Last Sunday Christian, my eldest son, asked me “what is the point in baptism?” In the ensuing conversation it became clear that his real struggle was with the idea of ‘ritual ceremony’ and the symbolism involved.
Christian has Aspergers Syndrome and is quite literal (which is is a typical Aspie trait). Ceremonies are often metaphorical; symbols are repeated each time the ritual is enacted. Symbols have meaning only because they point to something literally correct that they symbolise. If this is the case, Christian would ask, why not just grasp the literal reality? Why go through all the bother of a symbol and a ritual? In the case of baptism, why not just live a life of repentance, faith and piety? Why do you need to have an elaborate ceremony symbolising cleansing, death Resurrection and new life? Can’t I just be a Christian?
Christian’s observations came back to me strongly yesterday. For the last four weeks I have been teaching Ethics and Introduction to Philosophy for the religious studies faculty at St Peters College. This is part of my teaching diploma. I have to work in unpaid for a period of time so I can ‘learn the ropes.’ During the free periods I have tried to focus on research and publishing in various areas of the relationship between religion and morality (something readers of this blog will know is a keen interest of mine). My day, then, has been focused on teaching philosophy and ethics to college aged students (US readers note that ‘college’ in this New Zealand context means high school) and researching and writing for my field. At the days end I have been coming home and blogging, often on the same topics.
Yesterday the head of faculty at St Peters invited me to go to the annual St Peters Easter liturgy. As a Protestant working at a Catholic College it is not compulsory for me to attend. However, he thought I might like to see how the college celebrates Easter. I stopped my writing for an hour and went down to the assembly hall to watch the liturgy. Much of it was traditional Catholic veneration of the cross, I should note that Anglicans do this as well, thrown in with some time of meditation and reflection on the passion of Christ. Now as a Protestant I have qualms around veneration of objects and symbols such as the cross; however, in the middle of the meditation I was struck again, as I am almost every Easter, with the reality of the events these rituals reflect on. For a brief moment it was like I could directly experience or perceive something of the glory of God and the deep cosmic significance of Christ’s death.
This was not just the abstract grasping of true propositions about God and Christ, though this is certainly a valid part of it. It was deeper; one becomes consciously aware of the reality in a manner in which one can almost literally feel it. Rudolph Otto described such experiences as the sense of the numinous. There is a sense of awe, mystery, majesty, involved one becomes entirely quiet and almost sad yet the experience is one that is deeply attractive and compelling, one that you would not mind continuing for a significant length of time.
From my late teens through to now I have had moments like this when the reality of God has become apparent and sometimes I have had literally hours where I have simply been struck with the awesome, majestic awareness of a sacred presence brooding all around me, one calling me towards a goal which I cannot see and yet am aware is there and also one that speaks to me out of the historical events of the death and Resurrection of Christ. It struck me at the time that this is why ritual is important. As an excessively cerebral person (or at least this is how one of my thesis supervisors once described me) Christianity can become simply an intellectual project, a research program where I simply expound and defend a philosophy. Rituals force me to focus and refocus over and over again on the realities behind what I do. Rituals force one to quiet one’s soul and really reflect at a level beyond the mere intellectual. It strikes me, also, that rituals like baptism are powerful because they engage the full senses. One sees, hears, there are dramatic symbols that one can use as opposed to mere abstract concepts.
There is also an important time factor. One can draw a line in the sand and say here and now at this point in time I have committed to this. This is evident perhaps clearest in marriage. One could simply make an implicit commitment to be in an exclusive monogamous relationship with a member of the opposite sex and I think in principle this could constitute a valid marriage. However, the symbolism where you decide that today, at this time, you will make the commitment publicly before witnesses who will hold you accountable to that decision – accompanied by the symbolism of rings, an aisle, veils, etc – all these things, especially when the symbolism is interpreted correctly by those engaging in it, make the commitment that much more more powerful.
A whole host of factors, visual, intellectual, social, are brought in and focused in one time and place enabling the event to be invested with a solemnity that is appropriate for its nature. My experience yesterday at St Peters reminded me vividly of the importance of rituals at a time like Easter.
God created us as intellectual beings and one of my biggest criticisms of New Zealand evangelicism is the intellectual and cultural mediocrity which it often triumphantly celebrates in the name of “being a heart Christian” or in the name of a superficial emotional and devotional piety. But God also created us holistic persons with a mind, emotions and a will. We need time regularly to refocus ourselves and orientate our entire person on the realities on which our faith is founded. Some people with autism or Aspergers Syndrome may perhaps have a special gift whereby their whole person can be focused with just their intellectual awareness but most people are not like this.
For myself, a philosopher/theologian whose faith is undeniably at times quite intellectual, this is the real value of Easter. Once a year there is a time when everything stops and there is time to focus, meditate and reflect with the whole person on what is central. While, I do not accept some aspects of the Catholic rituals I saw on Thursday the realisation of this need, the importance of ritual and repetition that engages the whole person, is the real strength of Catholic spirituality – one that Protestants can and should learn from and often neglect to their detriment.