Baptizing Vicariously and the Problems of Universalism

Baptizing Vicariously and the Problems of Universalism April 17, 2012

I haven’t posted for a while, so I was checking through some of my drafts this evening.  This was fully written, but I can’t remember why I didn’t post it at the time I wrote it.  It is a bit past the prime time on this issue, but might still be relevant.


The reemergence of the controversy about baptism for the dead, spearheaded by the issue of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims is frustrating for Mormons. Not only do Mormons feel misunderstood and suspicious of the motives of those who mischaracterize Mormon ritual and belief, but also frustrated that the Church has not adequately put in the safeguards to prevent these kinds of issues from happening (banned since the 1990’s), and embarrassing us all over again. At the same time, the practice of baptism for the dead and the controversy surrounding it reveal a deep philosophical issue about the place of difference in universalist understandings of salvation.

The practice of baptism for the dead is not about “converting” dead souls. (That is what posthumous missionary work is for!) Rather it is about fulfilling the statement of Jesus that, “no one can see the Kingdom of Heaven without being born again,” a reference to the practice of baptism by Jesus in John 3:5. The universal claim that “no one” can enter heaven without baptism creates a kind of theological problem. Does that mean that only those who happened to have had the opportunity to be baptized can be saved? For some the answer is yes, and presumably the same Jewish activists upset about Mormons trying to send Jews (and everyone else) to heaven are not as upset by all those Christians who think that Anne Frank is going to hell, such as the centuries-long Catholic teachings, “there is no salvation outside the church.”

The Jewish concern about posthumous baptism points to the problem of theologies that attempt to make a universal people of God. In Judaism, there is one God for all people (a claim to universality), but one covenant with a particular people (a claim to particularity). The tension between these two positions runs throughout Jewish thought, wrestling with questions of what it means to be “chosen” and what it means to be “not-chosen” for the rest of us.

There have been numerous solutions to this problem in Jewish history, but the most famous is that of Paul the Apostle. Paul argued that Abraham is not the father of the Israelite people, but rather the father of all those who have faith, specifically faith in Jesus. This meant that there were not ethnic or ritual restrictions on who could be the people of God, but it was rather opened up to all. Divisions between “Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female” (Gal 3:28) ceased to exist.

The illusion of this universal claim is that it is still based on an exclusion, a particularity that masks itself as universal. In order to belong to this new people for Paul, one had to have faith in Jesus. Sure, anyone could have faith in Jesus, but that also meant that it was just a new kind of particular claim. Further, in this new universal people, it meant that the old differences were done away. One was no longer a Jew, and all that particular heritage went away. The end of difference also means the end of identity. The question about what it means to end differences, whether with respect to the differences between males and females, or Paul’s elimination of the categories of Jews and Gentiles are often accompanied by anxiety that this means that one’s identity will go away. It is a lot like how being “open-minded” means that there are all sorts of things you’re not allowed to think. And such concerns are not unfounded. The French insistence that in order to be “French,” one cannot practice Islam in particular ways points to how claims to a universal French identity are based on the exclusion of other particular identities.

And thus we return to baptisms for the dead. Mormonism claims the only, universal authority to baptize and must therefor baptize all of humanity, living and dead. This claim is perceived as, and operates as, a universal claim which relies on excluding the validity of the religious identities of the rest of humanity.  It reveals the ways in which claims to a universal identity are always particular identities masquerading as universal, based on the exclusion of other particular identities.  At the same time, one can hardly imagine a more toothless notion of such a universalism, one which applies not to the living, but only to the dead.  Vicarious baptisms do not force the acceptance of any universal identity, but are rooted in an eschatological hope that one day such an identity will unite humanity.  The ethical and theological questions that we face strike at the heart of claims to any universal identity for humanity, and the problematics of our categories for ourselves and others.

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