Monthly Archives: February 2011

On Infant Baptism

My brother Travis posted some hesitant support for the practice of infant baptism recently.  A great discussion on the symbolic/sacramental nature of baptism followed.  Without having much to add to the subject, here is a contribution in the form of a passage from Garry Wills’s Head and Heart: American Christianities.

[T]he most nagging fear that plagued the Puritan conscience was the relation of conversion to baptism. If membership in the church was granted only to those who could testify to their personal conversion, what was the point of baptizing infants? They would not be saved before their conversion as adults. Thomas Hooker tried to explain baptism as a kind of pre-preparation for conversion, an act that “established the heart,” making it “capable” for later acts of preparation – which just involved baptism in all the other controversies over “preparation.”  Hooker said that infant baptism sets a seal on the child, aiming him toward conversion, without itself effecting conversion. Such a child has no sanctifying holiness, but a kind of “federal holiness,” as part of the saved community without being individually saved. Since all the first Puritans to land in Massachusetts had been baptized as infants in the Anglican Church, and since they did not formally renounce their membership in that body (whose head, the King, had given them their Charter), they refused to let Anabaptists enter the colony.

Simply excluding Anabaptists would not solve the deeper problem of “pedobaptism” (infant baptism) among the Saints. They continued the practice of their Anglican forbears, but soon ran up against a new problem.  What if infants baptized in Massachusetts grew up with their parents expecting their first “seal” to be completed by an experiential conversion, but no conversion occurred?  Such adults could not be admitted to communion. And if these unconverted adults wanted their children baptized? Strict teaching forbade this. As Thomas Hooker put it: “The predecessors [grandparents] cannot convey this right without the next [immediate] parents…. Apostasy takes off the federal holiness of the children.” Others were just as adamant: “That practice, that exposeth the blood of Christ to contempt, and baptism to profanation, the church to pollution, and the commonwealth to confusion, is not to be admitted.”

Others invoked the typology of circumcision, and said that Abraham’s seed had been given the promise… Since the Covenant of Grace had for its “type” (forbear) the covenant with Abraham, a minister, Peter Bulkely, argued that children of the Saints were “within  the covenant.” If they were not, membership of the church might dwindle drastically in a generation or two…

This was an issue that tore families apart…. The issue was so divisive that individual churches could not resolve the problem. The General Court took the drastic step of calling for another synod, but this time the matter was not dealt with as decisively as the Antinomian crisis had been…

Somewhat surprisingly, the ministers had thought they were responding to a demand by the laity that their children be baptized, but the greatest resistance to the new policy came from laypeople. The ingrained conservatism of the community made it fear innovation, and a minority of the pastors played on this, keeping alive the controversy. They objection was not simply to the baptism policy, but to the synodal authority that was obtruding it. This was too Presbyterian [i.e. denominational] for lovers of Congregationalist orthodoxy. “Although the Synod established a new orthodoxy, most churches refused to accept it.” The issue died down only when Presbyterian [=denominational] values spread in the church. Even after it had died down, it flared up again when the fervor of the Great Awakening made people yearn for the old purity. Thus the issue continued to divide Puritans well into the eighteenth century.

It is interesting to note the political implications of the act, not only for secular politics but within the polis of the church.  In a way, the complexities of the debate seem similar to the debate over whether pastors should marry non-believers.  What this hits home for me is that there is no “pure theology,” but only theology in the context of politics.

Thoughts on Love for Valentine’s Day

Love names a moment or a lifetime lived toward another person. So we will only know at the end of my life whether I truly loved my wife, or only tried to love her and failed. (For my part, I don’t intend or expect to fail, but we will see.)

But it’s not enough to say that it’s a moment or lifetime lived toward another person, because that doesn’t mean anything, or at least not anything particular. Love is living toward another person with care and sacrifice, and elevating their needs above your own.

Ultimately, we think we have great ideas about what love is, and the different kinds of love, but we read a play like Romeo and Juliet (the central theme of which is “you think you know what love is, but you’re wrong, and if you pursue your foolish idea of love it will kill you and everyone you might love”) and realize we don’t. As a Christian, I am convinced that only Jesus really shows us what love is.

“We love because he first loved us.”  1 John 4:19

Why Does The National Anthem Matter?

A lot of folks in the U.S. are upset with Christina Aguilera for missing a step in singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl last Sunday.  As she was singing, she replaced one line with an earlier line, apparently realized it halfway through and changed the verb in the earlier line to the correct verb.  In short, not a difficult mistake to make.

But why is it so important?  American typically watch videos of celebrities screwing things up so they can laugh at them.  Celebrities screw things up all the time and we love it.  Why is it so different to screw up the national anthem?

Well, one difference is that the National Anthem is a ritual.  That is is a ritual is inarguable, however you interpret the ritual.  It is a ritual because it is enshrined in law how to act during the ritual.  The U.S. Flag Code states:

During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there. (src)

There are a number of ways this ritual can be understood.  I am convinced, following Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, that it is a totemic ritual.  In the imagery of the anthem, the flag stands as a totem or talisman of power, the presence of which guarantees that the British (in this case) cannot overcome the Americans.  As Marvin and Ingle put it in their Blood Sacrifice and the Nation,

During the British bombardment of 1814, Francis Scott Key was moved to model in poetry the flag’s endurance under fire. The battle for the death defying Star-Spangled Banner was ritualized as a creation-sacrifice guaranteeing the nation for eternity and illuminated by the regenerative dawn.

Now, I think Marvin and Ingle go too far, and rely too much on Weber’s account of a sociology of religion.  They argue not that Key meant this, historically, but that sociologically this is what his lyrics must have meant.  I reject that kind of social science.   Nevertheless, I do think their basic reading of the ritual is right: “The patriotic statement that Americans are an unconquerable people, common at times of totem peril, is a deadly serious statement of totem faith. The totem wards off evil and protects from harm.”

That is why it is a grave sacrilege for Christina Aguilera to flub a line.

As an iconoclastic Christian, I of course do not recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem.  But looking at the legal structure of the ritual, I wonder if standing is not as much a part of the ritual as singing.  Many of my fellow iconoclasts and “Jesus Radicals” say that they stand, not out of fidelity to the nation but out of respect to those around them, but now I am rethinking that.

What do you think?  Is the performance of the national anthem a ritual Christians should distance themselves from?  If so, is standing an important part of the ritual?  What do you do?  If not, how do you understand the ritual of the national anthem in a way that is not problematic for Christians?

Obama Will Not Be Legalizing Prostitution, Marijuana

So if you’ve heard otherwise, you’ve heard wrong.

One things is interesting about this little exchange, though.  Instead of addressing his question (which isn’t so straightforward as it seems), Obama seems to imply that a second-year university student should be questioning conventional wisdom, but by the time they graduate they ought to come back around to conventional thinking.

This is a great way to avoid actually engaging any topic.  Simply ask a demographic question, such as, “How old are you,” or  “What field is your degree in,” or “Do you prefer Star Wars or Star Trek?”  Then respond, “Ah, that explains why you think that.”

John Piper on Alcohol: “Drinking can be okay.”

John Piper has a whole line of short videos on the desiringGod account at youtube.  I’ve blogged before about my frustrations with John Piper, whom I admire and disagree with in equal measure.  Watching him express his views on alcohol in this short, pastoral forum has made it clearer to me how phrase my frustration.

I have difficulty with John Piper the theologian.  But I admire, respect and want to continue to learn from John Piper the pastor.

Theologically, Piper and I step all over each other.  We may not agree on 1 in 10 non-essential matters.  But pastorally his drive, his concern and his very obvious love for his parishioners is exactly where they need to be, and stand as a challenge to both pastors and theologians church-wide.

You can see it in how he addresses the subject of Christians and drinking.  I happen to agree with him here, both that alcohol can be a gift from God (“We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much” – Chesterton), and that too cavalierly expressing that gift can be damaging to others and to our own witness.

The comments page for this video show mostly Christians who think Piper is being too charitable here.  They make the standard Baptist arguments about alcohol content in our culture versus first century Palestine, about when drinking becomes drunkennees (“Would it be okay to smoke just one joint?”) and so forth.

But Piper focuses the issue away from ridiculous line-drawing and toward “a pattern of life.”  His pastoral concern is evident, and he speaks with earned credibility to the damage alcohol does to individuals and communities.  From Piper’s perspective, we’re wrong when he make alcohol out to be evil, and we’re equally wrong when we act like alcohol is no big deal.

What do you think?  Is Piper offering the best perspective on the issue?  What would you add or modify?

Egypt and Secularism

The term ‘secular’ and its conceptual affiliates are doing a lot of work in misrepresenting the uprising in Egypt. ‘Secular’ politics has been taken to mean ‘good’ politics (limited democratization, stability, and support for the peace treaty with Israel), and ‘Islamic’ politics is being translated as ‘bad’ politics (the myriad dangers allegedly posed by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies). Accounts of the current situation in Egypt are handicapped by an inability to read politics in Egypt and Muslim-majority societies outside of this overly simplistic and politically distorting lens.

This is the opening paragraph of an insightful essay posted today by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd on the The Immanent Frame, entitled Myths of Mubarak.  Meanwhile, the  Wall Street Journal has an article from 1 February describing the ancient Coptic Christian community’s fear that an overthrow of Mubarak could lead to more intense persecution.

All of this to say, things aren’t nearly as simple as the American news media seems to think they are.

Pope Benedict on Respecting Gender

Before Cardinal Ratzinger was Pope Benedict XVI, he began a series of interviews with Peter Seewald.  Since assuming the Papacy, he has continued this series, with the most recent talk being published as Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.  I have begun reading through his older interviews, and came across this passage in God and the World.

In discussion the creation account, Peter Seewald asked whether men and women are fundamentally different kinds of beings.  The heart of Benedict’s response warned against two errors society falls into concerning gender roles.

I think we  should be equally concerned with false theories of equality and false theories of difference… It is false when people want men and women to be cut to the same measure and say that this tiny biological difference has absolutely no significance.  That tendency is dominant nowadays.   Personally, it still horrifies me when people want women to be soldiers just like men, when they, who have have always been keepers of the peace and in whom we have always seen a counter-impulse working against the male impulse to stand up and fight, now likewise run around with submachine guns, showing that they can be just as warlike as the men.  Or that women now have the “right” to work as garbage collectors or miners, to do all those things that, out of respect for their status, for the different nature, their own dignity, we ought not to inflict on them and that are now imposed on them in the name of equality…  Basically this ideology of equality is a kind of “spiritualism,” a way of despising the body that refuses to recognize that the body itself is the person.  Because of this, it seems  to me, this kind of egalitarianism does not exalt women but diminishes their status. By being treated as male, they are dragged down to being undistinguished and ordinary.

But there is also of course a false ideology of difference.  Through that it became customary to regard women as lower beings, who are only there to do the cooking and the cleaning, while the lords of creation talk and make war and regard themselves as a superior caste with a superior field of activities.  From that standpoint, women are regarded as being [merely] physical, sensual, not open to spiritual things, not creative… thus the ideology of difference developed into a caste system.

Taking seriously Christian doctrine would lead us to walk between these two equal but opposite errors.

Ads urging for the ordination of women met the Pope during his August, 2010 visit to London

But the difficult part is envisioning that in practice.  I, for my part, do not find egalitarian marriage (that is, marriages of mutual submission and no particularly male leadership) to fall into the first category.  But some Christians do.  For that matter, my reading of the New Testament would allow for women to engage in church leadership roles (and require them to when they are called by God to do so), but B16 would certainly disagree with me there.

What do you think?  What does a Christian perspective that takes gender seriously look like in practice?