Baptism and faith

Though I’m not a regular church-goer, this does not mean I am faithless. Most of the things I believe in I learned growing up in a Catholic family. Later in life, I realized these are found in equal measure in other religions.  They are the beliefs that help us find meaning in life, set lifelong goals, keep going, live for others. Reason or science has little to do with them. They are what the writer Simon Critchley sums up as loyalty to “the infinite demand of love”—a fidelity that requires much of what we are and what we have, even though it is not founded on any guarantee or certainty. Faith, he says, is the “enactment of the self in relation to this infinite demand.”

Today (Saturday), as I write this, I will be in church for the baptism of my grandson Xavier.  “X,” as I called him at his birth, is home from Singapore, where he was born and where his parents work. It is a good day, says his granduncle Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, who will perform the baptismal rites. It is the eve of the feast of St. John the Baptist, the preacher who baptized people by dipping their heads in the waters of the river Jordan. The Bible tells that when Jesus approached him to be baptized by him, John hesitated. “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” the puzzled preacher asked. “Allow it now,” Jesus replied, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:14-15).  This encounter, to me, signaled Jesus’ wish to be treated as a mortal, but one whose vocation was to show others how to live as beings created in God’s likeness.

I’ve always thought that the essence of baptism was the giving of a name to a child. I realized only recently that the term actually comes from the Greek word “baptein,” which means to dip or immerse in water.

Clean water is what we would normally find just outside mosques, churches, temples, and shrines. The ritual of washing, symbolizing purification, is found in many religions. It is a way of drawing the line between the profane and the sacred, the here and now and the transcendental, the finite and the infinite. Clearly, one need not subscribe to the metaphysics of original sin to find meaning in the ritual of washing. To me, what it refers to is an initiation to a life of commitment to something that exceeds our ordinary powers. As the child is typically too young to make this commitment, baptism binds those present not only to live an exemplary life themselves, but also to make it possible for the child.

What might this life consist in? It is a life of perfection no less. That’s what the agnostic Critchley writes in his extraordinary work, “The faith of the faithless”: “Such perfection would require the equality of the human and the divine, a kind of mystical glorification. What such a demand does is to expose our imperfection and failure; we wrestle in solitude with the fact of the infinite demand and the constraints of the finite situation in which we find ourselves… that powerless power of being human.” We don’t merely fail to measure up to the ideal, he says; we also learn from the depths of our experience what it means to be a human being who must live with others. This realization, he explains, “requires an experience of faith, a faith of the faithless that is an openness to love, love as giving what one does not have and receiving that over which one has no power.”

How true this is becomes clearer when we reflect on the events that take us away from the routines of everyday life: the birth and baptism of a child, birthdays and weddings, and memorial services for the dead. These are precious moments when, in fellowship with others, we find ourselves rising above our personal preoccupations. They are all celebrations of life; they bring out the love, affection, and admiration we reserve for other people. But, more importantly, they show us the splendor of beginnings and endings, and the magic of what we can do and be in between.

If the demand of the infinite were reducible to a simple command to love those close to us, there would be nothing extraordinary in the experience of faith. There is no effort in what nature itself commands us to do. I have seen enough of how mothers devote themselves to their children as they grow to know what motherly love means. But, no one perhaps has captured the arduousness of loving than Jesus himself. “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5: 44-45). Not only must such love be not reserved only for those we know or for whom we are related. When we love, or when we pray or fast, we must do so not to be seen or praised. In this, no doubt, we are all bound to fail. But, again, to experience this, and to persist, is what it means to commit oneself to the infinite demand. “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5: 48).

When I was young, I was part of a group that tried to build a Filipino socialist party. It was a difficult task, made even harder by the fact that workers’ organizations were being undermined by new employment arrangements. In frustration, I told my comrades that, in this country, it seemed easier to set up a new religion than to organize a mass-based political party.

Oscar Wilde, an unbeliever and a socialist, would have told me they are the same. “Everything to be true must become a religion,” he wrote while in prison. He did not mean religion in the ordinary sense; he meant an experience of faith which builders of even the most secular political projects must have if they are to succeed.

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