Baptism


Was a time when just about everyone in Australia was baptised, irrespective of the level of religious belief of one's parents (I'd actually love to see the figures on this - I wonder if anyone has ever collected this peculiar set of statistics together?). I doubt that is the case anymore. My sister, for example, refuses to have my niece baptised because she has no religious beliefs and sees no need to impose any sort of religious structure on her child, until such time as she might ready to make her own decisions. I actually find this quite admirable, and it is very much in line with traditional Buddhist views which teach that imposing a religion upon a child is in fact its own kind of sin. This is also the major source of criticism from the neo-atheists, who see the indoctrination of children with exclusivist religious views as a not-so-subtle form of child abuse. And really, how many people among even the most fundamentalist and doctrinaire really believe anymore that a child who dies will burn in hell for eternity if they have not been christened?

Of course, in my day the christening was a simple rite of passage, a chance for a family get-together, and I seriously doubt that anyone who attended the event even thought about it in religious terms. What it did serve as was a tribal marker, ensuring that another generation of Lutherans or Baptists wouldn't stray too far from the communal flock. And I well remember the peculiar shepherding of small children on religious instruction days; when even at five or six we could state clearly what sect we belonged to, thus ensuring we were herded into the right religious space. Even then my mind was somewhat preoccupied with difference and hierarchy, and I ached to know what the wicked Catholics and the stuck-up Anglicans did in their cavernous halls of instruction. We Methodists only came in third, though we were conscious that ours was a somewhat easier ride - no confirmations or first communions to worry about.

But I do see something valuable - and spiritually significant - in having a baby blessed. It is a nice ritual, and brings the family together to celebrate the existence of this new life in quite a unique way. Naturally such blessings can be (and are, on many occasions) more non-committal, and not involve claiming the baby's scalp for your own particular set of prejudices. I'm just a firm believer in blessings, I guess, and think they have an impact even on those who don't believe in them.

There is something of a vogue these days for a renewal of one's baptismal vows (as though a baby can take vows), especially at this time of year. This is also a quite delightful ceremony, steeped in significance and seriousness for the person doing it, and addressing an earnest desire to re-state to oneself and the world how very important one's spiritual life is. I hesitate, however, because I have seen that it's a ritual very much claimed by our more fundamentalist kin, and it is beginning to take on that kind of (to me) unpleasant odour of sanctimonious play-acting. I saw it done very beautifully at the Pitt St Uniting Church, however, where people were invited to come to the font in silence and wash their hands in it, thereby re-stating their commitment to God in a private and gentle way.

2 comments:

Shaun said...

I loved your comment about the wicked Catholics and Anglicans in their cavernous halls -- I had to chuckle as this is how I grew up thinking! (And to think these days I go to the odd mass or two and even have considered becoming Catholic or Anglican full-time!)

I too have reservations about indoctrination of children -- though I was fortunate for the most part to have parents who did it intelligently and with grace. I suppose that the indoctrinated child will inevitably spend some years of undoing, and I have done plenty praying for forgiveness for my arrogance and narrow-mindedness.

In the same breath, atheist parents often does their own form of indoctrination, often just as potent and angry (unfortunately). I suppose we're all the same in some ways.

On the baptizing of children - do you think there is a level of belonging that it brings? I wish my denomination had had a more formal catechism and membership so that I felt more a part of a universal church.

Walter Mason said...

Heavens, Shaun - I had forgotten about this post.

Yes, I agree that atheist parents can impose a particular worldview on their children every bit as doctrinaire - and potentially damaging - as that of the rigidly religious.

I remain ambiguous about infant baptism. I totally understand the ritual and actually approve of its "tribal" benefits, but I think the same thing could be achieved without the primitive notion of "saving" a baby from its own inherited sin.

That's why I come out so strongly in favour of blessing. I would like a ceremony in which a religious community can pledge to the parents, the children and the extended family: We are here for you, no matter how far you might move away, or how strongly you might find yourself in disagreement with us. You will always have a home here, and will always be accepted, because we believe you are worthy of love, and that you are loved

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