How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? (John 3:4, KJV)
In his classic commentary on the Gospel of John (1881), B. F. Westcott glosses Nicodemus’s question as follows:
How is it possible for a man whose whole nature at any moment is the sum of all the past, to start afresh? How can he undo, or do away with, the result which years have brought and which goes to form himself? His “I” includes the whole development through which he has passed; and how then can it survive a new birth? Can the accumulation of long ages be removed and the true “self” remain? […] For all life from its first beginning has contributed to the moral character which belongs to each person. The result of all life is one and indivisible. (p. 49)
We may well reserve judgment as to whether this is quite what Nicodemus is worrying about. But it is evidently what Westcott is worrying about, and I find his musings poignant. If Christians have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), if being “in Christ” makes believers a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), what sort of existential continuity can withstand the trip from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the beloved Son (Col. 1:13)? Is the saint who is raised with Christ really the same person as the sinner who was buried with Christ? This should be worrisome.
I wonder, though, whether Westcott has framed the question right. Do we really experience all our life, whether before or after baptismal rebirth, as “one and indivisible”? St Augustine certainly felt differently. Looking back on his pre-Christian life, he refers to the “disordered state in which I lay in shattered pieces” (Confessions 2.1.1; trans. J. K. Ryan). If Augustine experienced himself as “the sum of all the past,” it was as an unstable quantity of shadowy and shifting variables. Augustine’s point is that to sin is, by definition, to turn away from the God who is, the source and horizon of our own being, so to sin is willfully to slip back towards nothingness, towards incoherence.
It is easy to exaggerate Augustine’s sins, both in number and in kind, and to neglect his many tender remembrances of goodness and joy in the first half of the Confessions. But it remains true that these books are littered with imagery of spiritual fragmentation, of a soul falling apart. Finally, when he was 32, Augustine and some friends, including his son Adeodatus, “were baptized, and anxiety over our past life fled away from us” (Conf. 9.6.14)—a beautifully laconic line, especially if you’ve toiled with Augustine through all his previous anxiety over his past life. Whoosh, it’s gone.
But Augustine’s fragmentation isn’t gone, at least not completely. As long as he remains a pilgrim, he finds he must still grapple with the triple concupiscence of 1 John 2:16. Again and again, he appeals to the mercy of God in Christ as his only hope for the struggle. Augustine longs, he tells God, for the time when “out of this scattered and disordered state you gather all that I am into the peace of her [the heavenly Jerusalem]” (Conf. 12.16.23). But he is not home yet.
So for Augustine the problem is not a preexisting existential unity that might be threatened by the experience of regeneration. The problem is that apart from God our lives leak coherence, they hemorrhage intelligibility. In short, they don’t make any sense. The “resurrection” of the prodigal who returns to his father—Augustine’s favorite biblical paradigm for his own story in the Confessions—is our only hope for a life that is “one and indivisible.”
Notice Augustine’s image of God gathering, not discarding, our fractured selves. Augustine is as fond as any of the Fathers of the Pauline image of “putting off the old man” in favor of Jesus Christ. Romans 13:14, after all—“put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”—was the catalyst of his final resolution to stop shilly-shallying and adhere to his mother’s Catholic faith (Conf. 8.12.29). But this did not mean simply sloughing off his whole past, as if that were possible. Westcott is quite right about this. But it does mean that his past—and his present, and his future, until he attains the Sabbath rest of the homeland—is no longer simply a “twisted and intricate mess of knots” (Conf. 2.10.18). It is still that, from Augustine’s still-limited perspective, but it is also something more. As he is redeemed, Augustine’s life—his memory, his self-awareness—becomes the backdrop of God’s mercy, which is the real star of the show. It becomes a confession of that mercy, a sacrifice of praise—which is why Augustine calls his work the “confessions.” Rebirth in Christ does not threaten to disrupt a life that is one and indivisible already. As the Gospel of John teaches, it extends to broken sinners the promise of life in the only One who is truly one and indivisible, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.