Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baptisms for the dead - an early Christian practice?

It remains on my mind that the Bishop said to me with a degree of emphasis on it being in the bible (he knows I have a strong leaning towards biblical text which I consider to be the gospel, having not yet fully embraced the BoM, D & C, PoGP as 'gospel') so much so, that I wanted to do my own follow up and see what I think the bible verse, chapter and context is trying to say.  Verse; 1 Corinthians 15:29  29Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? 

Given that I am not taken to use of one verse as a methodology to create an entire concept or doctrine based on that verse, I was curious about the entire chapter and what was being said, to whom, by whom, along with some sense of the era or period of time in which it was being said as well as some of the customs/practices of that time.  It is a given that I cannot possible know what were customs/practices of an era of antiquity and must rely on scholarly studies, which of themselves are seldom in agreement.  More sorting, more puzzle pieces and I've long since abandoned an idea that with enough puzzle pieces I would be able to piece together an entire picture, rather a composite of fragments of customs/cultures and belief sets that have been shared, borrowed, confiscated, supplanting and/or augmenting the existing cultural belief sets.

It is my belief that it is impossible to gather enough information or ideas or concepts to glue together an overarching belief set thus having at last driven down to the 'truth' as a singular foundational underlaying of the many years of layers upon layers.  I think my mental approach wants to be a bit like an 
archaeological dig, getting down beneath the surface to find out what was buried over the eons.  And even then knowing whatever is found will still be subject to interpretation based on the finder's perspectives given his/her period in history. 

excerpt at ORB    (more closely matches my understanding of the Christian narrative, and I appreciated  as well as recommend reading the entire article)

Early Christian doctrines developed and were shaped over time; they were neither fixed nor stable. Once a doctrine was established it often necessitated a subsequent doctrine to define more precisely what was meant and to clarify the subtle nuances. Lived experience and understanding was the basis for the emergence of forming and re-forming doctrine. In other words, the need to develop doctrine about Jesus Christ emerged from the need to sort out what was truly Christian experience and life. In the words of the early church historian, Joseph Kelly:
The story of the Church begins at Pentecost with a frightened group of disciples wondering what will happen to them; it progresses through an almost frenetic attempt to win over the outside world before the Second Coming; it focuses on an epic struggle with the most powerful empire of the ancient world; it reaches its high point with the conversion of that empire to the new faith; it closes with the gradual decline of a great civilization and the emergence of a new world. It has a large canvas and broad brush strokes. While we must pay meticulous attention to the particulars, we must never forget the generalÅ (Kelly, "Why Study Early Church History?" 5)

I read the entire chapter of Corinthians for context, and continued to be nagged by the sense that this one particular verse pointed to something I had not yet explored for myself.  Further that it is not of substantive value to be mentioned in the Protestant narratives to which I had been exposed, nor the Episcopal narrative, meaning to me that it has been discounted as not relevant to the Protestant or Episcopal narratives.  If I bypass Protestant and Episcopal narratives, what do the religious studies have to say about this verse, being that it does point to some kind of custom being practiced in that time.  What practice, why, and from where does that practice stem? 

Chasing it down, I gain some knowledge of what is believed among some scholars to be the custom pointed to in the verse (along with a lot of sifting through the usual and typical finger pointing to the Mormon belief as heretical, false, misguided, etc.).  That is not what I'm after, I'm after some concrete sense of what custom, what practice, for what reason, why is Paul pointing it out at all unless it was being practiced and he knew of it.  And if so, is he finding a commonality he can point to in preaching the Christ resurrection or is he admonishing against something suggesting a replacement of belief sets, what he is preaching instead of the practice of what they are doing?   

It would be presumptuous for me to write that I found answers to what I was looking for as if that is the explanation.  Rather I would state that I did find thoughts about what I was looking for that cause me to pause a bit and let that information percolate a while.  Nonetheless, it becomes evident to me that somewhere in the Mormon history, the meanings attached to this verse, whether from Gnostic or otherwise belief sets, this verse brought the Mormon practice of baptisms for the dead alive as a ritual practice imbued with sacred meanings for those who teach it as well as those who believe it as well as those who practice it.  Iconography has sprung up with it to further imbue sacred meaning to the practice.  It is therefore real enough as it is practiced in the LDS church among the membership.

 I'm not having a problem with approaching it from that perspective.  I'm still stuck though on the a,b,c  element that ties tithing to temple, therefore ties tithing to the Mormon sacred ritual practice of performing baptisms for the dead, as it is performed only in the temple, not in the chapels and access to the temple requires a temple recommend which requires approval from a bishop which means responding with an honest degree of integrity to the questions posited by the bishop in which the question of 'do you pay a full tithing' requires an answer of yes or no.  The matter of defining what is a full tithing, as in one tenth of your personal increase has considerable wiggle room, and were we agreeable to paying some part of a tithing, could easily respond to the question with a yes with a personal degree of honest integrity.  The church has not been unclear in restating repetitiously it's requirements of members to pay tithing at a rate of ten percent or 1/10th of their income/increase.

It seems that I do not yet have a testimony of tithing, which is in fact prohibiting and impeding gaining a testimony of the temple, a testimony of baptism for the dead, a testimony of sealing, and as yet unknown to me other testimonies that involve temple, ie, personal endowments, ordinances and in truth because it is absent in my experience, I really don't yet know what else will be kept from me for the lack of temple experience.

It's an odd thing, because I have a belief in sharing, compassion, generosity of spirit, empathy for humankind, community, communion, and belonging.  While I recognize there is usually some sort of price to be paid for admittance to the tribe, be it initiation rituals, practices, customs as shared among the tribe, I have not yet encountered a must pay cash contribution situation.  Appreciating that it does take funding for most organizations, religious or otherwise, to function well, I'm not opposed to contributing for the sake of well being of the organizations ability to function.  I am not sold on a specific contribution amount being set as the price of admittance though - that concept troubles me.  

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