Earlier this week I had lunch with a clergy colleague. Over the course of Thai food, he got me to wondering. Do we in the mainline church not know how to preach for conversion because the alternative Kingdom life and community to which we’re called to invite them is unintelligible?
And is the Kingdom to which we’re called to convert obscured by the practice of infant baptism?
In the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.
Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,
Barth reiterated the fact that there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.
More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.
In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.
Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view. I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.
As my sympathies with Barth’s criticisms suggest, I would caution that too often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.
We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.
We baptize to build a new polis, a new society in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.
What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.
This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world. Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter. Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.
Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines.
At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.
Once we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’
For, as James KA Smith says,
‘baptism smashes open our families of birth and ‘opens us up to the disruptive friendships that are the mark of the Kingdom of God.’
By wanting to secure the work of God, preveniently, in the practice of infant baptism, do we obscure the work of God eschatologically in and through his Kingdom People called Church?