The wind blows wherever it wills: you hear its sound, but cannot tell where it has come from or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the spirit. - John 3:8
Poor Nicodemus, I’m afraid, is often misunderstood. If we judge him by modern conventions of conversation, he comes across as not very perceptive, perhaps even as not very bright. If we look at him in the context of the tradition of rabbinical dialogue, though, he looks very different.
As “a master of Israel,” he was probably a good deal older than Jesus, but the moment he addresses him as “Rabbi,” he takes on the role of student, of disciple. This in itself is a striking and quite lovely motion on Nicodemus’s part. He reinforces it by his open recognition that Jesus must be a teacher come from God. This gives him more authority than the usual rabbinical credentials would. The normal route to the status of rabbi was to become a disciple of a recognized rabbi, to sit at his feet for years, and ultimately to receive his approval. To be “a teacher come from God” was to have a source of wisdom that transcended all the accumulated wisdom of the tradition.
Jesus’s response was to open the dialogue with a “hard saying,” a little like a Zen master’s koan. “I tell you in truth, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” How does one respond to such an opening gambit? In all probability, Jesus said this one sentence and then was silent. The role of the disciple in this case was to prompt the rabbi to say more. Nicodemus used one of the standard devices for this. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born?”
There are two levels to this response. The first is a recognition that the statement is not meant literally. But to say that in so many words would be to claim understanding. It would be saying, “I’m bright enough to realize that your words mean more than they seem to.” On the second level, Nicodemus is remaining in the role of the student. His questions acknowledge his need and his willingness to learn.
It works. Jesus expands on his first statement. He uses the image of the wind to suggest that he is talking about a realm which is both real and invisible. He is talking about the realm of the spirit.
To get some inkling of what thoughts this must have prompted in Nicodemus’s mind, we need first of all to know that Hebrew has one word, ruah, which means “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.” We need next to recall that in the Scriptures which Nicodemus knew by heart, “the spirit” played a huge and powerful role. Creation itself began with the spirit of God hovering over the waters of the deep. A recurrent refrain in the book of Judges is the statement that “the spirit of the Lord came upon” some otherwise ordinary person, who then became the leader who brought deliverance. Saul’s effective kingship came to an end when the spirit of God departed from him and rested upon David. Elisha prayed for and received a double portion of the spirit that had inspired Elijah. And perhaps most pertinent to Nicodemus’s own situation, all the expectations of the restoration of the kingdom rested on the words of the prophets, men on whom the spirit of prophecy had descended. Joel said it most explicitly: “It shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out mu spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”
So much for ruah as “spirit.” Jesus went on to draw the parallel with ruah as wind. Again, the scriptural associations are many and rich. It was a wind that brought famine to Egypt in the days of slavery, and it was a wind that parted the waters of the Reed Sea. God was envisioned as riding on the wings of the wind. It would be a wind that would scatter Israel abroad when disaster overtook the kingdom. It would be a wind that would carry away the wicked like chaff on the great and terrible day of the Lord.
Especially when we bear in mind the rabbinical context of this dialogue, then, what Jesus is doing with his analogy is focusing Nicodemus’s attention on the immense power of the invisible world.
It would be hard to improve on Nicodemus’s response to this. His question, “How can these things be?”, does not pretend to any comprehension at all. It conveys his recognition that Jesus is talking about a realm beyond Nicodemus’s own experience, so far beyond that experience that he does not even know what questions to ask.
This elicits a response which is perhaps the most radical claim of the dialogue. “We are talking about what we know, and testifying to what we have seen.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “I have seen the wind. I have direct knowledge, experiential knowledge, of the realm that is invisible to you.” He continues with words that have become central to the Christian church, words about the divine love for the world that sent a son not to condemn but to save, words about the light that had come into the world and about people who loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
Nicodemus finally got what he had come for. The main message was not at the beginning of the dialogue, in the statement about the necessity of rebirth. The main message was at the end, in the claim that in Jesus was embodied the light of love, a light which distinguishes clearly and inescapably between good and evil. It does this because it shines in the invisible world, the world of spirit, which is the world of power.
One purpose of all this exploration of a rabbinical dialogue from early in the first century is that we may begin to appreciate and even identify with Nicodemus. There is nothing dense about him, nothing at all. He is actually wise enough to be able to take the role of student to one probably half his age. He is wise enough not to try to display his wisdom. This is a very good example for us to follow when we try to understand the realm of our own souls. We have been given in the teachings of our church so much information about that world that it is easy for us to overestimate our understanding.
A little example from a recent conversation comes to mind. A newcomer to the church ran across a statement by Swedenborg that he had talked to Luther, and that now, in the spiritual world, Luther had changed his mind in significant ways. It is easy to read this as though it were a debate between two earthly theologians. It sounds very different as soon as I recognize that once we ourselves reach the spiritual world, our own present understandings will look dim and fumbling. Luther is talking about a whole new level of understanding.
A second purpose of this reexamination of the dialogue with Nicodemus, then, is that we stop and think seriously about this matter of power. “Empowerment” is a pivotal concept in liberation theology, and contemporary ethical thought is preoccupied with issues of the uneven distribution and the abuse of power. It might be revealing to take a newspaper and highlight everything in it that had to do with struggles for economic or political or military power.
These issues are very real. If there is any truth at all to this notion of immortality, though, these issues are very transient. They are what we have to deal with here and now, but they are, so to speak, the glove on the hand of the spirit. In Hosea’s image, they are the wind, the spirit is the whirlwind. It was not simply explosives that killed so many people in Oklahoma City—the explosives were largely fertilizer. What caused the explosion was rage or vengefulness, surely with fear at the core. Again, we have had the nuclear capacity to destroy our planet for a generation now, and it might be worth suspecting that what has restrained us from doing so is actually more powerful than the weapons themselves. Perhaps we are protected by a shield, a shield composed of an immensely strong unwillingness to be the agents of such disaster.
What would we see if we could see our spiritual environment? Much that now bewilders us would be clear. Our sense of what is important would surely change. Swedenborg at times uses the image of the currents in a river to suggest the strength of the forces we cannot see, so we might think of ourselves as seeing the forces that have been swirling around us while we have been preoccupied with the world we can see and with all the things our culture tells us are important.
The apostle Paul had enough spiritual experience to recognize that his physical senses offered no more than a dim reflection in a mirror, and that after death he would for the first time see “face to face.” He also recognized something else, something that brings us back again to Nicodemus. “Now I know in part: then I shall know, even as I am known.” The spiritual world will not become transparent to us except as we are willing to be transparent. We will know only to the extent that we let ourselves be known. If Nicodemus had put up the usual front, had presented to Jesus the figure of the elder statesman steeped in the law, the dialogue would never have gotten off the ground. He reminds me of Solomon at his best, in his prayer for wisdom. “You have made your servant king instead of David my father, and I am only a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in.”
In the World of Spirits, Swedenborg tells us, the “state of instruction” does not begin until we have “shed our externals”—dropped our pretenses. Perhaps if we realize how vast and potent is the world we cannot see, it may be easier for us to admit that we are little children, and begin to be teachable.