Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Baptism and Indoctrination

I'm currently grading student essays, in which my students were to provide critical analyses of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.  What is most interesting to me is the almost universal agreement among my students regarding Dawkins' argument regarding 'indoctrinating' children.  Almost all of my students were baptized as infants, yet many of them appear to be deeply troubled by this fact, expressing the idea that their parents should have waited until they were old enough to make their own decision.  They felt indoctrinated.

Obviously, this is not a picture of us.
Kim and I have brought all three of our children forward for baptism as infants in the Anglican church (although I'm Catholic, I became Catholic later in life.  Kim remains Anglican, and part of the 'deal' Kim and I made when I became Catholic was that we would baptize our children in the Anglican church).  At two of their baptisms, I was given the honour of delivering the homily .  I last preached at my youngest son's baptism at the Easter Vigil in 2011.  I wrote the homily as an open letter to my son, wanting to explain why we chose to have him and his brothers baptized (hint: it has nothing to do with indoctrination, and everything to do with divine beauty).  Here it is:
Shortly after this homily is completed, the priest will pour water over your head three times while invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in obedience to Christ’s command, after which you will then be anointed with oil.  You will almost surely not remember this your baptism, yet it is something that will remain one of the most significant events in your entire life.  For on this holy night [Easter Vigil], you are to be baptized a Christian, a child of God, remade and regenerated through the transforming love of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.  Just as Jesus Christ said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18.15-17), so the body of Christ, the Church, fully welcomes infants such as yourself into the community of faith, and the Church has done so from very early on in its history
El Greco - The Baptism of Jesus
But at some point in your life you might ask us why we brought you to the parish this night to have a priest pour water on your head?  What is the point of it all?  Put simply, on this night, you are transformed to become a child of God.  Scripture and tradition teach that, by baptism, you are actually adopted to be a child of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit who comes upon the waters of baptism just as it came upon the waters at the creation of the world.  You will receive the Holy Spirit just as Jesus Christ himself, God made man, received the Spirit at his baptism, receiving it as a human for our sake.  I want to be clear about what this means for you.  A little over two months ago you came into the world.  Your mother and I became parents for the third time that day, and we were and always will be proud to call you our son.  Tonight, however, you become a child of God.  By bringing you to your baptism, your mother and I are taking the step of recognizing that, although you are our son and always will be our son, you belong first and foremost to God who has given you to us.  Your identity is wrapped up in God, and tonight you are to be born of water and the Spirit, and through this birth you gain new life as a child of God.  As such, your mom and I are pledging today to raise you as one who is a child of God, as one who has been adopted by God to serve him for the rest of your life.  You do not, and will never, cease being the son of Kim and Greg.  But this identity, after your baptism, is no longer the most important.  You are, first and foremost, from this moment on, by the grace of God in the Holy Spirit, a member of the Church and a son of God.
This comes with responsibilities for your mother and I, and also, one day, for you.  You see, just as your birth two months ago was the beginning of your life here on earth, so the new birth that comes through baptism today is the beginning of your life as a Christian.  By bringing you here for baptism, your mom and I are committing to our family and friends, to this congregation, and through them to both the worldwide church and to the saints who make up the church above, that we will raise you as a Christian, that we will take primary responsibility for your religious education, that we will do everything within our power, by the grace of God, to be examples to you of what the Christian life means.  We are to be examples for you Christ-likeness, of humility and of selfless love, in the hopes that you will learn what it is to be a follower of Christ from us.  I’m not going to lie to you, and tell you that this is an easy thing to do.  It isn’t.  You will, unfortunately, learn that your mother and I are not perfect, and indeed, you’ll learn, if you haven’t already, that there are some things about your old man that are downright ugly.  At times we are going to fail you in being examples to you.  But St Paul tells us that God works through our weaknesses, and this your mom and I both cling to in the hopes that you will be able to see past and through the faults of your parents in order rather to see the transforming love of God working in us.
For there will come a time in which you will be asked to confirm the faith which you have received here today.  At this time, should you so choose, you will, of your own volition and power and by the grace of God, grab hold of everything that you have been taught, by word and example, by your mom and I, and by the Church; you will grab hold of the gift of grace that God has joyously given to you through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.  Confirmation, as the sacrament is known today, is inseparable from baptism for this reason.  Of course, you are a free person, and you may decide not to take the faith of your parents.  That is your prerogative.  We cannot force you to be a Christian, and indeed, we do not want to force you to do so.  Your mom and I are going to raise you as a Christian, not because we want to shove the faith down your throat.  Rather, both your mother and I have come to recognize in Christianity truth, goodness, and last, but certainly not least – not least by any stretch of the imagination – beauty. 
Modern Orthodox icon of Christ's Baptism
The beauty of Christianity is made so very clear in the act of baptism itself.  You will be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  This is very significant!  We as Christians believe that God exists as Trinity, and this understanding of God as three and yet one is extremely important.  There is no easy explanation of the Trinity, but the best I can do is simply to say that Christians have, through revelation and experience, come to an understanding that God exists as community, that God exists, most significantly, as an eternal embrace of selfless love where each person of the Trinity gives the totality of themselves to one another in a dance of love so profound, so complete, so giving, so unifying, that threeness comes to equal oneness.  This is what it means to believe, as 1 John 4.8 reads, that “God is love.”  Love – self-giving, totally gratuitous, all-consuming love – is at the very heart of God’s essence.  This Trinitarian love, this notion that God exists eternally and completely as love, is at the heart of the beauty that is essential to the Christian faith.  It is the idea that God is love that makes sense of why the created order ever came into existence.  It is the idea that God is love that explains the gift of God’s very self to us in the Incarnation, when God became human.  And Jesus Christ’s example of selfless love, love that led him to the cross, reveals to us that God is love, that God exists as love.  It is through the Resurrection that we learn that love triumphs over evil, that love conquers death, that love is the way of God in the face of oppression and injustice
God’s love is made abundantly clear in the sacrament of baptism.  For baptized in the name of the Trinity that is and exists as love, you receive God’s very own Spirit who lovingly and selflessly descends upon you and lifts you up to become part of the dance of love that is the life of God.  Through the gift of God’s very self to you in baptism, you are drawn into communion and intimacy with God.  Through God’s Spirit, God ceases to be merely your creator.  God now becomes, through God’s Spirit, your Father and Mother.  Through the Spirit of Christ, Jesus becomes more than your Lord and Saviour.  He becomes your brother and your friend.   And, dare I say it, he becomes your lover.
Such divine love is, to my mind, at the heart of the Christian message, and this message is profoundly beautiful.  Moreover, it is this love that is to shape all of us who have been baptized into the Trinity.  God’s Church, the body of Christ, is to imitate the community of selfless love that God is.  We are to exist as communities of love.  Unfortunately, God’s Church frequently falls short in this regard.  The beauty that is God is frequently marred by the ugliness that was and is done in the name of God and by the disunity that now characterizes what was to be the one Body of Christ.  You need to be prepared for that.  But none of this compromises the fact that at the heart of our faith is an understanding of God, of humanity, of the Church that is, frankly, remarkably beautiful and profound, and nothing we do can compromise the love that God is.
It is this love that you will experience this night.  It is this love that your mother and I will, through God’s grace, manifest to you in our marriage and as parents.  This faith in the God who is love is the faith into which you are being baptized; this is the life to which you are being called.  And just as Jesus welcomed with open arms the children who were brought to him 2000 years ago, so he opens his arms to you, pouring forth his grace and his Spirit to you to draw you to him.  Your mother and I, this community, the Blessed Virgin and all the saints, pray that you will find rest, comfort, and love in his embrace.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. This is beautiful. Thanks for writing it. I'm going to ask parents to read this.