St. Justin Martyr, an early church father, says the following about baptism:
…at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice…but may become the children of choice and knowledge (through the sacrament of baptism)…
Basically what he’s saying is that when we’re born, we’re dependent on others for everything. We rely on them to be clothed, fed, protected, and they make all of our decisions for us. In good old evangelical-speak, we are living before the “age of accountability,” at which point we’re held responsible for our own actions and decisions.
But more simply, once you know better, you’re held accountable for doing better. Until then, you live in a state of dependent, blissful ignorance. But once your eyes are opened and once you take on the mantle of understanding the differences between right and wrong, and how your choices affect yourself and others, you’re acceptable for those choices and actions.
What Martyr is saying is that baptism is an outward symbol of an inward commitment to act and chose differently. We know better, so we’re committing to doing and being better. Knowledge precedes both the privilege and responsibility to choose our own way, to own it, for better or worse. Yes, we may be children of choice and knowledge prior to the actual act of being baptized, but we’re acknowledging it to the community of witnesses that we’re this journey of choice and knowledge, and we’re asking them to hold us accountable to that.
When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the deed actually is done, so to speak, before they take a bite of fruit. They both know better before they do the deed, but they do it anyway. But like baptism, eating the fruit is an outward expression of an inward choice. And although the law in our culture says that ignorance is no excuse, sin is a little bit different. The truly sinful act takes place when we know better but don’t do better.
And what happens then? We’re aware not only of our transgression; we are aware of our own self-deception, a betrayal of ourselves, our own dignity and promise to ourselves. It’s breaking a social and spiritual contract but, perhaps even worse, it represents a broken personal contract.
This is what happens with Adam and Eve in the Garden. God tells them what not to do and why, and so they know better. They have a choice, but they also have knowledge. Therefore they were baptized by God, in a sense, into accountability. There was an expectation – a contract – and they were expected not to violate it. And of course they did, because they, like we, have to learn the hard way, it seems.
When we are baptized into choice and knowledge, the bittersweet subtext to it is that we, God and everyone witnessing knows we will break the contract. We’ll screw up. A lot. Over and over and over. But the Good News is that Grace is a renewable resource (thank God!). Thought the hope is that all will be wine and roses following baptism, we all know it won’t be. The key, then is not to give up and turn inward, feeding a self-destructive narrative of inevitable failure when we do.
We get up, admit our shortfall and try again. And again. And again…
Being born into truth and knowledge comes with a terrifying degree of responsibility, but it some with an abundance of grace as well. Since the beginning, it’s been this way. We don’t need the ritual of baptism to make it so, but it means we’re willing to acknowledge our part in doing better while knowing better, accepting the gift of grace at ever misstep along the way.