Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Sacred and the secular-Part 2

Building on my post from Thursday, I want to move forward with the idea of decoupling the sacred institution from the secular institution. Today’s example is baptism. It appears that during Jesus’ time, baptism was only a sacred thing. Something between God and humans. John the Baptist was baptising adults and there is no mention of state-sanctioning or state officials overseeing the process.

However, sometime when the church and state became intertwined during the Middle Ages, baptism became both secular and sacred. Because children were dying young and a belief that the unbaptised were not saved, the Church advocated infant baptism. This was usually done before the first Sunday or holy day following the birth. The state co-opted this baptism ceremony for their own purpose. The state needs to know who its citizens are (or at least how many for tax and military service purposes) and therefore they used the baptism ceremony as a way to track births. Children were only given a “Christian” name and baptism certificates. The church recorded this for both themselves and the state. This seemed to work fine for both institutions.

However, during the Reformation when Calvin started preaching that only true believers should be baptised and infant baptism should be outlawed, this created a problem for the state. This decoupling of the sacred and the secular would make it difficult to keep track of who its citizens were. As we know, especially in the Evangelical community, adult baptism caught on and the state had to do something different. They invented the birth certificate to compensate. Again, this seems to work fine for both institutions.

The Church was able to keep its baptism ceremony and the state was able to keep track of who lived within its boundaries. The removal of the sacred from the secular was a benefit to the church and did not destroy society. I might argue that baptism has taken on a bigger significance now because ONLY Christians (although some only nominal ones) are baptised. If you say you are baptised that carries more weight now because it is a less common event. People recognize that it is a sacred event and, generally, treat it as such.

(interesting sidenote: We don’t know William Shakespeare’s birthday because he only had a baptism certificate and historians have just subtracted a few days from that date to come up with his birthday.