Why did Jesus have to be baptised?
There is nothing that horrifies atheists so much as what they usually imagine are the Christian doctrines of original sin and baptism. An innocent baby is born with a black stain of sin on its soul but through his big magic a priest can remove it through mumbo jumbo rituals and pouring water over the infant’s head. This nonsense is, alas, frequently aided and abetted by religious believers themselves, so perhaps you can hardly blame the atheists. What is original sin? As the name suggests, it is to do with origins. We now know from science what those origins were. They were the chimpanzee like ancestors of both ourselves and the chimpanzees that existed, in a blink of evolutionary time, only six million years ago.
Biology tells us that organisms generally work through selfish genes, meaning selfish in the technical biological sense of seeking nothing other than genetic self-perpetuation, and compulsive algorithms. Normally these processes flourish best through co-operation. A single gene can more successfully get itself into the next generation when it is co-operating, through the medium of an organism, with other genes, and that usually means when the organisms are co-operating with each other too. But sometimes these co-operative societies break down, and when they do, as in the terrifying examples of the genocides that chimpanzees sometimes inflict on each other, we see raw selfishness in all its ferocity. The compulsive need to advance yourself at the expense of others becomes all-demanding. The parallel between these chimpanzee genocides and human ones can hardly be missed. In so many places – Armenia, Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, China, Chile, Argentina – neighbours who had lived peaceably next to each other for centuries suddenly turned on each other with unbridled and murderous cruelty. We are only a few genes away from the chimpanzees that we still so very nearly are.
Yet genetic selfishness is not the only story nature has to tell. Darwin tells us that in changing environments some species survive through exterminating – his word – other species. But however suited genetically to a new environment a new form might be, it only survives to become an exterminating survivor because in infancy it was cared for by its parents. The extraordinary devotion of parents for infants that we find throughout nature is as important a feature of natural selection as competitive ability. Darwin missed it. How, too, can we explain the astonishing examples of animal altruism that Darwin himself describes so movingly in the early pages of The Descent of Man? Often such heroic acts transcend species barriers and any possibly genetic advantage that could arise to their own kin. I’ve never felt that the usual explanations with which biologists seek to reconcile genetic selfishness with altruistic behaviour, reciprocal altruism and kin altruism, even begin to do justice to these lovely stories that Darwin tells us. There must be the beginnings of an altruism, that if it were human we would call love, in the animal kingdoms. That must be something to do, surely, with the love of parents for offspring. Can that love, which truly is kin altruism in its narrowest sense, sometimes break free and give rise to a pool of genes that transcend selfishness?
These sides of animal behaviour become hugely developed in mankind because, unlike other animals, we are symbol making creatures, notably because we use language. Once people can speak they can share each others’ inner worlds. They can tell you how they feel, and it becomes possible to imagine how you would feel if you were them, and so to feel sympathy for them as if they were you. The antidote to compulsive genetic selfishness, that monster from which we are still genetically so very close, is the human community of people sharing each others’ inner worlds. But language is a symbol system. We don’t enter into each others’ feeling worlds through logic but through symbols.
This is why baptism is important. It is the first of the sacraments because it is a symbol of the importance of symbols. It offers the possibility of overcoming the selfishness to which we are so easily prompted by our genes through entry into a symbol-making community. The water is a symbol of the unconscious, where our inheritance from our evolutionary animal forebears now resides. Baptism – biologically on the ball – tells us that you can’t evade that inheritance. You have to enter into it and rise into consciousness again, invigorated by it. As with all the sacraments there is nothing specifically Christian about baptism. All human beings, except in rare circumstances, transcend, or might transcend, genetic selfishness through entry into a language using community. But, as with all its major doctrines, Christianity celebrates the humanity to which humanism testifies, more specifically and better than humanism does.
The core proposition of religions is not that God exists – for all religions admit that in theory God is unknowable but in practice never stop telling us about how much they know about h(i)r – but that there is another dimension of reality to which we all truly belong. This dimension does not express itself in our present vale of soul-making, as Keats called it, through reason and logic but, as with the dimension from which we have so recently evolved, through myths and symbols. Christian baptism offers us the possibility of entry into the Christian mythical symbolic system, which Christians revere because they find it intensely meaningful. Through it they feel in contact with this other dimension, hence why it is so precious. It does not work so much through compelling the intellect as through enchanting the emotions. Atheists will say that is just why it is superstitious nonsense. But their rationalism is absurdly superficial and flies in the face of evolutionary biology. It is precisely because our reason is still so deeply rooted in our animal inheritance, and that this unconscious inheritance does not communicate itself to our self-conscious intellects through logic but through symbols, that symbols such as baptism are so important. Baptism is symbolically potent. It offers the possibility both of symbolic communication with that animal inheritance and the means of transcending it. All symbolic life systems begin with entering through gateways and baptism is that gateway.
Why did Jesus have to be baptised? Because he became fully human and that meant entry into a symbol-using human community that could share each others’ inner worlds. I can think of no-one in the whole of literature who entered into other peoples’ inner worlds so intensely and so compassionately as Jesus. No-one, you could say, who was ever so fully baptised.