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)


davida said...

Hey Greg, this is all very interesting. Help me out with this quote: "“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."

If husband is not an accident, then is it aqn essential property or role of mine?

Also, right now I am sitting. Notice that the sitting me is very different from the non-sitting me. But big deal right. The me that undergoes the change is what where interested in. How is this different from what Lethart says. In other words help understand how Leithart's stuff here is not just a trivial consequence of how we describe something (e.g. the sitting me is clearly ontologically different from the non-sitting me).


Greg Fields is a . . . said...

David - Probably a good question for Leithart . . . but I will take a shot at what I think he's saying.

First, did you need the post before this one? Overall, it may not make a difference, but that was the reason for this longer quote from another book.

Second, unless I have overlooked another definition for accident intended by Leithart (which is entirely possible) I imagine the answer to your question might be yes. The ceremony I go through in marriage really does change the real me. The external rite changes who I am - no magic necessary. This is just what the rite accomplishes.

This makes me wonder if the 'sitting' analogy is entirely parallel here. There is no rite necessary to go from sitting to non-sitting.

Remember, Leithart is arguing for what baptism does. The external rite really does change me, the real me. I am someone different, precisely because baptism introduces me into a whole new set of roles and relationships and responsibilities.

He's arguing a third option between the Protestant "nothing happens b/c nothing is in the water" and the Catholic "something happens b/c something is in the water".

What do you think?

davida said...

Hey Greg, thanks for the feedback. While I do think that certain events or changes are more significant than others I am just not sure how to capture such a thing and I am worried about the language here (of course one can stipulate and use a word any way he wants but that don't make it morally right :-). The use of accident and essential strikes me at this stage in my understanding as misleading and thus as unfortunate.

If some object O changes in terms of it's essential properties (either by addition or by substraction) , then O ceases to exist. This is the limiting case of change--extinction. Hence if being a husband is an essential property of whatever has it, then very strictly speaking Steve, our unmarried friend, no longer exists when he becomes married. (I may be assuming the following thesis: p is an essential property of whatever has p if, and only if non-p is an essential property of whatever has it. I don't think I need this but maybe I do). These considerations are why the sitting analogy still seems relevant.

So perhaps instead of using the terms accident and essence we can use something else. A significant change is one that affects more non-essential properties than other changes, where significance obviously comes in degrees. Hence acquiring the property of being a husband is a significant change because it affects so many other non-essential properties, while aquiring the property of being seated is not significant because it does not affect many other non-essential properties of mine. Furthermore, this way of putting the matter still gets everything you seem to want without misleading.

Sorry if this seems overly pedantic. It's not :-)


Greg Fields is a . . . said...

David -

It does not seem overly pedantic at all. Perhaps Leithart would be ok with using another word. In fact, I would really love to ask him about that particular instance given that he says he'd probably change a few things since he published this dissertation.

Here's a question, and it is one relevant to my stake in the game: How could this be better articulated to communicate his major concern? That is, how could this be said so that the whole person is being addressed in baptism? What I see has instruction is the view of personhood that can account for the 'real' changes to the 'real me' in baptism. Again, I think he is pressing the issue to refute the more internalistic views of the person.

Let me know what you think . . .

Greg Fields is a . . . said...

Should read "What I see as instructive . . .

davida said...

Hey Greg, since you posted this stuff and challenged me I have been thinking about how to capture the type of change that you interested in without suggesting that the person or thing changed goes out of existence and some qualitatively similar but non-identical thing begins. I think the idea if distinguishing between degrees of chang by the affect on other properties of a thing is the right way to go.

So think about regeneration. Assume that this is the most significant change a human can undergo without ceasing to exist. How do we capture this? Perhaps an analogy will help here.

Consider all of your beliefs as arranged in a web (it's an analogy and it ain't mine). The beliefs in the center are more significant than the beliefs at the edges. how so? Well change a central belief and everything is guaranteed to change. change a belief at the edge and not much need change at all. Indeed you could get rid on an edge-belief without any change to the web pre edge-belief.

The same may be what's going on with respect to regeneration. I existed prior to regeneration and I exist after regeneration. So, no change in essential properties. But there is nevertheless deeply significant change. Every other property is affected by regeneration wheras this is not the case with properties like being seated or being brown-haired. Indeed regeneration changed the beliefs at the center of the web, the inclination at the center of my will ,etc.

Does this help?

Greg Fields is a . . . said...

Yes it does. That makes me think of something else. I am reading Gunton's "The Promise of Trinitarian Theology". I know you've read some from him. What do you think of his defining personhood in terms of relatedness to others? I ask because the analogy you gave - which I liked - still seemed to be weighted heavily towards the internal. I may be in over my head here philosophically so school me if you need to. I plead a bit of ignorance.

davida said...

Hey Greg, I don't think anything in my analysis commits me one way or the other to privileging the internal over the external. For example, if we are interested in what changes a person undergoes at baptism then we want to know the changes HE undergoes and so our response had better not cite changes in the weather or in his cat--at least not initially. So, there is a certain sence in which the question forces us to consider HIM. Now if one's ontology does not recognize persons as independently (from creatures) existing agents but rather as dependently existing agent, then talk of his change will have to include at least elliptically (or implicitly) talk of his relations to others. But these can just be added on or taken away as the case may be. Thus, when I speak of a significant change in O as one that affects many or most of O's other properties Gunton might gloss this as follows: C is a significant change in O just in case many or most of O's relations to others are affected. Or even more radically: C is a significant change in O, where O is understood as essentially related to others, just in case ...

Is that what you were looking for?

Prudence said...

Good post.