This week the last of my three children is being baptized. Well that’s three souls saved then.
I’ve wrestled with this: I find baptism hard to make sense of. It’s the main Christian ritual action, or ‘sacrament’, alongside the Eucharist, but it seems full of problems. Of course the problems are clearer with infant, or child, baptism. What does it mean to initiate a child into a religion that he or she is not freely choosing? Shouldn’t the child decide for herself when she’s older? And there’s a Christian objection too: doesn’t it suggest that religious identity is just a matter of social tradition, rather than serious adult decision? Isn’t it a relic of a previous Christian era? It might please the grandparents and be an excuse for a party, but doesn’t it misrepresent the nature of Christianity today?
I was baptized, or ‘christened’ as a baby. It was a middle-class social ritual as well as a religious one – it was the sort of thing that my sort of family did. I was assigned godparents who had no especial interest in religion. About thirteen years later I was ‘confirmed’ – after which I started receiving the bread and wine at church. (It’s now more common to let children take full part in the communion, so confirmation has become pretty redundant.) Of course, as a young teenager I was still going with the flow of family expectations to a large extent, rather than making a fully free decision. But when does a free decision become possible? The Christian churches that delay baptism until young adulthood involve an unhelpful pretence that at some arbitrary age a spotty youth is suddenly capable of authentic faith, maybe even of being ‘saved’, or ‘born again’, God help us.
But on the other hand infant baptism also carries a lot of dubious baggage. The practice is haunted by the centuries of Christianity’s cultural domination, when people were effectively obliged to sign up their infants to the orthodox faith. And even after theocracy was effectively dead, it remained the ‘thing to do’, and in some circles still does. When my first child was born, I had a few qualms, but not enough to keep us from the font. But I was a bit uneasy about the event; it felt as if middle-class convention was pulling the strings. With the next child, I held back – I wanted to become a bit clearer about the meaning of baptism, about what we thought we were doing. The key issue was that I was feeling very critical of institutional church at that time, and baptism strongly identifies Christian identity with institutional allegiance. I gradually came round to the necessity of institutional church – so the boy was baptized last year. It’s his sister’s turn on Sunday.
So what does the ritual mean? Even though I now affirm it, I still find it hard to say. It’s obviously about a person joining the church, or Christian culture, moving from outsider to insider. The complication is that this move is presented in the strongest possible symbolic terms; it is associated with the transition of salvation itself, the move from humanity’s normal sinful condition to new life in Christ. There’s even an echo of exorcism: Satan’s power over this soul is broken, we assert. Stirring stuff, but it doesn’t make much sense if applied literally to the child at the font, whose career in sin is just a twinkle in her eye. But – crucially – it doesn’t make theological sense if applied to an adult being baptized either, for Christians do not believe that a sinless state is possible, that there can be a neat transition from sinner to saint. So this is the odd thing about baptism: it seems to be about this particular soul’s salvation but this shouldn’t be understood too literally, too directly. It’s about salvation in general, in the abstract. It signifies that this person belongs to this tradition which speaks of a dramatic shift, or turn, from death to life, from hopeless subjection to demonic forces to salvation in Christ. In practice no human soul, of any age, can be neatly placed on the side of salvation. But all human souls, Christians believe, can be placed in its orbit.