Home » Baptism as “Culture” – Lecture for The Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, Hobart, May 20, 2014

Baptism as “Culture” – Lecture for The Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, Hobart, May 20, 2014


I began the preparation of this talk with baptism on my mind. I recently gave a paper where I explored the significance of baptism for faith. There, I tried to articulate what is at its core a very simple thesis: that baptism is not idea but reality. That is to say, the baptised discover themselves, their real identity, for the very first time. They discover themselves as children of God, through the mediation of God’s “child”, the Son, who, through the Spirit, offers them the fullness of the divine life in the ‘family’ of the Trinity. This, I proposed, is far more radical than most of us may think: baptismal existence is not some mode of existence added onto a prior existence, not a cosmetic or an ornament, but rather, goes the very heart of what it means to be human. To be human, fully human, is to be a child: to discover a Father who is Love, a Mother who nurtures and protects you, siblings with the same Father and Mother who journey with you. To be human is thus to have the whole self—the whole world—‘relocated’ into this, the ‘real’ world. And once this discovery is made, it is to realize that there is literally nothing outside the Father’s love; there is nothing in the world that does not long for the Father’s love, whether it knows it or not. It should surprise no one, then, when Jesus speaks of “being born again from above” (Jn 3:7), or when St. Paul speaks of how in baptism we “walk in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4), how we are “clothed” with Christ, how we are all one in Jesus Christ (Cf. Gal 3:27, 28).

But let’s be brutally honest: we don’t really believe in baptism. We don’t really believe that in baptism our whole self is taken up into Christ, that we are really inserted into a new dramatic world of reality in which we encounter a Person who “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (DCE 1). And so this is what I want to argue today: before our Christian faith is an idea, before it is even a personal encounter, it is a culture. That is, it is a sacramental backdrop, a set of concrete forms, gestures, and practices, through which the ideas of faith and the very encounter with Christ are experienced. In baptism, one receives entry into this world, this “culture” where faith is concretely embodied, enacted, and mediated.

I will spend some time explaining what I mean by this shortly, but for now it is enough to say the following: the discovery of one’s true, real self in baptism is not automatic. It is only through the existential “cultural world” of baptism that I receive my existence. It is only within this world that love becomes real, that faith becomes credible, that a life of total allegiance to the Father becomes imaginable. And so to the extent that baptism is rejected as the “door” into and the “culture” of this kind of “real” world, is the extent to which faith becomes irrelevant, stale, lacklustre; not really important. The extent to which we have failed in thinking baptism as a culture in this way, is the extent to which we have reduced faith to a mere idea or a vague personal belief in some Person who we might think about from time to time, but who has very little relevance for most of my daily life.

An idea or a person not reinforced or confirmed by a genuinely existential being-with remains of no value. One cannot love an idea; one cannot love a person that one does not really know. One cannot love someone unless one has shared in that person’s world—the joys, sufferings, anxieties, insecurities, wounds—deeply entered into their heart and experience, and deeply renounced the hegemony of one’s own isolated ego. And this is what baptism and the sacramental life of the Church give to our relationship with Christ: they provide the context for that deep sacramental being-with where Christ is truly encountered, where we truly live with him, and where we discover that our true living can only be when He lives in and through us. Like a marriage, the life of the Christian who discovers him or herself for the first time in the real sacramental encounter with the crucified and risen Lord, must be formed by the common practices, the common goals, the common pursuits, the total “one flesh” existence where their identities are discovered in being-with the other. Faith is no different. If it is not a culture—a “civilization of love”, a “culture of life”—it is merely a nice, abstract idea or a person whom I can never really know.


The “Cultural” Dimension of Thought and Action

I would like to begin by collecting a number of key insights from a somewhat eclectic range of thinkers that help to illustrate the importance of what we will call “culture” or the cultural dimension that is always present in any act of knowing, in any experience, in any encounter with another person. In preparing this paper, I decided that I had better acquaint myself more fully with Christopher Dawson (for obvious reasons), and I immediately made an interesting discovery. In his essay called “Christianity as the Soul of the West” I found this gem:

In reality Christianity is not merely a moral ideal or set of ideas. It is a concrete reality. It is the spiritual order incarnated in a historical person and in a historical society. The spiritual order is just as real as the material order. The reason we do not see it is because we do not look at it. Our interests and our thoughts are elsewhere. A few exceptional men, mystics or philosophers, may find it possible to live habitually on a spiritual plane, but for the ordinary man it is a difficult atmosphere to breathe in. But it is the function of Christianity to bring the spiritual order into contact and relation with the world of man. It is, as it were, a bridge between the two worlds; it brings religion down into human life and it opens the door of the spiritual world to man.

I was immediately struck by its similarity to Ratzinger’s claim in Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (1). Clearly, there is some connection here. Two things then struck me about both Dawson and Ratzinger: both have a keen cognizance about how faith becomes credible only in its practices and its culture. Faith only becomes real when it is incarnated in something other than an abstract idea or an ethical system.

And this is why Dawson had such a keen sense of the historical importance of culture. For him, “[a] social culture is an organized way of life which is based on a common tradition and conditioned by a common environment”[1]. Dawson keenly understood that Christian is not a system of ideas, but a culture in this sense. It is rooted in the fertile soil of the Incarnation, and it uses the images and symbols of the world to express the new world of faith (for example, water in baptism). It is precisely Christianity’s cultural “capital”—the way it is embodied in reality, in liturgy, in family life, in social life—that initially grasped the heart and captivated the imagination of the West. It is the way that Christianity incarnates itself in reality that allows the encounter with Christ to be something believable, something I discover I have always longed for. For Dawson, then, it is only Christianity as a culture that is capable of passing on faith. In his estimation, “[o]ur civilization has become secularized largely because the Christian element has adopted a passive attitude allowed the leadership of culture to pass to the non-Christian minority”[2]. Lose the cultural dimension of Christianity, lose the faith is what Dawson seems to be saying. Lose the heart and the body, lose the soul.

We could also say that we are transformed more by doing than by thinking. Ratzinger has emphasised the “performative” dimension of faith[3]. That is, it is not enough to think about or give rational consent to a doctrine, for example; rather, one must concretely live it—one must “perform” what one claims to believe—if it is to become an actual reality in one’s life. Indeed, it is precisely by the “performance” of faith that we have any access to the truth of the faith at all. The sacramental life of the Church resists all rationalizing attempts to turn Christianity into an idea, for it ever witnesses to the primacy of God’s real, dramatic, and existential gift of himself in the action of sacrament and liturgy. It is here, in the sacramental-liturgical “performance” of the faith that the heart of Christianity exists; that it literally lives and breathes, where God and man really “touch”, as it were. And thus, it is only inasmuch as each of us locates and discovers ourselves within this performance that we encounter Christ, and in so doing, transform our existence.

Perhaps surprisingly, for some of us, Dawson and Ratzinger actually both stand on the cutting edge of contemporary scholarship with their insistence that the cultural dimension of thinking and acting is all important for the credibility of a community of belief. Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out that a belief or belief system needs to have practices that concretely embody it if they are to be legitimized[4]. If there is dissonance between belief and practice, it is a sign that the community in which it takes place is in a state of crisis. It is only when practices and beliefs “line up”, as it were, in and through the actions of real human actors, that a community of belief can have any degree of functionality. More to the point, it is only by living and experiencing a belief through its practices that community members can have any degree of attachment to it.

Dictators and despots have always known this. The way to peoples’ minds is through their bodies. Simply change their routines, discipline and police their bodies, modify their daily practices to the tune of the particular ideology you wish to indoctrinate them in, and soon (if you have the force to back it up) you will have brainwashed them into subservience. But Western secularism also knows this. Advertising knows this. There is no need to directly attack someone’s belief system; simply hammer them with designer jeans, noise, and distraction, with alternative practices. Make an historical event with Christ at the centre seem unbelievable and irrelevant by contrast. Discipline their bodies with the practices of consumerist culture and you will have found your way into their wallet, and created malleable cultural zombies who will willingly give themselves up for further transactions. This is far more insidious than the approach of dictators or despots, for it makes people give themselves up to “secular liturgies”[5] voluntarily. It makes them think they are in control, that their choices are free, and that “things” will make them happy (or at least, take away some of the pain).

So, we have talked about the central role of practices; how they need to be “performed” if the beliefs they embody are to be taken seriously, how beliefs and practices need to “line up” for any degree of a practice’s credibility. But we now need to consider the beliefs from which practices flow. For there is no practice that does not emerge out of a particular way of viewing the world, out of an interpretive horizon, a worldview, a social context. This is not to say that truth-as-such does not exist, but it is to say that it is always necessarily shaped by context: by the choices people make, by the historical accomplishments and calamities that shape a social consciousness, by geopolitical considerations, by opportunity or lack thereof, even by apparently mundane things like climate or physical geography.

What makes human being unique—as numerous postmodern commentators have keenly recognized—is not simply their “reason”, understood as something entirely universal and untouched by context—indeed, Ratzinger has argued that there is no such thing as “pure reason”—but that all human reason is profoundly influenced by things such as space and place (Jean-Yves Lacoste), by a particular linguistic “Being-in-the-world”(Martin Heidegger), by their “lifeworld” (Edmund Husserl), by a group’s “social imaginaries” (Charles Taylor)[6] or “plausibility structures” (Peter Berger)[7], and so on an so forth. There is always already a world in place when we enter it; and what world we enter matters.

At the heart of this reality of always being influence by context and perspective is the reality of the “lived” body (Maurice Merleau-Ponty)[8] that “places” us in the world in a particular way; the body gives us “sensors” and “feelers” to really encounter the world. In this, the body sets up a paradox: it means that we approach the world as always dramatically placed as participants, never as immaterial souls who float about the world dispassionately. The body means we are involved. But even as we are constrained by it and always already committed to things[9]—e.g., the body limits and commits us to this family, this tribe, this locale, this social body, this lifeworld, and thus to this way of thinking and feeling, etc—this very fact means that we are more than observers. We are really part of the world, part of its existential fabric. As part of the world, we are always committed to something; family, tribe, nation, association—all those relationships and social bodies that have given us our identity. Thus, we never approach the world only by the mind, but by the body, the heart, the imagination. We are capable of being moved and of moving others; we care; we love; we hope; we dream; we suffer. We never stand above reality as a master, but are always part of its canvas, always being moved at a far deeper level than mind only. Consequently, knowledge is as grounded in a kind of “tacit” or implicit knowing (Michael Polanyi)[10] as much as it is in explicit or theoretical knowing. Thus ideas and beliefs originate in the lived body in a real way, as much as in the head.

And so, humans are social and cultural creatures before they are “rational”. Human “rationality” is always filtered by the family and societies that we are born into; by the quality of our basic relationships; by our “sense” of human existence and meaning. Who we meet and how we meet them—and how we treat them and how they treat us—has everything to do with what we take to be ‘rational’. As such, culture has everything to do with the very shape and course of human history. “Reason”, or what we take to be “rational” is, to a quite disturbing degree, in fact, a profoundly malleable exercise. Consequently, as postmodernism has pointed out (quite convincingly, I would say), much of what has passed as “rational” in human history is in fact little more than veiled ideology: a particular interpretation, a particular power-play, a particular fear of the other, that motivates the impetus or popularity of this or that “rational” idea or system. All thinking is thus to a certain extent “theological”; that is, formed by a particular allegiance to a god or an idea that acquires a god-like status. The “rational progress of history”—a la the Enlightenment or liberal dogma—has as much, if not more, to do with a particular confluence of history, persons, ideas, and prejudices than it does with rationality or truth-as-such, and as such, has much less of an association with “reason” than most of us may think. Putting this insight in a humorous register, Blaise Pascal famously suggested that had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the whole history of the world would have been changed. The long and short of this is that reason always bears some real relationship to context; it is never, as Ratzinger reminds us, “pure”.

I would like to tie this section together with two reflections on how our mothers’ shine a light of credibility on what we have just said in the preceding. First, consider the paradigm of the mother-child relationship (von Balthasar)[11]. It is in the pre-cognitive experience of responding to its mother’s smile that the child discovers authentic meaning. In other words, in this smile—this primordial, intimate encounter—there is a real discovery of Being as One, as True, as Good, as Beautiful. This is a real, first person immersion in reality as a participant, and it is thus that the child is awakened to the transcendental meaning of existence. In other words, it is by being-in-reality—not standing above it—that the child discovers her identity; that the child experiences love. This experience reveals the intimate relationship between practice, belief, and context, the way in which the horizon of the other (in this case, the mother) and context form the fundamental backdrop of any experience of reality.

Second, the irony in all of this complex and nuanced cultural analysis is that mothers’ have always understood deeply and intuitively the centrality of context and practices for the mediation of truth. “You become what you eat”; “Bad company corrupts good morals”, etc. Mother’s know how vulnerable our rational faculties are when we commit to certain kinds of social practices. They keenly understand that it matters little if you are not formally or intentionally adopting this or that worldview or philosophy; the longer you inhabit the cultural practices that embody such a worldview or a philosophy, the more you will naturally come to identify yourself with its theoretical principles; the more they will inhabit your very soul. In a word, I would say, mothers are our best witness against the bankrupt paradigm of the all-knowing, rational subject of the Enlightenment.

Let me summarize what we have learned. This, then, is the “cultural” context of thinking and acting. Truth is always mediated through practices; practices embody worldviews; there is no point at which the human actor can stand supremely above himself and his context to sovereignly define reality as such. Absolute truth—if it exists at all—will only be unveiled within the particular, within the contextual, within the historical: within the cultural practices that necessarily embody it. The search for truth, therefore must begin there: in culture. For the Christian, it must begin in the “culture” of baptism, in the sacramental economy of the Church, in the concrete practices of the faith.

Let me be clear: I’m not a relativist. But I think that truth can be only unveiled retrospectively, in context, and that only a radically historical act can therefore unlock the meaning of cosmos, person, and divinity. I think that all accounts of truth are, in one way or another “ideological”, but that what matters is not that they are ideological, but rather what “ideology” they are based on.


The “Culture” of Baptism

What I will argue here is that if we want to get to the heart of what Christian existence really is, we have to immerse ourselves in its “culture”. I am struck by two things with this claim. On the one hand, there is nothing really original about it. It is at its heart a stock Christian claim, that belief is necessarily tied up with belonging; “faith seeking understanding”; “Faith purifies reason” (Ratzinger). Because we have experienced (that is, touched, savoured, tasted) God’s love, we believe. Because we have encountered Christ, we believe. We believe, in a word, because we are already “inside” the drama of faith as participants. Our bodies are already invested in its practices, already “touching” and “feeling”, already receptive to its message. Outside of the measure of these practices, there cannot be belief (unless, in Christ, one’s “outside” is broken open by the “inside” of faith in some miraculous way: the person who believes is always the person who has first been called and moved by Christ). For it is only by the “cultural” transmission of faith that its credibility can be experienced. This, I suggest, all great Christian thinkers have always understood.

On the other hand, however, there can be no question that most of us do not think in these terms today. Our default desire is to somehow “prove” faith from outside of faith; to justify it “rationally” by some other extrinsic measure; to make it more universally palatable to the learned intellectual; to shield ourselves from its radical and demanding edges. In other words, we want the truth of faith, but we do not want to really participate in it; we don’t want to really become it. And so we are stuck, torn by the bifurcation of head, body, and heart: our heads may want faith, but our bodies and our hearts belong to another master.

And so it is in this second context that our argument here receives its radical character. Think faith from within, from its practices and its “culture”. I will argue that baptism provides a horizon, a worldview, a concrete set of practices that form the “rhythmic” backdrop to the Christian’s life; a backdrop, indeed, for existence itself. Through its practices, it “disciplines”—first and foremost—the person’s heart and body in the logic of love, gift, death and re-birth, illuminating a new world—a “real” world—that the Christian occupies; the whole Christian, body, mind, heart. In other words, the “cultural” practices of faith give rise to a metaphysics; a baptismal metaphysics, as I put it. That is, the cultural practices of Christianity do not remain in a ghetto of faith, but rather reveal the world as recapitulated in an ecstatic act of divine filiation.

For now, let us turn to the “culture” of baptism itself: In baptism, we are “thrown” into a horizon, a lifeworld, a “language game” (Ludwig Wittgenstein) that possesses its own laws; its own practices; its own inner impetus. When I say baptism is a “culture”, I mean that it is not the depositing of sanctifying grace into the soul as some extrinsic or juridical “one off” act of a Divine Being. Rather, I mean that it is literally the creation of a world:  it is God grasping the creature, “adopting” the creature, pulling the creature into a warm embrace, into the bosom of the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and doing so within—not over or above—a new set of concrete practices and symbolisms that become the place and the space in which God’s loving relationship is played out.

Let me try to explain this more simply. Baptism is not an idea. It is not magic. It is not a juridical event that simply wipes one clean of sin. It is not a mere formality, a ritual marking membership in a club or association, not “a symbolizing the confession of faith, a pedagogical tool for those who require images and signs, while in itself ultimately unnecessary” (Lumen Fidei 41). It is not a one-off moment of purification. It is not a super-power that one simply wields against the dark forces. It is rather, from its first moment, a certain type of being-with; a purifying elevation of the individual wounded and separated by sin to a sharing in the filial relationship of Father and Son. The baptised person becomes a child. This person has a “world” created for him in which his relation to the Father can be lived; in which he or she can be ever-closer conformed to the Father. It is precisely this world, then, that is the “culture” of baptism. It is here that one concretely “lives” one’s identity as son or daughter, that one continuously receives one’s existence anew as a gift of the Father.

All of this is underwritten by the baptismal rite itself. The ancient rites beautifully symbolise the transition from the old man of sin to the new man in Christ. In particular, it is itself a microcosm of the dramatic tension of life in Christ. Let me very briefly identify some of the most salient aspects[12]. First, the catechumen begins the process as a stranger to the Church, as symbolized by the tradition of beginning the rite outside of the baptistery. This is not to say that he is somehow “unclean” in the sense of ancient ritualism (e.g. ritual impurity), but rather accents the state of spiritual death that only the radical newness of grace will overcome.

From here, the catechumen moves into the baptistery where he is stripped of his clothing. His nakedness symbolizes total transparency to God; the radicality, the totality of the catechumen’s renunciation of the old man and his works, a stripping off of mortality, a return to the Paradisal state of innocence. Skipping ahead (rather cavalierly, I admit) we arrive to the catechumen’s descent into the waters. Here we encounter death, real death; death with the crucified Christ. In order for there to be life, there must be death: a crucifying of the old man in order to put on the new man in Christ. From the dark waters of sin and alienation crucified by Christ on the cross emerges the totally new man, bathed in the triumphant glory of the Resurrection. The son who was lost is now found. The son discovers the Father and fully enters his world.

The dramatic interplay that occurs in baptism does not end at the completion of the rite. For in baptism, in the sacramental efficacy of the rite, the bar has been set; a world has been created in which the baptised must rediscover their baptism anew in every moment of their lives; it has become the new rhythm through which their existence is now to be lived. The baptized have entered the Trinitarian reality of life in Christ and the Spirit. They have entered the sacramental life of the Church, the place where God and man “touch” as it were through the concrete practices of faith. As Ratzinger puts it: “Those who are baptized are set in a new context, entrusted to a new environment, a new and shared way of acting, in the Church” (LF 41).

What baptism does, in a word, is create a “culture”—a sacramental milieu—based on the dramatic work of Christ. It takes us to the dramatic enactment of Christ crucified and resurrected. It inserts us into those very events “transcribing” us into that world and the world beyond. We enter liturgical-sacramental time, the dramatic staging of the events of salvation, wherein body, heart, and mind are put to the new tasks that come with our filial adoption. Nothing in the totality of this “culture” is mundane or neutral. For example:  marriage must reflect the sacramental glory of the natural man-woman relationship’s elevation to the new spiritual fruitfulness of the Christ-Church relationship and Trinitarian love; liturgy must reflect the gravitas of the dramatic interplay of death and life, suffering and re-birth, of the kenotic love of Christ crucified and poured out for us, of the eschatological tension of the almost-but-not-yet-fully-there character of our baptismal existence. As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it, baptismal existence is “an inconceivable grace” but it is also “the highest kind of challenge”[13]. The exclamation, “Abba, Father!” (Gal 4:6), “must go hand in hand with our whole existence as children of God.” To take this grace seriously demands full “immersion” in the culture of baptism.



Let me conclude with a rather strange juxtaposition. Contrary to received wisdom, the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche loved Christ. While Neitzsche despised what he regarded as the facile and hypocritical lives of Christians around him who failed to live the radicality of the Gospel, in Christ he saw the very epitome of the Ubermensch: the person capable of throwing off the shackles of a therapeutic existence, of boldly creating a radical meaning and thus living the will to power in its fullest degree as a practice, this in spite of the overarching meaninglessness of existence. “In truth”, says Nietzsche, “there was only ever one Christian, and he died on the Cross”. But, “a death like this was the very kingdom of God”[14].

This bearer of ‘glad tidings’ died the way he lived, the way he taught – not ‘to redeem humanity’, but instead to demonstrate how people need to live. His bequest to humanity was a practice: his behaviour towards the judges, toward the henchmen, the way he acted in the face of his accusers and every type of slander and derision, – his conduct on the cross. He does not offer any resistance, he does not defend his rights, he does not make a single move to avert the words, what is more, he invites it… And he begs, he suffers, he love with those, in those people who did him evil… The whole evangel is contained in the words to the thieves on the cross. ‘That was a truly divine man, a ‘child of God’, said the Thief[15] (32).

Christ does not just think about an idea; He lives it; He breathes it; He commits totally to it. Christ thus stares the meaninglessness of existence straight in the eye, and existence blinks. In his tragic greatness, Nietzsche gets it: an idea is not worth anything unless it is worth dying for; unless it is totally committed to; unless it is totally practiced.

Before faith can be an idea, before it can be an encounter, it must be a practice. I have argued that this is what baptism is at its heart: the “cultural” practice through which Christ is really encountered and the person truly transformed. Ratzinger would agree with Nietzsche that a faith without “performance” is nihilism. Against Nietzsche, however, (with St. Paul) Ratzinger professes belief in the baptismal performance in which death is the paradoxical door to new life. Baptismal culture thus overcomes the will to power, overcomes the tragedy of a world full of empty horizons and practices with no inner meaning or purpose. In his words, then, I conclude:

Baptism is more than a cleansing. It is death and resurrection. Paul himself, speaking in the Letter to the Galatians of the turning point in his life brought about by his encounter with the Risen Christ, describes it with the words: “I am dead.” At that moment a new life truly begins. Becoming Christian is more than a cosmetic operation that would add something beautiful to a more or less complete existence. It is a new beginning, it is rebirth: death and resurrection[16].


Conor Sweeney


[1] Religion and Culture, 47.

[2] The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life, 46.

[3][3] Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, 124.

[4] Cf. After Virtue.

[5] Cf. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom.

[6] Cf. A Secular Age.

[7] Cf. The Social Construction of Reality.

[8] Cf. The Phenomenology of Perception.

[9] I am thankful to Matthew John Paul Tan for this Merleau-Pontean inspired point.

[10] Cf. The Tacit Dimension.

[11] Cf., e.g. Unless You Become Like this Child.

[12] In what follows, I am relying heavily on Jean Danielou’s exegesis of the rite of baptism in his The Bible and the Liturgy.

[13] Unless you Become Like this Child, 40

[14] The Anti-Christ, 37.

[15] Ibid., 32.

[16] Benedict XVI, General Audience, December 10, 2008. Thanks to Owen Vyner for the reference.