Tuesday, August 29, 2006

when, and why

One of the things Brent and I are asked fairly often by people is when (or whether) Clare will be baptized. A couple of semesters ago, when I was precepting for TH 222 and just a few months pregnant, Clare became my class illustration (oh, the dangers of being a preacher's kid) on the subject during discussion of infant baptism and believer's baptism. It personalized it, made it a little less abstract--and unfortunately, a little less overtly theological for the students as well, I think. It's hard to theologize when all of a sudden, you're no longer talking about an issue, but a person. Thus, "unfortunately," because really, theology is ultimately about people, for it is always about relationship: to God and each other. Nothing is ever just an issue, floating around unattached to people, and doing theology as if there were such abstract, unattached and impersonal objects of investigation is (in my opinion) pretty much inevitably bad theology.

We've discussed this at least half a dozen times already since learning I was pregnant, and probably will discuss it that many more times in the next year or so. It's not that we disagree about it; it's not that Brent is for baptizing Clare now, and I'm not, or vice versa. It's more like, now that we have this decision in front of us, there are reasons on both sides and it takes a lot of back and forth discussion to negotiate it all, and in the end, when we're fatigued and the subject itself is exhausted, we know that we will revisit everything again in a little while.

Really, the question is, what is baptism, anyway? Is it something we do, or something God does? Do we have to be old enough to stand on our own two feet and speak for ourselves in order for baptism to be what it is? Or even further, do we have to be able to stand up and speak for ourselves as autonomous, responsible individuals--alone, as it were, before the throne of God, in order for baptism to be what it is?

I have my doubts about this, even though this is the assumption I grew up with. I wasn't baptized until I was 16 years old, mainly because at the ever-impressionable junior-high age, I watched a bunch of kids from the youth group I was nominally a part of go tripping down the aisle like lemmings and jumping into the baptistry. I was hugely cynical, because the kids I watched make heartfelt confessions of faith up at the front were the same kids who were, for the most part, casually cruel to me week in and week out (or at least, as my memory may have exaggerated, completely indifferent). What could baptism possibly mean, I felt, if it was just some maudlin show that left no imprint on the remainder of someone's life? Later, after my family's move to NC, I resisted because I was determined that, whatever I eventually decided, it would be a real decision, something that would mark which way I was choosing to go with my life. Not being baptized would have been quite as much a decision as being baptized: it was one way, or the other. Very Gospel of John, light and dark, sort of thing. So I put it off, because for a long time I didn't want to come to that point of decision-making. I wanted to float, live in both worlds, for as long as I could. Eventually, of course, this quit working for me. I had to choose. So baptism was, for me, the paradigmatic autonomous individual squaring up to take the responsibility of choosing or rejecting God. Baptism, for me, was saying "yes" to God. For a long time this was all that baptism was for me. I understood in some kind of intellectual way that baptism was participation in Christ's death, was a washing away of sins, was the reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit, was incorporation into the body of Christ. But these were just words. What baptism was, experientially, was an existential decision that marked a direction for my life.

I'm not saying this is a bad understanding. I, in fact, treasure the memory of my baptism and am grateful that I have this moment in my life that does stand as a marker of saying "yes" to God. There is something firm and unshakeable about that, something that cannot be undone, that I can reach for in moments of doubt and regret. Baptism is still this for me, but what I now understand is that it is also a great deal more. It is, in a way that goes deeper than words, participation, cleansing, renewal, incorporation; and it was these things even when I myself thought of it merely as a moment of definitive spiritual decision-making in my life.

The World Council of Churches document, "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry," has this to say:

While the possibility that infant baptism was also practised in the apostolic age cannot be excluded, baptism upon personal profession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents.

In the course of history, the practice of baptism has developed in a variety of forms. Some churches baptize infants brought by parents or guardians who are ready, in and with the Church, to bring up the children in the Christian faith. Other churches practise exclusively the baptism of believers who are able to make a personal confession of faith. Some of these churches encourage infants or children to be presented and blessed in a service which usually involves thanksgiving for the gift of the child and also the commitment of the mother and father to Christian parenthood.

All churches baptize believers coming from other religions or from unbelief who accept the Christian faith and participate in catechetical instruction.

Both the baptism of believers and the baptism of infants take place in the Church as the community of faith. When one who can answer for himself or herself is baptized, a personal confession of faith will be an integral part of the baptismal service. When an infant is baptized, the personal response will be offered at a later moment in life. In both cases, the baptized person will have to grow in the understanding of faith. For those baptized upon their own confession of faith, there is always the constant requirement of a continuing growth of personal response in faith. In the case of infants, personal confession is expected later, and Christian nurture is directed to the eliciting of this confession. All baptism is rooted in and declares Christ's faithfulness unto death. It has its setting within the life and faith of the Church and, through the witness of the whole Church, points to the faithfulness of God, the ground of all life in faith. At every baptism the whole congregation reaffirms its faith in God and pledges itself to provide an environment of witness and service. Baptism should, therefore, always be celebrated and developed in the
setting of the Christian community.

I quote this at length because I figure most people won't bother to follow the link to read all that (and probably a lot of you skipped to the end here as well so if I caught you cheating go back and read it). For some people, it is very significant that "the most clearly attested pattern in the NT" is believer's baptism. With very few exceptions, the stories of baptism in the NT are adults choosing to make a confession of belief. The exceptions seem to be those places where it is indicated that whole households are baptized, households including people without direct volition such as children and possibly even servants or slaves. But this "most clearly attested pattern," as any CofCer knows, is not as clearcut as that simple phrase makes it sound. Think of all the headscratching we've done on the question of the Holy Spirit, and trying to figure why sometimes it comes before, and sometimes after, and sometimes as a result of, baptism.

It is also clear that the baptism of infants is a reasonable answer to the development of the church, to that first generation of children born to parents who were baptized as believers. Theological arguments of original sin as justification for the practice came after the practice itself, and are dispensable; you don't have to believe little babies are going to hell to practice infant baptism. You are, rather, affirming the fact that this baby is also a fellow human being both in need of and deserving of grace, and part of a community which knows this and will teach this. Clare can't articulate this truth (although she's doing great with oohs, aahs, and various gurgly noises), but it is true of her nonetheless.

So...when will we do it? And why? Right now our answer is to wait. Primarily because of my own experiential argument, and not because I "won" with a theological or biblical case for believer's baptism. I value my own baptismal experience so much that I can't shake the conviction that this should be possible for Clare, too. But I am highly aware that this is a personal preference, and not a theological stance.

BEM concludes:

In some churches which unite both infant-baptist and believer-baptist
traditions, it has been possible to regard as equivalent alternatives for entry
into the Church both a pattern whereby baptism in infancy is followed by later
profession of faith and a pattern whereby believers' baptism follows upon a
presentation and blessing in infancy. This example invites other churches to
decide whether they, too, could not recognize equivalent alternatives in their
reciprocal relationships and in church union negotiations.

Clare has been welcomed into the Episcopal church (see Brent's post for the really beautiful liturgy for this service). Sometime soon she will be welcomed into my church, too. And someday--perhaps sooner than any believer's baptist tradition considers proper, and later than any pedobaptist considers proper--she will be baptized. I bet if we took bets on it, she would pick some day nobody bet on, just to be her own self.

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