Sea of Love

For most Christians, baptism is – please excuse the pun – a pretty watered-down affair. A priest or minister sprinkles water on your head, prayers are said, and you are duly initiated into the fold. This rite is usually performed when you are an infant, so you have no comprehension or later recollection of the event. Contrast this with baptism as it was practiced back in the day. Candidates for baptism in the early church, mainly adult converts, were stripped naked and completely immersed in a pool of water. (The word “baptize” comes from the Greek verb baptiso, meaning “to immerse.”) To people who generally did not know how to swim and did not have bathtubs to wash in, the prospect of being immersed was not that far removed from drowning. This may help in understanding how St. Paul could liken the experience to dying and being reborn.

Many ancient Near Eastern religions practiced purification rites involving immersion or cleansing in water. Ritual purification was required of all converts under Jewish law. John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah and baptized Jesus in the River Jordon, practiced a form of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. It is debatable whether Jesus himself baptized anyone, but his disciples did. From the beginning, the Christian rite of baptism was regarded as necessary for salvation. Since baptism was a onetime act, early Christians often delayed it until the end of their lives for fear of backsliding into sin. Infant baptism became common practice only after the doctrine of original sin was established, which raised the possibility that young ones might otherwise die in their sins at a time when child mortality rates were high.

Many denominations regard baptism as a sacrament, which is traditionally defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” It occurs to me that something resembling baptism can serve as an outward sign not only of salvation from sin but also of spiritual transcendence. Transcendence goes by many names in different spiritual traditions. For our purposes, let’s call it the “oceanic feeling,” which is how the novelist Romain Rolland characterized it in a letter to his friend Sigmund Freud. This “peculiar feeling,” as Rolland described it, was a “sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded” that he believed was “the true source of religious sentiments.” Knowing that Freud was an atheist, Rolland was careful to distinguish the oceanic feeling from conventional religious belief. It was not a matter of conviction so much as of immersion. St. Paul was getting at something similar when he talked about being “in Christ.” He told a group of seekers gathered in Athens, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man.” He added that God “is not far from each one of us, for 'In him we live and move and have our being.’”

In psychological terms, the oceanic feeling marks the dissolution of the ego, which Freud mischaracterized as regression to the “limitless narcissism” of infancy. From the standpoint of the ego, it represents a kind of death, as St. Paul said of baptism, but it is usually experienced as a blissful sense of oneness with the universe, as if we had dissolved into a vast sea of love. As with any immersive experience, there might be apprehensions of drowning. But all that disappears when we discover ourselves to be immersed in God.

Romans 6
Acts 17:21-32
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

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