Sentiment and Sentimentality

The death of Jennifer Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s prematurely born child, showed the British media in an uncharacteristically favourable light. The quality dailies and the television news channels seemed genuinely delighted that the birth of a daughter had brought obvious joy to a usually dour and prudent countenance. They were commensurately sympathetic when joy turned to tragedy and the nation shared the Browns’ obvious and heartfelt grief.

In the midst of all this unwonted display of sensitivity, it was a curious comment in The Daily Telegraph which caught my eye.

‘A Church of Scotland spokesman said that baptism was sometimes requested at a time of “crisis or difficulty”. It could bring “immense strength to parents in a time of deep darkness”.’

Was this, one wondered, just another of those inane and theologically uninformed comments which Church spin doctors are inclined to make, or was it a clear statement of the Church of Scotland’s current theology of baptism? And how could one tell?

On average, for the last twenty years I have, I suppose, been summoned twice annually to the local hospital to baptize an infant in an incubator. The rite has almost invariably been a source of strength and consolation to the parents; but that is not the reason I have hared down the High Street at two in the morning to do it. I have done it because I supposed myself to be doing something to and for the child, something which concerned salvation and eternal life. It was an action in direct response to a word of the Lord.

In this supposition, of course, I have the wholehearted support of the Westminster Confession (Scotland’s answer to the Thirty-nine Articles), and of that former canon of Noyon, Jean Calvin.

‘Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and a seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life’. (Westminster Confession), Chapter XXVIII, Section 1)

‘Baptism is the initiatory sign by which we are admitted to the fellowship of the Church, that being ingrafted into Christ we may be accounted children of God. Moreover the end for which GOD has given it … is that it may be conducive to our faith in him … it is a sealed instrument by which he assures us that all our sins are so deleted, covered and effaced, that they will never come into his sight.’ (Institutes, Book 4, Chapter 15, Section 1)

Why, then, am I not surprised when a Church spokesperson gets it wrong?

I think it is because, like everyone else, I have become wearily accustomed to the modern habit of referring to everything in terms of feelings and sentiment. Religion itself is now assessed and evaluated according to the ‘feel-good factor’, and not in terms of the truth or falsehood of its claims. Indeed, since it is positively offensive to assert either their truth or their falsehood (you have your truth and I have mine, as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church never tires of reminding us), there can be no other mode of assessment.

I am offended and outraged that baptism is thus reduced to a superstitious gesture, like throwing spilt salt over one’s shoulder; but I am not at all surprised. It is all of a piece. Marx called religion the opiate of the people, and liberal theologians are hell bent on demonstrating that he was absolutely right.

The Browns, moreover, (but you are probably way ahead of me) were offered counselling. And you can be sure that that was not from the minister who baptized their child, (who by word and sacrament could convict them of the grace of God and the wisdom of the Divine Providence), but at the hands of a trained ‘expert’ with proven prophylactic techniques. Grief is no longer to be allowed its own sombre dignity. It must be charmed away by state-funded practitioners trained for the purpose. Goneril and Regan, had they lived at the beginning of the twenty-first century, would have heaped upon their hapless father the final indignity of consigning him to a ‘counsellor’.

Beneath all this, I guess, is an unspoken denial of fundamental realities; a denial of pain, sin and death; a denial that the world is full of things which are beyond the reach of humanly contrived emollients; a denial that redemption comes through suffering. Denial, I suppose, that the death of a new-born child could be part of the benign Providence of a good God.

It is the everyday assumption of well-meaning people that secularism and religion can peacefully co-exist in a cheerful world of multi-cultural complexity. Alas, it seems that such is not and never could be the case. That assumption makes of religion a private matter, whereas religions are necessarily public. They are not world-affirming, (Affirming Catholicism); but world-transforming (the Catholic Faith). They are examples of what the sociologists of knowledge call ‘the social construction of reality’. They are primary modes of cognition, claiming to make statements about the nature of things.

Anyone who has tried to explain even the simplest of religious beliefs to a secular journalist (or to explain to a well-meaning sister on a hospital ward the impossibility of baptizing a dead child in order to bring comfort its parents) will know how wide is the gulf that is fixed. Hence the Spin Doctor’s Dilemma: that of making the Church seem more plausible in the eyes of the World, when the New Testament is so insistent that they are at war with one another other.

Only those spin doctors of consummate skill will be able to avoid falling into stipendiary apostasy.