Notes on a Godless Church: Part 4, A Disenchanted Ritual of Moral Aspiration

As I shared in the last post, last year the leaders of our church gathered to discuss how to think about and practice the Lord's Supper and baptism in our faith community. 

A part of my interest in that conversation is what I described as the "unintentional disenchantment" of the sacraments. Specifically, through habits of speech and practice the sacraments come to highlight human rather than divine agency. In yesterday's post I gave an example of how this happens in the moralization of the Lord's Supper. The Table becomes a ritual demonstration of how we love each other just as Jesus loved us. Which is certainly true. But a moralized Eucharist isn't an encounter with God. A moralized Table doesn't mediate grace. A moralized Lord's Supper is simply an ethics class.

A similar trend has happened in our church regarding baptism. 

My faith community's denominational beliefs about baptism will make our struggles unique. So I don't share this example to suggest that the same thing is happening in your church. I share this example as a case study of a phenomenon. 

In the Churches of Christ we practice believer's baptism by immersion for the forgiveness of sin. You don't need to know all the gory details, but this view of baptism has played a critical role in creating the sectarian posture within the Churches of Christ. Any baptismal practice that deviated from our tripartite understanding of baptism--believer's, immersion, for the forgiveness of sins--would call your salvation into question. And since few denominations practice baptism in precisely this way--for example, baptizing infants, sprinkling/pouring, or believing that the forgiveness of sins could be secured outside of the baptismal waters--we viewed with grave suspicion. 

Those attitudes have changed dramatically over the last two generations within sectors of the Churches of Christ as we've shifted from a sectarian to a more ecumenical posture. By and large, our churches now see other Christians as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, despite our different baptismal theologies and practices.  

And yet, there have been some unintended consequences of this ecumenical turn. Specifically, as we believed it, God used to do something in baptism. God washed your sins away. In baptism you were saved, and nowhere else. So a funny thing happened when the Churches of Christ became more ecumenical. We could no longer figure out what was happening in baptism, if anything. If believers from different faith traditions were Christians, and they baptized in all sorts of ways, then salvation could be found outside of our particular baptismal practices. 

So what, then, was baptism doing? If people were being saved outside of baptism, as we understood and practiced it, then maybe this ritual was optional and unnecessary.

A related issue here concerned how baptism functioned as a hard line between saved and lost in regards to children. Prior to baptism you were lost. After baptism, you were saved. That seems simple, but it places a lot of pressure upon how you think about children. Were our children hanging over the pit of hell prior to their baptism? Over the last two generations, the Churches of Christ have gotten very uncomfortable with the view that children and young people are at eschatological risk prior to their decision to become baptized. But that raises a question: If no one is at risk entering the baptismal waters then is anyone being saved?

I don't want to bore readers with all our denominational issues. I've shared all this backstory to make an observation about the unintentional disenchantment of baptism in our faith tradition. For the reasons I've described above--an ecumenical turn and worries over the eschatological status of children and teens prior to baptism--many of our churches have become hesitant in making any strong claims about what God is doing in baptism. Does baptism save you? We used to say yes. Now we don't seem to know. Baptism has become an enigma, a puzzlement. Even an embarrassment. Because of our sectarian past, we're increasingly reluctant to make any strong claim about the sacrament, and so we end up saying nothing at all.

Well, to be precise, we say nothing about God. Since we've become flummoxed about what God might be doing in baptism, we've started focusing upon what we are certain about: the motivations of the person being baptized. That much, at least, seems crystal clear. So we highlight the motivations of the person going into the waters. Baptism is my declaration before witnesses that I am committing my life to following Jesus. Baptism is announcement of discipleship, a declaration of spiritual allegiance. 

Baptism certainly is all that. The human aspect of baptism is truly there. The problem is that when we reduce baptism to human actions and agency--my declaration of loyalty to Jesus--it becomes disenchanted, devoid of supernatural grace and divine action. Baptism becomes a sign that points to...myself. My actions, my intentions, my choices, my aspirations, my promises, and my commitments. Baptism is simply my public declaration to follow Jesus, which, when unpacked, means that baptism is my desire to be a good person and live a good life. And if that's all baptism is, your declaration that you want to be a good person, it becomes a disenchanted ritual of moral aspiration. 

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