Being Born Again

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012 by Dr Keith J. White

An introductory word of warning: this column is going to be longer than most that I have written. This is because it seeks to sustain an argument that ranges widely and draws from a number of sources.The phrase “born again” was used by Jesus when he was talking with Nicodemus as recorded in John’s Gospel, Chapter Three.[i] It is, as far as I know, little used in the social sciences in general, and child development theory, in particular. So let me give you an example of someone who is describing being born again, using more conventional terms. Her name is Jeanette Winterson, writer and dramatist. She was adopted as a child, and her childhood in her adoptive home was unhappy and distressful. Unsurprisingly, there came a time when she contemplated suicide. The twin triggers of this were the break-up of a close personal relationship, and the discovery, despite having been told the contrary, that her birth mother was alive.

This is how she describes how she now understands what was going on in her personal development:

“I think that if you are going to go on developing as a human being, there will challenges to the self. You can’t simply become habitual, or even know, to yourself – you have to take risks. And I think that the person I was…couldn’t go any further. It’s very odd when you run out of self – it’s like the end of a road…So if you are going to have a second life you probably need to have a second self to go with it, which is a self which has been broken and remade in some fundamental way…”[ii]

The comparison between this sort of experience and religious conversion is one that she herself makes. And she uses the same phrase “born again”.

A person confronted by one or more big issues in their life (including separation, loss, shame, physical traumas and so on) has a range of defensive options available to them, and psychotherapy has charted them exhaustively. As an alternative to suicide, Jeanette Winterson sees them as the attempt to repair the situation/self by adopting a false personality. This involves shutting down the self as a means of escape. This strategy may succeed in preventing suicide, and keeping life ticking over, but it does so at the cost of genuine relationships, intra and inter psychic. The only authentic option she sees is that of putting things back together (redeeming them) in such as way that it is possible to start again. The past is revisited and reinterpreted. (The way Jeanette describes her new understanding of her adoptive father chimes well with the theory of resilience described in that historic book, Out of the Woods.[iii])

With this in mind, the next part of my argument concerns the deep-seated problem that we have both as individual human beings, and as humanity as a whole, in understanding the true nature of things. I do not want to become unduly philosophical here, but rather to make a very simple point. We often look to the wrong people for explanations and interpretations of phenomena: we instinctively turn to those who are assumed to be the experts in a given field. It can make good sense for some things (going to a garage mechanic to fix a car, and to a doctor for a medical ailment, for example), but can often lead us to the very people who by virtue of their familiarity with certain data and situations, cannot see the wood for the trees. Experts by definition will always tend to see and explain phenomena on the basis of their specialist knowledge or theory. That much is surely unexceptional, and need not delay us for long.

Let me give just one practical example: the blue stones at Stonehenge. It is universally accepted that some of these, at least, came from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire. The thorny question is how they were transported. There are two main theories: that they were carried by the Ice Age, or by some form of slave or conscripted labour. To an unbiased onlooker these seem to be two sensible options, given that the flow of ice was in roughly the right direction, and that there was the availability in theory at least of the necessary labour. The worrying thing is, however, that geologists all tend to opt for the former, and archaeologists for the latter explanation! How on earth does the unbiased observer begin to assess such specialist information given that there are two such completely distinct paradigms of knowledge?

In my view this sort of difficulty is commonplace in knowledge and theory, and reasonably well attested by the likes of Polanyi,[iv] McIntyre,[v] Illich,[vi] and Kuhn[vii].

So now let’s return to the matter of individual human development, a field dominated by the social sciences, notably psychology and psychotherapy. Is it possible that we have turned to such specialists so often and in such a reflex way, that we, like them, have missed something important? One shouldn’t rule out at this stage that there might be an elephant in the room, or that the Emperor is naked!

I think something very important has been overlooked. And this is the nub of the matter. Development theory (the phrase itself is not an objective or neutral one) is basically framed by the assumption that there are stages of development. A cursory glance at the textbooks and leaders in the field will leave the reader in no doubt. What’s more there are, by definition, “normal stages” of development. And if you are not careful you begin to swallow this camel of a meta-narrative, while trying to strain out the odd gnat as part of your studies. Years of teaching child development and related topics have convinced me beyond reasonable doubt of the attractiveness of stages of development as a framework that students readily understand and even more quickly embrace.

This is hardly surprising given that such development theory is congruent with ideas of the progress of human civilisation, increasingly linked in our day and age to a concept of human evolution. Whether we are thinking about the micro or the macro level, the fundamental paradigm of development and progress is the same.

It follows that there is “normal” personal development, and “normal” societal development, and one of the tasks of the specialists is to identify those whose development is abnormal or retarded, and to recommend ways in which it can be sped up. I mention societal as well as personal development not because we will be exploring it in this column, but because it is vital to see that all of us, whether as individuals or social groups, operate within thought and language permeated by these closely connected paradigms.

If we go back to Jeanette Winterson, we can see how easily she fits the whole pattern: she is one of those who, because of unfortunate childhood experiences, has had her development adversely affected, and therefore she needed help in one form or another in order to get her back on track. In such situations the experts are of course all set to offer help and advice.

The problem I have with these mutually-reinforcing discourses is that they do not do justice to the facts as I have come to understand them. This includes the facts of numerous life-stories encountered in the course of my life and work at Mill Grove, as well as through those stories I have gleaned from case studies, literature, and ordinary social life. And it includes what I have learned of human social history through extensive reading and travel.

My interim conclusion (it would be unwise and unscientific to be dogmatic) is that the basic development paradigm is therefore flawed. Any theory must be open to reconsideration in the light of the facts of individual personal human life, or of the wide span of human “civilisation” (a weasel word if ever there was one, as Mahatma Ghandi observed when referring specifically to the west). Rather than seeing those who are stunted or retarded as abnormal (“challenged” is probably the politically correct word at the moment), I have come to see them as representing much more the true nature of the human condition. In short, both human and societal development are far more patchy, more nuanced, less convincing as stories of progress than the theory would suggest.

Before going any further it is vital to point out that I am neither suggesting that the story of human progress has no substance to it, nor am I venturing an alternative version resembling human regress. On the contrary I am seeking to do justice both to the achievements and glories of human civilisation, and to the darker side that has bedevilled, and continues to bedevil humans and human societies worldwide, of whatever culture, religion or political creed.

And it is a former Professor of Christian Education at Princeton Theological Seminary, James E. Loder, who helped me to see where the fundamental flaw in the whole process might be. And it is to do with early ego development. René Spitz,[viii] who studied the early months of the lives of children in detail, was persuaded that at somewhere around three months (there is, of course, no need for a rigid definition of the time period) a child seeks and responds to the presence of a human face. Loder argues that this interaction over time establishes the child’s sense of personhood, and is a universal prototype of the Divine Presence (that all is, and will be, well). You can choose you preferred vocabulary at this point: the important thing is that we can find a way of proceeding together.

At about six months the child has begun to recognise the mother’s particular face, and becomes aware of her absence. This causes huge anxiety (because so much is at stake given what the face represents), which is exacerbated by the increasing interdictions of significant others by gesture as well as by word “No!” The child is at risk because of an inner absence, and also because of perceived external hostility. The universal way in which children, male and female, go about coping with this is the pivotal point of the whole argument.

The child takes the initiative and begins to set up all relationships (including that with the mother) on her own (negative) terms. Like a reaction formation, the child says “No” in all situations, whether or not it is actually what she means or wants. The point is to take control as a way of coping when the world, within and outside, has proved so unreliable. This is the source of the autonomous ego, no less. And it achieves it primary purposes of repressing hurtful or destructive longings, and bringing some objectivity to negotiations with the world outside and around. The child now begins to function as an agent, rather than as a passive victim. And this is welcomed and reinforced by family and society in many ways.

But the cost is huge and potentially lifelong: the true personality is not centred.

This seizing of the initiative serves a function, but does not change the existential, lonely, vulnerable reality of the child. And this, Loder argues, is at the very heart of human ego development: a misguided attempt to deal with a sense of rejection and cosmic loneliness. From that point on, the theories of development kick in, all seeking to help the ego of the child (whether with motor, cognitive, personal, language skills), and normal stages of development chart and encourage the flawed progress of the ego. Writ large, the whole of human society and the human project is likewise built on this foundation, not least in its western individualistic version where you are encouraged to look after ‘No. 1′.

I venture to guess that not every reader of Children Webmag will be familiar with Karl Barth’s Commentary on Romans, so let me share a brief summary of his conclusion at this point:

“This world has…form and shape; and it possesses a law, a general pressure towards concreteness, to light-created light. This pressure towards enjoyment, possession, success, knowledge, power, rightness; this vigorous movement towards an attainable comprehensible perfection; this pressure…forms the mysterious pivot round which the whole world of human genius revolves…and…genius is…our beloved ego.”[ix]

Here is a case of finding someone who is not so immersed in the trees that they cannot see that the whole wood is in fact destined to die! Barth sees the way in which the world of social relations is an extension of the flawed human ego, and bears the hallmarks of an incomplete and passing age.This is in almost complete contrast to theories of child development that see the individual reaching maturity as an adult. But then what?

Loder draws from a wide range of writers (including Barth) in developing his theory in two books.[x] These writers include Erikson, Freud, Jung, Winnicott and the like. He is writing not to critique what they are saying but to put their work in a new and wider framework of understanding.

If there is a grain of truth in what Loder is saying, and from observation and reflection over a lifetime I think there is, we could see the twin frameworks of human and societal development as conspiring to cover up, or deal with, the existential alienation and loneliness that characterises the human species from birth to death. It is a form of wish-fulfilment that assumes a person who plays his cards correctly will experience untroubled, normal human progress. Likewise that human societies (that are made up of course of individual lonely human beings), if they only get the right system of economics, politics or management, will reach new levels of peace and prosperity.

It follows that those alone who can show us the way are people like Jeanette Winterson who see the flaw in the project of the self, and are willing to go right back to the beginning (suicide is the most complete and dramatic form of this longing) in order to remake the self, in the light of a better and more complete understanding of the facts of the matter.

I have seen this again and again with youngsters who have been let down by their own biological parents and families. What I now realise is that the challenge to be born again is one that confronts every human being. It entails the acceptance of the brokenness of the self, and the need for it to be re-made. And the same is highly likely to be true of human societies: until the west and China, let’s say, acknowledge the truth of their fallibility and brokenness, there can be no genuine human society at any level.

So it is that the little ones, the broken ones of societies and families throughout human history, can lead the way for the rest of us. And as they do so, we need to re-write the theory of human development in the process. It is far too alluring and reassuring for our own good. Perhaps that is why it has lasted and been so popular for so long.



[i] John Chapter 3: verse 7[ii] Third Way, April 2012, page 17

[iii] Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens, ed. S. Hauser et al (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006)

[iv] Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958)

[v] After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre (Notre-Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1981)

[vi] Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich (London: Penguin, 1973)

[vii] The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962)

[viii] The First Year of Life, Rene Spitz (New York: Inter Univ. Press, 1965)

[ix] The Epistle to the Romans, Karl Barth (trans. E Hoskyns) (London: OUP, 1933)

[x] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard, 1989); The Logic of the Spirit (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 1998)

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