Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine and his wife asked if I would baptize their baby. I was a bit taken aback by this request, because I knew this person to be a fairly staunch agnostic, verging on atheist. So I asked them why they would want this. 'Well, it's a traditional thing,' they said. 'We like the idea of a naming ceremony, and we want all of our friends and family to come together and celebrate this child's life and welcome her into theirs.' This seemed reasonable enough to me. But why ask me, an Episcopal priest, to administer a sacrament that has to do with religious beliefs they do not profess? 'We don't really believe in God, or want to belong to the Christian church,' they conceded. 'But we believe in the church of Cathie!'
As far as I could tell, what they meant by this is that they saw me as a religious person who was relatively non-threatening and available, who understood and cared for them, and who would not judge or impose my beliefs on them. As flattered as I was by this, I did have to gently explain that the 'church of Cathie' is, in fact, the Christian Church.
And that, while I could and potentially would baptize their baby, my doing so would necessarily involve welcoming her into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That in fact, I could do nothing else. The only authority I have in the world is religious authority, and so, if I baptize or marry or bury you, it is an act of faith and an act of the church, and a very specific set of Christian beliefs.
Still, I get why they asked, and I suspect, what they were after. As more and more people have stopped attending church, or are not brought up in the Christian faith (or any other faith), we are losing our connection to something larger than ourselves. We are losing our ability to ground ourselves in a tradition or a story. We are losing our framework to talk about how God works in our lives, and how we work in God's. And while lots of people say this doesn't matter, I think we are just beginning to understand that it does.
So much of this is evident when we are born, marry, and die. Words fail us when huge things like this happen. And not just words, but our own boundaries - our own human ability to make sense of the miraculous, the tragic, the profound, the infinite capacity of love and the ever-present reality of evil.
But these aren't the only times when we miss the connection to something larger. Everyday events in our lives - losing a job, confronting an injustice, navigating a relationship - make much more sense when we have a deeper understanding of how we believe the world works, and our place in it. We can't just make up our own moral frameworks - deep down we all believe something, and those beliefs inform our every action, big and small.
Lots of times we have vague ideas about how God is involved in this, but we are hard-pressed to explain this in terms of our faith, or our lack of it. If we are called to love and forgive because Jesus loved and forgave us, what does this look like in our jobs, our families, our politics? When we are born, and marry, and die, where do we think God is in this and how is God comforting, challenging, and carrying us through? If we reject belief in God, how do we make sense of these things?
These big questions are easy to ignore, but they follow us around everywhere, whether we like it or not. As a free range priest, I often say that I am a 'theological interpreter'. By this I mean that part of my job is to remind us of these questions and, if not answer them, at least suggest ways in which the Christian faith provides a framework in which to consider them.
'You are what you eat,' the doctor says, and in so many ways this is true. We are also what we believe. And if we don't know what we believe, then we don't know who we are. Baptism, and other sacraments, are ways in which we understand our identity as children of God. Theology is how we talk about it. We all need these things to live.