Monday, June 12, 2006

Baptism as New Beginning

What kind of ritual is Baptism? It is something that one goes through only once. It is a ritual that constitutes the beginning of life in the Church.

Baptism, according to Romans 6, is about entering into communion with the death of Christ. By participation in this ritual, "our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin." As I have argued in my earlier posts, I understand this talk about the body of sin, as that which hinders us from being who we really are, that which keeps us soul from being free, as it were.

Paul urges the Romans to "count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus." It seems that Baptism is about how we look at ourselves. When we go through this ritual we symbolically enter a mode of life that will be full reality only in the coming life. But by going through this ritual - essentially a symbolical death and resurrection - we communicate to ourselves that we want to live as if that life was present already here. The person that lets himself or herself be baptized signals that he or she no longer wants to be part of the "system" as I have called it, those forces that manipulates us to not be ourselves.

Now, to believe that baptism itself would free us from the influences of these forces would be to have a magic understanding of the sacraments (regardless if we say that it is God's grace this change or not). But by going through this ritual we incorporate this belief, this choice to try to separate from the system, into our personality in a way that would not be possible were we just to decide to do so intellectually.

We can thus say that baptism frees the baptized from original sin, but this is not something that is experienced directly, it something that only becomes a full reality in the coming existence. It is also something that the new believer can start to make a reality in this life because of the re-evaluation of motives that the choice to be baptized is (metanoia). When we say that the baptized person receives the gift of the Holy Spirit we say that life for that persons now carry a new meaning that were not there before. Again, by communicating this through a ritual we reach a deeper layer in the personlity.

A couple of notes. 1. This is said of baptizing adults. Although I do not see it as wrong to baptize children, this symbolism is certainly lost to the person being baptized. That is a very unfortunate loss. I understand that a person can "live in one's baptism", that is, infuse a meaning into an act one does not remember, even if one is baptized as a child, it is also clear that the way paeodo-baptism generally is performed this kind of symbolism is rarely present. In fact, it seems that the persons undergoing the ritual of paedo-baptism is not so much the child as the parents. Again, this is ok, and it is certainly an apt time for a ritual, but it is a ritual with a different meaning from that which Paul describes in Romans 6.

2. When I say that baptism removes original sin, I realize that this is a historical sommersault, since at least Augustine argued the other way around: since the Church performes paedo-baptism it has to mean that the original sin (or rather its reatus) is removed in baptism. Now, the concept of a guilt connected to original sin is something I can't find any sense in, and it is very difficult what kind of "body of sin" the newborn can carry around. For the adult, however, this is a easy understandble symbol of al those past choices, one's own and those of other people, that affect future choices.


Weekend Fisher said...

I think Augustine -- and/or his later interpreters -- made a serious mistake in arguing from the common practice of baptizing children to some sort of guilt in a child on account of original sin. It is true that we baptize for the forgiveness of sins; it is also true that we baptize for new life. This is something a child needs as much as an adult, "flesh gives birth to flesh, spirit gives birth to spirit".

Now to believe that baptism itself would free us from the influences of these forces would be to have a magic understanding of the sacraments

I'm not completely sure of that. As you mentioned earlier, baptism is about entering communion with the death of Christ. Baptism is a good destruction, a liberating destruction, a death for the sin and "demons" inside us, a death in Christ and a rebirth in his resurrection. It is where we begin our lives of taking up the cross and following. I hope as I go on in life, the cross is carrying more of the weight, til it nearly carries me instead of me carrying it. At least until next time I act like an idiot, which can never be far away.

Patrik said...

I agree about Augustine in this case. It happened during the Julian of Eclanum debate which wasn't really one of Augustine's greatest moments. (I do not recall what he says about it in the City of God, but it IIRC more open...)

When I speak of a magic understanding of sacraments, I am refering to a belief that the sacrament has an objective effect appart from the meaning we attach to it as a group and as an individual. What you describe seems to be exactly the change in self-understanding I am talking about.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hmm. I'm not sure I understand one thing you're saying. When you say "a belief that the sacrament has an objective effect apart from the meaning we attach to it as a group and as an individual", that discusses the receiving end of it but not the connection to God through Christ. What do you make of the connection to God through Christ, or to put it another way, where do you fit God's purposes in instituting the sacraments?

Patrik said...

Well, the easy answer to this huge question is that we know only the receiving end. Basically, I believe the sacraments are there for our benefit, pure and simple.

A more complicated anser is found in the idea that we find unity with God only when we are in unity with ourselves. This is what baptism aims at. I'm sorry, but to explain further I would have to repeat most of the things I have written in this blog so far. Check out my posts on sin and salvation, for example.

kim fabricius said...

Weekend Fisher rightly refers to the "serious mistake" Augustine made in eliding original sin with inherited guilt. Eastern Orthodoxy has always accepted the former but rejected the latter, pointing, for example, to the Western bias towards judicial thought-forms. And, of course, there is the wildly misleading Latin translation of Romans 5:12 that Augustine unwisely deployed to give scriptural basis to his (paedo)baptismanl theology.

The American Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart points out that with "mature souls" "this disparity of emphasis makes litle difference." Over infant baptism, however, comes the parting of the waters. While the eary Western traditon will unconvincingly go the way of a doctrine of limbo for children who die without baptism,, Gregory of Nyssa, for example, will "conclude that infants who died without baptism were all saved (their deaths being their baptisms)".

And can you see the insidious implications of the Western tradition - paricularly in its Calvinist form - when it comes to theodicies? If unbaptised children are not only sinful but guilty, the justification of their untimely deaths ceases to be a theologica problem - after all, they were culpable, they deserved it. Ivan Karamazov would have a field day!

Anonymous said...

ex opere operato does not equal "magic".