Immersed into a New World: The Cosmic Reality of Baptism

A church's practice of catechesis will largely depend on its theology of conversion and baptism. If you think conversion is simply a new mindset or way of thinking, you only need so much catechesis to get to that point. Or if you think baptism is merely a token or "symbol" (in the truncated modern usage of that word), it's hard to justify the arduous sweat of pre-baptismal that was commonplace in the early church.

But if you think conversion is a life-altering kind of a reality, a new kind of existence, a new life, a radical re-envisioning of the entire universe, well then it might make sense to lay the foundation with some care.

In this vein, an article from a few years back by David Bentley Hart, "Baptism and Cosmic Allegiance: A Brief Observation," helps us make sense of the kind of theological framework out of which patristic catechesis emerged, as well as enabling us today to recalibrate the aim of conversion today. 

In a reviewing Everett Ferguson's magnum opus Baptism in the Early Church, Hart makes clear that his own interests in early Christian baptism are historical and contemporary, and not so much about the theology of baptism per se. He wants to know what baptism "tells us about the special spiritual significance of the rite in the context of a pre-Christian world, and so what it might suggest to us about its significance in the post-Christian world of late modern western culture" (457).

Hart first reflects on the radical, dramatic—indeed "cosmic"—alteration of life that baptism entailed, contrasting this with the way we tend to think of baptism today. As always, the inimitable prose of DBH is better quoted than paraphrased.

"For most of the Christians of the earliest centuries ... baptism was of an altogether more radical nature. It was not merely a symbolic drama marking a casual shift in religious association, like moving from the Methodists to the Episcopalians; it was a change in one’s social and spiritual identity, and also—for want of a better phrase—in one’s cosmic station" (458).

He then notes that the rite of baptism implies both a renunciation of the old as much a clinging to the new. It meant clinging to something new that made total demands upon your life. Indeed, it was "an act of rebellion." 

Baptism, he says, was not only an "avowal of faith but also a profound act of renunciation, a taking leave of much of what one had previously known and been, in order to be joined to a new reality whose demands upon one were absolute. In entering the body of Christ, one also consciously and irrevocably departed from the world one had inhabited all one’s life, and from the allegiances that had bound one to that world. It was, in a very real sense, an act of rebellion" (458–459).

Hart presses the difference between the way we think of conversion today with how it would have felt in the third and fourth centuries. He notes that rites of baptism undoubtedly became more of a social formality in the fourth century, when it became more "socially advantageous" to become Christian. Yet this shift should not be overstated. For even a high-class intellectual pagan convert to Christianity in the late fourth century was still living a dramatic alteration. Again, he finds a comparison to today's world: "Even in the first several decades after the Edict of Milan [AD 313, when Christian became a legally tolerated group], a sincere convert to Christianity from paganism was doing something that today perhaps only a new convert in certain mission fields of the global South or East can quite understand" (459). 

Catechesis in the Context of Cosmic Baptism

To stress the point that baptism after Constantine was still a serious affair, Hart discusses fourth-century catechesis. The fourth-century catechumenate, he says, was a deeply formative process, going much further than "merely an instruction in the grammar of Christian beliefs" (459).

"It was also a spiritual probation of sorts, a time of scrutiny, a liminal state of suspense, lasting quite often for a period that we today might regard as terrifically excessive. It involved tutelage in the faith, moral examination, discipline of the will, and a general formation in the habitus of Christian life, but it also involved, for former pagans, a profound inversion of vision, a total reversal of how they understood the cosmos and the powers that presided over it" (459). 

This reversal of vision is highly significant, for it goes beyond a mere paradigm shift or altered mindset. It also involved a moral revolution, and even more so, a new understanding of citizenship and patria.   

“The story of redemption that [catechumens] would learn in their catechesis, after all, was not one merely of private reformation of character or intention, but of rescue from slavery to evil and falsehood: all persons, it said, had labored in bondage in the household of death, prisoners of death and the devil, languishing in ignorance of their true home. Then Christ had come to set the prisoners free and, by his death and resurrection, invaded the kingdom of our captor and overthrew it, vanquishing the power of sin and death in us, shattering the gates of hell, and plundering Hades of its captives. It was into this story that one’s own life was to be entirely merged, without reserve or remainder, when one at last passed through the “life-giving waters” of baptism. In the risen Christ, a new humanity had been created, free from the rule of death, and one became part of this new creation by dying and rising again with Christ in baptism and by feeding upon him in the Eucharist” (459–460).


Hart focuses on the embodied, ritual nature of baptismal ceremonies to highlight the significance of the ritual for early Christians. He specifically mentions the rituals acts of renunciation, exorcism, and submission, "during which the convert turned his or her face to the west (the land of evening, and so symbolically the realm of all darkness, cosmic and spiritual), underwent a rather forcibly phrased exorcism, and rejected—even reviled and, quite literally, spat at—the devil and his ministers, and then turned to face the east (the land of morning and light) to confess his or her faith in and submission to Christ" (460).

Today, he says, we have the vestiges of these rites, but they are "now usually the province of vaguely embarrassed or bemused godparents, often seem at best rather quaint" (460). We don't really grasp the cosmic transformation taking place, the sense of danger and adventure that the renunciation of demonic forces entails. For people living in late antiquity, however, this was not a matter of simply going through the motions. This was an act of public and formal renunciation of one's old master and a dedication to a new one. In the act of renunciation of the "devil and all his pomp," it was something like a "legally binding transference of fealty from one master to another" (460). 

In thus turning his or her back upon, repudiating, and abusing the devil, then, the convert was also explicitly breaking all ties to the gods to whom he or she had formerly been indentured, and doing so with a kind of triumphant contempt; and, in confessing Christ, he or she was entering the service of the invincible conqueror who had defeated death, despoiled hell of its hostages, subdued the wicked powers in high places, and been raised up the Lord of history. (p. 460)


The Significance of Baptism in a Post-Christendom World

Hart maintains that as pagan culture dissolved and "Christian culture" took its place, the intelligibility of the cosmically significant, demonic-denying rite lost its place. Baptism accommodated to Christendom, and became more about the care and nurture of souls rather than than a world-altering transference. Baptism "no longer involved any shift in loyalties, any act of resolute defiance of familiar powers, or any actual conversion of thought or will" (463).

Despite the contestable nature of this claim, which I've been interested in recently, Hart's final contention is to show the similarities of the early Christian context and the post-Christian future, with its incumbent return of a new kind of paganism.

"It is worth wondering, perhaps, whether the transformation of our cultural situation will lead once again to a new set of emphases in baptismal practices and sacramental theology. The church will increasingly find itself more or less isolated from the center of civic life, and will increasingly find the circumambient world to be again under the sway of alien powers—not the gods of old, perhaps, but elemental spirits of another, somewhat drearier kind" (465). 

He describes the possibilities of baptism taking on a new kind of significance, yet one that will look very much like the old, with its elements of enchantment, subversion, and increasingly more adult-centered baptism.

"In those [post-Christendom] circumstances, baptism will inevitably once again become more and more an elective rite, a choice made by adults disenchanted with the world around them, and a break with an unbaptized upbringing. Almost certainly, baptism will once again come to be understood as a real and momentous change in one's personal allegiances. It will again acquire a somewhat subversive character, and again be seen as an act not only of affirmation, but also of principled repudiation— of, in fact, rebellion" (465).

He reflects briefly on how this may seem like a "bitter victory" for the "ardent proponent of adult baptism" (465). As a American culture follows the developed world in becoming increasingly unconcerned about or actually hostile to Christianity, less and less nominally Christian parents will bring their children to the church for baptism. But I take Hart not to be taking sides in the infant- v. adult-baptism debates, for this is a disagreement made possible in the kind of Christendom context that has largely set sail.

More interestingly for me, this new shift will require "a particularly chastened and reflective sort of faith from believers" (465). I take this to mean that the kind of spiritual moment we currently inhabit requires a re-sacralized imagination, and with it, commensurate practices of baptism and baptismal catechesis. The times are ripe, it seems, for a new yet ancient way of becoming Christian. In this regard, we have much to learn from those who went before, not simply in what they did—the kinds of ritual gestures they performed, the content they taught—but much more importantly, how they responded to what Hart calls the "infinite versatility of grace." We have much to glean from how the father imagined the place of the church—its ontological significance—in a re-paganized world, yet one in which God's activity is everywhere present, everywhere close at hand.

The fathers knew the measureless act of grace that went into baptism, and developed catechetical support structures that were appropriate to the dramatic act that it denoted. Being able to communicate this pre-Christendom imagination will be an important task of the church and church leaders. It will entail creating structures in which dramatic acts of cosmic transference are plausible, and even more so, desired. This will be the work of the entire church, its liturgies, its way of living together, and it public deeds as much as its formal catechesis.

But the point is that this re-sacralized view of the world is already becoming more apparent as the world in which live becomes increasingly skeptical, tired, and disenchanted of the world-as-machine, or the world-as-commerce. Those seeking more alluring alternatives will hopefully find them in churches who give weight to the deeply spiritual nature of reality, and who grasp just what a momentous occasion it is to become a Christian.