Christians, even those who say much about ‘incarnational’ faith, can say surprisingly little about the way that God claims our bodies. Perhaps this is most striking in treatments of baptism, where the intensely bodily character of the rite would especially seem to invite comment. Even if the term ‘baptism’ were to be regarded as synecdochal for a rite that contains various other ritual elements, it is noteworthy that the core ritual from which the rite derives its name involves such direct action upon the body.
The action of the ritual of baptism isn’t the act of the candidate, but of a minister of Jesus Christ, performed upon the candidate’s body. In contrast to the Lord’s Supper, where the communicant ‘takes’ and ‘eats’ in an actively bodily manner, the body of the baptismal candidate is passive in the act of baptism. While the body’s personal and purposeful activity and our bodily absorption of that which is external to us into our interiority are foregrounded in the Supper, it is the objectivity and exteriority of the body and self that are foregrounded in the rite that necessarily precedes it—baptism.
My body defies the distinction between subject and object: it is both the site of my interiority and subjectivity, yet also an object that exists in continuity with the world and as a part of nature that others can act upon. My body is the site of my consciousness, my sense of self, and my action, but before these come into being, my body receives meaning and identity from other sources. My ‘self’ is never simply my subjectivity: it is also my bodily objectivity and in this objectivity my body is the bearer of ‘given’ meanings that precede me, my subjectivity, my choices, and my actions.
I am biologically related to other persons in a manner that entirely preceded and bypassed any decisions on my part. I am the bearer of resemblances and distinctive features that relate me to others and distinguish me from them. My body is the recipient of a particular genetic inheritance. I am called by a name I did not choose. My body is culturally located and assigned a place within social and cultural matrices of meaning and identity. My body is claimed by nature’s laws, which are powerfully operative within me, binding me to the physical and cosmic order beyond me. My male body, for instance, distinguishes me in a fundamental respect from—yet orders me towards relationship with—women, identifying me as a man, shaping and situating my sense of personhood. As part of the natural order, my body contains a life that ‘goes on without me.’ In all of these respects, the objectivity of my body means that I am ‘spoken’—by nature, culture, tradition, etc.—before I ever ‘speak’ as a subject: indeed, I could not speak were I not first spoken.
It is common in certain quarters to speak of baptism as our ‘act of obedience’ or the ‘expression of our faith’ and, in some respects, these claims aren’t entirely mistaken. Yet what they disguise is that, to the extent that baptism could be referred to as our ‘act of obedience’, it is the ‘action’ of passively submitting to the action of another; to the extent that it can be referred to as the ‘expression of our faith’, the faith ‘expressed’ is not primarily our subjective faith, but the Church’s one catholic and apostolic faith—faith in its communal and objective aspect. Baptism addresses itself directly to the objectivity of the body and seals us with a new identity. It speaks to the very foundations of our selves, to that which preceded the first sparks of our subjectivity (‘expression of faith’) and activity (‘act of obedience’). In salvation, God plucks us up by the roots.
In Romans 6, Paul relates baptism to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, events through which Jesus was brought into a new life ‘by the glory of the Father’ (verse 4). We should notice that in these events it is Christ’s bodily objectivity—not his subjectivity or activity—which is most prominent and significant. Arguably the primary New Testament paradigms of baptism—death/resurrection and rebirth—both present the objectivity of the body at their heart. In baptism we are united together with Christ ‘in the likeness of his death’ (verse 5). In death activity ceases and the body is dispossessed of its subjectivity, surrendering the body to pure objectivity. Baptism corresponds to such surrender, a dispossession through which we are given a ‘new’ body, which provides the basis for a new mode of subjectivity and activity.
The body’s objectivity, materiality, exteriority, and priority, and its embeddedness in the natural order, in tradition, society, and culture are simultaneously preconditions for, yet also resistance to, the freedom of my subjectivity and action. The body constantly alerts us to the givenness of the self, to the fact that I am neither autonomous nor self-defined, but that I receive my identity in large measure from without. My freedom to ‘speak’ my own self necessarily presupposes that self has always already been ‘spoken’. I must always express myself from the unchosen site of identity and meaning represented by my body.
Once again, this reveals problems with some popular language about baptism. When we speak of baptism as expressive of the candidate’s ‘decision,’ we either implicitly resist the givenness of our selves, or we fail to address God’s salvation to the most basic dimension of our humanity. Insistence upon the reality of original sin is, in part, insistence that alienation from God is an aspect of our givenness in a fallen world, not merely a result of our subjectively chosen action. The waters of baptism run deeper than action, deeper than choice, and even deeper than consciousness and subjectivity. They declare a new givenness, that my body is now defined by its relation to Jesus Christ and his body.
From the moment we are conceived until the moment we die, our bodies are situated in a vast web of social meaning and relations that define and identify us in various ways. When we die our bodies are disgorged from this symbolic order—or ‘law’—of society, falling back into the realm of dust (cf. Romans 7:2). Resurrection, in reclaiming bodies from the dust, results in persons who are freed from the bondage that the symbolic order of a sinful world entails. Baptism is a reality-filled promise, sealing us for such deliverance.
Resurrection isn’t rescue from ‘givenness’ as such, but from a form of givenness in which we are alienated from God, from each other, from ourselves, and from the creation. Resurrection is not the basis for pure autonomy, but a release into a new liberating superabundant givenness. In baptism, God declares that, whatever human families or backgrounds we may come from, we are now claimed for his family, sealed for adoption.
Whatever human loyalties and identities our bodies embed us within, these are at most penultimate to the ownership that God now claims of us. However deeply we may feel our bodies weighed down with the bondage of a creation subjected to futility, that creation—and our bodies with it—will one day be released into our liberty as the resurrected children of God. In baptism, God declares that, whatever histories our bodies once belonged to or possessed, they now belong to the great scriptural History that baptism evokes and encapsulates. This story arrived at its telos in the threefold baptism of Christ: his baptism in the Jordan, the baptism of his death and resurrection, and his baptism of his Church at Pentecost.
The meaning of baptism is principally prospective, rather than retrospective. Baptism is a pledge and seal that anticipates future resurrection, adoption, and the redemption of our bodies. In baptism God publicly and visibly marks out our bodies for this coming deliverance. As we have been baptized in the likeness of Christ’s death, we believe that we will also share in the likeness of his resurrection. In baptism God declares a truth and a promise about my body. He declares that the objectivity of my self—the bodily ‘me’ that precedes and lies beneath all of my consciousness, self-knowing, acting, and deciding—is in his hands. In my very frailty and mortality, I can entrust myself to him, assured in his promise to raise me on that Last Day.
Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.
 Behind a great deal popular language concerning baptism lurks an incipiently Cartesian view of the self. For baptism truly to relate to the self, it is presumed that it must be some ‘external’ expression of some ‘internal’ meaning belonging to the self-present subject. The body is regarded as if it were the corpse-like instrument animated by an immaterial soul for the purposes of its self-expression. This is a tenacious misunderstanding of the nature of the human being, which affects much Christian thought.