The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel has become, among other things, the unoffical patron saint of UFO enthusiasts everywhere. An incident recounted in the first chapter of the Book Of Ezekiel is often cited as an early alien encounter. The prophet reported that he was among Jewish exiles by the banks of the river Chebar in Babylon when ““the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” Four winged creatures appeared that looked like men. Each of the creatures had a wheel beside it, which Ezekiel described as “like the gleaming of a chrysolite; and the four had the same likeness, their construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel.” To UFO buffs, this sounded like an attempt to depict an alien spacecraft by someone who had never seen a conveyance more advanced than a chariot.
Ezekiel might be forgiven for having assumed the beings he encountered were angels, since extraterrestrials were unheard of in the sixth century, BCE. But that doesn’t explain why creatures from another world would concern themselves with the fate of Jews who had been taken captive in Babylon or why the figure that Ezekiel took to be the Lord God Almighty would command him to deliver “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” to the exiles. All this was pretty standard stuff for Old Testament prophets. Ezekiel’s mission was to command the exiles to keep the faith and stop worshipping strange gods in their strange new land. As an inducement, he assured them their fortunes would eventually be restored and they would return to their homeland. Speaking on behalf of the Lord, Ezekiel promised, “I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
In effect, the Lord was promising a kind of heart transplant to enable his people to do the right thing. This was not meant in a literal sense, of course. Jews in Old Testament times knew little about the workings of the internal organs. They did not know the heart pumped blood to the body or that thinking originated in the brain. For them, the heart was the center of both thought and feeling – and, perhaps most importantly, of the will. Prophets were forever excoriating the Jews for their hardness of heart or being uncircumcised of heart, meaning that they stubbornly refused to obey God. This was their own doing for the most part, but sometimes the Lord himself intervened. There was that painful stretch in the Book of Exodus where God kept hardening the heart of the pharaoh so he would refuse to let the Hebrew people leave Egypt, even as one appalling plague after the next was visited upon the hapless Egyptians. In the case of Ezekiel, however, the Lord intervened to opposite effect, promising to soften the hearts of the Jewish people so they could obey him and return home.
When we talk about a change of heart, we normally mean that we once felt one way about something and now we feel another way about it. A change of heart generally involves greater conviction than a mere change of mind, which can mean nothing more consequential than switching our luncheon order from chicken salad to tuna on rye. The heart transplant talked about in Ezekiel’s narrative is clearly of a different order of magnitude. The Lord vowed to put a new spirit within his people. He was speaking here not of a mere change of mind or even a change of heart but of spiritual regeneration.
The term “spiritual regeneration” has fallen into disrepute in some circles due to the mawkish interpretation placed on it by certain born-again Christians of the lost-and-found school, from John Newton’s magnificent hymn “Amazing Grace” (“I once was lost but now am found”). But for those who have experienced a quickening of the spirit, the term resonates in all sorts of ways. There are certainly those who undergo a life-changing transformation, like John Newton himself, who abandoned his life as captain of a slave ship and became an Anglican clergyman. Then there was St. Paul, who started out as a persecutor of Christians before his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and ended as an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul was still as opinionated, quarrelsome and bull-headed as ever, yet he was capable of producing one of the most sublime passages on love ever written (“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…”) By his own testimony, Paul remained “the foremost of sinners,” albeit one who believed he had found salvation.
For me, spiritual regeneration starts with understanding. As a photographer, I Iiken it to shooting in color rather than black and white. The world is outwardly the same either way, but color brings out a dimension that is entirely invisible to the family dog, which sees only in black and white. Curiously enough, one of the best at articulating this dimension was Albert Einstein, a man of science who was often wrongly assumed to be an agnostic. He once said, “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable.” To my mind, he is speaking of a spiritual dimension that requires a spiritual faculty or understanding to discern.
We all tend to fashion gods in our own image, and Einstein was no exception. As one who employed the tools of science to read “the mind of God,” he naturally thought in terms of natural laws and abstract forces. Even allowing for a mysterious presence pervading the universe, he did not believe that God interceded directly in the affairs of humankind. By implication, that subtle, intangible and inexplicable something that Einstein talked about operated externally. But I come at it from a different angle. In my experience, the spirit of God operates from within, working its way from the inside out, until eventually the world is transformed. Accordingly, the heart is as good a dwelling place as any. Doubtless the spirit of God is a force to be reckoned with, but it is also a Person in the Christian understanding of things, and it always acts personally.