Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's Not the Water

Six children were baptized in my church today. This always has the potential for chaos, but James did his usual wonderful job of keeping things low key, up tempo and on track, and the children were largely cooperative.

I have terribly conflicted feelings about this particular sacrament. On the one hand, as a member of a faith community I believe there is a lot of merit in formally, ceremonially bringing them into that community. Whether that community is the local parish or congregation, or the national or worldwide denominational church, or even something as comprehensive as Christianity, I think there is an undeniable power and affect behind a public declaration of faith or a statement of belief.

But I know that isn't what brings every parent in to baptize their child. There are some who do it to appease their family, others who do it out of a sense of tradition. To me, this feels a bit disingenuous, but I don't think it precludes a positive experience or invalidates the solemnity of the occasion.

What does upset me is wondering how many people are there because of a belief in magic.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the blessings in my life that I am most grateful for are my friends who happen to be atheists. Neither of us are terribly interested in proselytizing anyone, but I appreciate their perspective and how it helps me to view my faith with a critical eye, and I hope they get something out of my ramblings and anecdotes about my attempts to live with some degree of organized religiosity.

Critical thinking means seeing the Bible as a divinely inspired work in spite of contradictions and often overlooked historical context and translation issues; a source of ancient wisdom and moral guidance, not a combination rulebook, instruction manual, scientific text, and set of comprehensive templates for aiding in the judgement of others. I believe in prayer as a means of reestablishing my connection with the infinite, not as a means of petitioning a supernatural being to intervene on my behalf.

I watch baptisms in my church knowing full well that there is a distinct possibility of never seeing that family in there again. They've scratched that supernatural itch, and are comfortable moving back to their normal environs. I find this regrettable for a number of reasons; on a strictly personal level I intensely dislike other people wiping their superstition all over my spirituality, but I don't get to make that call. I think something really special can happen in the course of baptism, but it has little or nothing to do with the special properties of magical water; after all, it's a church, not a homeopathy clinic.

More tragic to me is the sense of lost opportunity. As society grows more and more insular, real community seems to be getting hard to find, especially a community so well equipped to help people at the most trying times in their lives, like birth, marriage, and even death (or as is sometimes said, 'hatch, match and dispatch').

Still, it could be worse. I'm gratified when anyone shows an interest in sharing my faith and it's trappings, even if it's just a transitory experience. Who knows, that parent, or godparent, or uncle, or friend might hear or see something that makes them think about things from a different perspective. Maybe they'll come back, or visit another church, or explore some entirely different faith expression. Maybe they will come to understand, as I've begun to, that we are all capable of blessing one another, and that a church is just a really good place to be reminded of it. These blessings make our lives better despite not making us more resistant to disease, making us immune to bad luck, or even giving us a +2 on our saving throws.

And this is also why atheists should not feel awkward saying "bless you" when someone sneezes.

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