Saturday, February 23, 2013

How Important is a Ritual?

When shall people be baptized -- as children or as adults? How should they be baptized -- by full immersion or by a partial immersion or by a sprinkling? Just as Christian religion has such questions about its rituals, every religious tradition has such questions about their rituals.

Such questions have the power to split communities. Many of the divisions in religious communities may be traced to their choice of doing a ritual in a different way. An entirely new community may originate based on such a choice. The "Baptist" church, as its name sounds, seems to have originated based on a question of baptism. Even if a lot of people do not split away to form a new community, involvement in such questions add to their stress and sleepless nights.

Recently a friend of mine emailed me with a question about baptism. "I was baptized as a child. Should I get baptized again now?" Or in other words, what is the right kind of baptism -- infant baptism or adult baptism? A lot of people like my friend are confused about this issue, and they can't easily make up their mind about it. As a result, such questions add stress to their life.

Usually when such a question is raised, people join either of the two sides and argue out their case against the other side. Each side quotes Bible verses and tries to win as many converts as possible to their side. It is also possible to stand apart without joining either side and ask more fundamental questions. Regarding baptism, we may ask questions such as: what is the history of this ritual? What was its original form and what did it originally mean? How has its forms and meanings changed over time? Such an approach gives us a better perspective, which leads to a better understanding.

Such an approach about rituals can be seen within the Bible. Sabbath was a religious ritual of the Jewish community at Jesus' time. There existed a lot of confusion and diverse beliefs about how Sabbath should be observed. Sabbath was supposed to be a day of rest. But regarding the kind of rest, there were both an extremist and a moderate approach. The extremists blamed Jesus for healing sick people on Sabbath and blamed his disciples for plucking some grains from the field. Jesus asked them what they would do if a child of theirs falls in a pit on Sabbath. (Lk. 14:5) His approach was to follow sabbath according to the purpose for which it was originally established. As long as it serves its purpose, sabbath may be followed in any form. If its purpose is not served, even its extreme form would be of no use. It is always the meaning and purpose of a ritual that determines its form.

The ritual of circumcision became a problem in the early church. Some extremists argued that even non-Jews following Jesus should do circumcision, but the moderates argued that the non-Jews should not be forced to accept circumcision. There was a meeting of the leaders in Jerusalem to resolve this issue. Paul refused to join either side. He claimed that what matters is becoming a new creation, not whether someone is circumcised or not. Gal. 6:15.

At this point it might be worth seeking the original meaning and purpose of baptism. John the Baptist baptized people in River Jordan signifying their becoming a new Israel, for when the Israelites originally entered Israel they did so passing River Jordan. Later baptism became the entry ritual for the Christian church. It was believed that this ritual cleans someone of all the sins. The Nicene creed called it "baptism for the remission of sins". Christian parents got their children baptized. One of the protestant movements that began in Switzerland in the 16th century insisted that only adults can be baptized. Thus people who were baptized as children were rebaptized by them on the grounds that one cannot be baptized without wishing it, and an infant, who does not understand what happens in a baptism ceremony and who has no knowledge of the concepts of Christianity, is not really baptized. Because they rebaptized people, they were called anabaptists (means rebaptizers) by others. The Amish, Churches of Christ, Hutterites, Baptists, Mennonites, who descended from them, and Pentecostal, charismatic and most non-denominational churches share this view as well.

It is easy to see that the position of anabaptists is an extremist one. They are like the Pharisees who demanded literal following of sabbath and like the extremists who tried to force circumcision on non-Jews. If Paul were alive today, he would say, "What matters is becoming a new creation; it does not matter if someone has infant baptism or adult baptism." If these extremists could pay attention to what is really significant about baptism, they could save a lot of time and effort wasted unnecessarily on insignificant matters.  Our world has enough problems; let us not add any more unnecessay problems in the name of rituals.

Here the distinction is between important and unimportant. A ritual is a visible form of the meaning it represents. The meaning of a ritual is far more important than the ritual itself. However well a ritual is done, if its meaning is lacking, it is worth nothing. But if a ritual is done meaningfully to serve its purpose, the ritual is worth the effort regardless of its form. Hope and pray people all over the world understand this simple truth about rituals, and overcome their stress, and mend their broken relationships.

History of Baptism
Infant Baptism
Believers' Baptism


susan said...

Dear John,
Baptism is not just a ritual. It is an initiation which bestows Grace / Holy Spirit on the baptised. Holy Qurbana is not a ritual. It distributes the 'life' of Christ to us like the sap from the vine flows into the branches.
So some are mysteries and sacraments and are beyond rituals.

So what are our rituals? Prostrations? Fasting?
Your posts help me think.
Thank you
Susan Eapen

John Kunnathu said...

I have used the word ritual to mean a religious ceremony, which is an act with a meaning. When we take a bath in our bathroom, it is not a ritual, but when a bath is given in a religious setting,with a meaning, it is a ritual. When we eat dinner at home it is not a ritual, but when we share bread in a religious setting with a meaning attached to it, it is a ritual.

Anonymous said...

Uncle, a mild critique - this understanding of ritual comes across as very Augustanian. The East has always spoken of sacraments - here the question is not one of 'meaning' as understood or not understood by the those participating in it. The sacrament opens up and reveals the dimension of the Kingdom. This is our experience and far far less a theoretical and intellectual construct.
The second thing is the more the person grows in the Good, the more (s)he begin to perceive the sacramental character of reality - the mysterious immanence of the Transcendent in all things.


John Kunnathu said...

Thank you Greg for the comment. I realize that the eastern understanding of sacrament is very different from that of the west.
You have rightly said that a sacrament reveals the kingdom. Let us think of a situation when a sacrament happens without revealing the kingdom. In such a situation, you would agree with me that a sacrament is worthless. The purpose of a sacrament is to reveal the kingdom behind it. If this purpose if served, it does not matter in what form this sacrament is preformed. This is the point I am trying to make. I am not sure if you can classify it as Augustinian. I think this is just common sense.

Anonymous said...

hello uncle John. Can the sacrament NOT open up and reveal the dimension of the kingdom ?

Would the question be rather more accurately posed as 'is it possible for us to not experience this sacramental reality and remain unaffected and indifferent to it'. This certainly is possible. Mired as we remain in the grossness of our sins and passions, the eye fails to perceive. But to the one has subjected himself to discipline, the same sacramental act is a tremendous experience.

Common sense tells me that the stone is a lifeless object. But the senses when transfigured, intuit in that lifeless object, the presence of the Divine.