My daughter has been asking about baptism and our beliefs a lot lately. The baptism discussion spurred on by the book Are You There God, It's Me Margaret by Judy Blume; our beliefs discussion came about because we have been visiting another church.
At this age of child development it is normal for a child to adopt the same beliefs as the family. Kids require a foundation of what they believe as it gives them peace and helps them make sense of the world. Besides, if kids do not have a foundation they can understand (religion, science, or some hybrid) they risk being caught up in any old cult or crazy belief that comes along. However, my wife and I –– despite the implication that we are imposing our will on our daughter –– feel that our daughter needs to be exposed to varying perspectives on life and religion so she can create her own theological beliefs. As her parents, it is our job to help guide her toward good and rational and nondiscriminatory belief systems.
We asked about baptism at our former church. Children must be in sixth grade and go through a class to prepare them for such a decision. Most choose baptism but some do not. I believe a class is important, even required, to help the children come to understand their decision. I think if a child is seriously asking they should be supplied the information and opportunity. I believe an arbitrary grade restraint serves only to push away an inquisitive child and is counter to most educational theories.
The real problem with baptism, in regards to our former church, is the credo that one must believe in order to be baptized. Here is the belief system that one must claim in order to be baptized in our former church, as quoted from the website forwarded to us by the current minister:
Baptism is a public act by which the church proclaims God’s grace, as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through the use of a visible sign of God’s gracious initiative and the human individual’s response in faith. With other Christians we affirm that baptism is at once a divine gift and a human response.
Baptism, as a gift of grace, received by faith, expresses its meaning in a variety of images: new birth; a washing with water; a cleansing from sin; a sign of God’s forgiving grace; the power of new life now and the pledge of life in the age to come. The meaning of baptism is grounded in God’s redemptive action in Christ, it incorporates the believer in the community in the body of Christ, and it anticipates life in the coming age when the powers of the old world will be overcome, and the purposes of God will triumph.
- This credo forces one to believe that Jesus was the human form of God on Earth. This is something we simply do not believe.
- It assumes that we are sinners, evil, and in need of constant redemption. We do not put upon our daughter any guilt theology.
- This credo also requires a belief that God gives us some divine gift through a symbolic tradition. We do not believe that we got a job because God willed it, children with disabilities are born to sinful parents as a punishment from God, or that God opened up a parking space because I just prayed for it. (All of these are actual beliefs from actual persons I know directly.)
We spoke to our daughter about this credo and what it means. Upon discovering what she had to believe in order to be baptized, she was much less enthusiastic. For goodness sakes, a 10-year-old scoffs at the idea of a virgin miraculously popping out a baby (let alone a God) and she laughs at the idea of a whale swallowing a man only to spit him up later. She is quite aware of the acidic digestive system and the fact that whales have comb teeth.
Some Christian churches may not actually believe these things either, but they do not actively discuss these issues for fear of losing people and money. They present these issues from time to time, but they are introduced as subtext. Southern Baptism minister Clayton Sullivan wrote about the division between orthodox Christianity and the post-Enlightenment Christian scholarship in his book "Rescuing Jesus from the Christians":
"Two groups, however, are negatively affected by the conflict between post-Enlightenment scholarship and entrenched orthodox Christianity. One group negatively affect are members of the clergy who received their theological training at seminaries where they were exposed to contemporary biblical scholarship (the kind of scholarship encountered at schools like Emory University in Atlanta and the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge). Before attending seminaries they innocently assumed there was an obvious or normative Christian gospel. But after acquiring a seminary education, they ponder the question: What is the gospel? Discombobulated, they spend their entire professional lives in a quandry. They slip and slide when expounding the kingdom of God to their parishioners. In this regard they resemble pigs dancing on ice. While preaching on race relationships, they circumvent Jesus' opinion that Gentiles are dogs. While preaching about Jesus dying on the cross as a sacrifice for mankind's sins, they inwardly grope for an atonement theory that would make sense out of what they proclaim. Their mouths and minds are not connected. Unsure of what the gospel is, these pastors employ gospel substitutes."
I am not interested in going to a church that is too fearful of simply presenting other scholarly and religious ideas or paths to God. I want to speak about these ideas openly and discuss them and leave open the opportunity for multiple beliefs by different people. I want a more courageous and open community that will offer the congregation the seminary experience. I do not want subtext or hidden messages. I do not want to be forced to believe that Jesus is a God, nor am I willing to force my family to undergo guilt theology just to be baptized, even if that guilty theology is only presented during baptism. No one in our home believes in the inherent evilness or sinfulness of humans. We make good choice and we make bad choices and we live our lives in an attempt to do more good that harm and learn from our mistakes. Sin is fine for those who want it, but guilt theology (even in minute amounts) is not for us.
So I guess she's decided that baptism is not for her. Or at least that is what she indicated this morning. She is 10, so that might change, but I suspect it won't. We will continue our religious education by learning about many different belief systems and continue to support goodness over all things and love as a foundation for those good beliefs and works.