- It was like entering another world, a new state of existence. Natural objects were glorified, my spiritual vision was so clarified that I saw beauty in every material object in the universe, the woods were vocal with heavenly music; my soul exulted in the love of God, and I wanted everyone to share in my joy. [William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), Lecture X: Conversion (concluded).]
- Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunderstorm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoices me. [Ibid.]
Spiritual rebirth is the enduring experience of seeming to be made new. When a person undergoes spiritual rebirth, all the world may seem new, larger and more vibrant than the person ever appreciated before. It is a natural phenomenon, fully consistent with scientific naturalism. It neither implies nor suggests anything magical, supernatural or other-worldly. Usually it is a product of an insight, which frees some aspect of the person’s Being from a previous constraint.
In my case, the opening to spiritual rebirth was the sudden recognition that Faith was a creative force as an action, not so much as a belief. In the moment when this realization struck me, the recognition and accompanying sense of expansion were instantaneous and overwhelming. Faith need not be seen as an unfounded belief, or as a belief at all; it is most creative as an action. Most things we do have uncertain consequences; yet we do them. That is Faith as a creative force, and the more uncertain or afraid we are, the greater its power can be. Though this model is critical of Christianity and all forms of theism, the Christians are onto something when they say “Faith without works is dead.”
Chills ran up and down my spine as I recalculated a lifetime of disabling assumptions. Now I could see life as an invitation, not merely as an exercise in cold calculation. Looking back on it, I had always known this; in fact, I had recently said it in the setting where my spiritual rebirth later occurred. But I did not fully appreciate it because my beliefs about Faith had blocked me; and as a result, I was preventing myself from acting creatively and getting the most out of life. That would never happen again and in fact, it hasn’t.
My explanation may not make sense to people who have never been disabled in the way that I had been but for me, it was life-changing. That moment of rebirth occurred on January 16, 1997, approximately at 8:30 in the evening; my life has never been the same since that moment.
Is rebirth mystical? In a sense it is. It seems other-worldly but that is entirely subjective. Such a view does no harm provided one recognizes the experience for what it is, and does not offer it as proof of an objective reality, such as the existence of a god, proof of destiny or the like.
If you have never experienced spiritual rebirth, it is mysterious; in fact, you may not be able to appreciate it, or perhaps even understand it. That statement is sure to rile some of my fellow secularists but there is no good reason for that: analytically, it is the same as the observation that you cannot fully appreciate the loss of a child unless you have experienced it.
To my fellow secularists: we cannot understand life by shutting out or constricting our understanding of experience. Of course, people can lay claim to spiritual rebirth for all manner of reasons, sound and unsound. People can falsely claim many things, including an unswerving devotion to a noble cause or ideal; that does not relieve us of the obligation to consider their claims and the evidence supporting them, especially when born-again experiences have changed so many lives. By understanding them for what they are, and eliminating their misinterpretations, we can make them more accessible and more enduring for more people. The quotations from William James, which head this section, refer to interpretations of rebirth as a knowing of God. Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony invokes an imagined afterlife. Our challenge as scientific naturalists is to make sense of the experiences that people have called spiritual rebirth, and offer an interpretation that is more scientific and thus more firmly grounded in reality than previous interpretations.
There is no reason why every Humanist, and every person, cannot become born-again. If this phenomenon is ever well-understood, perhaps such experiences will become the norm and become widely understood. The beauty of being spiritually born again is that once it happens, it can continue to happen, over and over again. It we add to that a support system of people who have had similar experiences, which they understand without losing their sense of mystery, we may begin to see not only the potential for a transformed world but the transformation itself.
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902).
Personal stories of rebirth:
- Aatish Taseer, The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019): “His story is a variant of the much-told tale of the American man (or Englishman or European man, seldom a woman) who revolts against the shallowness of Western materialism and goes to India to find his soul, to reinvent himself, to be spiritually reborn.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Clocking in at eighty minutes or more, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (“Resurrection”) is epic in length but once you understand the symphony, you realize that every phrase is necessary. Mahler was assessing life: its meaning and its great questions. Most important for us as Humanists is the question: how are we to approach life so that we may live in the most meaningful and productive way. For us, the answer to that question can be heard symbolically in this music. Mahler wrote program notes for each movement, which I reproduce below, inserting the timing points from the linked performance that correspond to the related portion of the note.
- Movement 1: Allegro maestoso: “We stand by the coffin of a person well loved. His whole life, his struggles, his passions, his sufferings, and his accomplishments on earth once more for the last time pass before us. And now, in this solemn and deeply stirring moment, when the confusions and distractions of everyday life are lifted like a hood from our eyes, a voice of awe-inspiring solemnity chills our heart – a voice that, blinded in the mirage of everyday life, we usually ignore: ‘What next? What is life and what is death? Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightening joke? Will we live on eternally? Do our life and death have no meaning?’ We must answer these questions in some way if we are to go on living – indeed, if we are to go on dying! He into whose life this call has once sounded must give an answer. And this answer I give in the final movement.”
- Movement 2: Andante moderato: “A memory, a ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless, out of the departed’s life. You must surely have had the experience of burying someone dear to you, and then, perhaps, on the way back, some long-forgotten hour of shared happiness suddenly rose before your inner eye, sending, as it were, a sunbeam into your soul – not overcast by any shadow – and you almost forgot what had just taken place.”
- Movement 3: In ruhig fliessender Bewegung: “When you awaken from that blissful dream and are forced to return to this tangled life of ours, it may easily happen that this surge of life ceaselessly in motion, never resting, never comprehensible, suddenly seems eerie, like the billowing of dancing figures in a brightly lit ballroom that you gaze into from outside in the dark – and from a distance so great that you can no longer hear the music. Then the turning and twisting movement of the couples seems senseless. You must imagine that, to one who has lost his identity and his happiness, the world looks like this - distorted and crazy, as if reflected in a concave mirror. Life then becomes meaningless. Utter disgust for every form of existence and evolution seizes him in an iron grip, and he cries out in a scream of anguish.”
- Movement 4: “Urlicht”: Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht: “The moving voice of naïve faith sounds in our ears. ‘I am from God and will return to God. The dear God will give me a light, will light me to eternal blessed life!” That will be delightful, should I wake after my death to another life. I perceive another message: that spiritual rebirth is in life here and now – spiritual life in which fear is put aside and we move forward in the light that is perpetual within our lifetime, if we can only see it. This is the lesson of the remainder of the symphony, as follows.
- Movement 5: Im Tempo des Scherzo; Langsam; Maestoso; Allegro energico; Langsam; ‘der grosse Appell”; Langsam misterioso; mit Aufschwung, aber nicht eilen; Langsam: “Once more we must confront terrifying questions. The movement starts with the same dreadful scream of anguish that ended the Scherzo. The voice of the Caller is heard. The end of every living thing has come, the last judgment is at hand, and the horror of the day of days has come upon us. The earth trembles (5:45); the last trump sounds (6:44); the grave burst open; all the creatures struggle out of the ground, moaning and trembling (6:55). Now they march in a mighty procession (7:01): rich and poor, peasants and kings, the whole church with bishops and popes. All have the same fear, all cry and tremble alike because, in the eyes of God, there are no just men. The cry for mercy and forgiveness sounds fearful in our ears. The wailing becomes gradually more terrible. Our senses desert us; all consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches (10:44). The trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out (11:36). Finally, after all have left their empty graves and the earth lies silent and deserted, there comes only the long-drawn note of the bird of death (19:57). Even it finally dies (20:18 – 21:43). What happens now is far from expected: Everything has ceased to exist. The gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts is then heard (21:43). Soft and simple, the words gently swell up: ‘Rise again, yes, rise again thou wilt!’ Then the glory of God comes into sight (24:18). A wondrous light strikes us to the heart (25:06). All is quiet and blissful (25:08). Lo and behold: There is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward (27:59, 29:56). A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge (29:14) and illuminates our existence (35:00).”
Great recordings of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2:
- Mehta, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1975
- Walter, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 1958
- Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra, 1963
- Rattle, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, 1986
- Bernstein, London Symphony Orchestra, if only to watch Lennie conduct
- Zander, Philharmonia Orchestra, 2012
- Abbado, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, 2003
- Langaard, Symphony No. 16, “Syndflod of Sol” (Sun Deluge), BVN417 (1950-1951)
- Kancheli, Styx, for viola, mixed choir and orchestra (1999), evokes a transformation from darkness into light.
- Alice Coltrane, “Transfiguration”
- Blaer, “Yellow”: “. . . Nydegger creates minimal but carefully conceived compositionsl structures and explores fresh musical notions of how to reinvent the ‘jazz’ band.” [Josef Woodard, review, Downbeat magazine, July 2020, p. 38.]
- Blaer, “Out of Silence”
- Anthony Romaniuk, “Bells”: Romaniuk’s style of play transforms these piano pieces.
Film and Stage
- A Christmas Carol (see also this great version), Dickens’ classic story
- Mostly Martha: a talented but reclusive chef finds human connection through her newly orphaned eight-year-old niece.
A famous saying is “The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable.” And so it is, often, when something has blocked our path to a life in worth and dignity - a life in the spirit common to us all. Much later in the story comes the transformative moment. The third spirit has shown Scrooge the abode of a lately deceased man, the cold attitude of those collecting his belongings, and the grieving family of a dead child for whom he cared not. This prompts Scrooge to undergo his dark night of the soul:
The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape. "Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point," said Scrooge, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?" Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood. "Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Scrooge. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!" The Spirit was immovable as ever. Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE. "Am I that man who lay upon the bed?" he cried, upon his knees. The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again. "No, Spirit! Oh no, no!" The finger still was there. "Spirit!" he cried, tight clutching at its robe, "hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!" For the first time the hand appeared to shake. "Good Spirit," he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: "Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!" The kind hand trembled. "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!" In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him. Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost. [Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), Stave V: The End of It.]
Scrooge has just confronted himself as he is; and the misery he has inflicted on himself and others. Here is Dickens’ account of Scrooge’s awakening – his rebirth, which follows immediately after his dark night.
YES! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in! "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!" Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. "The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!" He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears. "They are not torn down," cried Scrooge, folding one of his bed-curtains in his arms, "they are not torn down, rings and all. They are here--I am here--the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will!" His hands were busy with his garments all this time; turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, tearing them, mislaying them, making them parties to every kind of extravagance. "I don't know what to do!" cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings. "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!" He had frisked into the sitting-room, and was now standing there: perfectly winded. "There's the saucepan that the gruel was in!" cried Scrooge, starting off again, and going round the fireplace. "There's the door, by which the Ghost of Jacob Marley entered! There's the corner where the Ghost of Christmas Present, sat! There's the window where I saw the wandering Spirits! It's all right, it's all true, it all happened. Ha ha ha!" Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs! "I don't know what day of the month it is!" said Scrooge. "I don't know how long I've been among the Spirits. I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!" He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious! Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious! [Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), Stave V: The End of It.]
* * * * * * * *
We see the same two-step progression from dark night to rebirth in Hugo’s Les Misérables. Valjean has just received the bishop’s forgiveness, along with his valuable candlestick and silverware. Instead of being freed, he Valjean is at first disoriented.
Jean Valjean left the town as though he were fleeing from it. He set out at a very hasty pace through the fields, taking whatever roads and paths presented themselves to him, without perceiving that he was incessantly retracing his steps. He wandered thus the whole morning, without having eaten anything and without feeling hungry. He was the prey of a throng of novel sensations. He was conscious of a sort of rage; he did not know against whom it was directed. He could not have told whether he was touched or humiliated. There came over him at moments a strange emotion which he resisted and to which he opposed the hardness acquired during the last twenty years of his life. This state of mind fatigued him. He perceived with dismay that the sort of frightful calm which the injustice of his misfortune had conferred upon him was giving way within him. He asked himself what would replace this. At times he would have actually preferred to be in prison with the gendarmes, and that things should not have happened in this way; it would have agitated him less. Although the season was tolerably far advanced, there were still a few late flowers in the hedge-rows here and there, whose odor as he passed through them in his march recalled to him memories of his childhood. These memories were almost intolerable to him, it was so long since they had recurred to him. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Second – The Fall, Chapter XIII, Little Gervais.]
But then, Valjean encounters a child, Little Gervais. He robs and threatens the boy. The boy flees, in fear, and then after a short time:
Jean Valjean set out on a run, in the direction which he had first taken. In this way he traversed a tolerably long distance, gazing, calling, shouting, but he met no one. Two or three times he ran across the plain towards something which conveyed to him the effect of a human being reclining or crouching down; it turned out to be nothing but brushwood or rocks nearly on a level with the earth. At length, at a spot where three paths intersected each other, he stopped. The moon had risen. He sent his gaze into the distance and shouted for the last time, "Little Gervais! Little Gervais! Little Gervais!" His shout died away in the mist, without even awakening an echo. He murmured yet once more, "Little Gervais!" but in a feeble and almost inarticulate voice. It was his last effort; his legs gave way abruptly under him, as though an invisible power had suddenly overwhelmed him with the weight of his evil conscience; he fell exhausted, on a large stone, his fists clenched in his hair and his face on his knees, and he cried, "I am a wretch!" Then his heart burst, and he began to cry. It was the first time that he had wept in nineteen years. When Jean Valjean left the Bishop's house, he was, as we have seen, quite thrown out of everything that had been his thought hitherto. He could not yield to the evidence of what was going on within him. He hardened himself against the angelic action and the gentle words of the old man. "You have promised me to become an honest man. I buy your soul. I take it away from the spirit of perversity; I give it to the good God." This recurred to his mind unceasingly. To this celestial kindness he opposed pride, which is the fortress of evil within us. He was indistinctly conscious that the pardon of this priest was the greatest assault and the most formidable attack which had moved him yet; that his obduracy was finally settled if he resisted this clemency; that if he yielded, he should be obliged to renounce that hatred with which the actions of other men had filled his soul through so many years, and which pleased him; that this time it was necessary to conquer or to be conquered; and that a struggle, a colossal and final struggle, had been begun between his viciousness and the goodness of that man. In the presence of these lights, he proceeded like a man who is intoxicated. As he walked thus with haggard eyes, did he have a distinct perception of what might result to him from his adventure at D----? Did he understand all those mysterious murmurs which warn or importune the spirit at certain moments of life? Did a voice whisper in his ear that he had just passed the solemn hour of his destiny; that there no longer remained a middle course for him; that if he were not henceforth the best of men, he would be the worst; that it behooved him now, so to speak, to mount higher than the Bishop, or fall lower than the convict; that if he wished to become good be must become an angel; that if he wished to remain evil, he must become a monster? Here, again, some questions must be put, which we have already put to ourselves elsewhere: did he catch some shadow of all this in his thought, in a confused way? Misfortune certainly, as we have said, does form the education of the intelligence; nevertheless, it is doubtful whether Jean Valjean was in a condition to disentangle all that we have here indicated. If these ideas occurred to him, he but caught glimpses of, rather than saw them, and they only succeeded in throwing him into an unutterable and almost painful state of emotion. On emerging from that black and deformed thing which is called the galleys, the Bishop had hurt his soul, as too vivid a light would have hurt his eyes on emerging from the dark. The future life, the possible life which offered itself to him henceforth, all pure and radiant, filled him with tremors and anxiety. He no longer knew where he really was. Like an owl, who should suddenly see the sun rise, the convict had been dazzled and blinded, as it were, by virtue. That which was certain, that which he did not doubt, was that he was no longer the same man, that everything about him was changed, that it was no longer in his power to make it as though the Bishop had not spoken to him and had not touched him. In this state of mind he had encountered little Gervais, and had robbed him of his forty sous. Why? He certainly could not have explained it; was this the last effect and the supreme effort, as it were, of the evil thoughts which he had brought away from the galleys,--a remnant of impulse, a result of what is called in statics, _acquired force?_ It was that, and it was also, perhaps, even less than that. Let us say it simply, it was not he who stole; it was not the man; it was the beast, who, by habit and instinct, had simply placed his foot upon that money, while the intelligence was struggling amid so many novel and hitherto unheard-of thoughts besetting it. When intelligence re-awakened and beheld that action of the brute, Jean Valjean recoiled with anguish and uttered a cry of terror. Enlarge It was because,--strange phenomenon, and one which was possible only in the situation in which he found himself,--in stealing the money from that child, he had done a thing of which he was no longer capable. However that may be, this last evil action had a decisive effect on him; it abruptly traversed that chaos which he bore in his mind, and dispersed it, placed on one side the thick obscurity, and on the other the light, and acted on his soul, in the state in which it then was, as certain chemical reagents act upon a troubled mixture by precipitating one element and clarifying the other. First of all, even before examining himself and reflecting, all bewildered, like one who seeks to save himself, he tried to find the child in order to return his money to him; then, when he recognized the fact that this was impossible, he halted in despair. At the moment when he exclaimed "I am a wretch!" he had just perceived what he was, and he was already separated from himself to such a degree, that he seemed to himself to be no longer anything more than a phantom, and as if he had, there before him, in flesh and blood, the hideous galley-convict, Jean Valjean, cudgel in hand, his blouse on his hips, his knapsack filled with stolen objects on his back, with his resolute and gloomy visage, with his thoughts filled with abominable projects. Excess of unhappiness had, as we have remarked, made him in some sort a visionary. This, then, was in the nature of a vision. He actually saw that Jean Valjean, that sinister face, before him. He had almost reached the point of asking himself who that man was, and he was horrified by him. His brain was going through one of those violent and yet perfectly calm moments in which revery is so profound that it absorbs reality. One no longer beholds the object which one has before one, and one sees, as though apart from one's self, the figures which one has in one's own mind. Thus he contemplated himself, so to speak, face to face, and at the same time, athwart this hallucination, he perceived in a mysterious depth a sort of light which he at first took for a torch. On scrutinizing this light which appeared to his conscience with more attention, he recognized the fact that it possessed a human form and that this torch was the Bishop. His conscience weighed in turn these two men thus placed before it,--the Bishop and Jean Valjean. Nothing less than the first was required to soften the second. By one of those singular effects, which are peculiar to this sort of ecstasies, in proportion as his revery continued, as the Bishop grew great and resplendent in his eyes, so did Jean Valjean grow less and vanish. After a certain time he was no longer anything more than a shade. All at once he disappeared. The Bishop alone remained; he filled the whole soul of this wretched man with a magnificent radiance. Jean Valjean wept for a long time. He wept burning tears, he sobbed with more weakness than a woman, with more fright than a child. As he wept, daylight penetrated more and more clearly into his soul; an extraordinary light; a light at once ravishing and terrible. His past life, his first fault, his long expiation, his external brutishness, his internal hardness, his dismissal to liberty, rejoicing in manifold plans of vengeance, what had happened to him at the Bishop's, the last thing that he had done, that theft of forty sous from a child, a crime all the more cowardly, and all the more monstrous since it had come after the Bishop's pardon,--all this recurred to his mind and appeared clearly to him, but with a clearness which he had never hitherto witnessed. He examined his life, and it seemed horrible to him; his soul, and it seemed frightful to him. In the meantime a gentle light rested over this life and this soul. It seemed to him that he beheld Satan by the light of Paradise. How many hours did he weep thus? What did he do after he had wept? Whither did he go! No one ever knew. The only thing which seems to be authenticated is that that same night the carrier who served Grenoble at that epoch, and who arrived at D---- about three o'clock in the morning, saw, as he traversed the street in which the Bishop's residence was situated, a man in the attitude of prayer, kneeling on the pavement in the shadow, in front of the door of Monseigneur Welcome. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Second – The Fall, Chapter XIII, Little Gervais.]
Music: songs and other short pieces
In Les Miserables, Valjean is reborn when he accepts and embraces the generosity and forgiveness of another man.
From the dark side: Javert’s rejection of salvation, set to the same music.