Saturday, August 15, 2015

HAND-WRINGING OVER MEMES: On Brainwashing and Baptism

I hate memes. They're snarky nonsense substituting as a meaningful conversation and their inherently passive aggressive and passive aggression always makes me feel anxious. So, instead of just leaving it at that, I'm just going to talk about them instead.

Better that than a four paragraph Facebook post that no one reads.

Today is a big feast day in the Catholic calendar: the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. The dogma wasn't formally defined until Pope Pius XII's encyclical letter Munificentissimus Deus in 1950. The belief is a very early tradition and it's elevation in status marks one of the two times that a Pope has invoked a charism known to most as "papal infallibility". This was to settle the issue and this special charism only holds if the belief is rooted in the ancient tradition of the Church, is theologically sound, and pertains to the traditional domain of the Church's authority: faith and morals. A pope can't declare that the earth is flat or seek to formally combat gravity. When someone flippantly says that Catholics believe their Pope is infallible no matter what, they just need to read a little more. It's about a leader speaking in the context of a tradition that's firmly rooted in the conviction that God has shown himself definitively in the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth. 

5 years ago today, on this feast of the Assumption of Mary, my wife and I arranged to have our first daughter baptized. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Though my life is not chock full of overtly religious experiences outside of the faith I carry with me everyday, that day was different. There was a whole convergence of family traditions, my own identifying with the sacrament, the beauty of the ritual, and something that simply felt otherworldly that made that day very special to me.

So it was fitting that this was the first meme I picked out for my weekly hand-wringing.

I don't really need much time to pick it apart. It's an absurd argument, bracketing religious affiliation within the context of brainwashing. It doesn't jibe with the experience of so many people of differently races, religious, ethnicities, cultures, and so on who convert to this tradition themselves every year. In some places these conversions happen en masse. In my experience of people within my own tradition, they are thoughtful and intelligent adults. The earliest Church was made up of primarily adult converts. It's believed that infant baptism occurred in the earliest years of Christianity, and was not the primary model of baptism. Even today, the baptism of adults is still considered normative within the Catholic tradition even though the baptism of infants is still the most widely practiced way of celebrating the Sacrament.

I also don't understand who the author of the meme is trying to blame. Is the the Church? I don't think the author sees how this really plays out in the life of a parish, where baptisms are requested for a myriad of reasons and under a myriad of circumstances. The comment doesn't really respect the reality of it all. So are they placing the blame elsewhere? 

The author seems to overestimate the number of baptized infants who end up as regularly practicing Christians. I suppose it has to start someplace and I certainly believe that baptism matters for a number of reasons. But if the Church was good at translating baptized infants to practicing Catholics than it would look more like magic than the Catholic idea of both the sacraments and the grace conferred in the Sacrament. In short, using classical Thomism as a guide, grace perfects nature. Nature is the raw stuff of our daily existence that emanates out of our shared humanity, including it's weaknesses. It's what we reckon with when we try to better ourselves and it's also what we fight when that process comes up lacking. Grace, which is God's help and God's gift of himself, works within that system. But it won't "take" if it's forced and it's rendered meaningless and hollow if coerced. 

In other words, if statistics are to be believed, Coca-Cola seems to have a better way to building brand loyalty than the practice of baptizing children in America or Western Europe.

So is it the parent's fault? Richard Dawkins once likened the religious upbringing of small children to child abuse. Is it wrong for parents to "force" a religion on their kids?

Again, this is a stupid and hollow argument. Parents force everything on their kids. Almost all of the biggest movies and shows of the last decade have capitalized on the fact that parents force their experience of pop culture on their children: Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars, Marvel Comics, Full House, and dozens upon dozens of other old media have been re-purposed for small children. There might be another word for it: a shared experience. By virtue of the elements of narrative storytelling, every film and every television show is a value system communicated in a format that is designed to be convicting and alluring. Is that any different than raising your child in a tradition that goes back countless generations? Is it really more offensive that what bound generations of families together over two millennia of all that life can throw at you is communicated to children than, say, the new Fantastic Four movie?

That's not the only way I force things on my kids. Besides bedtimes and the boundaries of personal space, I can also force dietary choices on my child. I do that under the auspices of their own well-being as well as the common good. If anything, I try to have them do better with their food choices than I did in my life and hopefully I've made some better choices than other generations. It's funny how diets have a weird relationship with history: Organic fruit/vegetable pouches are a newer, better snack than Twinkies were. Our diet sucks because of relatively recent developments in factory farming. Organic diets recapture what our diet should be after decades of hyper-processing. Paleo is good because it goes way, way back. Somehow this applies to diets but not familial traditions.

If anything, the argument is self-defeating. The meme was likely authored to shame or humiliate Christians into thinking differently (without actually talking to them) or to embolden the like-minded in a shared experience of mockery. While the former approach is a bully tactic, the latter shares a goal with baptism: group identity and community building. All cultures gravitate towards initiation rituals and will assume vapid practices in the absence of meaningful ones. Which is more meaningful: a "walkabout" or your first R-rated movie? Communion or the first time you got drunk? A traditional Bar Mitzvah or a Sweet Sixteen? Certainly individuals will define their own, but how many modern experiences lack any kind of rootedness outside of vague sentiment?

Writing a meme to shame or humiliate Christians is one way to feel righteous or, even worse, to articulate a half-baked argument so that others won't have to bother in thinking one up themselves. I guess it's a sort of community builder. Baptizing your children is another. The ritual of baptism for infants sees the family as a unit, as the mode in which traditions are passed on and values or communicated. It honors what is best in a family rather than treating a baby as a creature void of context who awaits exercising their autonomy until they can choose something wholly other than their families, whether it's from their parents or from centuries of practice.

Thankfully, the writer of the meme gets to the heart of the harm inflected on religion towards their young: religion as myth. I'm not sure which myth they are referring to. Authors, comedians, musicians and film directors reckon with people who have so strongly identified with their art that it became a manifesto to them. The best know to keep a healthy distance from that kind of deification while others are only too happy to hold court.

The term "myth" is so loaded as to be meaningless. Does it refer to nuanced historical arguments regarding the historicity of the Bible? A field full of specialists in linguistics, history, theology, form and source criticism, and so on? Does it refer to any religion that holds a metaphysical worldview? Arguments that have not been settled even after Aquinas, Scotus, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, until now? Is this heady philosophy or posturing? Are they part of any conversation or is it better to pull up an app, a Getty Image, and the Impact font so most of the work is done for you before unleashing phony intellectualism?

It's hard to know because it is neither conversation or encounter. This isn't dialogue, it's somewhere between writing an ex-girlfriend's phone number in a service area bathroom and the poetry written a few inches above it. 

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