Thursday, March 15, 2007

Theological pet peeve of the day -- babies and sin

Trying to remain positive can be difficult. I don't want to be one who rants and raves about others, harshly critiquing, causing dissension and usually on this blog I think I maintain a positive stance. But for some reason, I run into bad theology surrounding certain topics from time to time, and now I have to expound on it or else I think I will lose my mind. So today's theological pet peeve is the reckoning of sin to babies on the ground of their "self-centeredness."

This idea today comes from a pastor friend of mine, for whom I have a great amount of respect, who usually thinks things through, but on this topic, I believe is completely and utterly wrong. And maybe I am so vexed by this problem, because I feel he ought to know better. And the reality is, he might, but being a new father himself, he is so wrapped up in the presence of a new child and the chaos that ensues in life, that going from experience is the best he can do right now.

So to the point at hand... I have heard this point made many times, usually by some lay person who heard a pastor teach this is a class, or proclaim it in a sermon. Usually the idea comes about because some parishioner has asked, "Pastor, why do we baptize babies? They are so innocent. What could that possibly have done that they would need to be forgiven?" It is at this point that the pastor falls to bad theology. Rather than challenge the view of sin of said parishioner (which is where the conversation needs to begin), they jump straight to the notion of innocence, and thus claim that babies are self-centered because they do not respect the needs of the mother or father, waking them at all odd hours of the night, crying, and generally driving them crazy among other things. At first hearing it might sound like a good explanation, and being the parent of two young children myself, I am tempted to grasp ahold of this and cling.

But it is pure and utter nonsense. Here is why we do not ground the basis of our theology on our experience. Experience allows us to ask "What's going on here?" but then we must proceed with Scripture and tradition.

Nowhere am I led to believe that infants are innocent. I believe that they are sinful creatures as the rest of us, but I will also hold that it is not their selfishness that is the proof. They are simply human, therefore sinful. The notion that they could not have done anything to merit this declaration is a reduction of the notion of sin to that of transgression. We transgress, break God's commandments, commit sins, of course; however those sins are a sign of our sinfulness. Those sins manifest the mark of Sin, the power at work in the world that has ruptured our fundamental relationships between God, between creation, between other humans, and even within ourselves. Sin is the brokeness that humans unleashed upon the world when we chose less than what God desired. The second article of the Augsburg Confession declares that all human beings who are born in the natural course of human life are sinful. Humans are "unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God." Humans from conception and birth have in essence a God-shaped hole in their selves that makes them less than what God wants them to be. Sin causes us to lack something essential in us that ruptures our relationships.

And by continuing to point to an infant's self-centeredness as a sign of sin, I believe we perpetuate the continued rupturing of relationship between us and this infant. This infant is utterly dependent upon the caregiver. Would a child be so demanding if the caregiver were to respect the utter dependence upon which this life hangs? By naming this child's dependence as self-centeredness, we are complicit in the power of sin because in the extreme, we might feel like we can ignore the pleads of the infant since after all it is just being sinful.

In fact, I might be tempted to argue that this infant's dependence on parents and other caregivers is precisely a model for us to ponder our total dependence upon God. We are to call upon God in every need, which is why God's name is such a precious gift. Of course in our sinfulness we don't often call out rightly, but when hungry, we can call upon God. When distressed, we can call upon God. When frightened and alone, we can call upon God. This infant is a model of godliness, and we call that sinful. But the power of sin can do that.



Phillip said...


Just as we can see in the infant's dependence on its parents an image of how we ought to call and depend on God, could we also view the toddler's self-centeredness and inability to choose what is healthy and safe for him or herself as a metaphor for the state of human sinfulness?

You bring up a good point: that a baby should not be lambasted theologically because of its innocence. I often wonder how this view of sinfulness would be applied to the infant Jesu? Surely the blessed babe acted no differently than our "self-centered" babies! Yet he was without sin, right?

P.S. an after-thought said...

Well written. Good explanations. Thanks.

shaketeachmd said...

A while back I was reading St. Augustine's CONFESSION, and I recall him bringing up this very point of the self-centeredness of babies. If my memory is correct, that is exactly when I stopped reading. Something about that argument did nto sit well with me. Thanks for articulating my uneasiness better than I could.


Brian said...

Oh... St. Augustine said it? Hmmm... I better make sure that I think this through then... Better pull out my copy of Confessions.

Chip Frontz said...

Very well said, Brian.