Thursday, May 15, 2008

Alien Immersion

Once when I was a young boy I was sitting in front of my grandparents’ television minding my own business and watching some game show or a Hazel rerun when I saw it—a public service announcement instructing all aliens to report to their local post office to register. I was both amazed and terrified. I could just see those little green men and women scurrying to the post office to sign up for whatever it was they were to sign up for.

Only later did I learn that “alien” in that context meant someone from another country who was living among us. What to do about the “illegal aliens” living and working in the United States is a hot political topic these days. The most just approach to the problem seems to me to be to try to find a pathway to legal status for those immigrants in our country who may have entered the country illegally but who have otherwise obeyed the law and who desire legal status. The notion that some people have that we should just round them up and send them back seems to me both cruel and impossible. I suspect that most who say such things are more interested in demagoguery than they are in sound policy.

Christians should be particularly interested in the plight of the alien and the sojourner. The Bible, which is our guide in faith and practice, certainly teaches us that God is especially interested in the stranger and sojourner and that God’s people should be, too.

We should immerse ourselves in the plight of the aliens among us, then. We should practice alien immersion.

Of course, in Baptist circles, “alien immersion” means something else entirely. Not surprisingly, given the name of our movement, we Baptists are quite interested in baptism. We believe in “believer’s baptism,” by which we mean that a person should be baptized only after she or he has professed her or his own faith in Christ Jesus. That’s why we don’t baptize infants. My understanding of Baptist history is that the first Baptists in the early 17th century rediscovered and came to emphasize believer’s baptism before they came to emphasize baptism by immersion as opposed to baptism by pouring or sprinkling. Still, most Baptists truly believe that immersion is the appropriate mode. I like it best because it fits so well with the idea of “being buried with Christ and rising to new life in him.”

For some Baptists, any baptism performed outside of a Baptist church constitutes “alien immersion.” Such Baptists, especially those of the Landmark variety, believe that the only true Church is a true Baptist church. Thus, only baptisms performed in those churches by their ministers are valid. So…if a person desires to join such a church and comes from any other kind of church—even if he or she experienced believer’s baptism by immersion—he or she would have to be re-baptized.

I confess that such thinking is alien to me. I believe that baptism is a sign of one’s entry into the kingdom of God and into the Church universal more than a sign of membership in a local church. As a Baptist pastor, I insist on believer’s baptism. That is, if a person comes for membership whose only baptism was infant baptism, then I believe she should be baptized as a sign of her subsequent and responsible acknowledgement of faith in Christ. I am personally not hung up on mode. The church I serve as pastor expects that someone who has not been immersed should be. I am not as concerned about that as I am that a person’s baptism be believer’s baptism.

I think it is fair to say that if a person comes to most Baptist churches in America desiring membership and if that person has experienced believer’s baptism by immersion in a church of another Christian denomination, that person’s baptism would be accepted as valid and he would be accepted for membership without being re-baptized. Again, though, there are Baptist churches where such “alien immersion” would be considered invalid.

Yet a third type of alien immersion is on my mind and it has been put there by the director of the Vatican Observatory. Jesuit Father Jose Funes said in an interview in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that a belief in the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe was not incompatible with Christian faith. He said, "To use St. Francis' words, if we consider earthly creatures as 'brothers' and 'sisters,' why can't we also speak of an 'extraterrestrial brother?'"

He also said that, if such life existed, it does not necessarily follow that they are in need of Christ’s redemption. "God became man in Jesus in order to save us. So if there are also other intelligent beings, it's not a given that they need redemption. They might have remained in full friendship with their creator," he said. He went on to say, though, that if they did need redemption, God’s mercy could be extended to them.

Now there’s something to think about. If there are other forms of intelligent life out there, are they sinners, too? And if they are sinners, did Christ die for them, too? And if they are sinners for whom Christ died, should they not hear the good news? And if they hear the good news and respond, should they not be baptized?

Talk about alien immersion!

It all brings to mind Ray Bradbury’s short story The Man, which he published in 1949. In it, a space explorer travels from planet to planet. On each planet he finds that a prophet has been there; the prophet’s most well-known visitation had been to Earth some 2000 years earlier. The explorer becomes obsessed with finding the prophet but he is destined always to miss him. I know it’s science fiction, but, if there were civilizations spread throughout the universe and if they were in need of salvation, would not the God we know make sure that they knew him?

It seems to me that when we think about alien immersion—whether it’s immersing ourselves in the lives of the strangers and sojourners around us, whether it’s how we think about and behave toward those who have experienced a baptism of a different mode or in a different church than we have, or whether it’s interesting but perhaps meaningless speculation about the possible need for salvation of possible life out there—we need to think mainly of ways to participate in the grace of God.

8 comments:

Lucille said...

The church I serve as pastor expects that someone who has not been immersed should be.

Really. Did you ask them? Did you vote on it? If you actually took a vote, I think you might be surprised. I'm sure some DO believe that a person will go to Hell unless they have experienced baptism by immersion, but I believe the majority believe baptism is only a symbol of our faith, it is what is believed in the heart and lived in the lives of individuals that really matters in the end.

Bruce said...

Good thoughts, near and far both. I too was a bit surprised by the Vatican pronouncement, which had echoes of a Billy Graham statement some years back. But we do indeed have our hands full here on earth.

johnj said...

The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, "SETI", has been proceeding for decades using a variety of observational astronomical techniques and so far has not produced a positive result. In this case even a single positive finding would be monumental and the theologians would have much to think about. Presently, lack of a positive observation only means the search hasn't been thorough enough. Our solar system is comparatively young, existing for perhaps one third of the age of the universe. If the development of life is inevitable given the right conditions, "Drake Equation", then there should be many much older civilizations in the universe. The lack of contact with other civilized worlds is known as the "Fermi Paradox". Two possible reasons would be no other civilizations exist, or the laws of physics won't allow interstellar communications or travel. Our physics is not sufficiently advanced to allow exclusion of the latter reason. For more information use the quoted terms for searches in the Wikipedia.

johnj said...

(A postscript to my previous post) While extraterrestrial intelligent life has long been a staple of science fiction this can't explain the level of interest in the popular media for anything appearing to be possible progress for astronomical findings that might lead to an example of extraterrestrial life, however primitive. Another possible reason for the effort into and interest about SETI is the feeling that demonstrating that life exists in other worlds will remove the need for a Creator and provide additional arguments against Creationism.

Mike Ruffin said...

Lucille,

"The church I serve as pastor expects that someone who has not been immersed should be."

I should have used a word other than "expects." It is in fact a stated requirement in the church's Constitution.

Of course, constitutional requirements can be debated and changed. It would be an interesting discussion.

As I said, my personal position is that believer's baptism is a more important matter than the baptismal mode.

Mike Ruffin said...

Bruce,

You're right--we certainly do have pressing issues here at home.

Mike Ruffin said...

John,

What I wonder is, will we one day need an EMB (Extraterrestrial Mission Board)?

johnj said...

Mike, I am skeptical about the prospects of meeting or even finding evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence. In the unlikely event that we actually do, their religious views and histories will be among the more interesting things we learn. Which way evangelism proceeds will be exceptionally fascinating.