The Church of England has decided to take out the part in the Baptism liturgy in which the candidate or sponsors answer the questions, “Do you renounce the Devil? And all his works?” British journalist Giles Fraser complains at the attempt to make Baptism nicer, reducing it to a sanitized middle class naming ceremony.
It’s one of the most famous scenes in cinema. “Michael Francis Rizzi, do you renounce Satan?” asks the priest. “I do renounce him,” replies Michael, straight-faced, knowing full well that his orders to murder Moe Greene, Emilio Barzini, Philip Tattaglia, Victor Stracci and Carmine Cuneo are being carried out at that very moment. A particularly over-the-top organ piece by Bach reaches its climax. “And all his works?” asks the priest. Michael repeats: “I do renounce them.” Brilliant stuff. And a perfect rendition of the moral/existential drama of baptism. It’s not just a little bit of genteel water-sprinkling. It’s not just a chance to get out that floral patterned dress and drink lukewarm cava with a few select friends. It’s a scary participatory drama of death and new life.
Unfortunately, however, the Church of England has just agreed to take the devil out of the baptism liturgy. “Those who work with young people give constant advice that references to the devil are likely to be misunderstood in today’s culture,” the Bishop of Truro told the Church of England’s General Synod this week. What a pity. I’m going to miss the devil and all his works. I always thought those passages rather importantly referenced that little bit of Michael Corleone in all of us. And by their omission, we are being taken still further along the road from baptism as an expression of the big themes of death and resurrection to baptism as a polite middle-class naming ceremony. Once again, it feels like the church is chopping off its own balls.Baptism is not supposed to be nice. It’s a simulated drowning. The old person is put to death so that the new person can emerge. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus have been baptised into His death?” asks Paul, polemically, in Romans. This is what it is to become a new person, to be reborn – or born again as evangelicals like to say. In film terms, think Neo being unplugged from the Matrix and unceremoniously spat out into reality down that slimy artificial birth canal. His old self had to be put to death in order for his new self to emerge into the light.
And here is the true site of Christianity’s confrontation with secular humanism. Let me put it baldly for argument’s sake. Christians have a generally dark and negative view of human nature. Which is why human beings need to take such drastic existential measures as baptism: death and resurrection. This is not a disparagement of human beings – simply a realistic assessment of the egotistical stuff from which we are made.
In contrast, humanists have a generally sunny view of human nature, thinking that we are all basically good, and that if only things like religion and politics got out of the way, then we would all get on terribly well, skipping off into the sunset, hand-in-hand. It’s this utterly kitsch view of human nature that makes it so existentially limp.