This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity cames from Drew:
Hi Tony, The haunting question that I want to submit is this: Does anything REALLY happen to a baby’s spirit at its baptism? I am NOT a Baptist in the sense that I think it is a requirement as a Christian to be baptized as a “believer.” But I don’t think that infant baptism is magic. In fact, it makes more sense to me to have babies grow up in church and decide for themselves if they want to be baptized.
I am the youth minister at a baby-baptizing Congregational church, and my wife and I decided to not have our son baptized. In spite of this, I don’t believe that anyone should force a person to be re-baptized if he or she was baptized as an infant. So I guess that means that I think infant baptism is “valid.”
But what MAKES it valid? What happens in that infant baptism? It seems that SOMETHING has to happen, or else it really isn’t anything. And it seems that that “something” should happen in the spirit of the baby because baptism is supposed to a spiritual event. But I guess I have some doubts about this. So, does something really happen in a baby’s spirit at its baptism?
Many great comments here, deeply delving into exegesis of Paul, and even references to Melchizedek. Because the biblical ground was covered in the comments to the post, I’ll go another direction.
I received a DM this week from a reader who asked what I think of radical theology and the “death of God” that’s become somewhat popular among a particular tribe of post-liberals and post-evangelicals. His follow-up question was whether I thought it’s possible to do practical theology without metaphysics.
My answer is that I try to, but I don’t think it’s totally possible. And I think that because so many people who walk this planet want there to be a metaphysical reality. People want something magic to happen to the bread and the wine when a becollared clergyperson says some words out of a book. They want there to be an alternate reality where angels are looking out for them and fending off the demons that plot to destroy them.
And they want the baptism of their children to somehow seal them into God’s benevolence, or even into Heaven for eternity.
The problem is — as I’m sure most readers of this blog agree — that’s not how it works.
We just can’t believe that God would grant something like benevolence or eternal life to one person who gets some water sprinkled on them by a holy man, meanwhile leave another whose parents did not subject them to that rite to suffer for eternity. It just doesn’t work like that. It can’t.
The consensus answer in the comments to “What happens when I baptize my child?” was the repeatedly funny, “He gets wet.” That’s the materialist rejoinder to the metaphysical claim that something magic happens at baptism. Let me try to steer a middle course.
When John was baptizing in the Jordan River, including his cousin, Jesus, he was remaking a ritual that was familiar to those who lived in first century Palestine. Among some Jews — particularly the Essenes, who were basically the monks of intertestamental Judaism — ritual washing had gone from an occasional rite to an outright obsession. Although our knowledge of intertestamental Judaism is sketchy at best, it seems that John was radicalizing this ritual by doing it in the wild, in a river, and he a very un-priestly type person.
Jesus neither baptized nor circumcised in his role and wandering rabbi — at least as far as we know — nor did Paul. But Paul took both of these rites seriously, and he conflated them. For the Christian, he said, circumcision was obsolete. Baptism had taken its place. This was good news both for women and for penises.
Baptism has evolved from what Paul envisioned, to be sure. It’s been the source of both great celebration in the church, and of painful divisions. And while I don’t think it has any magical, metaphysical properties, I do think it can be valuable to the mystical communion that is the church.
As Robert Putnam taught us years ago, Americans are doing more things, but we’re doing them alone. When I was a pastor, I was asked several times to perform “private” baptisms. These were usually requested by a young couple who negligibly or not at all connected to the church, and instead of standing in front of a congregation they didn’t know, they wanted just close friends and family in their backyard. I and every pastor on staff refused these baptisms, except in the rare case when a child was too ill or frail to be in a public setting. The reason was that baptism, at its heart, is a communal rite.
This struck some people as odd. They came to us with metaphysical desires — give my kid the special sauce that makes her a Christian — and we responded as mystical materialists — this is about the community coming together to celebrate a new life in our midst.
But I’m going to venture out on a limb and say that there’s something magic — let’s call it, materialist magic — that when a community gathers, and all the more so when that community is in fellowship with God’s Spirit (is that too metaphysical?). Just like the total is more than the sum of its parts, we’re better together than we are alone.
And combine that with the fact that people want some ceremony by which they can welcome their children into the community, baptism serves a purpose. In fact, in contradiction to what I wrote above, I think that baptism seals a child into God’s benevolence. But not in the way that most people think. Instead of being because God’s takes a shine to you after you’ve had water sprinkled on your head, it’s because the community says, “Welcome!”