Outline

I. A reminder concerning our premise and method: By examining specific patterns of behavior, we approach the meaning of religious experience.

A. If religion is the organization of life around that which is perceived to be ultimate power, then it should be possible to move from the outside in, from the pattern of organization to the organizing experience of power.

B. Particularly when dealing with ancient writings, which have an interest in other than a full description of religious behavior—rather, assuming it and arguing about it—such investigation must proceed cautiously, using comparative materials from other cultures when appropriate.

II. In earliest Christianity, Baptism (i.e., the public baptism of adults) is the most visible and widely attested ritual practice, and because it also becomes the matter for dispute, we are able both to suggest the pattern of behavior involved and some of its experiential meaning.

A. Although not assuming an absolute uniformity of practice, the evidence drawn from the letters and Gospels and Acts suggests some sense of the ritual.

B. The extant evidence also points to several levels of symbolism connected to the ritual: purification/forgiveness of sins, new life/resurrection, relationship to God.

C. As a ritual of initiation, baptism serves to provide status enhancement through participation in the benefits of the cult.

III. A debate over the number of initiations that Christians ought to undergo leads to a better understanding of the religious experience of some early members of the community.

A. The controversy is found in Paul's letters to the Galatians and Colossians: We hear of Gentile believers who seek circumcision as a further initiation, claiming thereby a higher degree of perfection.

B. The question arises concerning the religious perceptions and motivations behind the undergoing of such a painful operation; the answer is to be found in the religious expectations (or "imprinting") among Gentile converts.

1. In the world of the mystery religions, initiations would have been multiple, each of them leading to higher status.

2. Likewise, those initiated into Christ through baptism would have expected a painful second initiation into Moses (and, therefore, the Jewish people).

C. Multiple lines of evidence reveal how "religiously logical" such an imprinting would be.

1. Initiation into Greco-Roman mysteries was always multiple.

2. Philo shows us that, at least at the level of metaphor, his understanding of Judaism as a "mystery" also involved multiple initiations.

3. Study of initiation rituals cross-culturally shows that multiple initiations are the norm.

4. Jewish and early Christian practice might also have contributed to such an expectation.

IV. Paul's response to the controversy shows another set of religious understandings attached to the ritual of baptism.

A. Paul sees the desire for "more" to be a challenge to the adequacy of the experience of God through Christ.

B. He is concerned about the implications of multiple initiations (especially when available only to males) for the egalitarian character of the community.

C. He perceives maturity and perfection, not in ritual terms, but in cognitive and moral terms.

V. The denouement of the controversy shows how religious instincts can triumph over theology.

A. Paul's position held, as Christians maintained a single ritual of initiation and rejected circumcision.

B. But within centuries, Christians developed their own "multiple initiations" through confirmation and ordination.

0 0

Post a comment