Friday, December 7, 2007

Baptism and Social Contract

Baptism in the middle ages, according to Leithart, meant more than religious rite. It served the dual function of entry into the church and "civil registry". He brings this up to demonstrate the important connection between religion and society that existed until the 1600's. Baptism had a clear sociological import.

Why is this significant? Leithart contends that modern political theory, with its Lockean view of human nature as "hard atoms", makes a strong view of baptism difficult to maintain. In this individualistic political environment, we are "I" before we are "We" and even then we are "I" first - the individual is in the major key. Here, the deep and abiding sociological implications of baptism become more difficult to imagine.

Leithart counters this with an interesting sociological observation from sociologist Rosenstock-Huessy. We don't start as an "I". It's just not our experience. We all begin as "You". We don't develop as isolated individuals. Rather, we come to know who we are by what others (mom/dad/grandma) say to us. He says, "Our children only speak in the first person after they have been addressed in the second person . . . infants develop a sense of personal identity because we talk to them using names they didn't choose."

The importance of this point will be clearer in a bit. Suffice for now to say, if who we are defined by this relational interaction, then the implications of baptism come to the fore. In the rite of baptism our heavenly Father speaks to us and what he says forms who we are.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A Helpful Addition to “Baptism and the Real Me”

I’ve been reading through “Priesthood of the Plebs: a theology of baptism” by Peter Leithart. One section in that book sheds a bit more light on my last post “Baptism and the Real Me”. These lengthy quotes from "Priesthood of the Plebs" give the background understanding of personhood that makes room for his assertions in “The Baptized Body”. In the second quote I inserted a definition for ‘accident’ just to make sure everyone would understand. Also, the bold is my doing.

“A ‘narrative’ conception of personal identity is helpful here. At the social level, any particular baptism is, as MacIntyre implies, an event in the history of baptism, which is to say, a moment in the church’s story (1989): 100; cf. Jones 1987: 53-69). Baptism immerses a person in that history. Identities are formed at the intersection of various narratives of which one is a part (of family, community, nation and so on), so that when baptism embeds one’s story in that of the church, his identity is objectively modified. To “I am an American, or Scot, or Chinese” is added “I am a member of the Christian priesthood”; one’s “forefathers” now include not only Washington, Robert the Bruce, or Mao but Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the story that once began, “my father sailed to the Cape of Amsterdam”, now begins, “my father was a wandering Aramean.” At an individual level, identity is bound up with the events of one’s life and his (selective) memory of those events. Roles acquired and significant actions done become part of my “record”, a story that marks my difference from others and traces the continuity of my life through time. Objectively, baptism makes me a priest, and this becomes an episode in the story of who I am. Subjectively, the baptismal narrative into which I am submerged may break violently against the story that, before baptism, identified me, forcing what may be a painful revaluation of my past and producing a revised self-image (Stroup 1981: 95).” (Pgs 168-169)

He goes to say, “what makes me uniquely me, is a combination of roles, stories, actions and events of my life; the individual and his world are not hermetically sealed from one another, but mutually defining. Thus, while it is true that I am a husband, it is equally important to see that I am a husband. “Husband” is not an accident [def. nonessential attribute or characteristic of something] inhering in an unmarried self but one of the roles that makes up my identity. Importantly, I am a husband because I have gone through the ceremony of marriage. Operative ceremonies, thus, by placing us in new roles, vesting us with new clothes, and imposing new sets of obligations and rules, effect an “ontological” transformation, a change in who we are, who we think we are, and who others think we are. Baptism clothes us as priests, and these clothes remake the man.” (Pgs 169-170)

Chapter 1 cont'd - Baptism and the Real Me

The question that ended the last post could be put another way.
1. What effect is God producing in the water rite of baptism?
2. How are baptized people invariably changed by this rite because of God’s action?
3. Does God always produce some kind of result in this rite?

Some other more specific questions are these:
1. Do we treat our baptized children as elect only when they make a profession?
2. Do we treat them the same way we treat adults who have made a profession and are then baptized?
3. Do we speak to our baptized children like they belong to Christ?

Hopefully, that last set of questions puts this whole discussion into a practical, pastoral perspective.

I don’t know that I am ready to articulate my thoughts on this quite yet. It’s probably safest to continue listening to the false assumptions Leithart tries to deal with in this section and then draw out any blind spots in ours or, for that matter, Leithart’s thinking.

So – we’ll look at his next the next topic - man and personal identity. NOTE: The quotes in this post come from pages 4-7.

Here Leithart begins to work through questions about personhood. He’s looking at how we understand or define the self and what it means to be a person. We have to think through the definition we offer and what’s underneath that answer.

Leithart suggests that modern individualism has done a number on our understanding of personal identity, but the Bible gives the corrective. He says, “Baptism is about personal identity”. He says this because he believes that Paul was not just “playing pretend” in Romans 6. There, Paul “teaches that a Christians “self image” is grounded in and shaped by the fact of his baptism”. But that not everyone would agree with this is evident.

He draws out an interesting similarity between Catholics and Protestants - both groups agree that the "real me" is “hermetically sealed in my body”. How does Leithart get there? The basic disagreement between the two groups revolves around whether there is or is not something in the water. The presence or absence of that supernatural something makes all the difference in the world. Protestants say, 'There's nothing in there". Roman Catholics say, "Yes there is". Yet in this disagreement both agree on this - an external rite does not change an individual.

Leithart offers a third option – the external and physical rite might actually change who we are. He deals with the false assumption that we can compartmentalize the inner and outer so tidily. He points to 1 Sam 30.12, Prov 22.15, and Ps 19.7 to show that the bible says that the inner IS changed by external things. Further, scriptures use of bodily organs as a way of describing the inner man shows that it conceives of the inner physically. All this to say that – “What makes me uniquely me includes what happens to my body”; there is no distinction between inner and outer, no impermeable membrane between. “The inner and outer are two dimensions of united human life”.

The final examples Leithart offers on this makes his point clear. Stations in life change by rite. Priests become priests through ordination rite, husbands through ceremony, and presidents through inauguration. We would not say that any of these lurk within the body of the individual. The same is true, in Leithart’s understanding, for those who receive the rite of baptism. The baptized are just that ‘baptized’. They are new people with a new name, a new identity, and new future.