Fresh onto the forum this morning, I found a post on another thread where whether or not someone is/was baptised was being discussed, and it made me think.
I am in the process of radically re-appraising my attitude to religion and all things spiritual, and realised that this must include baptism.
Here in the UK baptism most of the population traditionally used to think of baptism as christening, and it was a kind of official recognising that a new baby was here. The christening in church, white shawl for the baby, best clothes, family gathering and teaparty, godparents giving presents to the baby, often the starting of a bank savings account...all of that together comprised the baby's christening, and in many cases would be the last the child saw of the inside of a church until the wedding day, and then years ahead the funeral. Hatch, match and dispatch.
Baptism is seen and recognised as a sacrament, with a power in and of itself. There is intention that the child should live according to Christ's teachings, and the godparents make promises on behalf of the child, but the very sacrament is seen as having an inherent power..
Then, for those more closely involved in a church or chapel, christening/baptism was more of a reception into God's family. This didn't imply on the whole that anyone really thought that those not baptised were not in some sense part of God's wider family. That thought was never really discussed. But for church/chapel-goers it would be part of a lifelong membership of church or chapel.
For Catholics, baptism was always important, because the teaching was that if an unbaptised baby died it went to limbo, a kind of nowhere. That teaching went out at the time of the Second Vatican Council, but is still widely believed. It results in what was the norm for many centuries, baptism as soon as possible after birth, and if the child was sickly and not likely to survive it might even take place within minutes of birth. That is still the case, and in fact both Anglicans and Catholics recognise that anyone can baptise, midwife, family member, whoever. All that's necessary for it to be "valid" are the use of water, the intention to baptise, and that it be done in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
For Baptists and some other denominations, including Jehovah's Witnesses, infant baptism is taboo. They believe that to be baptised or not must be an informed and therefore adult personal choice. I am not clear in my mind exactly how, therefore, Baptists view the significance and implications of baptism. Do they see it as entry into God's family? Do they see it as an outward act of personal dedication and commitment? I don't know.
Jehovah's Witnesses, it seems to me, rightly or wrongly, take their understanding of baptism one stage further away from a sacrament. For them (I am open to correction) it is not only an outward and very public declaration of intent to follow Christ's teachings, it is to follow those teachings as JW's understand them, and that means to accept formally the Watchtower as the only channel of God's communication with humans, and to submit totally to the jurisdiction of what is in essence a society and corporate business. Do I have that right? Baptism takes place with water and a form of words that satisfies Jesus' instructions, carefully making sure that that interpretation doesn't involve any implied understanding of the Trinity.
What exactly is a JW baptism? Is it membership of God's family? Of a human society? It is certainly exclusive. The JW baptised believe that the deliberately unbaptised have chosen everlasting perdition. A JW baptism can carry no sense of protection from evil, since they’re so terrified of demons. And their baptism seems to imply inherent submission to JW judicial and punitive procedures. It is almost hard to see it as anything spiritual at all.
So, I am now wondering, exactly what is baptism? Teachings go from what, to me, is inherently a very spiritual thing (setting aside for the moment exactly what the word spiritual means) to, at the other end of the spectrum, the Jehovah’s Witness baptism which seems almost to be a legalistic entry into a judicial system. If you’re good, i.e. do as you’re told and never, ever think for yourself, you don’t come up against the judicial side and you get benefits. If you stray from the hard line you suffer. That sounds rather more like a protection racket.
Maybe I’m being unfair to JW’s, and I’ll be pleased to be further enlightened. But then, I am thinking of baptism in itself, across all self-declared Christian denominations. Other religions, e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, don’t have an equivalent of baptism. Or do they? Judaism has circumcision, but it isn’t baptism…or does it approximate to something similar?
Baptism is different from the later rites of passage which are common to all religions in different forms, eg Bar-Mitzvah, and various rites of passage from childhood to adulthood. I am thinking specifically of baptism.
I am hoping that through a wide-ranging discussion including all points of view we might hammer this question out. If anyone’s interested?