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This is Baptism?

There is much about how religion and Christianity are understood and publicly discussed in our post-Christian Canadian context that produces a mixture of bemusement and genuine puzzlement for me.  This week’s entry in the “head scratcher” category comes via an article from Wednesday’s Globe and Mail by Kate Soles that tells the story of her process of decision-making on the issue of whether or not to get her baby baptized.

Soles’ is a classic postmodern parenting tale of the agonized apprehension and misgivings that come along with questions of how/if she might participate in the rituals of the church given her own agnosticism:

In my own state of uncertainty, how could I promise to share my faith with Eliot? How would I foster his spirituality and help him celebrate God’s presence when I needed convincing of it myself? I worried that I lacked the conviction to make such vows, that doing so would appear artificial and dishonest.

The breakthrough, for Soles, comes in the form of arriving at an understanding of baptism as a step in the path of self-discovery, authenticity, and independence:

I hope that unabashedly showing Eliot our individual theologies allows him to carve his own spiritual path. Ultimately, I want to give my son the tools to make independent decisions, to afford him the desire and the courage to choose compromise over violence, compassion over intolerance.

Of course, there are many questions that could be asked about the understanding of baptism on display in this article. But I am less interested in the infant vs. believers baptism question here, than I am in the way in which baptism is here pressed almost entirely into the service of the self.  Baptism is—surprise!—mostly about me.

We find nothing here of the bracing biblical language of dying to sin and self, and rising to new life in Christ, nothing of the transfer of allegiance from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of God, nothing of repentance and forgiveness, nothing of cleansing and new life, nothing of the (sometimes) uncomfortable accountability of community, nothing that might suggest that baptism is about putting a stake in the ground and declaring that you are aligning yourself with Christ, his church, and his kingdom, as God’s means of fixing a broken world.

Rather, baptism is a seen as a symbolically meaningful personal event in the spiritual journey of parents and, indirectly, children which can be more or less supplied with the content of our choosing.  It is about serenity and acceptance and unity and wonder.  Baptism is less about Jesus and a life given to him in response to his life given for us than it is about me and the way in which Jesus might prove more or less useful in my ongoing journey toward authenticity and spiritual self-discovery.

Of course, I am not against things like serenity and acceptance, nor do I think that these experiences are inappropriate components of the experience of baptism.  I am absolutely convinced the acceptance and welcome of a nurturing church family is a crucial part of what we are being baptized into as followers of Jesus.  And I certainly think that the Spirit of God can and does move in and through many of our attempts at connecting and participating with the reality of the divine, regardless of their motives.

But I really do think that when it comes to this central, historical ritual of the Christian faith, it is important that we get the order straight.  In baptism, we are placing ourselves at the service of Jesus.  In stories like this one, I fear, the exact opposite is the case.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. The United Church has gone to great lengths to accomodate personal notions of spirituality and lifestyle as opposed to what other would describe as traditional or perhaps using sterner language, authentic expressions of Christianity. A wise priest once told me some twenty years ago that he expected this type of “church” would in effect become the “halfway houses” through which former Christian families would become wholly irrelegious and obviously unrecognizably Christian. These “churches” would then soon wane and die. I see nothing in todays expression of the United Church to think him wrong.

    With regard to the issue with which most of the comments at the G & M web site are concerned I would say this. Baptising or at the very least teaching a child a real Christian ethic is as important a responsibility to Christian parents as providing them with a solid formal education. A Christian parent serious about their faith and the future of their child would no more deprive their child of a Christian ethic than they would deprive him or her of an education. Telling us that wisdom is served by denying a child a religeous upbriging and allowing them to make their own decisions as an adult is as nonsensical to us as telling us to deny our children an education in maths, sciences and language and allowing them to make a decision “bout lernin” when they grow up.

    Until our critics are prepared to better understand and respect our positions, dialogue isn’t likely to be productive.

    In addition the Globe has removed some comments as they violate their policy regarding inflamatory and hateful expression. Can’t say what the comments were about, they’ve been removed. Curiously though, some available comments refer to Christians, often identified as Catholics, as haters, brainwashers and cesspools of irrationality worthy of being pushed into the sinkhole of hell. Charming observations indeed.

    I wonder if someone had described lesbianism, pertinent to this story, in the same fashion, would their comments remain.

    September 16, 2011
    • Somehow, I suspect the bashing of Christians would have a longer shelf-life in the comments section than the bashing of homosexuals :).

      September 17, 2011
  2. Based on what you’ve said here I wonder about how strong a case could be made to take baptism out of the realm of symbolism and into the realm of actual spiritual transference (made up term I suspect). What I mean is that if in the act of baptism there is some qualitative change in the spiritual identification of the individual in relationship to Christ it might be possible to attach a more spiritual significance to the event. The willingness of the individual to serve Christ may be as categorically signficant an event as we have traditionally attributed to conversion. I doubt you intended to make such a claim but it seems that the frustration you’ve expressed about the utilitarian cheaping of baptism to serve the self might find redemption only as we attach more ‘weight’ to the act itself. Not sure if that is clear – just wonder what your thoughts are…

    September 16, 2011
    • I don’t think we need to go that far, despite what our high church friends might say :). As an Anabaptist, I obviously don’t think the act of baptism magically changes anything in the spiritual realm. I think it is, among other things, a declaration of loyalty—the symbol of a commitment made to Christ, the recognition of the merits of what Christ has done, and a determination to continue to live in the reality of new life made possible by Christ.

      In other words, I think there is some significant distance between “baptism is a more or less meaningful event in the process of personal self-discovery” and “the act of baptism permanently alters things qualitatively in the spiritual realm.”

      September 17, 2011
  3. So if nothing changes in the spiritual realm and Baptism becomes a declaration of personal loyalty, does it then follow that justification is an act of will?

    September 18, 2011
    • Why would that follow?

      September 18, 2011
  4. Question with a question lol…If our ultimate destiny with God is determined gratuitously, a gift of a loving God, neither chosen or earned by man, then aside from an intervention by the “spiritual realm”, inclusion in God’s family is impossible. If Baptism is the initiation process by which we would participate, how can, as you say, declarations of loyalty and commitment be the mitigating factor? Would it not follow that the real gift of Baptism would be as PIckler states, a gift of “spititual transference”? Is the strength of Baptism determined by the strength of my assent, my commitment, or is it’s strength in the gratuitous gift of the Holy Spirit, given by the Father in the name of His Son.

    If the former, I hear a gospel of works, I hear a Baptism consistent with social gospel adherents but not consistent with the Gospels of our Lord. How else would you reconcile your version of Baptism with the words found in Matthew 4:16-17?

    Was the man Jesus privy to a different form of Baptism and gift of the Spirit then you or I?

    September 19, 2011
    • Is the ultimate destiny of everyone who gets baptized—infant or believers—fixed? There are many people, after all, who are baptized into the church as infants who would now self-identify as atheists (or have chosen some other religion). Same with those baptized as believers, regrettably, although I suspect the number would be lower here. What would you say to these people? That no matter what they might have to say about the matter, the fact that they were baptized means that their “spiritual transference” is a done deal?

      Another response to a question with a question (or a series of questions), I know, but I tend to be suspicious of either/or responses to the whole grace vs. works, divine vs. human initiative question.

      September 19, 2011
  5. Fair enough, you are a wise person and I appreciate your responses. You make me think,… sometimes more that I want to. 🙂

    I’m not sure what the official Catholic response to your concern would be but for the present I’m going to resist picking up the catechism. All I can say personally is that I don’t think anyone’s destiny is fixed by Baptism. I do think that if one freely receives and accepts the gift of the Holy Spirit conferred upon them, they are sufficiently resourced to withstand any challenge to their faith. But it is, as it has always been, an act of free will on each persons part. If I believe the Spirit is present within me I think I am still able to remain faithful to my belief in Jesus, even when my own spirit would lead me to think otherwise. If however my faith is dependant on my declaration of loyalty and that trust has been shaken, it seems inevitable to me that I will ultimately lose my faith in Christ. Further given the present cultural disposition towards religions in general, i think it unlikely that I would take the time to establish a faith in God through another context, it is more likely that I will become, at best agnostic or even atheistic.

    In this way then, I see what you offer as Baptism being insufficient to faith, depending on man and not God for it’s strength. In my understanding because of the sacramental gifting of the Holy Spirit at Baptism, the strength is God’s alone. I am always free to reject His power and in this way negate the gift, but the power is His alone, not mine.

    I may be wrong but I think this has much to do with why Catholics insist on infant Baptism. If it is primarily a sacramental grace not dependant on my intellectual assent for it’s activation, though it is for it’s preservation, why not receive the grace and blessing as early in one’s life as is possible?

    In any case, I know you didn’t want this to become a thread about Infant vs. adult Baptism, I just make the point as i think it pertains to the context of our discussion.

    Couple of question for you though, my friend. 🙂 I would still like you to take the time to wrestle with the Matthew 4:16-17, as I think it tends to undermine your position and I would be interested to hear how you deal with it.

    More importantly though, correct me if I’m wrong, I believe we share the common belief that ultimately it is God’s grace that redeems us. His gratuitous gift of love. If we are not “spiritually gifted” at Baptism, at least to some degree, when do you think it is that God’s grace becomes manifest? When does the ultimately neccessary “spiritual transference” occur?

    September 19, 2011
    • First, my few remarks in this post do not represent the sum total of my theology of baptism. That would take a much longer post. Second, while I may not have explicitly stated this, I of course believe that the Holy Spirit is operative throughout the process of baptism. I am not saying that baptism depends upon man and not God for its strength. But to acknowledge that human freedom and choosing of allegiance is part of the process seems self-evident to me. “Repent, therefore, and be baptized” seems to require it.

      (Incidentally, if you think that there is a “sacramental gifting of the Holy Spirit at Baptism” AND we are “always free to reject his power and in this way negate the gift” it seems to me that you quite clearly already do ascribe some power to human agency in this whole process.)

      I may be wrong but I think this has much to do with why Catholics insist on infant Baptism. If it is primarily a sacramental grace not dependant on my intellectual assent for it’s activation, though it is for it’s preservation, why not receive the grace and blessing as early in one’s life as is possible?

      That’s probably part of it. I think the origins of the doctrine/practice of infant baptism came from a belief that human beings were born with the stain of original sin and that baptism removed this (hence, do it as soon as possible, especially during a time when infant mortality was much higher than today). Anabaptists obviously disagree with the theology here. But I should also be clear that, for us, it is not primarily about “intellectual assent” (although that is certainly part of it) but obedience and allegiance.

      Re: Matthew 4:16-17, I don’t quite see how these two verses undermine “my position.” You’ll have to explain what you’re seeing here.

      September 19, 2011
  6. Yeah, that would be some kind of lengthy post!

    Ryan, what I was pushing back at was the claim that no significant “spiritual transference” as Pickler put it or the more pejorative, “magically changes anything” comment you made.

    Something has “magically changed” the baptized person has been lovingly endowed with a gift of the Holy Spirit. Like all gifts it must be received to be utilized but the real grace here is what God gives, not what I assent to. My “assents” may change but the “gift” never does. Speaking as a long time disbeliever, I would claim that the baptising grace of the Holy Spirit never left me but remained dormant as a consequence of my right of refusal. Obedience and allegience ought to be a consequence of this gifting but again the source of this obedience and allegience is in the gift itself. I cannot be obedient and faithful enough..for sure this much is true of me. Rather it is by the presence of the Holy Spirit within me and my willing submission to the Spirit within, that I remain faithful. As you rightly point out I do hold that we all remain active agents within this process. The distinction that I make is that I remain active with a process that is wholly supernatural, even magic if you will and that by this assent, the Holy Spirit can change everything. No assent or discipline or logically held view on my part can make this otherwise so.

    As difficult as it may sound to the logical mind,in the end, it is the “magic” of the Holy Spirit that will bring me to God. On my own, I am sure to abandon Him. Those who believe in a supernatural gifting, a sacrament of invisible grace, will remain standing, their faith is not in themselves, others or any human institution.

    Perhaps I’m misreading you but I see the Baptism that you describe as primarily focused on the human response as opposed to supernatural gifting present.

    As for Matthew 4:16-17 as it appears in NAB…” After Jesus was baptised he came from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for him) and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice from the heavens saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

    Notice the Spirit descends and God is well pleased. Was this gifting unique to Jesus? Was the Father’s response unique to Jesus? I suppose I can’t say anything other than what I believe; what was gifted Jesus, was and is, gifted all. What the Father said of Jesus, he says of all.

    As my defence I offer that Jesus the man came before John the Baptist and even in spite of John’s obvious discomfort, Jesus was insistant that John baptise him, that “he allow it now,… so as to fulfill all righteousness”.

    How was all righteousness fulfilled, by the affirmations of Jesus who was already fully righteous? Or by the realization that the Sacrament of Baptism was the gateway through which the Spirit of the Lord descends upon us and in whom our Father expresses His pleasure in us.

    A magical transference indeed.

    September 19, 2011
    • I have no substantial disagreement with anything you say here (aside from your biblical citation—I believe you’re referring to Matthew 3, not 4). I agree that the Spirit if a gift of grace, unmerited, unearned, etc. I agree that our decision-making occurs within the content of God’s ongoing, constant activity in our lives. I don’t see anything contradictory between baptism being a means through which God’s grace is exercised and a symbol of obedience/allegiance on our part. I am simply saying that the act, in and of itself, does not operate without us contributing something to the process. As I said, there are far too many baptized atheists out there for this to be the case.

      Re: Jesus fulfilling all righteousness, etc, I would argue that Jesus’ baptism had more to do with his assuming his position as the royal Davidic king and the suffering servant who would redeem Israel (the parallel passage in Luke makes these two connections between Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42 more clearly, I think). I don’t think there was any transferral of status going on. It was a statement of who Jesus was, and a model for his followers to obey.

      September 19, 2011
  7. Sorry, your right about the citation. So, with regard to your position is it fair to say something significant IS going on in the spiritual realm, requiring human co-operation. If so, that sounds different than what you said origionally to Pickler.

    I’m gonna lose most exegesis battles, not a Catholic strong point. But I would still venture that Matthew’s account can speak to the Davidic prophesy, the gifts of the Spirit in Christ’s Baptism and the gifts of the Spirit in all Baptism’s.

    I’m really curious, Ryan and I may be totally misreading you but if the the descending dove expression of the Spirit in Matthew is uncomfortable and in no way significant of “spiritual transference” and I assume you wouldn’t accept the Catholic position of transubstantiation and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, how does Mennonite tradition experience the other worldly presence of the Holy Spirit? What is the essence of the Mennonite mystical relationship? Or does your tradition even accept this as a legitimate experience of God? It would seem that if it didn’t, lots of what is in the Bible would stop making sense.

    September 19, 2011
    • What I originally said to Pickler is that there is some distance between the view that baptism is a stage on the journey of self-discovery and the view that the act of baptism permanently alters things qualitatively in the spiritual realm.” Beween those two poles, it seems to me, there is plenty of room for the mysterious interplay between divine initiative and human freedom.

      I’m not sure why you think that the descent of the Spirit is “uncomfortable” for me. I can assure you that it is not, in any way. I do think that Jesus’ baptism was utterly unique, though… Would you want to suggest that pre-baptism Jesus was not in relationship with the Spirit or that the Spirit only became a reality in Jesus’ life at his baptism? That would cause some trinitarian discomfort, to put it mildly.

      Re: transubstantiation, no, this is not how I understand the Eucharist. To whatever extent I am qualified to speak for “the Mennonite tradition,” I would simply say that Mennonites have historically experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in the ongoing process of illuminating the Scripture and conforming followers of Jesus to the pattern of Christ in discipleship. That’s the job of the Holy Spirit, right? To make us more like Jesus. I have nothing against mystical experience, and certainly wouldn’t limit the role of the Spirit to the two themes above. But the question Mennonites have always asked is: what is the fruit?

      September 19, 2011
  8. Thanks, Ryan. I’ll let the “spiritual transference” distinction go. In the end it seems more to do with semantics, how you intended to say something;how I interpreted the something said, than differing orthodoxies….maybe lol 🙂

    With regard to me describing you as “uncomfortable” to be fair that is a reading between the lines. Just a general observation of mine that things of supernatual or mystic foundation aren’t prominent in your hermeneutic. You go to great and very intelligent lengths to describe a God and faith of rational integrity. This is a wise and good thing to be sure but in the end mutts like me have encountered Jesus in the Eucharist, encountered the Spirit in contemplative prayer and like any good Marion I accept as fact the dozens of apparitions accorded to Our Lady over the centuries, as have been recognized by the magisterium. Once you’ve encountered, and believed in others encounters, an argument becomes somewhat superfluous.

    With regard to your “trinitarian discomfort” supposition, I think I’ve at least inferred the opposite when I said Jesus was already fully righteous pre-Baptism. The fullfillment of all prophesy would be the better response to your accurate assessment regarding the Davidic “suffering servant” argument. The question for me then becomes what is the fullfillment of “rightways” ? For Jesus, do we both agree the question is redundant? If so then I posit that the Baptism accorded Jesus, the decent of the Holy Spirit, and the familial embrace and affirmation from the Father were also intended to institute the sacrament of Baptism and the primacy of spiritual transference inherent in the action.

    I like what you said about not limiting the actions of God and the examination of the “fruit”. On that front we are both Catholic. 🙂 Whether big C or small c.

    My last thoughts are with regard to the rhetorical question, “That’s the job of the Holy Spirit, right? To make us more like Jesus.” As best as I can describe my experience it would be to say that the Spirit works best in the quiet, in the deep silence. A warm and secure yet emptiness of being. In this place I get no rational sense of what Jesus would have me do but rather the sense of how Jesus would have me feel. Not so much a sense of what a “Jesus action” looks like but more a sense of what a Jesus disposition feels like.

    If you ever have the time I would be interested in hearing about your worship style. Particularly with regards to what you emphasize and what you don’t. I think the best eccumenical engagement people can make with one another is in relating their personal experiences of God and worship. When the subject matters trend towards apologetic and orthodoxy, I still struggle to not pick a fight. 🙂

    September 20, 2011
    • Ken #

      Re: trinity and the divinity of Christ

      If one looks at these things historically, during the life of Jesus the trinity had not yet been conceived. Nor had Jesus’ divinity, other than as the kind of divinity a king might have. The spirit of God descended on Jesus the way it rushed on David and filled the judges. Those words meant that Jesus was the messiah, the king of the new Israel, like David, and that he had the power of a judge (and David) to slay the enemies of Israel. Athanasius offered the language that made Jesus divine in the trinitarian, fully divine way: coequal with God the father.

      I think Jesus’ baptism, and ours following him, can also represent the crossing of the Jordan by the new Israel. Baptized, we live beyond the river Jordan in the promised land.

      I don’t mean to criticize the Church by making these historical observations or to criticize anything Ryan or Paul has said. Personally, I have known and still love the Roman beliefs as Paul has explained them. They are quite beautiful, whatever their history may be.

      September 20, 2011
      • Yes, I think your historical observations are very appropriate, Ken. Trinitarianism is always read back into the NT documents, but the doctrine itself took a while to be formulated. As I said earlier, I think that there are echoes of the Psalms, and the spirit-filled Davidic king, as well as the suffering servant of Isaiah in how the gospel (especially Luke) portray Jesus’ baptism. It seems to have more to with Jesus’ identity than it does with the metaphysics of baptism.

        I also like the “crossing of the Jordan by the new Israel” metaphor. It is a deep experience, baptism—one that can accomodate many different metaphors and the realities to which they point.

        September 20, 2011
    • Paul, I suppose I would simply respond that I don’t see rationality and spiritual experience as mutually exclusive in any way. Do I gravitate more toward reason than experience? Probably. As I’ve said before on this blog, I think God relates to his children in unique ways, and we shouldn’t expect a one-size-fits-all approach to how faith is lived and experienced.

      Re: Jesus’ baptism, I am convinced that there was a LOT going on there, whether the fulfillment of prophecy, the establishing of Jesus’ identity and mission, the fulfilling of righteousness, etc. As I recall, the reason you brought this up was to demonstrate that baptism inherently involves some transfer of spiritual status upon its recipient. I remain unconvinced…. those baptized atheists and agnostics (not to mention converts to other faiths) are stubborn data to contend with on this score…

      Re: the job of the Holy Spirit, again, I would simply say it’s a both/and thing, not an either/or. Doing and feeling. Feeling without doing AND doing without feeling are less than what God wants from/for us. Although, if I had to choose, as a good Anabaptist I would choose doing without feeling… 🙂

      Re: my worship style, I’m not sure I really have one—at least not a very unique one. I emphasize the goodness of God, grace, silence, thoughtful hymns, intercessory prayer, the Eucharist … Not much different than many expressions of worship, I suspect.

      September 20, 2011
  9. Ryan, again I thank you so much for such thoughtful and well articulated responses. You are really such a great help to my formation and continued pursuit of a deeper relationship with the Lord. I will joyfullly testify on your behalf, when the time comes, though I suspect prosecuting attornies will have a field day with the quality of my character. You may prefer I remain silent. 🙂

    Doh!…as a well known TV character might say. I hereby abandon the term “spiritual transference” for the term Baptismal grace. May the dove descend on us all. 🙂

    Ken it is a joy to read your responses again. You are an integral voice to the discussions here…always. A.K. A, I often need you to help me explain just what the heck it is I’m trying to say! 🙂

    One last thought, perhaps the grace is real and true but for loves sake; the requirement of a loving free will response in return, it can be rejected in such a way as to make it seem as if the grace never existed at all.

    September 21, 2011
    • No problem at all, Paul. Thanks for the encouraging words, and for all your input around here. I like your last sentence very much.

      September 21, 2011

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