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Baptism: A Personal Reflection

Jonathon Devlin



Unitarians are often troubled by questions related to 'traditional' Christian sacraments, and their appropriateness to Unitarian worship. One such instance is that of baptism, and infant baptism in particular. Baptism is probably the core sacrament of Christian religion—rivaled only by communion in its importance and centrality. In recalling studies in Church History, and the history of Christian sacraments, it is clear that infant baptism is not an original practice within Christianity. Hebrew or Jewish origins are often pointed to in establishing the tradition of baptism. But, if baptism itself were found to be rooted in the ancient practice of Judaeo-Christian monotheism, was there such a species as infant baptism? Further, did baptism convey even a similar significance? 

Since sound decisions can only be made in the light of accurate information, this author intends to examine the issue of baptism in general, infant baptism in particular, and its relation to earlier Jewish practices (e.g., the account of John the Baptist's ministry of baptism as told in the Gospels). It might also be useful to present some observations concerning baptism in general, and its place in Unitarianism.

In its earliest historical context, the Christian practice of baptism was originally a voluntary act intended to be undertaken by adults—or at least by persons who were old enough to understand its significance, and to consciously accept Christianity. There have been numerous misconceptions about the Jewish roots of “baptism” —most of which arise out of the fact that Christians tend to look at Judaic roots 'through a glass, darkly,' influenced by the preconceptions of their Christian tradition.

That which most people call "baptism" did not, and does not, exist in Judaism as a mainstream religious practice. In Christian practice, baptism represents not only a symbolic acceptance of Christ and a washing away of 'original sin,' but an outward sign of the spiritual process of metanoia – the Greek term denoting a changing of mind, a changing of one's life direction, a dedication to a life in Christ. These perspectives have never been present in the comparable Jewish practice of ritual immersion – mikvah. Also, as many may no doubt are aware, in the Orthodox/Apostolic Christian traditions (e.g. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox - and those who still follow their liturgical/theological traditions), baptism need only be performed once in a person's life – canonically, baptism may only be legally performed once in a lifetime. One does not get baptized again as a sign of rededication, as is the practice in many evangelical or charismatic Protestant denominations as a sign of being "born again."

In Judaism, the ritual bath, immersion into the mikvah, is not a once in a lifetime event.  In fact, it is designed as a regular practice that takes place throughout the life cycle. It serves a purpose that is unique and distinct from that purpose for which Christians baptize. Jewish law—which was pretty much already in place in its current form even in the time of Jesus - prescribes immersion for only two situations:

First, for women following completion of their menstrual cycle or following childbirth, immersion is required to remove them from a condition known in Hebrew as niddah (pronounced 'nee-dah'). Niddah only relates to women, not to men (in fact the section of the Talmud which discusses the laws relating to women is called 'Niddah'). Judaism's Levitical prohibitions related to the uncleanness of blood, a woman's menstrual cycle, and the process of childbirth making her ritually unclean are not value judgments aimed at degrading women - as many radical feminists might believe or suggest. This was merely Judaism's way of reconciling its prohibition of contact with blood and blood products (the fact that all blood itself was ritually "unclean") with the fact that women experienced this discharge of blood at certain times in their life-cycle. That this biological fact rendered a woman "unclean" was merely circumstantial and not at all intentional (actually, it's a perfect example of the kinds of corners people paint themselves into when they start to become creedal, doctrinal, and dogmatic and to formulate theological postulates). If anything, we might do well to look at the fact that those who designed Jewish law saw fit to engineer a means by which women could be made "clean" despite this physiological coincidence.

Because being rendered "unclean" requires that one be barred from such activities as making sacrifices in the Temple, and even participating in certain other ritualistic aspects of the religion, it is the first and foremost obligation of any observant/orthodox Jew to prevent himself or herself from being rendered "unclean." Additionally, Judaism absolutely requires, as a matter of law, unrestricted sexual privileges for both the husband and the wife. It is a violation of Jewish law to withhold sex from one's marital partner—except when the woman is in a state of niddah. Therefore, it is required by Jewish law that the wife avail herself of the Mikvah, the ritual bath, following every month's menstrual cycle. Failing to do so, or delaying her immersion until she becomes 'blood free,' is a violation of the law, because it is tantamount to intentionally denying her husband sexual relations. Until she has been immersed, the woman's husband cannot touch her, even casually, cannot even hold hands, cannot sleep in the same bed while she is in this state of niddah! This would have obvious negative ramifications for the stability of any marriage. So that's the first and foremost use of the Jewish equivalent of 'baptism.' From a more practical perspective, for people living in an arid, semi-desert environment, where water is a precious commodity needed to sustain life and not to be 'wasted,' it is rather unlikely that people would have washed or bathed regularly anyway. Thus, making washing a religious requirement (such as washing the hands before eating), does promote a healthier lifestyle – and it guarantees that people will wash after coming into contact with the dreaded, "unclean" blood.

The second instance of the use of ritual immersion in Judaism is for the dedication of new converts—whether male or female. In fact, this is probably the only time a male would be required to perform this requirement. And in this case, it is a once in a lifetime event. Perhaps this is the closest approximation of 'baptism' in Judaism, since it serves as a symbolic cleansing of all of one's prior life events, lifestyles, worship of other gods, etc., and the acceptance of both the God and law of Israel as the guiding principle in one's life. Yet, in contrast to the sacramental nature of baptism in Christianity, Judaism's ritual immersion for purposes of conversion is based entirely upon other principles. 

First and foremost, ritual immersion is considered a custom that has attained the force of law through Rabbinic interpretation and rulings. It is not, in any way, biblically or directly mandated by any of the 613 commandments observed by orthodox Jews. Second, the immersion is not intended to convey "spiritual gifts" or to cause a charismatic change in the individual by means of an epiclesis, or a "coming down" of a "holy spirit" upon the individual – as is the case in Christianity. In actuality, for males, the primary requirement for conversion to Judaism is circumcision. And, generally speaking, in the absence of a Mikvah pool, or a suitably equivalent body of moving water, circumcision alone would suffice to bind one to the covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel), for whom there are biblical records of circumcision but not of ritual immersion.

In Judaism's use of ritual immersion, there is no expected change of mind (as in the Christian concept of metanoia). In Christianity, baptism has come to be viewed as being the vehicle for conversion in and of itself. Were this not the case, infant baptism would be meaningless (which this author personally, based on his own studies and researches, believes it is anyway for reasons which will ultimately be explained). Originally, Christian baptism followed a conscious decision by a mentally capable adult to accept Christ and accept the Holy Spirit. In this respect, the original form of adult baptism in Christianity and the ritual bath used for converts to Judaism are very similar – they are once-in-a-lifetime events symbolic of a conscious decision to change one's way of life. Both are performed subsequent to a conscious, life-changing decision on the part of the individual. That, however, is where the similarity ends.

In the case of conversion to Judaism, without that conscious decision (one which is examined for its sincerity and motivation by a "court" or panel of three Rabbis), neither the circumcision nor the ritual immersion would be valid for the purpose of conveying any new status of membership in the People of Israel. Ritual immersion of converts is performed only subsequent to the Rabbinical Court's judgment of the convert's sincerity, life experience, and religious education. In Christianity, by contrast, the baptism is considered a sacrament, which, in and of itself, conveys grace to the recipient. Additionally, Christianity views baptism as a washing away of "original sin" - a concept which Judaism has never embraced and has never even considered. As Matthew Fox, founder of the Creation Spirituality movement has observed, Judaism is not characterized by a concept of "original sin," but rather of "original blessing."

As I have noted, early Christianity performed baptism only with adults. Similarly, in Judaism (and Judaic roots to this practice are clearly in early Christianity), only an adult can choose to convert to Judaism. Infant baptism came about much later in response to the fears of Christian parents that their children, who died before being baptized, would end up being barred from heaven, since they were conceived and born into a state of "original sin," from which only  baptism could cleanse them. (This is another example of how doctrinal statements cloud the issues and create more problems for the faithful, but it does provide full employment for philosophers and theologians). Because the Church instituted the practice of infant baptism, it also had to ultimately institute the practice of Confirmation. Why? Because confirmation, performed at an older, conscious, consenting age, would fulfill the requirement of the conscious decision-making process involved in declaring oneself a follower of Christ which had once been reserved for those undergoing adult baptism! Eventually, even the implementation of infant baptism could not relieve the concerns of parents whose infants died at birth, or shortly thereafter, and so the Church created its concept of "limbo" - the place where unbaptized infants go - not hell, but not heaven either!

Unquestionably, in its orthodox, or 'pure' Christian context, as determined theologically and established by Canon Law and by the Creeds, baptism is a mystical conferral of grace through the Holy Spirit upon the recipient. It serves the mystical purpose of cleansing one from the taint of original sin. In orthodox Christianity, the water itself is blessed in a separate ritual prior to its use for the baptism. Not only is the water a symbol, it is a required medium! These tenets have always remained a part of the Church's canon law as well as its tradition. Baptism is regarded as far more than a symbolic act. 

In Christianity, symbolic ritual practices are often thought to contain an invisible, non-symbolic and real spiritual component—i.e., the conferral of an actual spiritual gift, state of grace, etc. Each sacrament may serve a specific mystical purpose. Traditional Canon Law of apostolic churches (e.g. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Episcopal) holds that even if the priest or minister performing the sacrament does not believe in its efficacy, or even if he does not believe in God or Christ, the sacrament remains a valid one by virtue of its mere performance. That, in itself, tells volumes about the very real, as opposed to symbolic, nature of the sacrament in Christian thought!

The question then becomes this: If one does not believe in "original sin," if one does not believe in the Triune godhead of which the Holy Spirit is an integral part, what purpose does baptism serve? This is a question that can only be answered by the individual through self-reflection and an examination of conscience. 

The fact remains that people participate in religious rituals every day without possessing either a real belief or even a cursory awareness of its theological context—whether to please relatives, or to fulfill social obligations. Many people have had their children baptized, only to raise them in a manner which is completely devoid of any intrinsic Christian spirituality or faith. For how many people does participating in such sacraments as baptism, confirmation, communion, etc. truly represent an actual metanoia - a changing of mind which conversion to Christianity, or acceptance of Christ as lord and savior is supposed to represent? 

 A perfect example is that here, in Southern California, drive-by shootings are committed every day by Catholic gang members who were baptized, confirmed, and have taken communion, who may have been married in the Church, who may have had their own children baptized, and who even have the image of Jesus, or Our Lady of Guadalupe, tattooed on their backs! Are they living a Christian life? Have they undergone metanoia? Was their receipt of these sacraments performed merely to fulfill a cultural expectation, to mark a cultural life-cycle transition?  From the Church's perspective, it doesn't matter. It is the sacrament that is the vehicle, not the intention of the individual!

The real question, perhaps, should be: Why would anyone who does not believe in Jesus Christ as God incarnate, does not believe in the Holy Spirit as the third 'person' of the Trinity, want to have their children baptized anyway? What does it symbolize, if anything, for that person? If Jesus is 'followed' as a prophet or a great teacher, or as a guide to humane and ethical living, is a symbolic act necessary to embrace that tradition? Would it be necessary to be baptized in order to follow the ethical and spiritual teachings of the Buddha, any more than it is necessary for Jews to be ritually immersed before living by the laws of the Torah? As others have noted, Jesus himself NEVER baptized anyone. 

John baptized with water, but admonished that one would come after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. If we accept the sequence of events put forth in the gospels, Jesus did not "send forth" the Holy Spirit into the world until his ascension, and the Holy Spirit later descended upon the apostles at Pentecost. During his entire earthly ministry, he never saw fit to rectify that discrepancy, that absence, by performing baptisms. Was baptism not necessary because Jesus, himself, was present in the world? What did Jesus' followers do during his earthly lifetime to demonstrate their devotion to him? They simply followed him!

While Jesus is quoted as instructing his apostles to "go therefore unto all peoples, baptizing them in the name of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit," some biblical scholars now inform us that this was not an original part of the source document's text. Rather, it was later added by redactors and editors at a time when Christian theology had already come into being – and to provide a biblical support for a practice which had already been in practice for around a hundred years!

This author's personal sense, and understanding gleaned from a comparative study of both Christianity and Judaism, is that John the Baptist was calling for a return to the essential core of Judaism among those to whom he preached. Judaism has had a long standing tradition that The Messiah would not come until every Jew observed the Torah. Even Jesus taught that "not one jot or tittle" would be removed from the Law (the Torah) until all was fulfilled. We could interpret this as relating to his "second coming," since this would represent the fulfillment of the events foretold by the Old Testament prophets relating to both the first and the second coming of Christ, from a Christian perspective. From a Jewish perspective, Christ's second coming would be the Messiah's first and only arrival. 

John utilized ritual immersion, which the Greeks authors and editors of the gospels called baptism, to symbolize a return to spirituality, by treating those who returned as if they were new converts to Judaism – it called for a conscious life-changing decision, a metanoia. It was, indeed, symbolic in that his audience was already made up of Jews, but Jews who had become spiritually alienated. Thus, the message of John, was: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his path straight." In other words, 'prepare the way for the Messiah by returning to Judaism's spiritual foundation, as put forth by the prophets and as taught by Jesus himself; fulfill the traditional belief held by Jews that this return to a spiritual life was the prerequisite preparation for the coming of the Messiah.' And this coming of the Messiah would bring about the "Kingdom of God," the establishment of a just world ruled by God's law.

Is this the reason baptism was adopted by Christianity? Probably not. It is more likely that the actual origin of Christian baptism rests in the fact that the original followers of Christ were Jews. They met in synagogues, they followed the Rabbinic law, and they used ritual immersion for new converts. New converts to the Nazarene (or early Christian) sect of Judaism were essentially converts to Judaism – albeit a minority sect of Judaism. Originally, newly converted Christians were obliged, if they were male, to undergo circumcision also. Peter ultimately ruled this unnecessary. The ritual immersion remained—originally as a symbolic act. It later became imbued with theological meaning relative to the later concepts of original sin, grace, etc. 

On one hand, this author is convinced that baptism in its original form did, in fact, merely represent a change of mind, an act of self-dedication to a new way of life. On the other hand, the author does not believe that the origin of baptism is an inherently Christian one, but rather a hold-over from Judaism. The author believes that baptism has an important place in the lives of all spiritual people, because rituals do hold great significance in people's lives. However, it cannot be legitimately held that infant baptism, or baptism at any age for that matter, has any true spiritual or mystical efficacy in and of itself.

In fact, if only to 'convince' parents to raise their children in a more spiritual manner, a Dedication Ceremony might be more appropriate than a baptism. Baptism, in its traditional and most well-known form, is an extremely passive ceremony. To be baptized is to be the subject of a passive verb, not an active one. There is a vast contrast between such statements as "I embraced Christ" and "I was baptized." One does not actively perform one’s own baptism. In fact, one can be baptized in one's sleep—as is the case with many infants. So, unless one absolutely believes in the mystical, spiritual efficacy of baptism—which appears to be historically and scripturally unsubstantiated—then infant baptism serves no purpose, other than for the benefit of parents and grandparents. This being the case, this author heartily recommends something more akin to the Jewish "baby-naming" ceremony (which is used for infant girls in lieu of the circumcision required for infant boys), or a Dedication Ceremony - because this serves to remind the parents that this child is a spiritual being, that it is incumbent upon them to see to their child's spiritual development as well as his or her physical and emotional development.

In terms of his own pastoral work, will this author perform an infant baptism? Yes. Does this seem inconsistent with what he's written? It no doubt does! However, this author's responsibility is to serve the spiritual needs of his congregants, and others who seek his services. It has always been a difficult question. But the author has come to believe that his own personal beliefs should not be dictated to, or imposed upon, others—although he will freely and openly share them. He may explore questions of the parents' faith and expectations for what the baptism represents with them in preparation for it. It may turn out that they will opt for a Dedication Ceremony or a Baby-Naming instead. But that decision is always left to them, based upon their faith and the dictates of their conscience. 

This author views his role as a minister to be that of a vehicle, a facilitator for the faith and spiritual growth of those he serves. If he is to provide that service faithfully, dutifully, then he must meet his congregants on their own terms, in ways that are meaningful to them. Ultimately, it is hoped that it will be possible to guide people to find the essential core of spirituality that underlies overt religious practices and beliefs. That spiritual core will enhance and reinforce their faith. But, if through the course of their lives people come to lose faith in the icons of their religion - as often happens - at least they might never lose sight of the fact that they are inherently spiritual beings and never lose that sense of awe that is derived from traveling through life with a spiritual perspective. A spiritual perspective is something that baptism, obviously, cannot and does not provide to the majority of those who receive it. 

© 2004 American Unitarian Conference