In John 3:8 Jesus attempts to cloak moral/spiritual transformation in an earthly figure that Nicodemus (who should understand given his status as a teacher in his community) can understand. He uses the analogy of birth.
Nicodemus does not understand. Jesus’ response? Another earthly analogy involving wind. (Paraphrase) Listen man, don’t balk at what I am saying. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The point? Don’t doubt the reality of progress/transformation simply because you don’t understand it. You see all around you that at times and places progress/transformation from worse to better is made. Since it is spiritual (moral) progress it must have a spiritual (moral) source. That you do not see into the spiritual (moral) source is not evidence that it is not available. Goodness Nicodemus, c’mon!
There is a tendency in some circles to interpret this passage as proof of the following practical point: it is all God. It is none men. Rebirth and transformation are passive and I can at best sit back, wait, and hope that transformation blows in my direction. This is a disastrous mistake both of interpretation of this passage, and practical understanding about the relationship between work and progress.
Succinctly put? He who does not work does not eat. Jesus is the bread of life. Ergo…
I am confident that “righteousness” is an adequate translation for “Jesus” in the above argument. But, I will not here make proof. The comment is simply a gesture to the non-Christian, but sincerely morally interested, reader.
What then was Jesus’ point? Nicodemus asks for understanding. “How can this be?” He wants insight. Jesus, sage that he was, knows that such questions both miss the point and often have their motivation in redirection from the central point: moral/spiritual health.
Here is why reason/understanding cannot be had regarding transformation/rebirth/spiritual (moral) progress. For reason, the effect CANNOT be greater than its cause. Whatever is in the effect MUST be in the cause. This principle is sound as far as reason and understanding are concerned. BUT, the moment of transformation and progress, if analyzed by attending purely to the individual making progress, amounts to something in the effect that is not in the cause. The WORSE individual becomes BETTER. It is unreasonable, not understandable, and so leaves the natural rational light of nature in a tizzy.
Hence Jesus’ response. Nicodemus is invited to not limit the possibilities to his natural light of reason but to accept what his own experience has, Jesus thinks, shown him. The analogy would not work if Nicodemus were asked to trust that rebirth takes place while the wind is taken as experienced. The analogy works because Nicodemus “sees” at least an approximation to spiritual (moral) progress all around him similarly to how we “see” the wind regularly. Both happen though in neither case is the source known.
Now that we have an explanation for what Jesus was trying to communicate to Nicodemus we can more readily and easily lay down the disastrous interpretation described above that I hope no-one holds. He who thinks himself transformed (woe to you) feels confident that indeed at least the spirit “blew” in his direction. What need he do now? He who thinks accurately that there is progress yet to make excuses the work thinking nothing can be done unless the spirit happens to “blow” in his direction. “It’s not my fault man. It just didn’t happen to me!” How silly, but supported and proclaimed in some pulpits. The passage is NOT a comment on the practical but an argument for Nicodemus to not doubt his senses even though his natural light can’t make sense.
Finally, what is the cause? Socrates, in the end of the MENO, after arguing that virtue is not knowledge because it cannot be taught, concludes that virtue is “a gift of the gods”. Socrates calls virtue grace? Yes.Woe to he who sits and waits. That is not the point. The gods are gestured at as a way of putting into words the inexplicable and paradoxical.
How does it look from our perspective? The worse becomes better. How can that be? Don’t doubt. Get to work. It does happen. It can happen here…or there.