Faith, Fiction and Force in Medieval Baptismal Debates
by marcia colish
cua, 384 pages, $69.95
aptism seems so simple: water and the formula “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But like so many religious practices, it can be celebrated in different ways, with divergent meanings, and with conflicting motivations. In the mission field, some are drawn to baptism for access to the medical, educational, or economic benefits offered by membership in a Christian community. Today such people are called “rice Christians,” but in earlier centuries the term was “fictive” baptism, i.e., submitting to the ritual of baptism without moral or spiritual conversion.
The validity of fictive baptism was debated extensively by theologians and canonists. One of the earliest instances is a story about a group of boys “playing church” on the beach near Alexandria. The bishop, Alexander, saw them from a distance and was astonished that they went through the ritual of baptizing one of the group. The boy who performed the baptism was Athanasius, the future bishop of Alexandria and great defender of the creed of Nicaea. After asking the boys some questions, Bishop Alexander learned that water had been poured on the “catechumen” and the proper questions had been asked and answered. After consulting with his clergy, Alexander ruled that it had been a valid baptism and need not be repeated. For centuries, this tale was the basis for discussions of “fictive” baptism.
Besides fictive baptism, two other forms of baptism were controversial. Baptism of desire: Does a convert with sincere faith and moral commitment truly receive the baptism he desires, even if he is not ritually baptized? And forced baptism: If someone is brought to the font against his will, a Jew living in Christian society, for example, is the baptism valid?
Marcia Colish has a vast storehouse of examples to illustrate these forms of baptism. The point of the examples is to show how the theological discussion was shaped by actual events and experiences, but in some ways the stories are as instructive as the theology, for they offer unusual glimpses of Christian life and attitudes over the course of many centuries.
For example, Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century, offered a theological justification for the non-baptism of Emperor Valentinian, who died before he could be baptized. He comforts the emperor’s sisters by saying that Valentinian was indeed baptized even though “human rites were lacking.” Your brother was “washed by his piety and desire,” said Ambrose.
Some of the most engaging pages in Faith, Fiction and Force in Medieval Baptismal Debates deal with what is called by German scholars “Taufmime,” mimicking the baptismal rite. From antiquity there are a number of tales of a Roman actor who converts during a play. The stories usually feature an actor in a comedy making fun of Christianity who suddenly converts and is baptized. Often a civic magistrate is in the audience. The new Christian then announces that what he just did was not in jest, but he accepts the truth of the Christian religion and is now a Christian—at which point the magistrate steps up and puts the actor to death, making him a martyr. Some theologians considered fictive baptisms valid; others did not.
In the section on forced baptism, Colish exposes a dark side of medieval Christian society. Even though the principle was well established that faith was a matter of the will and could not be coerced, once Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman world, evidence for forced baptisms began to emerge. In some cases, it was the result of friction between Jews and Christians in a certain city; in others, whole communities were baptized following a military victory. After his conquest of the Saxons, Charlemagne forced them to submit to baptism, ignoring canon law, the counsel of his advisor, Alcuin, and the rulings of Pope Gregory I. Centuries later, in the Baltics, the Christian mission was spread, writes Colish, by “conquest, colonization and forced conversion.” Though there were always voices in opposition, the canonists and theologians found ways to accommodate the actions of kings and princes.
In the afterword Colish shows that the Tridentine catechism dealt with all three forms of baptism. It offers a nuanced acceptance of baptism of desire. If ritual baptism is impossible, “baptismal intention suffices.” Fictive baptism is rejected outright, and the catechism is unequivocally opposed to forced baptism.
Faith, Fiction and Force in Medieval Baptismal Debates is a scholarly study with extensive references to the sources, written by a scholar of the first rank in complete command of the material. Colish knows how to present her research clearly and succinctly, making the book a pleasure to read.
—Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia.
Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor: Being Friends in Grace and Truth
by glenn stanton
moody, 200 pages, $14.99
ocus on the Family’s Glenn Stanton has written a book that attempts to close what is arguably one of the widest chasms in American public life today: the space between Christian and LGBT communities.
Stanton speaks from the Christian perspective, offering an examination of the various spheres—friendships, homes, society—in which Christians can most often find themselves at odds with the culture around them.
His argument is bolstered by the concrete example of his friendship with well-known same-sex marriage advocate and writer Jonathan Rauch. “Sincere regard and warmth can take place between those who live at extreme ends of such a social chasm,” he writes fondly. He is but one example of many in the book who desire to learn “how to live, as much as possible, lovingly and honestly in the essential balance of grace and truth with those who identify themselves within the LGBT community and movement.”
Stanton admirably refuses to offer platitudes. He insists that real disagreement persists in each respective community, but he also believes that the Christian narrative is equipped to overcome false dichotomies. Stanton argues that Christianity should cut through the false alternatives of being either a friend or an enemy by offering anecdotal stories of how Christians and gays, their supposed enemies, can learn to love and respect one another. He also provides guidance by offering concrete answers to tricky questions, such as how Christian parents are to love a gay child. I am not aware of a similar book coming from the LGBT community.
Loving My (LGBT) Neighbor offers a Christian attempt to pursue pluralism and magnanimity in today’s culture. It’s an invaluable and accessible volume for all Christians, but it may be particularly helpful for young adults who find themselves unsure of how to balance their Christian convictions with the reality that gay people are not the enemy—they’re our neighbors.
—Andrew T. Walker is director of policy studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The Twilight of Human Rights Law
by eric a. posner
oxford, 200 pages, $23.95
ow important and how useful are human-rights treaties and international human-rights laws? In a coolly devastating analysis, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner goes a long way toward showing that they matter very little. He employs a wide array of evidence to contend that human-rights treaties and laws are some combination of redundant and therefore unnecessary (when they simply require what liberal countries already want to do), feckless (when they command things distasteful to recalcitrant states that have the power and will to flout these dictates), confusing (when they point in different directions or even contradict each other), or unhelpful (when they demand rights, especially “positive” ones, that indigent or incompetent governments cannot deliver). Furthermore, Posner points out, rights have a tendency to multiply and therefore to lose their coherence and force in a thicket of inconsistent requirements.
But Posner does not see this irrelevance of (and the occasional unintended harm done by) international human-rights law as such bad news. This is because he sees human liberty and dignity as still increasing—as being, in other words, correlated with but not caused by the proliferation of international pacts and regulations on human rights. Things have gotten better because of a range of other factors—more-civilized governance as well as improvements in health, education, and standards of living—and so the general futility of international human-rights law should not be cause for much concern.
Posner does not want to throw the international-benevolence baby out with the human-rights-treaty bathwater, though. Instead of focusing on using international law to command adherence to a wide variety of specifically stipulated rights, he advocates a different approach. Drawing from the domain of economic development, he argues that most human-rights violations happen in the more impoverished parts of the world. Accordingly, well-meaning nations and other benevolent actors should adopt a cost–benefit approach in dealing with poorer and less developed countries and those where suffering is prevalent. Rather than forcing all of these nations into what he sees as the Procrustean bed of Western human-rights laws, advanced societies should focus on helping them in ways that are more materially practical, such as by providing malaria nets or by dispensing useful advice about how to foster economic growth (although he acknowledges that this is no easy task).
One comes away from Posner’s book skeptical about both the efficacy and the benefits of international human-rights law and treaties. What does this mean for the role of human rights as an—if not often the—organizing principle of modern politics?
Since its inception in the era of Enlightenment, the concept of human rights has become increasingly central in the West’s political life. And this concept has without question made great contributions to human welfare, contributions for which we all should be grateful. But, as thinkers ranging from Alasdair MacIntyre to Joseph Ratzinger to Leo Strauss have pointed out, a thoroughgoing emphasis on rights—by logic or in practice—eventually tends to exclude consideration of duties and indeed of social and interpersonal ties of all kinds. An overweening focus on rights encourages the development of an individual wholly unencumbered, since “right” in this sense carries no connotation of moral obligation or restraint.
This is very much the direction in which human-rights rhetoric is going, moving from the traditional focus on the abolition or amendment of laws restricting an individual’s liberty or molesting his dignity and toward ensuring that individuals have a congenial climate in which to assert their preferences, including by encouraging—or forcing—others to acknowledge and affirm the individual’s choices, whatever they may be.
This dynamic is of increasingly grave concern. At a time when progressive individualism and the creative destructiveness of capitalism are ascendant, does the world need more accentuation of the importance of asserting the individual’s unfettered discretion? Should we not prefer that, even as individuals’ freedoms and dignity are protected, the bonds of community—of social affection and obligation—are also respected? Should we not urge that the further assertion of individual prerogative be weighed more and more against the cost in social atomization and weakening of society’s moral strength? Such a shift in perspective might, then, lead away from a focus on expanding rights and toward efforts to promote human dignity while recognizing long-acknowledged moral rules and norms.
Some will see a shift away from the rhetoric of human rights as undermining the cause of human freedom and dignity. Naturally, we should be chary about doing anything that might have this effect. Yet Posner’s book shows that the intensifying focus on human rights, at least in the international legal realm, is not all that essential to the advancement of human liberty and happiness. This should make us more confident about raising our voices in skepticism about the dominance of the idea of human rights to the exclusion and indeed derogation of other ways of promoting human happiness and dignity.
—Elbridge Colby is a defense and national security analyst in Washington, D.C.
Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms
by holly ordway
ignatius, 215 pages, $19.95
s a young atheist, Holly Ordway could not explain why the unknown god of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover” made her heart sing. Later, her doctoral work on The Lord of the Rings enabled her to perceive dimly the “light from an invisible lamp” that makes the novel a profoundly Catholic work. The worlds of these works somehow felt right. The blind, unguided process of naturalistic evolution seemed ill equipped to account for the beauty and meaning of these masterpieces.
On the cover of Ordway’s work, alongside a bookcase evoking the literary elements of her metanoia, there rests a long sword that is far from merely decorative. While Christ called Peter from his nets and Matthew from his coins, he encountered Ordway amid the clash of fencing sabers. She movingly recounts how fencing not only unlocked the latent athletic capacities of a self-professed bookworm, but also revealed her own finitude. In the dejection of a disappointing fencing tournament performance, Ordway turns to her trusted coach for a bit of consolation. She finally inquires about the God who seems to give him strength and peace, in a moment of vulnerability at a casino coffee shop.
If God, the ever-prowling Hound of Heaven, is the undisputed protagonist of Ordway’s drama, then her fencing coach, Josh, is certainly its best supporting actor. From the start of their athletic relationship, he shows a sincere and demanding interest in Ordway’s well-being that goes far beyond the baiting of so-called “friendship evangelization” she suffered in previous encounters with Christians.
While never reducing her embrace of Christ to the conclusion of a syllogism, Ordway unabashedly attests to the evangelical effectiveness of rigorous rational argumentation. The atheist academic of the book’s subtitle did not embrace an intellectual paradigm shift based upon warm fuzzies. Thanks to Josh’s philosophizing, Ordway affirms the existence of a First Cause and omnibenevolent Author of the moral law well before daring to pray for the first time at the Vegas buffet hosted to celebrate her born-again experience.
—Michael Baggot, L.C., studies theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum.