Friday, July 24, 2015

Musings about baptism

Image result for baptism images

An Ethical Musings’ reader asked me for my thoughts on the Episcopal Church’s Baptism liturgy, which is found in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on p. 299. The reader had found an essay by Debra Cole, Her Holiness posted at the Bitter Southerner’s Folklore project, troubling.

Cole expresses affection for the Episcopal Church. She thinks that most Episcopalians are reasonably well educated and appreciates the honesty of Anglican history, although she rightly dislikes both Henry VIII’s gluttony and domestic violence. Significantly, Cole has no intention of joining us but believes that we tend to be “relatable, aesthetically minded and intellectually tolerant.”

She did contemplate having her daughter baptized at the Episcopal parish in Atlanta that she occasionally attends. One obstacle to proceeding with the baptism was her realization that she would prefer a cake for the post-baptism festivities with a question mark instead of the more traditional “God bless.”

Then she read the baptismal liturgy and discovered that it posed what, for her, were insurmountable obstacles. If I understood our liturgy as Cole interpreted it, then I too would find it deeply disturbing. Needless to say, my interpretations differ substantially from Cole’s at several critical points.

First, she objects to the renunciation of Satan, initially suggesting that the word Satan may metaphorically connote evil and then deciding that the Episcopal Church takes the word literally. Evil is real; Satan is not. Some people find personifying evil as Satan or the devil spiritually helpful. In contrast to prior generations, relatively few twenty-first century Episcopalians (an opinion that reflects my bias) take that image literally.

In other words, our rich liturgical legacy, like many legacies, has both positive and negative aspects. The positive explicitly links us to the great cloud witnesses who have preceded us; the negative is that we must cope with words and ideas that we understand very differently than did our predecessors. The baptism liturgy is a also poignant and sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the reality of evil, an important counterpoint to those Christians and others who would prefer to gloss over inconvenient or negative aspects of existence.

Second, Cole finds the idea of putting her whole trust in Jesus’ grace troubling. She notes that even with a video of Kennedy’s assassination and eyewitness statements taken within hours of the even, people are uncertain about exactly what happened. How can anyone know for certain what happened at the end of Jesus’ life in the events central to historic Christian theology, i.e., Jesus’ trial, death, and alleged resurrection?

Nobody can know the facts. People who claim to know have substituted their opinion for demonstrable fact. Perhaps some opinions are correct. Certainly, some opinions are more correct than other opinions. Yet, no basis exists by which humans can determine which of the gamut of opinions about Jesus are more or most correct. As I have repeatedly emphasized in Ethical Musings, the Bible offers little help resolving this historical problem because the text consists of human words arranged by human authors to tell a story that the author found important. (Perhaps knowing the historical facts is far less important than our making the Biblical stories our stories, if doing so enables us to live abundant, loving, fulfilling lives!)

The Christian tradition began with multiple Christologies. Some Christologies depicted Jesus as human but with a divine message and perhaps divine power, others saw him as entirely divine but manifest in human form, others sought some middle ground between human and divine, and yet others attempted to formulate a theory of Jesus as both human and divine.

Through mandatory allegiance to the Creeds and other theological formula Christianity has sought to enforce a normative theology. In actuality, that effort never fully succeeded; at most, it simply created a fa├žade of theological uniformity that glossed over considerable diversity of belief. Nominally acceding to the established forms was far less costly (think of all the heretics burned at the stake!) than honestly expressing one’s opinion. The amount of evidence of disparate Christologies from the last twenty centuries in spite of Christianity’s diligent and unrelenting efforts to enforce orthodoxy emphasizes how unpersuasive many Christians in all generations found the Creeds and doctrinal orthodoxy. Diversity of thinking in the contemporary Church is strong – think of Bishop Spong, for example. Someone who today openly frames her own understanding of Jesus is in good company. Christianity is much more about the journey than theology.

Third, Cole interprets the phrase There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism as an affirmation of Christian exclusivity. Historically, that phrase emphasized the Church’s unity. Indeed, the idea of one Baptism has pointed toward Christian inclusivity: anyone baptized using the Trinitarian formula of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” was considered to be a Christian. Recently, this teaching led to the Episcopal Church insisting that Mormons are Christian precisely because they have been baptized using the Trinitarian formula even though normative Latter Day Saint Christology is radically different from the Christology of historic Christianity. Furthermore, a close reading of the Catechism (pp. 845-863 in the Book of Common Prayer) shows that while the Episcopal Church proclaims salvation in the name of Jesus the Church proffers no judgment on the fate of people who follow a different path.

In short, Cole reads and understands the baptism liturgy through the lens of the mild fundamentalist that she once was. Her interpretation makes me personally uncomfortable. I’m thankful that the Episcopal Church is intellectually tolerant, extending its aesthetic beyond buildings and music to include the language of our liturgy. We have lots of room for Debra Cole. She is right. Nobody needs the Church to be a good person or a good parent. Nevertheless, for many people the Church in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, offers a supportive context for living a more abundant, loving, and spiritually fulfilling life.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I am having my child baptized into the Episcopal church soon, and the words I will have to say have been weighing on me. I do not accept those fundamentalist interpretations anymore, but it's sometimes difficult for me to get out of that mindset when I encounter religious language. A work in progress.

Mark said...

While I think we are generally playing in the same spiritual sandbox (anyone who cites Bishop Spong is a friend of mine) I take issue with a few points. In particular, when you write: "Some people find personifying evil as Satan or the devil spiritually helpful." "Spiritually helpful?" Don't we wish that's all it was. The fact is that many, many Christians have long thought of Satan as having a very physical reality, not the personification of evil, but its very source. Satan takes over body and spirit, countless sermons and revivals have sought to "cast him out" or blame him for the acts of individuals infected, even possessed by his demonic presence. Satan represents a way of thinking that is often equally applied to God in the sense of a conceptualization of authoritarian and micro-managing higher powers that insert themselves in one's daily actions. The mode of thinking leads to an abdication of independent responsibility among believers -- God is thanked or Satan is blamed when in fact the individual made choices that had nothing to do with either. When the baptismal liturgy reflects not some sort of abstract rejection of evil, but specific denunciation of Satan, it does not evoke some abstract "helpful" visualization of evil, but something belonging to a toxic tradition of a dogma focused on a God to be feared in order to avoid punishment from sin.
Of course Debra rejects that a moment in which an infant should be bathed in love and joy is instead a moment where her parents are subjected to the fire and brimstone question: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” The correct response to her legitimate objection is: "You're right. We should change the baptismal liturgy" -- not offer the lame justification that: "The baptism liturgy is a also poignant and sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the reality of evil, an important counterpoint to those Christians and others who would prefer to gloss over inconvenient or negative aspects of existence." C'mon. Those who respond most fervently to the narrative of "wickedness" are also those most likely displace their spiritual energy in fingerpointing and moral condemnation, for example, in regards to gay people, single mothers etc. Many Christians, in fact, think that judging others is a more important expression of their faith than living in kindness, precisely because of these admonitions against evil. "Gloss over?" More of that might actually be a good idea.
If it does not reflect the thinking of the modern Episcopal church, it should not be included in the baptism liturgy as some sort of misquided nod to an archaic tradition. The answer is not to rationalize it in some rhetorical dress-up, but to propose a re-write, period.

George Clifford said...

I agree with the thrust of your comments. However, I think people who take the idea of Satan literally represent such an indefensible theology that it does not merit comment. Ideally, the Episcopal Church would update its liturgy. Practically, that idea seems a non-starter - even though the recent General Convention voted to initiate a revision process. First, printed books are passe. The cost of replacing all of the printed versions of the Book of Common Prayer in our churches is huge, money better spent in other ways. Second, theology is becoming more diverse. I predict that the next version of the Episcopal liturgy will not only be electronic but also contain multiple options, moving away from uniformity, and openly recognizing the wide variety of thought and interpretation that already exists.

Mark said...

Respectfully, whether or not it's a non-starter is beside the point. This is the internet - all proposals are free of charge. It strikes me that you reacted to Debra's blog reflexively as a member of the clergy who automatically recasts the unpleasant parts of the liturgy in palatable terms, as opposed the the Spong-like insurgent who takes to task that which deserves to be taken to task.
I think your prediction is correct, but these changes take place because people precisely with your credibility push these changes along. In other words, your intellect and gravitas are considerable tools that can do far more than "muse."

Dotun Olagoke said...

Fr. George---Great Sermon---I fell in love with the last paragraph---Thanks