There is a new fuss about a certain freethinking society who is selling very professional-looking “Certificates of De-Baptism”. Some commentators are up in arms about it, calling it an attack on the Church by an aggressively secular society. But if this is the best attack that the aggressively secular society can put forth against us, I’m less than concerned. In fact I find the whole affair pretty silly, and wouldn’t be surprised if this is more a publicity stunt than a full-blown attack.
Still, the leader of the Freethinker association (Dan Barker) is also an alumni of my alma mater (Azusa Pacific University) and thus I feel that this becomes a matter of honor, a defense of my school’s reputation. Because if no one from my school answers him, my philosophy degree could appear even more useless than it already does. So allow me to provide a defense on the importance of baptism, and why it is not some vague hocus-pocus that we use to abuse children and then damn them to hell.
I would like to begin my defense of baptism by stating the most obvious fact about human nature that I can think of: humans are selfish to the point of harmful. This is central to the Christian understanding of sin, but I know of non-Christians and militant atheists who would gladly admit the same. The Marquis de Sade wanted liberation from religion so that we’d all be free to pursue selfish hedonism. Nietzsche not only admitted humanity is selfish but glorified it, claiming that we can become superhuman through selfishness. Freud’s theories of psychology only work if we have selfish, nigh depraved desires and can’t have them due to the taboos of society. And Homer’s greatest hero (and the oldest hero in Western literature) is egotistical to the point of sadism; his own comrades die because he can’t have a certain girl for a war-trophy.
So allow me to take this view of human nature as pretty much axiomatic; it seems proved by experience, Christians and non-Christians alike. I have nothing to say for those who believe that all humanity is perfect and good; those people must have one hell of a theodicy to deal with (or, rather, anthrodicy).
Metaphysics of Sin
Anyway, as I mentioned above, this understanding of humanity is central to Christianity as well. Augustine is probably the most obvious example of this, as his Confessions are a lifelong account of the many selfish actions he and his childhood friends committed. An infamous example of this is when the child Augustine steals pears out of boredom, at another he leaves the country without telling his mother, St. Monica, because he knows she would object. These experiences are probably why Augustine came to believe that humans are born with the wrong kind of will, a selfish one. And that grace consists foremost in re-orienting the will towards the divine things of God.
Rene Girard thinks much the same thing: human desire is rooted in imitation; we tend to learn by imitating, and this bleeds into wanting the things that others want, too. But only one person can have the desired thing, like a certain women or a rare Thriller record autographed by MJ. And when that happens, two people become rivals over it; both want it and only one can have it. We want it, and we’ll fight to get it, even willing to kill the other person.
And this is obviously bad, because a society would annihilate itself if everyone did this. So what tends to happen is that we’ll repress lots of these desires, then go to a gladiator game (ancient) or go to a football game (modern) and get catharsis from the violence that we participate in vicariously. Rinse, have a bad day and repeat; it becomes a cycle. But the problem is this cycle is dysfunctional and mostly illusionary; if we just keep going along with it, we’ll live an easygoing lie forever. But if it falls apart, we might kill someone.
Unless human nature changes, these are the two options: either have people repress themselves into socially acceptable drones, or have them start killing each other to find out who’s strong enough to take that Thriller record by force. Fortunately though, Christianity claims to offer a third alternative: changing human nature and re-orienting the human person through the sacraments, especially through baptism. It is claimed that doing such a thing will result in a new person that doesn’t need to participate in these dysfunctional cycles, because they are not selfish and have no desire to compete and kill.
This sums up pretty well what Christians mean by sin. It’s simply an entailment we draw from the fact that humans are selfish. I suppose if you believed all of humanity is perfectly unselfish, benevolent and caring from birth to death in their natural state, there would be no need for baptism. I’m not sure if the Freethinkers believe humanity is perfect as-is, but if they do, my question for them becomes “Why in the world do you, given all the evidence against it?”
The Metaphysics of Baptism
So, we recognize the grand human capacity for selfishness, and see how a real solution would have to work. Now it is a matter of stating how the proposed solution of baptism is supposed to solve the problem, since the casual relation between water-dunking and spiritual rebirth is not at all obvious. But the reason most people get hung up on the ritual is because they only look at the outward form, forgetting that the ritual points to a more important spiritual meaning. It is not the action of dunking in water that does anything, but what it signifies.
And what it signifies is this; the receiving into a community of people who have also been liberated from the endless cycles of selfishness. We go into the water only as an individual, and individuals have no real point not to be selfish or competitive; if there is only me to worry about, why not make my entire life about me, me and me? Why not make the primary ends of my life selfish success, power and personal gain? But when we arise out of the water, we now become part of a Body and community, of which we are now a branch. And branches have much different concerns than individuals, because they now must worry about the well-being of the entire Tree, and of all the other branches, since they are all unified as one single entity. Individuals can get by with being selfish, but families cannot. In fact, when one enters a family, they often find that they have to practices virtues that are entirely antithetical to their old life; they must care for others, and sacrifice themselves for others, and give instead of take, make peace instead of fight endlessly.
So we can begin to see baptism as not some weird barbaric ritual, but for what it really is: being born into a family. One primary change in baptism is a change in relational status; we go in as individuals, but leave as a family member. And with this relational change, the entire point of our lives is re-oriented, we have to act like a family member, and this is a much different way of life than that of an individual. Consequently we come out of the water with different virtues; familial virtues like trust and love instead of the individualistic one of competition and power.
The power in baptism is that it changes our status as a person by giving us a new context within a community and family. It declares to us that, contrary to our psychology and natural state, we are meant to love, not to fight. And it declares this by giving us a gigantic new family to practice our love on.
Embarrassing Implications for De-Baptizers
So, this understanding of baptism puts the Freethinker’s condemnations of baptism as child abuse in a really embarrassing position. What baptism does, as I have shown, is not dismiss black marks that God has declared us to be responsible for by fiat, but rather re-orient our wills by taking us out of the context of dysfunctional individualism and into a family. We do baptism because it introduces new-borns into a community before they get sucked too far into competition, selfishness and all the dysfunction that comes through living in the world of individuals for too long. So if connecting children to a community is child abuse, then we should consider schools, sports teams, volunteering and after-school programs to be child abuse too.
In fact, we should do that for nearly every activity we consider “wholesome” for children, because the whole point of parents trying to give their children “good” childhoods reduces to trying to get the children to commune well and play nice with others. But this would be silly; every parent wants friendship for their children, and will force them through whatever afterschool activity they must in order to bring them to it. I would suggest to those parents another good way to help their children; get them baptized into a church that doesn’t treat Christianity like a state religion.
So given the real meaning of baptism, I can only assume that the Freethinkers must not want children to grow up in a community, rather preferring them to spend all their days alone, reading science textbooks as they plot how to seize all the power and rule over all their not-friends.
But this also makes the call to de-baptize ourselves embarrassingly wrong-headed. De-baptism no longer becomes a matter of liberation from the myth of some arbitrary god who is so, so very angry at us for the time when a couple of nudists noshed the wrong fruit millennia ago. It becomes a matter of removing ourselves from community, isolating ourselves and sticking ourselves right back into the cycle of competition, hatred and mutually-assured destruction. De-baptism is revealed to be an instance of a branch lopping itself off from its only hope for life in order to rot on the ground, all alone. And so is it really all that odd that this de-baptism business could probably be considered a mortal sin? It’s no different from the hellish decision to spend an eternity alone over communion with all the saints. But I digress.
I really doubt that all this is what the Freethinkers intended with de-baptism. I assume that my fellow Azusa Pacific alum, in typical APU fashion, wishes to spread good cheer and unity throughout the entire body of humanity. In which case, Christians raise their hands up to the heavens, respond “Amen!” in agreement with him, and baptize all the children.