Burn Baby Burn
A Few Short Words on the Rite of Baptism
Everyone’s having babies these days. Many people in my circle of friends have apparently reached that age where it is time to procreate. (Incidentally, that’s where the theme of this issue—Push—had its origin.) A few years back it was “Hey, let’s all buy houses,” and a few years before that it was “Let’s all get married.” I guess that’s the way these things happen.
And I must say, even though I’m still dating, still renting, and even though the current wave of babies has pulled my drummer and keyboardist out of my band to nurse and swaddle their newborns, it is really, really cool. These neat little people who have suddenly made the scene, cobbled together Frankenstein-like (in a good way) out of select bits and pieces of my favorite friends—I can’t wait to see how they turn out, how they do. A new generation rising, walking towards a future beyond my future. Gives me hope for the world.
Now, while babies focus on the important work of sleeping, eating, and pooping, they are oblivious to the chaos they create around them—those sorry-ass (but joyful! I’m not forgetting joyful), bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived parents, with their frantic visits to the doctor, with the money money money that they have to spend or set aside, and with the insane grandparents they have to deal with. All of that just for starters.
And sooner or later the issue comes up of whether or not to have baby baptized. Sometimes the answer is obvious to everyone involved. Sometimes it’s a fight. It can break along family lines (mother’s side vs. father’s); there can be individual advocates/decriers, or various complex permutations with alliances, strategies, declarations, grand gestures, and what-all. And it can cause tension and sometimes a deal of bad feeling. I, myself, am godfather to a boy named Rainan whose mother refused to take any part in the ceremony, although she did make a very nice carrot cake for the lunch after.
Now, I want to make 100 percent clear that I don’t see one choice as right and another as wrong. It’s a decision for the parents to hash out between them or, failing that, for the kid to make once he or she is old enough to talk back and form an opinion. And I can definitely understand objecting to baptism as a part of this or that formal religion—or just for being part of any religion, for those atheists out there.
But there is one objection to baptism that I’d like to… not refute, exactly, because it’s a perfectly good objection, but maybe just ruminate upon for a few dozen words. It’s one that was summed up by Denise, a friend and fellow keepgoing contributor, with amazing economy when she once said: “I refuse to believe in evil babies.”
This refers to the long-standing tenant of the big-C Catholic Church that the unbaptized go to hell, an idea that was used for centuries to terrify parents into bringing their children to the font at a gallop. (Actually, according to church teachings, the sinful little things technically end up in limbo, which is sort of hell-lite; less torment, lots more Greco-Roman poets.)
As a believer in God and a self-professed Christian, I’ve struggled with the idea of hell. On the one hand, I have a big problem with the literal, biblical interpretation that has an insane, sadistic creator just waiting for us to disobey so he can chuck us into the flames. On the other hand, I’ve seen too much of the misery people make for themselves by rejecting those attributes I see as most God-like (love, kindness, mercy, humility) not to believe in something like hell. But I’ll save my conception of the infernal for another essay, and take a moment to agree whole-heartedly with Denise. No, I do not believe that babies are evil.
I do not believe that babies are good, either.
To call a baby “good” or “evil” is like calling a cat or a doorknob or a kola-nut “good” or “evil”. The terms do not apply. What babies are is innocent. They don’t know and couldn’t care less about the difference between good and evil. A baby, however, differs from a cat, doorknob, or kola-nut in one central, vital point: A baby is a person. They are from day one. And a person who does not know the difference between good and evil—right and wrong—is a problem.
Imagine a person grown to an adult’s size, an adult’s intelligence, with no more concept of good and evil than a baby has—a person who sees the world the way a baby sees it, solely in terms of its own wants and desires. It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine because we do get people like that from time to time. In charitable moments we say they have an “antisocial personality disorder.” In less charitable moments we use words like sociopath, psychopath, and worse.
To know the difference between good and evil and deliberately choose evil makes you an evil person. But to not know the difference and to not care… that can be another kind of evil. Not in a baby, of course, because a baby has no choices to make, no power to deliberately affect the world around it. But for all of that, a baby is still a person, so you can’t let it slide.
I think that’s what bothered the priesthood of the earliest churches so much. We are born with other senses—sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch, even (most of us) a sense of direction—but we aren’t born with a sense of right and wrong. I can imagine them struggling to try to figure it out. Why that one thing? Why is that one sense that is most important in our relationships to one another—and in our relationship to God—not included in the original programming?
I think the best they could come up with was that somewhere, way back when, we had pissed God off. Somehow, we must have sinned. Originally. And they came up with a lot of hooey around that notion, including the idea that the rite of baptism is what takes that sin away, that weight that supposedly drags babies down to hell.
But forget the rite. Forget the superstition and the fear and all the bullshit and narrow, literal-mindedness that’s attached to it (if you can) for a moment. A baptism, in its essence, is taking a moment to gather together those people most important to a child’s life and reminding them that it is their responsibility to teach that child the difference between good and evil—that it won’t just happen all by itself—and to promise to help one another to do it.
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there right now going, “Well duh, that’s what a parent does. That’s the definition. That’s parent job number one, to teach your kid right from wrong.” And it’s true; it is one of those totally self-evident things. But it’s also the most important thing. And there is a difference between knowing it and getting a whole bunch of people together in a circle and saying it out loud. Plus, if you’re a believer like me, I think it’s good to get God involved.
And then, after, to go have cake.
Copyright 2006, Steve Spaulding
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