Today’s question comes from Yvette, who wrote: “My mom is Catholic– my dad was an atheist. I was never officially baptized — my Mom said she did it in the bathtub. What is your opinion on baptism? I did not baptize any of my children, because of what is preached, I do not believe my children were born with sin. But I do know many believe otherwise.”
Baptism – like many aspects of Christian life – is understood somewhat differently by different Christian traditions. There are some Christian traditions, for instance, who teach that baptism is essential for salvation. If you aren’t baptized, then you aren’t able to be fully in relationship with God: either now or in the hereafter.
That is not where I come from. I believe such an approach radically limits the ways in which God’s grace can work (i.e. God’s grace can only work if a person “activates” it through baptism, and can NOT work if it’s not “activated” by one’s baptism). I was raised in a Wesleyan tradition that taught God’s grace is foundational in our spiritual lives. This grounded me in the belief that God’s grace can accomplish ANYTHING and reach ANYONE!
There is another important distinction regarding practices of baptism in Christian community. Some Christian traditions teach that baptism MUST be put off until an individual is “of age” (often around the age of 13) so the individual can choose to be baptized for him or herself. This practice is sometimes referred to as “believer’s baptism”. Churches that practice “believer’s baptism” often reject the baptisms of those who were baptized as infants – or, at the very least, require the individual to be “re-baptized”.
Once again, I see things radically differently than those with this approach. Individuals who espouse a belief in “believer’s baptism” are basically saying the most important element in baptism is the individual’s choice to be baptized. I, on the other hand, believe that the most important element in baptism is God’s amazing grace (NOT the individual’s choice). The very notion of “re-baptism” as practiced in some communities is disturbing for me as it suggests God’s grace wasn’t strong enough to take hold the first time and needs to be redone. When individuals have a spiritual experience and feel the need to re-affirm their baptismal promises, I do a rededication (NOT re-baptism) of the individual.
Those are a couple of larger issues that frame the context of baptism for many. Let me return to your specific questions about your own baptismal experience (and the experience of your children).
So since I do not believe baptism is an essential element for salvation, that leaves an important question: why do it?
I believe that for a person with a Christian faith, baptism is that defining moment when an individual (or in the case of an infant, the parents on behalf of the individual) get to ask him or herself, “Am I (or is my child) on a path whereby it is important for me (or my child) to make a life-long commitment to follow in the ways of Jesus and make that committment an essential part of my identity?”
If an individual answers, “Yes” (as evidenced through their demonstrated willingness to participate in Christian community and process of faith formation) then I say, “Go for it!” If the individual (or the parents) are NOT serious about making a commitment to journeying in the ways of Jesus (say they are just doing it to satisfy a family member; or because it’s the next thing on their “to do” list for their child – after getting immunizations and registering for Nursery School) then I encourage them to wait until the commitment has meaning for them.
One last thing I realized I missed in your question: the question about being born in sin as it relates to baptism. The broader theological imagery that is used to drive baptism is that when we descend into the baptismal waters, it represents a sort of death – of dying to self. The rising from the waters, then, represents a rising into the new life to which Jesus points us.
I believe there is more than one way to interpret that to which we are dying. While I believe no human being is perfect – that each of us (especially MYSELF) has evidence of brokenness and limitation – I do not believe that our nature is solely defined by sin. God has planted seeds of beauty and wonder in ALL of us.
So what part of us are we making a commitment to dying to?
For me, my spiritual journey is about dying to those pieces of myself that would make my life solely about self-interest and self-centeredness. Baptism is a sacramental reminder that my life (and my call to live) is about so much more than just myself. When an individual rises out of the baptismal waters, she or he is rising into a new reality – a new LIFE – drenched in an awareness of God’s love and grace that makes it possible to transcend our brokenness and limitations.
Yvette, I hope that helps somewhat.
How about the rest of you? What do you think?