Thursday, November 11, 2010

Baptism For Unbelievers

Interesting conversation at the family lunch: my mom wants to get Theron (Firstborn, age 4) baptized. He attends church with them on Sundays, and he's showing interest in taking communion - or, more accurately, in eating the communion wafer just like everyone else gets to do. He doesn't really understand the point of the ritual or the story behind it, which is part of the issue.

From a family-dynamics perspective, this is a surprisingly delicate question. I'm... essentially irreligious. Despite a strong love of mythology in all its forms, I can't really believe in any of it. My wife is probably best described as a deist, or perhaps a monist. My parents are Episcopalian, and my wife's parents belong to the Disciples of Christ. (My wife's mother is actually a minister.)

The primary driver on this appears to be my mom. She's the one who brought it up, and she's the one who was talking about it as something that needs to be done. My dad doesn't seem to have any opinion on the matter, but appearances may be deceiving. Dad sometimes just sits back and lets my mom do all the talking on things like this. Then he wonders why nobody realizes that he thinks it's important, too. So it's hard to be sure.

Anyhow... the issue, as we finally hashed it out, is basically twofold. The primary issue is this: Mom doesn't feel that Theron should be receiving communion without at least a basic understanding of what he's taking part in. This ties into the Episcopalian approach to initiation, so pardon me while I digress for a moment.

In the modern Episcopalian church - at least, the one my parents attend - anyone who has been baptized may take communion. Baptism can be done at any time, and is usually done as soon as possible after birth. Later, when the child reaches some nebulous "age of reason", he or she is taught the essentials of the faith, and then undergoes Confirmation - a formal, personal embracing of the religion that he or she was baptized into as a baby. When I was growing up, this was the point at which one could begin to take communion. (It used to be something of a coming-of-age ritual, corresponding roughly to puberty, but the age at which it occurs has been creeping steadily lower for years.)

Right now, though, even the kids who are too young for confirmation can receive a communion wafer.

Among the Disciples of Christ, however, the... well, the sequence is the same, but the emphasis is inverted. That is, babies and children are Dedicated, and when they reach the age of reason they're taught the essentials of the faith and then baptized.

So... having Theron baptized in the Episcopal church would make it permissible for him to eat the wafer. It would not, by itself, give him any insight whatsoever into why people eat the bread every week. Any such explanation is going to have to be made independently... and to be honest, I don't think he's really going to understand no matter who explains it. He's four.

Having him dedicated in the Disciples church would have much the same result; I'm pretty sure the Episcopalians aren't going to quibble over whether he's "baptized enough" to eat the wafer. Both denominations are pretty easygoing about these things.

So that's the situation. One obvious solution is simply to tell him that he can't take communion until he's really old enough to understand it. I would be completely fine with that. There's an obvious problem, though: he's going to see kids his own age or only slightly older getting wafers. He will, understandably, consider it unfair that he doesn't get one.

The second possibility is to get him baptized, or dedicated - or both, depending on how strongly the various grandparents feel about having him connected to their particular denomination. I'm opposed to this, but not insurmountably so. If we go this route, then someone is still going to have to make the explanation that my mom thinks he needs, but I can do that. Also, handling it this way would probably make both sets of grandparents much happier...

Assuming that nobody came out feeling that their denomination or side of the family had been slighted. That's almost certain to be trickier than it sounds.

A third possibility is to take Theron out of church entirely. This would probably set off a blazing row, and I'm betting that nobody would like it. My parents wouldn't like it. Theron wouldn't like it (if for no other reason, because he enjoys getting his grandparents to himself for most of the day). I wouldn't like it, because I'd have to wrangle both boys on Sundays. My wife wouldn't like it, because having both boys in the house will make it much harder to grade, even if I'm trying to watch both of them. Even my wife's parents probably wouldn't like it, since it would mean Theron was getting less exposure to Christianity. So we're probably not going to try that.

There's another issue, though, and the more I think about it, the more I suspect it may be the actual motivator. As we were leaving the restaurant, Mom said that she was also worried because somewhere in her youth she'd picked up the idea that if you died before you were baptized, you went to Hell. Naturally, she didn't want to risk that for Theron. My initial reaction was, basically, "No, because God is not a monster." I also pointed out that there's no scriptural support for (or against, really) this view. She admitted that those were valid points, but said that this was something that had stuck with her. Loosely translated, I think that means that she knows this isn't a rational fear, but it's still her fear.

Like I said, I suspect this is the actual motivator, and Theron's interest in communion wafers is just a catalyst, or at least a handy opportunity. This is important, because it means that just explaining the concept of communion to Theron, and telling him he has to wait, is not, despite her assertions to the contrary, actually going to satisfy her.

Well. First order of business is to talk it over with my wife. I'll have done that by the time this actually posts. (I may come back and make some edits or updates, too.) Then we'll probably want to feel out her parents and see what they think. And finally, we're going to have to talk to Theron about the whole thing.

Why yes, that is the smell of Impending Doom. What makes you ask?


  1. Might I suggest you acquire some non-blessed Communion wafers and introduce Theron first-hand to the reality that they taste like crap.

    I was raised catholic and when I was leading up to first communion I couldn't do it because the wafers taste awful and were too big to swallow whole without triggering my incredibly pronounced gag reflex. I ended up getting a pass with the priest doing some shtick they'd come up for people who just couldn't do it for some reason, something involving waving hands and an invocation I don't really remember about blessing me this time and maybe later being able to swallow the damn thing.

    The reason I highlight this point is prior to that exposure, I had been operating under the belief that everybody at church was receiving, I kid you not, a potato chip. As a kid, I wanted the potato chip but after having it, I never wanted it again.

    Just sayin'... you could dodge a lot of crap if the kid could convince himself this sucks.

  2. No luck. Apparently a week or two back he managed to snag one and pop it in his mouth. Apparently he was not discouraged.

  3. I few years back my mom was really saying we needed to get the boys dedicated, which in our church was usually done shortly after birth. That's what we did in our church as we felt you where to become baptized when you were older and felt the calling. Anyway, I almost did it in our last church, but didn't for what reason I'm not sure. Now she rarely mentions anything to me about the boys going to church or getting dedicated. She does however tell my sister that my niece needs to be dedicated and she tell her quite a lot.

    I'm not opposed to my children going to church. I myself have no interest in going but if we lived close enough to a grandparent that wanted to take them that would be fine with me. I would then discuss with them what they learned and answer any questions as best I could. I do want them to be well rounded children and learn to think for themselves though.

  4. Yeah... and I think of Theron's church attendance in terms of acquiring antibodies. Not necessarily against religion in general - he's going to have to make up his own mind about that - but there are some bad forms of Christianity out there. Periodically I'd run into some version of it, and one of the things that kept me out of it was that I'd grown up in a relatively sane, healthy form of the religion.

    So basically, if Theron runs into someone who tells him, for example, "God wants you to keep your hair short," I want his immediate reaction to be, "No, God wants me to be a nice person. He doesn't give &*%$ about my hair." And that's regardless of whether or not he actually believes that God is anything more than a fanciful way of trying to make sense of the world.


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