Rebaptized?

Last week @writingjoy tweeted the following question.

Theology ? of day: What is baptism? If U R baptized very young & decades later awaken to genuine faith, should U B re-baptized?

In response to a question, she followed it up with the following explanation of genuine faith.

I mean more than acknowledging facts, actually loving God & living what those facts demand of a person.

I didn’t respond at the time since from my perspective it’s an extraordinarily complicated question in this day and age and I couldn’t think of anything vaguely meaningful I could say in 140 characters or less. But the question has been percolating in the back of my head ever since. Hopefully Joy won’t mind me using her tweet as the basis for a post on the topic. This won’t be a developed essay or theological analysis. I do, however, have a hodge podge of thoughts and reflections on the subject.

Most of my children and I have been baptized once, though the actual circumstances are a lot more complicated than that simple statement makes them seem. In my case, I was baptized at a young age (though old enough to remember my baptism) in a Baptist church. However, my formative experiences and movements into and decidedly away from Christianity were complex enough that I typically date my conversion (whatever you might take that to mean) to sometime in my early thirties when I found my identity actually being shaped as something like a Christian. It doesn’t mean that any prior encounter or experience of Christian faith was somehow inauthentic (or that my embrace and experience of other religions was inauthentic either), just that life is often more complicated than any simple formula can compass. Although, within the Baptist narrative, it would have been reasonable and acceptable to be rebaptized, I never embraced the idea that Baptism meant nothing more than getting wet.

My wife, however, had been baptized as an infant within the Roman Catholic Church and we had had my younger son baptized as an infant in a Lutheran Church. Both of them were rebaptized in our Baptist church, each at the appropriate time in that context. I don’t think that introduces any deep crisis or problem. While I wouldn’t say that such things make no difference, I also find that this strange Christian God I’ve found is relentlessly loving and willing that none should perish. He is working constantly for our salvation and especially in our deeply confused and confusing age, I don’t see such particulars posing any real problem.

Nevertheless, baptism matters and it matters deeply. One cannot read the New Testament without encountering that truth again and again. It does not represent a commitment or symbolize repentance (though if you are an adult, repentance is necessary and the forgiveness of sins is certainly part of what is accomplished). The Orthodox question in the Baptismal rite drives right to the heart of what is happening: Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ? In baptism, that is what we do and why, from the pages of the New Testament until the modern era, most Christians have baptized their infant children. Why would anyone deny their children union with Christ and the seal of the Holy Spirit in this dangerous and perilous world?

There is also a conceit in saying that a child cannot be baptized (be Christian) that often goes unnoticed. After all, we can all relate to a baby. We can love a baby and the baby in turn can love and relate to us. So we can do something that God cannot? Are we perhaps saying that until a child can verbally express their thoughts, God cannot possibly relate to that child and that child cannot be filled with love for God? I’ve seen such faith and love especially in my youngest daughter. I cannot point to any time when she did not know God and love Jesus. We were in a Baptist church so her baptism was delayed, but there was no change when she could finally express her faith and love enough in words to satisfy the adults in the church. She was simply expressing what she had always known and lived. Was there any gain for her in a delayed baptism? I think not.

Of course, as the child grows and develops, that faith and love also need to grow and develop. Life is not static and so faith can never be static. I’ve been amazed at the core of faith and love my daughter has maintained now into her teenage years, but I also know that life is hard and I pray for her. We can grow in faith. We can also grow away from Christian faith and place that faith in different places.

And that begs the question of genuine faith. I am growing in faith or I am falling away. There is no standing still. As Molly Sabourin so eloquently put it, I was saved 2,000 years ago, I am in the process of being saved, and I pray that I will be saved. If the measure of my love for God is my love for my enemies (St. Silouan), then I’m not sure I love God very much at all. I want to love him, but love is a hard thing and I have to be healed so I can truly love. If we waited until we had genuine faith, until we were fully converted, until we were truly Christian, I’m not sure any of us would ever dare be baptized. That is not the measure. Baptism unites us with Christ so that one day we might become Christian.

When you perceive baptism through those lens, only a Baptism undertaken with deliberate deceit or a Baptism other than one in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, could be considered invalid. Have you been united to Christ? I’ve always understood Luther’s declaration, “I have been baptized!” In the end, what more can we say? Either Jesus is who we believe he is and we are united to him in Baptism, or he’s not and we just got wet somewhere along the way.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted November 23, 2010 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    Scott, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. In the end, I find comfort in the truth that God is loving and merciful to us. So even if we get something “wrong,” there is grace to cover.

    I was baptized as a child in a church which saw it as something you do after your initial conversion (though I too have come to see that our spiritual life is a journey and it isn’t always headed up or forward).

    This year, God has brought me into a completely new place in that spiritual journey, so different from where I have ever been before that I have wondered if in fact it is the real true starting place…. that all that has happened before was precursor, groundwork being laid, whatever. And since my upbringing has been Protestant, in which baptism represents what has happened in your soul, I’ve wondered whether or not I should repeat it. I don’t know yet, but at this point I’ve decided to pray about it and wait on the Lord to bring conviction one way or the other.

  2. Posted November 23, 2010 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    I will note that the practice of Baptism varies widely across Protestantism. As a rule, only those strands influenced by Zwingli believe that Baptism is simply a symbolic external act that represents an inward change. And Zwingli basically reinvented Christianity in a form it had never held before him. The other Reformers, especially Luther, vehemently rejected his ideas. Most of the strands of Protestantism (I have no idea what the numerical balance is today) will baptize infants and do not rebaptize because they don’t believe that Baptism simply represents what has happened in your mind (thoughts and feelings).

    That’s the question. Do you really believe that Baptism is all about you as an individual and hinges on the state of your mind (thoughts and feelings) even though those can change with the wind? Or do you think it might be something more? I think there’s a danger in insisting that the only true reality is our inner state and that Christian practice (Baptism, Eucharist, etc.) is simply an external representation without any independent reality of its own.

    At least for me, my inner state is nothing on which I can rely. If the external reality — independent of my own variation — is that in Baptism I have been reborn through water and the Spirit and have been incorporated in Christ, then something has happened which has its own independent reality. Since I believe Christ has an independent reality and is actually a God who can do such things, I don’t struggle to believe that’s true. Similarly, I don’t grasp why it’s a struggle to believe that he provides himself materially in the Eucharist to sustain and nourish our new life. The two are tightly interwoven. If we have been united with Christ with new life such that we will not taste death, then it makes sense that we require his substance to sustain us. Traditional, non-Zwinglian Christianity makes perfect sense. There is no need I can see to disconnect the physical from the spiritual. In fact, that’s the path most ancient heresies took.

    However, as I said, we live in a confused and confusing age. Since the Jesus I perceive, however dimly, is seeking to save and not looking for a reason to condemn, I don’t think such things form an obstacle unless they turn us from him. Grace and peace.

  3. Posted December 4, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post about baptism. It gives me some insight about what some Christian denominations think of baptism. I am Catholic and we think of baptism as a sacrament source of grace. We believe all sacraments unite us with Christ. Usually we baptize infants soon after birth. I was baptized at three weeks of age.

    I especially like this part: “There is also a conceit in saying that a child cannot be baptized (be Christian) that often goes unnoticed. After all, we can all relate to a baby. We can love a baby and the baby in turn can love and relate to us. So we can do something that God cannot? Are we perhaps saying that until a child can verbally express their thoughts, God cannot possibly relate to that child and that child cannot be filled with love for God?” You put this so well! Of course God can relate to an infant as you describe it. God can relate to a person who is mentally handicapped, too. God can relate to someone in a vegetative state. God knows how to “speak” everyone’s language, and everyone can respond to God according to their capacity.

    The story of your daughter does not surprise me. You have told it beautifully.

  4. Posted December 5, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Thanks. I’m in the odd position of not growing up specifically anything, but having experienced a wide range of faiths over the course of my life, both other religions and many different flavors of Christianity. So I’ve actually experienced and participated in more types of Christianity than people who grew up specifically Christian. The reason is obvious, of course. If you’re raised in a particular faith, you are raised in the faith of your parents. And if your parents are non-religious, you don’t usually experience much of anything. So it’s only when your parent or parents are exploring religions and faith that you grow up experiencing as much as I did.

    But there have always been Catholic members of my family, I attended a Catholic school for three years in Houston, my mother converted to Catholicism when I was an adult (and is now the principal of mission Catholic school in a very poor area of Arkansas), and I married a semi-lapsed Roman Catholic (in a Lutheran Church). So I know something about Catholicism and have the Catechism on my desk when I have a question about something.

    I didn’t really mention it in the post, but I appreciate the way the Orthodox have kept all the elements of baptism together. Whatever the age, infant to elderly, they baptize, chrismate (confirm in Western language), and commune all together the same day.

  5. Posted December 6, 2010 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    I, too, have come to appreciate the Orthodox manner of conferring the sacraments of initiation together, which is what was done in the early Church. I believe some, and maybe all, Eastern Rite Catholics in communion with Rome do likewise.

    I treasure the fact that I’m “pure-bred” RC! What happens, I think, when one is faithful to the tradition for life, is that one simply enters more deeply into the mystery in which one has been planted. And that mystery is God. Like those who explore other faith traditions, one still asks all the questions about the meaning of life, truth and about why things are done this or that way. In my case, the answers have been satisfying—or, at least I haven’t found other answers that are more so.

    I was raised in a home where my father was the religious one. My mother, although raised and educated Catholic through high school, lost her faith—probably in college—and did not practice the faith. She said she did not believe in God. But, I give her credit for respecting my faith and never belittling me or any other believers—ever. I attended the local public school through 4th grade and then had a Catholic education after that through college and beyond.

    I didn’t know much about other religious beliefs until I read my brother’s comparative religion textbook from one of his college courses. I also learned about other religions when I was in the Air Force, which was my first time away from home for an extended period of time. I’m married to a Catholic who had a similar background as mine, although both of his parent practiced the faith. We raised our daughter similar to how we were raised.

  6. Posted December 6, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    A “pure-bred” Catholic? I like the imagery. It strikes me that in this country we aren’t just a nation of “mutts” racially and ethnically, but religiously as well. It creates an interesting melting pot, but there aren’t that many “pure-breds” of any sort floating around.

2 Trackbacks

  • By Saturday Evening Blog Post – November Edition on December 4, 2010 at 10:39 am

    […] Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I selected a post of thoughts spurred by a tweeted question, Rebaptized?. I was torn picking a favorite post from November. I thought about this post on Reality. I also […]

  • By tomcottar on December 6, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    VERY well written post by my buddy, @tmorizot. 'Rebaptized?' love to get your thoughts… http://tinyurl.com/38r864j

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