"Infant Baptism and Conversion"

The Church as a Mission

Infant Baptism and Conversion

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Liturgical Theology Revisited

Dr. Athanasios N. Papathanasiou

Dr Theology, Lecturer at the Hellenic Open University (Athens)

3.1. Infant Baptism and Conversion


Infant baptism, as we know, has its basis in one supreme idea: that of community. Christian parents share with their offspring all the essentials of their own life: the air that they breathe, the water they drink and the faith that inspires them. But alongside this comfortable notion, infant baptism also carries an inherent danger. This is the danger of thinking of that new members join the Church on the basis of biology; that biological birth cannot but entail the entry of a new member into the community of faith.


Whenever the logic of infant baptism prevails in the Church, the Church is understood as a community with naturalistic continuity. In that case the spirit of naturalistic collectivism prevails. In consequence, the ideas of mission and of conversion become marginalized. They are not explicitly repudiated (no one is going to take it upon themselves to deny in principle that the gospel is addressed urbi et orbi), but in reality they are devalued and neglected. They are essentially regarded as secondary, useless or even harmful, since they actually question the religious dominance of any family – even the Christian family. It is true that the notion of conversion gives priority to the question of truth, for the sake of which the individual may make a break even with his or her physical family. By contrast, taking infant baptism as an absolute gives priority not to seeking the truth, but to continuing the family identity. In that case, the truth is what comes from our family heritage. In the biblical view, however, the truth judges everything, even our family identity. God invites man to choose the truth, even if this involves a break with the faith of the natural forebears: “The Lord said to Abram, leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1-3). The tension between the indisputable comfort of infant baptism on the one hand and its dangers on the other is to be found within our own Church tradition. For example, it was St. Gregory of Nyssa who insisted that embracing the Christian faith is a matter of personal responsibility, and stressed that there is profound difference between the physical birth and the spiritual one. The one being born spiritually has the authority to choose who will give spiritual birth to him!


In his remarkable study Of Water and the Spirit, Schmemann defends infant baptism in an absolute manner, without concerning himself at all with the problematics we have just discussed. He vigorously attacks the contention that it is important for the baptized to understand what is going on, and categorically rejects (but in my view, hastily and without proper study) the arguments in favor of adult baptism. His acceptance of naturalistic collectivism seems unhesitating. Explaining for example the ‘churching’, the liturgical practice and the prayers read over the mother and baby on the fortieth day, he expresses himself as follows:


“The main characteristic of this rite is that in it the mother and the child are totally united, form so to speak one human reality and this one object of blessing, sanctification and prayer…the new-born belongs to the family. It has no ‘autonomous’ existence of any kind; its life is totally shaped and determined – in the present as well as in the immediate yet truly formative, truly decisive future – by this belonging. And the family – if it is a Christian family – belongs to the Church.”


Faced with this text, allow me to express my amazement. In other works of his, Fr. Alexander is exceptionally radical and critical towards the naturalistic mentality of traditionally Orthodox countries. For instance, in his denunciation of nationalism, that heresy in the bosom of Orthodoxy, he points out that the core of nationalism is “natural” love, the love that has a biological basis and involves people who are physically related. He quite rightly emphasizes that the Gospel repudiates this “natural love” with “strange and frightening words” (remember Christ’s words about breaking with one’s own family members for the sake of the truth; see Mt 10”37, Lk 14:26). In modern Orthodoxy, Fr Alexander says at one point, natural love has taken the form of a “religiously colored and justified nationalism [that] long ago became a genuine heresy…making all our profuse talk about the ecumenical truth of Orthodoxy a hypocritical lie”. And elsewhere he insists: “The Church is not a natural community which is ‘sanctified’ through the cult.” The Church is the presence in this world of the “world to come”, the Kingdom.


And yet these insights of his are nowhere to be found in his study of baptism in particular. It is as if he Is not willing to criticize established practice, and so he sounds like a representative of the logic of naturalism! He seems not to see that the coupling of “family” and “Church” does not imply only that the family is sanctified, but also that the family is called in question! Thus the reader of Schmemann’s essay on infant baptism will never suspect that it is part of our Church tradition to refuse to understand faith on the basis of biological and family relationships. In the early fourth century, for example, the synod of Neocaesaria decided that in case of a pregnant women receiving baptism, the foetus cannot be considered to be baptized with her. The synod was apparently responding to people who believed that the natural community (biological as well as familial) inevitably coincides with the faith community. Canon 6 characteristically defined faith as a matter of personal responsibility, not as an asset transferred from parent to child by a quasi-physical process: “In this (that is, the faith) the woman communicates nothing to the child, since the brining forward to profession is evidently the individual [privilege] of every single person”. The logic of this holy canon is wholly antithetical to Fr. Alexander’s belief that “the mother and the child are totally united”, and “form… one human reality”. And, remember – this Canon has to do with Church order about twelve centuries before the Reformation!


Fr Alexander’s very object of study, however – the fact that he is coming to grips with the Church’s criteria – obliges him to open some windows onto perspectives that he himself had neglected in his book on baptism. One such window is his amazing notes on the role of godparent (which, however, he does not incorporate into the main body of his argument)! In the course of research on the institution of infant baptism, one finds that the Church was aware that infant baptism is fraught with the risks we have mentioned, and therefore tried to mitigate the role of the biological family. The godparent (sponsor), as someone biologically unrelated who indeed represents the faith community (and not the blood community) comes to drive a sort of wedge through the naturalistic collectivism. He or she becomes the spiritual parent, despite the fact that the biological parents are themselves faithful members of the Church, and indeed – as Fr. Alexander would say – inseparably united with their child!


It is inevitable that the contradiction we have outlined up to this point should manifest itself also in another area, the meaning of conversion. Given that Schmemann unreservedly defends infant baptism as a manifestation of community spirit as opposed to personal choice, it is inevitable that he should also be against the idea of conversion – that is to say, against the possibility for a person to accept a faith different from the faith of his natural community. So he says at one point that conversion is not a choice of an ideology, as so many people think today, but an escape from the darkness. But in my opinion at least, this statement is opaque and requires scrutiny. How will the “escape from darkness” happen if it is not personal choice? If it is not a personal choice, is there not a risk of the “escape” degenerating into an “abduction”, into precisely an event in which there is no concern for assent on the part of the subject? And why is personal choice sneeringly characterized as “ideological”? To my mind at least, ideology is a very serious matter, because it essentially has to do with the person’s self-orientation. An ideology may be humane or inhuman. But in either case, it expresses people’s attitudes to life. So in this context of disparaging the notion of conversion, Fr Alexander says that “The Church, the sacrament of Christ, is not a ‘religious’ society of converts, and organization to satisfy the ‘religious’ needs of man”. But perhaps I might ask: if the Church is not fundamentally a society of converts, then what is it? A community of people to whom faith is transmitted automatically along with their genes?


Nevertheless, Fr. Alexander’s views on conversion may be elucidated – and judged – if one also takes into account other aspects of his thought. First of all, it seems that what he is primarily opposed to is the sort of conversion that is very widespread in the developed world and recalls consumer behavior: the Church is understood as a utility which, like thousand others, serves certain human needs (the so-called religious needs) without demanding a radical transformation of the entire human being and the world. We need to clarify, therefore, that this “consumerist” conversion is a different matter from conversion to the ecclesial mode of being. For from the moment we accept the Church as a total existential reorientation, it is impossible not to recognize the stunning importance of personal choice and of conversion, on the level of way of life and that of ideas. Fr Alexander acknowledges this at various points. In the totality of the Church’s leitourgia, he says, one has to see.


“an all-embracing vision of life, a power meant to judge, inform and transform the whole of existence, a ‘philosophy of life’ shaping and challenging all our ideas, attitudes and actions.”

“Faith is always and above all a meeting with the Other, conversion to the Other, the reception of him as ‘the way, the truth and the life’, love for him and the desire for total unity with him, such that ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal 2:20).”

“To restore man as a king means, first of all and above everything else, to liberate man from all this [i.e. worldly things] as being the ultimate meaning and value of human existence, the only horizon o fhuman life…To renounce Satan thus is not to reject a mythological being…It is to reject and entire ‘worldview” made up of pride and self-affirmation. “

“There is no point in converting people to Christ if they do not convert their vision of the world and of life, since Christ then becomes merely a symbol for all that we love and want already – without Him.”


Again, in another place (but not in his study on baptism), referring to the mission of Orthodox theology in the modern world, Schmemann warmly supports precisely the idea of conversion:


“I know very well that in current ecumenical thinking the term ‘conversion’ has a bad . But the Orthodox would simply betray both their Orthodoxy and the ecumenical movement if now, under the impact of a superficial ecumenical euphoria, they concealed the fact that in their approach conversion is one of the basic components of a genuine ecumenical perspective. More than ever, and precisely for deep ecumenical reasons, we must uphold our conviction that only a deep and genuinely Christian idea of conversion i.e. of a decisive crisis, choice, and commitment to Truth, can give meaning and ultimate seriousness to all ‘dialogues’, ‘rapprochements’, and ‘convergences’. That this term and the reality behind it are regarded today by many as ‘un-ecumenical’ reveals, in fact, an alarming trend, a shift of ecumenical movement from its original goal: organic unity in Christ, to a different one: the smooth functioning of pluralistic society.”


The seriousness with which he often took the idea of conversion is shown also in a position he takes on the so-called question of Western Rite. The discussion had to do with the proposal that Western Christians who wanted to join the Orthodox Church should be able to worship according to a Western rite, since that would be familiar to them. One argument was that acceptance of the Western Rite would make it easier for people to convert to the Orthodox Church. Fr Alexander took a negative position (something that in my view merits discussion, but this is not the place for it); and specifically on the argument about making conversion easier, he noted:


“I consider this growing interpretation of conversion in terms of a mere jurisdictional belonging to some Orthodox Diocese, of a ‘minimum’ of doctrinal and liturgical requirements and of an almost mechanical understanding of the ‘Apostolic Succession’ as a very real danger to Orthodoxy. This means the replacement of Orthodoxy of ‘content’ by Orthodoxy of ‘form’, which certainly is not an Orthodox idea.”


The fact that the call to conversion is indeed a structural element in the Church is evidenced at other scattered through his work – and through other windows, as we have said. As Fr Alexander himself notes, for example, the baptism service ends with an instruction that expresses the return of the newly-baptized to the world, so that the Church may “witness to Christ in the world whose salvation He is, [and] continue His saving work by making Him present, His Word heard, His Kingdom announced and manifested”. Baptism, he says, changes the baptized into a royal priesthood and especially a priest whose work is to offer his life to God so that it may be sanctified. Furthermore, beyond this obvious missionary perspective of the return of the newly-baptized to the world, there is especial significance in certain “hidden” key points of the sacrament, which demonstrate that mission in not simply a sequel to baptism but a structural element in the baptismal process. The so-called acts of preparation such as catechesis (i.e. the process that implies invitation, response and confession) are considered b Fr. Alexander an integral part of the service of baptism. He points out that the Church is constantly being built on the “double rhythm of preparation and fulfillment”, and indeed he goes so far as to say boldly that the Church has a double nature and a double work! This means that its “self” does not consist only of its Eucharistic consummation, but also of welcoming that person who a short time ago had belonged to the realm outside the Church! Remember what we said earlier about the liturgy of the catechumens!


Fr Alexander did not take part (from what I can tell) in discussions about inculturation and the incarnation of the Gospel in other cultures, beyond the traditionally Orthodox peoples; but at one point he notes pertinently, through laconically:


“From St. Paul to St. Nicholas of Japan there has been no mission without self-identification of the missionary with those to whom God has sent him, without a sacrifice of his personal attachments and his natural values.”


This passage is indeed just one small hint. But it provides perhaps a good opportunity to keep in mind that neither mission nor conversion is just one thing, but in every case we need to explain how we understand these words. Arrogant chatter and a paternalistic attitude to the other is quite a different matter from non-coercive witness and self-emptying.