Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Identifying vanity, which can be quite subtle

I don't really have a long commentary or case study to provide at the moment, but just a thought that I had while reading some commentary on the Psalms by famed British Baptist Charles Spurgeon. Yes, even though he was a Baptist, John Calvin was, well, Calvinist, and Matthew Henry was Presbyterian, I do enjoy reading their commentaries.

Now, one of the great quarrels that the children of the Reformation, especially the Baptists, have with the Catholic Church is that they object to infant baptism. Spurgeon wrote a treatise condemning it quite soundly.

I have written before (check under the baptism label) explaining that infant baptism is biblical and there is scripture that alludes to its practice among the Israelites, who ceremonially washed infants and birth and wrapped them in new swaddling clothing which, when they are taken to the Temple, indicates their admittance into the faith. This is why the Gospel makes a point of Jesus being wrapped in swaddling clothing (he would have been washed first) and at the right time taken to the Temple.

The Israelites and thus Judaism, from which Christianity springs, had no concept of "waiting" for infants to become adults where they then "declare" for God! Jewish infants were consecrated to God and their faith community upon washing, swaddling, and the Temple presentation with sacrifice. It is from that custom and ritual that John the Baptist obtained the idea to baptize.

That is the greatness of John the Baptist. I often have wondered why more people did not wonder, and ask, "From where did John the Baptist get the idea to baptize people with water?" John the Baptist got the "idea" when the Holy Spirit inspired him to realize that the people needed a new baptism to prepare for the Messiah, the one whose way he knew he was preparing. Thus John the Baptist repeats what people were already doing, but with his strong message of the need to repent and convert. The Jewish people were already dedicating their newborns to God through their washing, swaddling, and infant presentation to the Temple with sacrifice.

It is for this reason that Catholics correctly maintain that the proper Biblical stance is to baptize infants as their entry into the faith community, just as the Israelites had washed, swaddled and brought their infants to the Temple. John the Baptist, through his greatness (remember that Jesus himself called John the Baptist the greatest of men), recognized through the Holy Spirit that the people needed to prepare for a new way, for the Messiah. Thus he "re-washed" believers, baptizing them, just as if they are spiritual and physical infants again. That is why John the Baptist performed "adult" baptism, because he was preparing the way, the new way, the New Covenant, that would come through Jesus Christ. But he used the method that was already firm tradition and the ritual that was part of the Law, which is to wash, swaddle and present at the Temple infants... except now these of necessity were adults who were like infants again, awaiting the Messiah and Savior.

So where does the vanity enter into the point that I am making? With the best of intentions and the most pure of heart, those who are the most critical of the Catholic Church for infant baptism are guilty of vanity. It seems as though no pastors want to give up being "the one" to "lead" and "conduct" an adult to God through adult baptism.

You see, when an infant is baptized one cannot take "credit" for bringing that soul to God, since the infant's parents, and godparents who sponsor the baptism, have made that decision for the child. Thus Catholics are exactly like the people of the Old Covenant, the Chosen People, the Israelites, the Jews of biblical times: they do not "wait" for the child to become an adult and 'choose' God. An infant is washed (baptised), swaddled (the baptismal gown), and presented to the Temple for presentation with sacrifice (brought to the church, blessed, and recorded as a member of the faithful).

My point is not to have dueling scripture or to re-argue the problem and the error of misunderstanding. My point is to help many of you to understand that vanity, personal vanity where one takes "credit" for "bringing a soul to God," is very, very pernicious and subtle, and it hides in even the best and most well intentioned of men and women. The Catholic Church continues what the biblical Temple attending Jews did throughout the centuries and there is no "credit" for doing what is obviously one's parental and faith forming duty, which is to dedicate one's infant to God at the early appropriate time.

Obviously in the early days of the Church, baptism started with adults because it symbolized the break from the Old Covenant and the joining of the New Covenant. But remember this: the New Covenant applies to all, Jesus Christ as Lord brought it for everyone, not just for adults who one day suddenly realize they are "ready." I have observed in people's hearts that one barrier to fruitful dialogue and understanding of the Catholic doctrine-and its origins-results from the unconscious clinging to the vanity of adult baptism, as personal "credit" for "bringing the adult into the fold, "credit" which is pointless and not even part of the Catholic psyche since one is simply doing one's parental duty when one has one's infant baptized.

If you are being honest with me, and yourself, if you imagine and picture the scenario of the truth that I am saying, you will watch your inner screen of emotions carefully and thus detect that qualm of not wanting to give up the adult person being baptized looking at YOU as the one giving them the gift. The fiercely denominational and independent structure of the Protestant faiths is another way to understand this "credit" and baptism "competition" of vanity. Catholic churches don't compete with each other, for example, for being "the one" who "brought that infant to baptism." If anything they have gone too far in the other direction, where it's not as personal a family experience as it used to be in my day. I still remember with horror my godson's baptism was part of something like two dozen families all have a massive baptism event, rather than the personal family experience that it was when my niece was baptized years earlier. Baptism in some parishes have more the whiff of bureaucracy, in other words, than any whiff of vanity. But if one is objective one cannot help but to observe that those who conduct adult baptism and who go out of their way to be intolerant and critical of Catholic infant baptism are, in fact, very strongly tied to the vanity of the taking "credit" for "adding an adult to one's personal flock." Remember, that's God's job and all credit and glory are to him and him alone.

I hope that this has given you something to think about. Vanity, especially in faith, is a very pernicious, subtle, and strong power, one that must be guarded against lest it harm rather than promote humility, sanctity, and giving the true glory to God.