Baptism Without Faith

Last week, my wife and I baptized our daughter at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Petaluma. The ceremony was quick, straightforward, and surprisingly modern in its theological focus. Our respective families gathered for picture followed by dinner together. As this faith is not my own, the process gave me ample time to contemplate the role an institution like the church may play in a secular household and the complexities raising a multicultural child.

I am not a Christian. Even when I dabbled in the belief, I could never believe the core precepts of the faith. Christianity seemed like a foreign religion that was forged by a community under specific historical conditions that was far from my own. While my affinity towards European pagan beliefs has intensified, I could never consider myself a true follower of this cobbled faith either. Perhaps I have simply been programed a rationalist from inception.

My wife’s family migrated to the United States from Mexico. Like many Mexicans, they practice the Roman Catholic variety of Christianity to a nominal degree. While they don’t expect their offspring to attend mass regularly or reference pontiff proclamations, the communal aspects of the faith were an implied expectation that we obliged.

I wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming to the baptistery. While my issues with the Catholic Church are numerous, the older I get, the more I am looking for a connection to my people’s past that goes beyond American exercises. A longing for authority that transcended electoral politics is something I cannot escape unfortunately, and so I began to see some benefits to having my daughter nominally brought up Catholic. Even an imperfect order was superior to the consumerism that acts as the default faith of America.

It didn’t hurt that the church in Petaluma is beautiful. Anyone who has seen the great cathedrals of Europe can attest to the brilliance and wonderment these structures instill in those present within them. Protestants have historically condemned the domineering showiness of these Catholic visages, arguing that they replaced the meaning of the Christian faith with material grandeur. As a non-believer, I would rather sit in a striking basilica over the florescent strip mall styled protestant gathering places I grew up with.

While the act of baptism is laced with religious symbolism, once I looked past the decrees made by the priest, the ceremony is essentially quite beautiful. Two extended families gathered to authorize that they were responsible for the well being of this baby girl. It was not the exclusive role of her parents to guide her, but a family and the community around them. This is hardly a revolutionary or exclusively Catholic aim, but to confirm this communal goal through ceremony makes those bonds feel more material than the implicit expectation of community practiced elsewhere. We all made a public confirmation of unity in the service of this child.

I have sympathy with ardent Christians who fear the watering down of their practices to meet the demands of the modern world. At what point does Christianity simply become a theological version of Americanism? When one can adopt any element of the church and reject those they disfavor, it undermines any theological and historical congruity, leaving the flock with an obvious question: why follow the faith at all?

As a non-believer, I am ill fitted to answer that question. If nothing else, it may be a conduit for the overt acts of community that have been generally degraded in our modern capitalist society.

(Image: St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Petaluma)

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7 thoughts on “Baptism Without Faith

  1. A branch of my Mother’s family migrated here from Mexico as well. Her parents are Catholic, and she and her siblings were raised Catholic though only one is still a practicing member of that faith.

    The church, as a cultural and community institution, is something that fascinates me. When my grandfather died last year, at the age of 89, I became more acquainted with his church and his beliefs, both because of the religious rites that accompanied his death, and because I was exposed to a recounting of his history as an active member of his church community.

    For that matter, I’m also drawn to the moral teachings of Catholicism–not surprising since my Catholic grandparents have for many years been my moral exemplars. But for all that… I don’t believe in the literal existence of God, and I know I never will.

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  2. Protestants have historically condemned the domineering showiness of these Catholic visages, arguing that they replaced the meaning of the Christian faith with material grandeur.

    This is an over-generalization. Lutherans and Episcopalisms have always appreciated a sense of sacred space, often in the form of traditional church architecture. This is particularly apparent in churches built from the mid-19th century up to the First World War. It is the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions that rejected this. The over-generalization is an easy one to fall into because the Anglophone Protestant denominations in America tended to a greater or lesser, and a more or a less direct route, to be influenced by the Reformed tradition.

    I have sympathy with ardent Christians who fear the watering down of their practices to meet the demands of the modern world. At what point does Christianity simply become a theological version of Americanism?

    The critique from my direction is that the Christians most prone to such fears are the ones most enthusiastically Americanizing their theology. They are the ones totally buying into American exceptionalism, with flags in the front of their churches and worship services consisting of mediocre rock concerts. The churches with organs and liturgies aren’t the ones in hysterics.

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  3. My wife & I are agnostic God Parents to a little girl.

    Building a community doesn’t need ceremony, it can happen simply by having reasonable adults agree to a commitment to be involved. This can happen in a church, or during a nice dinner with a shared bottle of wine.

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    • This is true, but there are genuine organizational advantages to having an off-the-shelf set of ceremonies for major passages in life, and the major religions have been at it for a while. They have also had the help of folks like Bach and Handel, not to mention the lesser lights who wrote many traditional hymns that even non-believers like. The home-made ceremonies with tunes by poor imitators of Paul Simon can be touching, but the other guys have the aesthetic edge.

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  4. When one can adopt any element of the church and reject those they disfavor, it undermines any theological and historical congruity, leaving the flock with an obvious question: why follow the faith at all?

    Ironically (or perhaps not!) the haphazard acceptance/rejection of various elements forms the basis of the Catholic Church! So, those folks would merely be following in the long established practice of the church itself, no?

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  5. My sister in law had two kids. For the first, I was asked to be a god parent. They being catholic, a god parent is a pretty serious commitment; raising the child in the catholic faith if the parents are dead, and stuff like that. I was to be asked to swear an oath to a god I didn’t believe in to raise a child in a faith I had no, pardon the pun, faith in. Swearing to do that wasn’t something I could do at that time, so I declined.

    For the second child, I was asked again, with the kicker, “if we die, you’re going to be raising the kid anyway” since I was married to the mother’s sister. Well, when you put it that way…..There was a baptist and an “agnostic” for the god parents. I think the parents told the priest I was agnostic for convenience. I’m told he “sighed heavily” and consented.

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