Recently, Clyde Steckel, emeritus professor of theology at United Theological Seminary and First Church member, responded to my post about baptism. You can read his response below. He makes a compelling case for retaining and exploring the symbolism of “washing clean” in baptism, rather than shying away from it. Thank you, Clyde, for deepening the conversation! Readers, stay tuned for more words from First Churchers as we consider our Lenten theme, “Teach us to Pray.”
I would hesitate to lose the cleansing or washing symbolism in baptism. Clearly original sin has been twisted in popular piety to mean a stain the newborn bears that must be washed away if they are to enter heaven. But that is not its original meaning. When progressives/liberals advocate original blessing (Matthew Fox) over original sin, they fall into the trap of accepting that twisted meaning of original sin. It is a fruitless argument, incapable of adjudication. We should not get drawn into it.
I have two reasons for retaining the cleansing/washing symbolism: One is ecumenical, the other spiritual. The ecumenical argument arises from “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” the World Council of Churches statement of 1982, seeking as much possible consensus and convergence among world Christian bodies. That statement lists core themes of consensus about baptism, one of which is cleansing/washing. The United Church of Christ participated fully in arriving at that statement, and agreed to it. So I believe we need to honor such commitments and explore them, even if the thought or the language seem foreign or troubling.
My spiritual reason for affirming the symbolism of cleansing/washing arises from our personal and communal experiences of estrangement and brokenness. We feel and are estranged from self, others, creation, and God, under the conditions of existence (Paul Tillich’s phrase). The cleansing of baptism symbolizes the beginning of the process of healing, of reconciliation, of overcoming all that brokenness and estrangement, through the loving grace of God. It’s never a finished process, but baptism signals a definitive turn in the direction of being made whole.
Other ecumenically shared baptismal themes are important too: divine hospitality and welcome into the communion of Christ’s followers, the church; the support of family, sponsors, and the whole community in each one’s spiritual pilgrimage; and the promise of fulfillment in God’s future and complete reconciliation, which we cannot understand but in which we hope. So I would want our baptismal teaching and practices to honor all those themes, and not always privilege one over the others.