Friday, February 18, 2022

The Letter Strangles the Spirit, but Change Births Opportunity

Kairos and Metanoia, the Greek symbols
of opportunity and change. One must embrace
the latter to find the former.
Artist: Girolamo de Capri, 1541.
Is your baptism "valid"? Is the idea of framing a spiritual event in legal terms such as "validity" itself off-putting?

People who were baptized under a certain priest in the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix -- I won't repeat his name, as he's surely been embarrassed enough already -- are no doubt asking those very questions, now that it's come to light that this priest has been changing one word in his baptisms, and that the church has decided the baptisms he's performed are therefore "invalid."

If you haven't heard, the priest, who was ordained in 2005, was discovered to have said "We baptize you" instead of "I baptize you" as part of the prescribed "formula" for a "valid" baptism. The priest has since resigned and has vowed to help people affected by the word change. For Catholics, this is no small matter, as you have to be baptized before you can receive any of the other sacraments of the church, including communion and even matrimony. Thus, an FAQ on the diocese's website, responding to whether people who were "invalidly" baptized also have an "invalid" marriage, says, "Maybe!" It's not clear whether the emphasis of the exclamation point is supposed to make them feel better about the situation.

I'll just state my view right up front: Invalidating marriages over a single word reeks of the worst kind of legalism imaginable. I was raised Catholic, and there's much I admire about the faith. It will always be a part of who I am. But I also tire of the church's constant emphasis on what's "valid" and "licit." The entire Catechism reads like a law book. Jesus railed against the very people who made their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long, confusing an overweening focus on outward precision for cultivating an authentic inner holy life. In other words: The precise recitation of a formula isn't what matters. What matters is your inner growth and transformation. 

One reason I've long been drawn to the Eastern church is that the West, with its entrenched focus on scholasticism and precise definitions for everything, reduces the spiritual life to a series of binding legal transactions, devoid of warmth or spirit. Even God and his nature are defined so precisely in the Catholic church that he always felt like a cold, distant abstraction when I was growing up. If God was love, I sure didn't feel it, buried as the Almighty was under a mountain of long-winded statements crafted with linguistic precision but with very little in the way of spirit.

This is exactly how, as Paul warned, the letter kills but the spirit gives life.

Over the past few weeks, I've been working my way through Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Bible series. The New Testament has been published across two volumes, with the Old Testament to follow. I like Bishop Barron. He's long shown a desire to evangelize people from a Catholic framework, and his Bible series is designed to do just that, by weaving commentaries from himself, church Fathers, and great Catholic thinkers down through the ages around the scriptural text. The goal is to make scripture relatable to a modern audience that's increasingly turning away from the spiritual life, by showing readers why the main character of the Gospels is still relevant today. Combined with several essays on great works of Catholic art throughout the ages, the end result is a visually beautiful Bible that reads like a page-turning novel, while the commentaries function as edifying in-depth sermons on just about every major passage in the Gospel accounts.

I haven't read the Bible from cover to cover in at least 25 years, maybe longer. So a lot of these old stories that I know by heart feel fresh again as I savor them in their original contexts. But what I'm also remembering is the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of taking the scriptures literally. I'm not saying that I reject its supernatural claims out of hand, but rather that the many contradictions and inaccuracies render it impossible to take in the scriptures as objective historical fact. Just to name a few things:

  • All the Gospels disagree on who stood by the cross and who was the first to the empty tomb.
  • The names of some of the disciples differ from one Gospel account to another.
  • In Matthew, the thieves crucified with Jesus mock him; in Luke, one asks for Christ's mercy and forgiveness.
  • Also in Matthew, Judas returns the 30 pieces of silver that purchased his betrayal and hangs himself. In the Acts of the Apostles, he purchased a field with his ill-gotten gains, and he dies in the field after he falls and his internal organs gush out. 
  • Matthew further states that Judas' blood money and the purchase of the potter's field is the fulfillment of a prophecy in the book of Jeremiah. The quote in Matthew actually comes from the book of Zechariah.  
  • In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus cleanses the temple after his triumphal entry to Jerusalem; in John, it happens early in his preaching career. 
  • The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is the Sermon on the Plain in Luke.
  • Jesus is said to have been born during the reign of Herod, who died around 4 B.C, according to the best historical evidence we have. But Joseph and a pregnant Mary were traveling for the census ordered by Quirinius, governor of Syria, and history also shows us that Quirinius took office in A.D. 6, the same year he ordered the census. Thus, Herod couldn't have been alive at the time of the census.
  • There is no historical evidence of a custom releasing a prisoner on the eve of Passover, as Pilate did when he released Barabbas to mollify the demands of the mob.  

That's just the tip of the iceberg. Literalists try to explain away problematic passages like these, but in many cases, there's simply no way that both accounts of an event can be true. And I think that's why attempting a literal understanding of the scriptures is to misread their intent. Their intent is to impart a spiritual truth about our relationship with the divine -- we'll call it God here, for purposes of keeping the discussion in context. To that end, the scriptures are best viewed neither as fact or fiction, but as an insight into deeper spiritual realities that can only be alluded to through our limited methods of human communication. To understand what they're saying to us, we have to look beyond the printed words, past the surface errors and inconsistencies that would otherwise trip us up, and consider what the deeper lesson is to be learned. 

Let's again consider the rite of baptism, which has been a source of contention for centuries. Does baptism remove the stain of original sin from the soul, or is it just a symbol of faith? Can infants be baptized, or must someone be of age to declare his faith before being baptized? Is pouring water over someone's head sufficient for baptism, or do you have to be fully immersed? And if you have to be fully immersed, is once enough, or do you have to do it three times? All of these are stances that different Christian churches take on the matter.

Baptism, an act peculiar to Christianity, originated with John the Baptist, who made the rite a part of his ministry. Its origins lie in the Jewish practice of ritual cleansing in the mikvah, a pool of water in which those considered "unclean" under the Jewish law would immerse themselves in order to return to a state of ritual purity. John himself, according to scripture, baptized people as a visible act of repentance from their sins, a rationale that was similar but not identical to the older Jewish ceremony. 

John's approach, in turn, hardened into church doctrine within a few centuries, to the point at which the church taught that baptism was necessary for the forgiveness of sins. When Augustine in the fifth century developed the idea of original sin of Adam and Eve as a kind of sexually transmitted disease, the church further connected baptism with the washing away of original sin from the soul, such that you couldn't receive any of the other sacraments, including communion or matrimony, until you were first baptized. Moreover, if an infant died before baptism, it would go to Limbo, where it would be at peace -- but because the stain of original sin was never removed from its soul, it would forever be denied the presence of God.  

The church has wisely distanced itself in recent years from the concept of Limbo, for it is abhorrent not only to imagine that an innocent child is born with sin but also to presume that, even if that were the case, a God of love would punish the soul of that child for something it had no control over. Proclaiming the existence of a Limbo was to presume how God would dispense his justice -- as if humans ever had control over such a thing, and as if the church could dictate the rules to God himself.

The point of faith, after all, is not to follow hidebound rules but to transform your heart. If someone tells you he's a Christian because he doesn't want to go to hell when he dies, that person has some spiritual growing left to do.

But is the church much different, if it decrees that your baptism is "invalid" because of the variation of a single word? I would say no. In fact, I would say it's missing the whole point. I understand the argument that the administering of sacraments has to be prevented from becoming some kind of free-for-all -- the Diocese of Phoenix, in trying to wave off charges of legalism in light of the "invalid" baptisms, uses the example that you can't use milk in place of wine for communion -- but it's not as if the priest was invoking Satan during his baptisms. He said "We" instead of "I." That's it. There was no ill intent. The pope could ease the anxieties of those affected by these "invalid" baptisms by simply offering an indult specific to this case -- proclaiming that those baptized by the priest in question are still "validly" baptized because the priest had no ill will and the intention of the ceremony was still carried out.

I suspect that in the Eastern church, that's precisely how something like this would be handled. The East, with its merciful practice of oikonomia, is much more open to meeting people where they are and considering individual circumstances. It's not that the East takes a loosey-goosey anything-goes approach to the spiritual life. To the contrary, the East has preserved tradition far more than the West has. It's just that the East doesn't try to dictate terms to God, doesn't try to control and define every aspect of the spiritual journey, and is content to let mysteries be mysteries, understanding that the church isn't a courtroom but rather a hospital for souls, where mercy and healing supersede legal justice. If you ask a Catholic theologian how the transubstantiation works, he'd tell you about the precise words used to invoke the Holy Spirit, the exact moment at which the Spirit changes the bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ, and the circumstances under which all this must take place. An Orthodox theologian, asked the same question, would say, "I don't know precisely how and when it happens. I just know that it does."   

That's the primary difference between East and West. The West has taken "development of doctrine" to such an extreme that the church has become more or less a reflection of the culture in terms of its relationship to the modern world -- yet when it comes to conferring its sacraments, literally not a single word of deviation can be tolerated. The East is just the opposite: It develops its doctrine only when absolutely necessary, because it reasons that eternal truths handed down from the founders and early fathers of the church are just that, and consequently they don't bend to changing social norms -- yet the church offers merciful flexibility to help people struggling through their own individual circumstances. 

The Western church, as this recent baptism fiasco illustrates, places itself in the position of holding God's grace prisoner to the recitation of what essentially become magic words. There's more than a reasonable chance that the term "hocus pocus" derives from the point in the old Latin Mass when the priest says "Hoc est enim corpus meum," or "This is my body," before the transubstantiation of the bread and wine. If so, it only underscores just how long this problem has been around, and how outsiders have long, and not incorrectly, viewed the church's insistence on a precise order of words as constituting a kind of magical incantation, without whose correct recitation God's grace gets stuck somewhere between heaven and earth -- stranded in Limbo, perhaps. 

What we have to remember is that the sacraments are for us, not for God, and that we are unable to hold his grace hostage to the precise utterance of a specific string of words. The grace conferred, along with the inward change it sets in motion, is the whole point. The incantation that accompanies it has no real effect on anything, other than to give those present peace of mind that the sacrament was "done properly." 

Why is this necessarily so? Because if you believe in the God of the Bible, then you also believe that he could forgive and save the faithful with a snap of his fingers. But he doesn't, because he wants us to grow in faith, with the grace he bestows on us, through the sacraments and otherwise. If God is all-knowing, he would have known before the creation of humanity that we would miss the mark -- the literal meaning of the word "sin" (hamartia). Changing one word in a sacramental formula is a kind of missing the mark, and certainly not one that would block the grace of a sacrament from being conferred. Neither the reception of a sacrament nor our greater spiritual journey is supposed to be about following niggling little rules, but about transforming ourselves. 

Think back to the repentant thief on the cross as portrayed in Luke's Gospel. Jesus himself welcomes the man into Paradise, even though we can presume that the man was not previously a follower of Christ and therefore not baptized. Even the church today allows for baptisms of blood and desire -- i.e., the equivalent grace of baptism bestowed by way of martyrdom or by an unfulfilled desire to be baptized before death -- so why should it not be the same in this case? Why cause so much anxiety among the faithful in the Phoenix diocese when the church could simply decree that the priest meant well and grant an exemption?  

When I returned to my Christian roots after a long journey through other religious traditions and the words of far-flung spiritual thinkers, I fell in with the Quakers. Their contemplative approach to faith suited my spiritual temperament, especially after my long stay in Buddhism and its centeredness on meditative introspection. There's no priest in most Quaker traditions, and no one speaks unless, guided by the Spirit, a person chooses to rise and address the congregation -- after which the meeting falls back into the silence of active listening for the "still, small voice" within. That form of mostly silent worship is indicative of the Quakers' bare-boned approach to the faith. Their meetinghouses, which are notably not even called churches -- are sparsely adorned, with perhaps a conspicuously placed Bible serving as the only reminder that you're in a place of worship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the Quakers also take an unorthodox approach to the sacraments -- including baptism. 

Specifically, Quakers believe that true baptism occurs as an inward change, not as an outward ritual. Consider that when English-language Bibles use the word "repent," they are translating the Greek word metanoia, which signifies a transformative change of heart. So when John the Baptist was urging the people to repent, he wasn't calling for them just to be dunked in water, as if the dunking itself generated some kind of mystical change, but for the people to use the ceremony as a reminder of the inward change that they then had to put in the hard work to achieve. Baptism, then, was an outward pledge by the recipient to focus on an inward spiritual cultivation. 

The Quakers, however, believed that outward rituals became an end in themselves and missed the point of what the rituals were supposed to represent in a person's life. Those rituals therefore held a serious potential to stunt spiritual growth. All the arguments about what form a "proper" baptism should take, including whether you say all the right words, suggests that the Quakers had a good point. 

A valid one, even.

We can argue all day about scriptural interpretations regarding baptism. I'll note only that John the Baptist said that while he baptized with water, another was coming who would baptize the people "with the Holy Spirit and with fire." Later, Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be "born of water and the Spirit" to enter the Kingdom. The common denominator between the two statements is the involvement of the Spirit in one's transformation. Having someone pour water over you doesn't achieve that transformation. Nor does an approved combination of words by a priest. It's up to you, and your willingness to let the Spirit help change you inwardly.