feels like they are being born afresh, in new ways, every second. Their 'birth' was clearly not finished at their literal entry into this life. Nor is it ever complete for any of us, at least in this life. Rather, each of us, as Bob Dylan once wrote in a notable lyric, is either 'busy being born or busy dying'. Perhaps this is also part of what transgender people have to share with the world in our own (re)birthing?...
A classic biblical text is John 3.1-21 (NRSV version here) which recounts the meeting with Jesus, under the cover of darkness, of a prominent Pharisee and religious leader, Nicodemus, It is has been much used by a certain section of Christians to underpin their own particular experience and special emphasis on a particular kind of 'conversion' as the supposedly fundamental path to salvation and life with God. Indeed many such self-proclaimed 'born again' Christians even affirm that this (i.e their) understanding is the only pathway, even for Christians. Such an exclusivist view can be easily demolished on a number of grounds: including a very narrowed use of scripture and profound ignorance of the wide range of ways in which this passage has been understood in Christian tradition. In saying that, I certainly do not want to decry the positive illumination this text has provided many 'born again' Christians: where, that is, they have been truly transformed and empowered by love. Nonetheless, in a similar manner, it would be a further sign of grace if they too could recognise the positive spiritual experiences and insights this text has provided for others in different ways. I am deeply grateful, for example, to several Evangelical friends who see and do this, and who, through their transformed lives, offer me strength and inspiration, Part of my prayer is that this will be the case for many more Christians. For truly being born is always about 'conversion': being transformed, by the divine love which ultimately creates, bears, and calls us on. Each of us however experiences being 'converted' in different ways.
As a transgender person, part of my life-long spiritual transformation involves the re-cognition and expression of my particular gender identity. It is far from the only feature! Yet it is an important aspect of my journey and, I believe, potentially revelatory for others as well as myself. For being 'born again' is certainly one way in which a gender transition can be framed. Like other 'conversion' experiences, it thereby has its pitfalls: including perhaps the potential dangers of its own kinds of spiritual pride, narcissism, and getting stuck (at least for a while) in one form of self-definition. However, understood as a process, as part of our wider life-long 'birthing', being 'born again' through gender transition offers illumination and encouragement.
Read through transgender eyes, John 3.1-21 certainly comes alive in positive new ways as an invitation and story about transition. Symbolically speaking, Nicodemus represents all those who are proverbially 'in the closet'. For he creeps to Jesus in the night, unable to explore the truth and his full being in the day. He is mystified by what Jesus says about being born, struggling with its seeming impossibility. Yet how powerfully he is drawn to this promise. Seen in transgender focus, he is also strikingly drawn to the very terminology Jesus uses. For he is longing for a new birth: a transforming, re-forming, of his body and being. Jesus words are therefore telling. Jesus speaks of a different kind of birth which comes in a different kind of way. Indeed, the Greek word ἄνωθεν which is sometimes translated 'again' is highly ambiguous. It can, for example, also mean 'from the beginning/origin', or 'from above' (as it is translated in some of the best modern translations such as the New Revised Standard Version). As such it points us to an unusual re-shaping of human being and to a divine reality which makes lives and bodies differently (perhaps renewing them to their 'origin' in the sense of deepest self). This is a birth moreover which does not cling to existing 'flesh' but which is about dying to one's old self and living according to one's deepest spirit - or, as Jesus puts it, with clear baptismal allusions, 'no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is Spirit.' (John 3.5-6) This is not a gnostic rejection of the body, any more than transgender reality is. It is rather an affirmation of the need to look beyond given flesh ('as we know it now') to trust in the depth of spirit which can transform and make bodies whole. Is this obvious? No: Jesus is clear that we, like Nicodemus, may not see, but rather even be trapped, by our own religious teachings and upbringings (John 3.9-10), Instead, we have to have re-cognition of the Spirit. For like the wind, we may hear it, yet never control it: as, like the wind, it 'blows where it wills.' (John 3.8)
Over the years I have seen, and been part of, many transitions in my body, life and world (not all of them welcome). In doing so, with Nicodemus, it is often hard to trust in spirit rather than cling to the flesh we think is fixed. Like a life-giving gender transition however, receiving and living out our spiritual promise is an essential part of a spiritually fulfilling journey. To do so is about coming out into the light. For, as Jesus made clear, we are not intended to perish (John 3.16) nor are we born for condemnation (John 3.17). Many so-called 'born-again' Christians have misused John 3.1-21 to condemn others. However, seen in the context of Jesus' life and teaching as a whole, 'believing in the name of the Son of God' (John 3.18) is not about tribal religious identification through special believing (that is 'gnosis'!) but about lives being transformed into Christ-like reality. This is akin to my own and others' experience of gender recognition and expression. We have stopped hiding in the darkness like Nicodemus - a painful place which carries its own condemnation - and we have stepped out into the light. As in baptism, we have died to what was destroying us in the flesh and trusted in the spirit which takes us we know not what quite where. For as Jesus puts it, at the end of this often destructively employed passage, 'those who are true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds are done in God.' (John 3.21) As I travel onwards from my birth date this year, may I thus continue to be 'birthed' anew in this way, and may we all take fresh steps together into the transforming light of truth and love. In Thomas Merton's words: 'To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.'
The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: