Last week, the United Church of Christ’s New Sacred blog posted Jon Berren Propper’s “A Kingdom of Nonbelievers? Maybe.” The blog post takes as a starting point the recent controversy over a United Church of Canada minister, Rev. Gretta Vosper, who has become an atheist but who wants to remain a minister serving a congregation in the UCCanada. From there Propper goes on to ask just how essential having the “right” beliefs should be to building the kingdom of Heaven, and he offers a vision of an inclusive Church that values diversity, love, and action over dogma.
I completely agree with Propper that right belief is often less important than we make it out to be and that churches should be open to all kinds of people who want to explore the common “touchpoints” of the Christian tradition. At First Church Somerville, we are a Christian church where everyone is welcome with whatever beliefs or doubts they may have. I think Propper would feel right at home at here. Our folks come from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds - completely unchurched, Catholic, Orthodox, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Baptist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, New Age, Spiritual But Not Religious, interfaith, Jewish, Santería, and even (occasionally) cradle UCC. And, yes, we have a number of non-theists, atheists, and atheist Christians who are official members of the church or who are deeply connected attendees and friends of the congregation.
Why would an atheist come to a Christian church? The answers to that question are as diverse as the people themselves. Some come just to be with their families on Sunday morning. Others come because even though they can’t conceive of “God the Father,” they love them some Jesus all the same. Some are “Jeffersonian” Christians who don’t go in for anything supernatural or miraculous at all, but find great value in Jesus’ teachings. Others do “believe” in some sort of God, but just not the anthropomorphized old man in the sky. Others feel their lack of faith in a personal, loving God as an absence or loss in their life, and they show up every week to explore honestly what they can and can’t believe. Others show up for the music. Others show up for the community. The list goes on. But what is true of all of them is that they know that they have options - there are plenty of non-Christian spiritual communities or humanist groups they could join where they could still hear sermons, sing sacred music, celebrate holidays, be in community, and explore their belief systems outside of the Christian context. But for some reason, they have chosen to be a part of this explicitly Christian church.
And this is where I differ greatly from Propper’s take on Rev. Gretta Vosper. I agree that there is nothing “wrong” with not being a Christian, with belonging to another faith tradition, or with being an atheist. But if we are Christians, we must also at the same time affirm that there is something valuable (for everyone) about maintaining explicitly Christian churches and denominations. The identity we claim and are able to offer to people as the Church of Jesus Christ - the identity of Christian, disciple, apostle, Jesus follower - is also good and true and beautiful. Rev. Gretta Vosper, by her own admission and affirmation, is no longer a Christian. In other words, it’s not that the UCCanada has said that because Vosper claims atheistic beliefs, she can no longer call herself a Christian. She has explicitly identified herself as being a non-Christian. Could she be a part of the kingdom of Heaven? Sure. Is she, as a self-identified non-Christian, a suitable person to lead a Christian church or to hold ministerial standing in a Christian denomination? Absolutely not.
Propper writes about how Judaism makes room for participants and leaders of various beliefs and non-beliefs. True. So do many Christian churches. But does Judaism make room for leaders in the Jewish faith who are not Jewish in their identity? Propper writes that Vosper’s congregants must think “she’s as Christian as can be” because, despite her beliefs, she leads a good life. But because Vosper is not a Christian, even if her congregants did say, “She’s as Christian as can be,” Vosper would likely correct them. Christian identity isn't handed out to (or forced upon) every good person. Christian identity and faith in Jesus Christ are claimed and committed to. Vosper is not a Christian, nor does she want to be Christian. She understands herself as "growing out of the Christian tradition," but if you were to attend her church, you would not find the most common “touchpoints” of the that tradition. The word “God” is rarely used. Common creeds and prayers have been secularized, removing explicitly Christian language. Jesus Christ is not a focus. There is no Holy Spirit. Sacred music has been rewritten and secularized. The Bible is read rarely. There are no Sacraments.
There’s nothing “wrong” with Rev. Gretta Vosper’s spiritual journey or her beliefs. There is nothing wrong with the congregants who remain at her church who support and desire such a community and leader. And there is also nothing wrong with the United Church of Canada being honest about the fact that Rev. Vosper and her church have stepped almost entirely outside of Christian tradition and fully outside of Christian identity.
Liberal, progressive Christians need to think seriously about what the Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ is. Are all welcome here? Absolutely! And if that were the end of our Mission and calling as Evangelists of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be absolutely appropriate for a non-Christian to be a “Christian” minister. But hospitality is only the first step, the base line, the context in which we go on to offer Good News to all people. A non-Christian leader can welcome people into community and take them on a rich spiritual journey! But they cannot offer the Christian Gospel, an invitation into a life dedicated to and transformed by Christ. This is our unique Mission, the sacred gift we, as the Christian Church, have been entrusted with and which no one else can offer.
In First Church Somerville’s fabled “Baby Boom” year we had 13 babies born into the congregation. Even more babies were finding us on Yelp or Facebook and showing up as visitors. Over the course of that year and the following year, we baptized bushels of babies.
An infant baptism is an incredible joy. Absolutely, a new life deserves the most sacred and the most holy welcome we can muster from our deepest faith and greatest hopes! As a church, that means offering a Sacrament, a Sacred Mystery, quite literally (but even more mysteriously), an Act of God. In spiritual and religious terms, there is nothing greater and nothing more fundamental we could do as Christians to welcome a baby into life and into faith. What could be more beautiful than the splash that happens when God and a baby miraculously intersect in the waters of baptism? And such holiness brings everybody out - the parents, the grandparents, the godparents, the whole family, the whole community of faith - all to make promises to one another and the babe. In the midst of this holy interaction between God and us, we vow that we will all care for this human life, the greatest gift and responsibility that could be entrusted to us, thanks be to God. An infant baptism is so full of joy and Spirit that I would say it's an unforgettable experience - for everyone except the baby.
Many of the newbies who show up at First Church as adults and not babies fall into the category of the “unchurched.” The strictly unchurched have no religious background. Some have never been inside a church before! And that unchurchedness extends along a spectrum out toward people who got some church when they were young, but it’s been years or decades since a church was a part of their lives. So some of our unchurched newbies are unbaptized. And some of our unchurched newbies were baptized as infants. While we wouldn't expect them to remember their baptism, sometimes it seems that there is NO memory of the event whatsoever. A not uncommon conversation on baptism with newbies at First Church goes something like this:
“Can I be baptized when I join the church?”
“Have you ever been baptized in a church before?”
“Hmmm. I think so. Maybe? I’d have to check…”
When they find out that they were indeed baptized as infants under the strict orders of some grandparent or another, they’re often disappointed to discover that in the UCC (and most other Christian denominations) no “rebaptism” is required (or for that matter possible) for them to officially join the church. As baptism is a singular and salvific Sacrament, most Churches recognize - even if they feel that the human form of the ritual of baptism was somehow unorthodox - that God, mysteriously and graciously, still acts. But I understand their disappointment completely, and I have a deep compassion for their feeling that a Sacramental opportunity has been taken from them. “All is not lost,” I say, “we can remember your baptism.”
“But I don’t remember.”
At one level, a lack of remembering, for the infant, is unavoidable. Baby brains just don’t operate that way. Probably to ensure our sanity in later life, our brains don’t start laying down typical memories until we’ve figured a few key things out. At another level, for the person of faith, it’s important to remember that memory is more than the materialist phenomenon that happens on the gray matter inside our skulls.
Some remembering is wider than us, and some deeper. The wide remembrance of a baptism is held in the individual and communal memories of all those who gathered together to perform and witness it. Everyone present made promises. Taking those promises seriously and fulfilling them is one kind remembrance. When we act toward a child, or an adult, in accordance with the promises Christians make at baptism, we enact a remembrance of that person’s baptism. But indifference toward God or prejudice toward the person God has created can cause a wide memory to narrow down to insignificance, leaving a spiritual amnesia in the lived experience of the neglected or rejected baptizee.
But the remembrance of baptism is also held more deeply than us. Unfortunately when personal and communal memory fails us, it can be hard to know that such a deep memory exists. The newbie longing for baptism has awakened to a feeling within them that God loves them. That love is more than a feeling! There is a totality and fullness within that love that is more complete than the partiality of even our most vivid memories. This love is an experience of what the New Testament Greek calls God’s agape. Agape is a love distinct from other kinds of love - erotic, romantic, familial, or otherwise. C.S. Lewis wrote that agape love is the love that is absolutely and unconditionally dedicated to the well-being of others. Our baptisms are an act of this deep, unbreakable, fully knowing agape. In God’s love, we and our baptisms are contained and remembered.
“But I don’t remember.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, “If we baptized you today, it would take some Imagination to fully grasp the Mystery of what was happening. And it will take the same amount of Imagination to fully grasp the Mystery of what has already happened to you in baptism.” Of course by Imagination, I don’t mean “imaginary” or “fantastical.” What I mean is that to “comprehend” a Sacred Mystery, one must open oneself up to a Sacred Imagination. The empowered Christian Imagination is itself, in some ways, Sacramental. It is a means by which we can experience a dim, partial reflection of a Truth and a Reality that is total and complete, but beyond our limited ability to grasp.
The place and date of your baptism may not be within your control, but the reality is that the place and date of your baptism are incomplete reflections of your Baptism which is truly contained in the infinite eternity of God. That is where your Baptism is - infant or adult. The spiritual exercise of Remembering begins with a faithful Imagination that can hope for such a limitless love.
On the first Saturday of Fall, I drove from Somerville down to Sandy Neck Beach on Cape Cod. Sandy Neck Beach is miles long and, besides the beach and the sea, it contains thousands of acres of marshes, dunes, and tidal pools. On this bright, brisk, breezy afternoon, there were a few other scattered souls walking along the beach and looking out on the surprisingly rough surf. But I wasn’t here just to watch. I was here to get into the water. And not for your typical dip either. I was here to baptize a newbie in the faith - Adam.
I had never done an ocean baptism before, and I arrived early to get my bearings and get good with the Spirit. Standing there at the edge of the ocean felt wonderfully holy. I had done outdoor, public baptisms before - in quaint, calm, iconic New England ponds. But this was something else entirely. The truth is, the waves didn’t look particularly inviting. They looked wild! A little dangerous even. They were rolling in fast and hard, one on top of another, as if to say, “Are you really foolish enough to tangle with me? I’m relentless and vast, deep and cold, crushing and stinging - I will wear you out, drag you down, and spit you up.” And, yes, standing at the edge of that resisting power with the intention of fighting the very sea and calling down the blessing that God has promised felt deeply holy.
In the past, when we’ve done baptisms at Walden Pond, I’ve always thought that Jesus would’ve fit right in with us and the thronging crowds by the edge of that gentle lake. But I’ve also felt that John the Baptist would have been pretty disappointed. I know the Jordan River is hardly a whitewater, although there was a time when it was wild and unpredictable and flowing - in the time before dams and heavy water diversions. But certainly, just in terms of personality, the wildman of the desert, the camel-fur-wearing prophet who was the wilderness itself, the rebel priest who baptized with water but longed for fire, the bug-eating survivalist who screamed for your repentance and held your head underwater, that guy would’ve approved of the rough seas, of my feelings of nervousness, and of the sense that a deep spiritual struggle would be accomplished in what we were about to do.
I didn’t really want to get in that water. You know the feeling. There are times when you need a swim. And there are times that the thought of jumping in makes you feel all cold and nervous. After all, this wasn’t going to be one of them newfangled sprinklings. This was going to be a full-on, old-fashioned dunking. Have you ever been unsure about whether you wanted to swim or not? But you go ahead and dip your toes in... slowly you’re up to your thighs and your bathing suit starts to soak up the cold water faster than you’re ready for it... eventually you get chest deep... but when you’re not quite feeling it, if you’re not 100% sure, the last thing you want to do is to go all the way under. The last thing you want to do is dunk your head. But that’s what we were here for - for that uncomfortable experience in these unwelcoming waters. And that felt holy.
I was sprinkle-baptized as an infant, as were many of the lifelong Christians at my church. We have a few people who come from Baptist traditions and got dunked as teenagers. There are some who came to Christ later in life and were baptized as adults. But most of us were sprinkled without having to make any decision for ourselves and without any ability to recall memories of the event. Sure, there’s confirmation to cover that - a time when we can affirm our baptism and become adult members of the church. I was confirmed in middle school. So I guess I affirmed my baptism, but it must not have made that much of an impression on me because I don’t remember that either. I remember watching confirmation videos in the church basement - the content of which I don’t recall.
Narragansett Bay was a stone’s throw from the church. Sometimes during coffee hour I would sneak down to the beach. It was pretty polluted and when the light hit the water just right you could see all sorts of things down in the bay - old cars, appliances, you name it. They were all rusted out and monstrous, covered in barnacles and brown seaweed - strange shapes, disintegrating in one direction and growing in another. What if they had taken the confirmation class down there and asked us to look under the water for those frightening shapes? And asked us to begin to really REMEMBER our baptisms. How can we claim our baptisms, and the blessings of our baptisms, if we are afraid or unwilling to go down under the surface of the water and confront what lurks there?
What lurks there? Well, perhaps the Apostle Paul put the finest point on it in the letter to the Romans, chapter 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” A baby doesn’t need to worry about this. Babies don’t have much of a past to die to. But for the newbie adults discerning whether or not they are called to baptism, I think this is always a concern. Yes, they want to walk in newness of life, and they understand that there’s more to it than that. They understand, often before ever reading Romans, that baptism will be a spiritual change in their lives, a real change in their lives, that there will be things that have to be left behind, mourned. Even if leaving those things behind is a good and healthy thing, it’s still a change. It’s freedom, but it’s hard.
For those of us who were baptized as infants, claiming our baptism means much more than just saying, “Yeah, I was baptized as a baby.” Ok. Great. How has your baptism changed and disrupted your life? How do you try to live into your baptismal promises on your faith journey? What does it really mean to be baptized? It’s fine if the beginning of the answer is, “Well, it means I’m a Christian, and I’m saved, and I’m a member of this church.” That’s a good start. But eventually, you’re going to need to make the trip down beneath the waves, where you’ll finally open your eyes and really look around and struggle. Sadly, John the Baptist is not here in the flesh to throw us in and hold us down. But we have the next best thing. We have people in our churches who are struggling right now with whether or not they should be baptized. Do you understand what their struggles are? If you understood a little more of their struggles, it would help you peak beneath the surface of the meaning of your own baptism. We have, in our churches, adults who have made the decision for themselves to be baptized. Why did they choose it? If you could name one reason that one person got themselves baptized, you could begin to imagine and remember your own baptism.
A few moments before the ceremony of Adam’s baptism was to begin, we stood in a small group on the beach looking down at the waves. Adam turned to me and asked, “Do you know how to swim?”
“Ha!” Adam has a good sense of humor. “Of course!” Another series of waves rolled in frothing and crashing and we watched in a moment of growing silence-- “Do you?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but I’ll be fine.”
Sometimes I have heard from people, baptized as infants, that they just don’t understand what the big deal is about baptism for those adults trying to navigate its contours. Just get baptized! We’ve all done it! For me, this attitude of ours comes from a desire to be gatekeepers, not baptizers. But this is what the big deal is. Adam chose his baptism very carefully. Baptism is a moment of change in your life that can feel like being dunked in a rough ocean when you don’t even know how to swim. But you walk out into the waves anyway because you know that this is your way forward into God. Baptism is not just a symbol or a ritual. It is real - as real as not knowing how to swim and being dunked into rough seas. It is a sacrament - an action in which we assert by faith that God ACTS.
When Adam and I walked out into the ocean hand-in-hand for his baptism, the nervousness I had felt was fast flowing away into openness. And the feeling of holiness was growing into an experience of holiness. The waves did their worst to throw Adam back to shore, but he pushed forward until we were in up to our chests. “This is it,” he said. And he went down beneath the surface and came back up. There was nothing at all but the waves slapping against us, the submerging and the rising, and God everywhere around us.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations