I giggled my way through my baptism at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Upper Arlington, Ohio back in 1956. I know this because, unlike most people who are baptized in mainline churches, I was not an infant; I was nine years old – old enough to remember my father admonishing me for failing to appreciate the solemnity of the occasion. It’s just that I was struck by the ludicrousness of putting God’s seal on my younger brother, who along with my two sisters, was also being baptized. He no doubt felt the same way about me, although he wasn’t laughing. Based on our behavior up to that point in life, we were most unlikely candidates for this particular rite of initiation, which no doubt played some role in our parents’ belated decision to try to salvage our souls in the first place.
Baptism is the one sacramental rite common to all branches of Christianity, although theory and practice vary widely among denominations. Ritual cleansings of various sorts were a feature of other Near Eastern religions, including Judaism. John the Baptist, a messianic forerunner of Jesus, was so named because he practiced a form of baptism for the repentance of sins. It was he who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. The word baptize literally means “to immerse” in the original Greek of the New Testament, and this is generally how the rite was performed in the early church. Candidates for baptism were originally adult converts, not infants, and the occasion was preceded by years of careful study and preparation. Their clothing was removed to signify the putting off of their old nature, and they were baptized naked, which symbolized their spiritual rebirth. Certainly there would have been no giggling during the ceremony.
Infant baptism and the sprinkling of water on the head were later innovations spurned as unbiblical by Baptists and some other Protestant denominations. I had a friend who had to be rebaptized by full immersion as an adult when she joined her husband’s Baptist congregation. To her surprise, she found the experience to be deeply moving. She told me she had a visceral sense of being submerged in God and emerging again as if reborn. St. Paul described the experience in terms of death and resurrection: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
St. Paul consistently described the relationship with Christ as one of immersion. His references to Christ were often preceded by the preposition “in,” as in the following: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Paul might fairly be described as a panentheist – not to be confused with a pantheist. The root meaning of panentheism is “everything in God,” whereas a pantheist believes everything is God. The difference is that for panentheists the created order is contained within God but not identical with him. God to a panentheist is both immanent (within) and transcendent (above), to borrow the standard theological terminology.
If you truly understand yourself to be immersed in God, it no longer makes much sense to go looking for him elsewhere. Where in creation can you go that will bring you any closer to God than where you are right now? Is there a shrine or cathedral somewhere that is holier than your own abode? This essentially is the question that St. Paul posed to the seekers gathered at the Areopagus in Athens, which had temples to every god imaginable, even one to an “unknown” god. “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man,” Paul told them, “nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.” He went on to explain that this unknown God “is not far from each one of us, for 'In him we live and move and have our being.’” And while there may be a certain cachet to being a spiritual seeker, it is a bit like a fish swimming off in search of water.
2 Corinthians 5:17