“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers,” wrote the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. He was pointing out in his inimitable way how the course of our lives unfold from an act over which we have no say. At least this was the case. Today school boards, government and media in North America strongly promote a child’s “right to self-identify” their gender and alter their names and even bodies accordingly. That parents, physicians, and educators must respect this right is being insisted upon by courts in some jurisdictions and, as Prof Iain Provan has shown in Convivium, is increasingly supported by parents themselves.
So the old markers that used to shape our personhood like our birth names, pronouns, and body parts are no longer considered reliable. Indeed, sometimes these markers must be repudiated outright, like when a trans or queer person’s birth name and gender are “deadnamed” from public use.
I listen to stories told by transgendered persons in the media or the queer and non-binary students I meet on the university campus where I work as a chaplain. They think it presumptuous for parents to fix their child’s fate by naming their baby and dressing it in blue or pink. Their stories have made me realize how churches that baptize children — like the Reformed church in which I’m ordained — are doing something just as presumptuous. For many religions make strong and even indelible claims about a person’s identity through rites of initiation like infant baptism, circumcision for Jews and Muslims, or amrit for Sikhs. These practices appear wholly at odds with our culture’s insistence on a child’s right to self-identification, especially in regard to sexual and gender identity.
I wish to reflect on this tension by leaning into my own church tradition’s practice of infant baptism, hopefully in a way that resonates with adherents of other religions that initiate children into faith as well as those churches that practice baptism but not of infants.
What happens in infant baptism? My Reformed church joins with all mere Christians in professing “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” (Apostles Creed) when we bring a child to the font. Yet baptizing a child isn’t just “a washing away” of sin (to use the language of our beloved Heidelberg Catechism). Baptism adds something to the child: the mark and seal of God’s Spirit that identifies her throughout her whole life as God’s own through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Belgic Confession, 34). In baptism our identity is given to us. God says who we are.
And here we should notice exactly how God says who we are. Take my own baptism in April 1978 at five weeks of age as an example. “Todd Regan, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” said the Presbyterian minister (who also happened to be my dad) as he signed a wet cross on my forehead. He then prayed using the lovely old words of the Book of Common Order: “Bless him and pour out your Spirit upon him. Grant that Todd now being ingrafted into Christ may receive out of His fullness and stand firm in the faith until He comes again.”
I was baptized with a name given that embodied not only my parents’ preference but also the particulars of our family traditions, our Scotch-Irish ancestry, and of course my own male sex. For baptism doesn’t just address the problem of our sinfulness but also — to use a phrase from theologian Ephraim Radner’s book A Time to Keep — the good of our “skinfulness,” in other words, the many things given to the child like body, sex, name, family, culture, etc. In baptism, a child in all its sinfulness and skinfulness is taken into the life of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Like other rites of religious initiation for children, infant baptism appears audacious in a culture that insists on the right to self-identification and treats a person’s skinfulness as accidental to personal identity. I overheard one campus LGBTQ2+ advocate state her preference for the ‘logical’ over the ‘biological’: it’s the name and gender she has chosen for herself that count as her “authentic self” and not the name and body she was given by her parents. On the contrary, the sacrament of infant baptism makes clear how identity comes from “from above” (John 3:3)— God’s creating and redeeming word given through our birth families, revealed in our bodies, then sealed in the sacrament. We don’t name ourselves.
In our present cultural moment some churches might be tempted to abandon the practice of infant baptism as incompatible with the right to self-identification and reserve baptism for individuals who have self-identified both their faith and gender. Some churches might consider re-baptizing transgender or non-binary Christians who have deadnamed that which was given to them at birth and baptism. Or could some churches keep infant baptism but recast it as a sort of general blessing? I’ve already witnessed this first-hand in some mainline Protestant churches in Canada and Europe, with the pastor declaring simply that God loves this child. It’s a nice gesture, but one that surely renders baptism a rather “hollow sign” (Belgic Confession, 33).
What if we admit instead that baptism is a numbing blow from which we never recover? We could emphasize the spiritual “power” (to use John Calvin’s word) of infant baptism as an identity-sealing act for persons struggling with gender identity and for the pastors, priests, counsellors and companions who offer them care and loving support. Faith communities with strong rites of initiation tell a compelling story of how identity is created and formed in our children—one which challenges the prevailing social imaginary in North America that marginalizes the sheer givenness of our physical and spiritual identity.
It is odd that in my own Christian Reformed Church the social and pastoral implications of what we do when we baptize babies is either unacknowledged or unexplored in our current acrimonious debate over whether our denomination’s traditional perspective on human sexuality is binding or merely an optional belief for pastors and members. Voices from our past remind us “to use our baptism our whole lives, particularly in times of temptation” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 167). That temptation may be to sin or despair, like it was for Luther, who would roar “baptizatus sum!” at the Devil when assailed by doubts. It may also be the temptation we face today to believe differently about ourselves than what God has given us in our baptism.