Dear Adrian Chiles I loved your programmes about the Mediterranean, one of the most open and refreshing and personally honest things I have seen on television. Thanks so much. But when you were present at a baptism in a church in Rome though, you did say that Catholics believe that we are born with a stain of original sin on our souls and baptism washes it away. I believe that too, but put like that if I were an atheist I’d think it was complete mumbo jumbo. Could I offer an alternative interpretation? Original sin is what it says it is. It’s to do with origins. What were those origins? Less than six million years ago, a blink in evolutionary time, we were proto-chimpanzees running about the forests and we still share over 99% of our genes with our chimpanzee cousins. Chimpanzees are animals, so their behaviour is instinctive and compulsive and automatic. You see people behaving in the grip of compulsions like chimpanzees everywhere. Neighbours who’ve lived next door to each peacefully for centuries suddenly turn into genocidal killers, people are overwhelmed by greed and lust, you meet compulsive liars, some people stubbornly won’t accept there’s man-made climate change despite all the overwhelming evidence, some people just can’t get over their resentment against their parents, some are addictive gamblers. We’re so very nearly out of control of ourselves.
Yet at the same time we’re so different from chimpanzees. We’re free, or at least sometimes are. How can this be? It’s because of our intercourse with each other through language, because we belong to the human community. Wittgenstein says I don’t just think in language, language shapes the way I think. Language makes me the kind of person I am but, he says, there’s no such thing as a private language. Adam Smith says that if I cut my thumb when I was a child it’s obvious to me that it’s the worst pain in the world. The bystanders, as he calls them, sympathize, but they also think that people starving to death in China is worse. Because I am a social being I gradually come to absorb their point of view and I get over my self-centredness, I too begin to think that maybe people starving to death is worse. I develop what he calls ‘the man within the breast’. In fact, he says, when I was a child it was obvious to me that my thumb was bigger than a distant mountain, but as I get older and learn about perspective it’s not just that I cease to think that, it never even occurs to me to do so. Freedom gets to be a habit. We become free moral beings and not just extra clever chimpanzees by entering into the human community. To put it another way, everybody who grows up in reasonably moral human communities (maybe not if you’re unfortunate enough to be one of those kids ISIS show on TV saying how great it is to cut peoples’ heads off) is baptized. And this is what theologians tell us too. They talk about baptism of desire. You don’t need to have been through a ceremony at a font.
In that case, you might well ask, what is the point of all that mumbo-jumbo at the font? Well it’s because Catholics believe that we don’t just belong to this material world that we find ourselves in, even more profoundly we belong to a further and deeper dimension of reality, our true home and landfall, in which not just humans but everything is a unity, the ultimate unity of everything – every human, stick, stone, flower, chimpanzee, cat, dog, microbe, electron – in the further dimension we call God. Everything has body but everything too has soul. Baptism in church is a sign of this even deeper unity. It isn’t that Catholics belong to it and nobody else does because we’ve been through the mumbo-jumbo. Everybody belongs to it because they are ensouled humans. But the church is the sign of it. How right you were to say that everybody worships the same God. What a Catholic thought.
I find it so interesting that I think science is getting round to thinking a bit like this too. Darwin showed us we’re not intelligent individuals parachuted in from some heavenly eyrie, but are genetically united with each other, one family through all human time and space because we all have a common origin, we spring from the earth. And quantum physics is beginning to discover dimensions of reality so weird if a man down the pub started talking like that you’d think he was a lunatic. Subatomic particles only have meaning in terms of each other within interconnected networks. At this level things are particles here and now, this not that, but also waves everywhere and nowhere. Everything has body but everything too has soul. In our deepest parts – all those electrons inside us – we belong to this everywhere and nowhere deeper dimension of reality. But here and now it doesn’t feel much like that. Baptism is welcoming us into this community of the deeper dimension. It’s telling us where our true home is. What’s all that water about then? More about that another time.