Baptism

May 22nd, 2011

Today I was baptized and joined the Mennonite Church. I imagine this might surprise some of you for various reasons, so let me provide a bit of background.

I’ve had a lot of people, both in person and in comments responding to my blog post, express surprise with statements I have made. The view of Christianity that many people have is of a group that devalues scientific inquiry and places a lot of emphasis on things like opposition to gay marriage, evolution, and abortion, and enjoys political leaders that say “bring it on.”

While I know some Christians that fall into that mold, there are quite a few that don’t as well. Some churches, such as the one I attend, have a surprisingly diverse set of people and yet still function and get along well.

Today they accepted me with joy. Nobody was concerned that I started my statement with a reference to ancient Greek philosophy, wound up suggesting that the church ought to make sure to make illegal immigrants, gays and lesbians, and prostitutes feel welcome, and embraced both religion and scientific inquiry, feeling them complimentary.

Mennonites practice adult baptism rather than infant baptism. A traditional age for people to be baptized is during high school, though emphasis is placed more on the individual than their age, so it’s not unheard-of for someone to do so a bit later in life as I have.

Part of the baptism involves the candidate sharing their faith story. These are typically intensely personal, widely varied, heartfelt, and honest. Some people’s stories involve struggles with depression, physical disabilities, or the place of religion in their lives, while others reflect little struggle at all. Mine involves letting go of a lot of things, and also seeing some things, such as serious intellectual inquiry or existential questions about God (such as “is there a god?”), as a positive rather than a negative feature of a Christian life. But it also involves a recognition and deep respect for those that don’t approach things in this way.

Though given publicly in a church, baptism testimonies are rarely published or shared more broadly. But I’m going to share mine here. I have edited it only very lightly to remove a few local references that wouldn’t make sense out of the context of this community. This was delivered in front of a rather different audience than is likely to be reading this post, so if you have questions, do feel free to ask in the comments.

Baptism Testimony

John Goerzen

May 22, 2011

Those of you that know me well will probably not be surprised that I will begin my Christian baptism testimony with a story about an ancient Greek philosopher, and also touch on the philosophical nature of truth. These are key parts of my story.

As legend goes, Socrates famously said, “I know that I know nothing” — in other words, he believed that nothing could be known with absolute certainty. The Greek Oracle — thought to be infallibly wise — said that Socrates, the man that thought he knew nothing, was the wisest man in all Athens. An interesting paradox, and one that sheds light on my own religious story. My story involves coming to grips with the understanding that I know very little, that no person can ultimately know much about God, and finding a way to make peace with that situation.

Growing up in this community, I thought I knew some things about faith and Christianity. At a certain age, it all seemed so simple. We took the Bible to be literally true. We marveled in Sunday School at how the apostles could sometimes appear so blind. And, modeled both implicitly and explicitly, was this notion: the stronger our faith, the fewer inner questions or doubt we have about the nature of God, the literal accuracy of the entire Bible, or our relationship to God. Those I perceived held up as examples never seemed to question any of these things, and showed — outwardly, at least — complete certainty about them. Moreover, holding certain intellectual beliefs was key to Christian identity, and even more importantly, to eternal life.

This model has quite obviously worked well for many people for many years. The good that has happened, and continues to happen, from people that have that kind of certainty is manifest all around us. And yet, it didn’t seem to work out for me.

I’m not the kind of person that accepts a lot of things at face value. It is helpful to be able to examine and challenge ideas — and even more helpful to have other people challenge my ideas. From well before I was in high school, I was questioning some things about the Bible, God, and religion in general. My thoughts ranged from the impact of evolution on religion to the apparently vengeful God of the Old Testament to the very existence of God. In the Christian context, I perceived having these questions as a personal failing, something that I ought to repress.

The more I tried to repress them, the more troublesome they became. Why, for instance, should a loving merciful God decide whether to let us into heaven based on whether we hold certain intellectual beliefs?

In high school, I participated in the catechism class here at this church, and was frustrated because it didn’t tackle deeper meanings or the kinds of questions I had. I wasn’t yet able to articulate all my thoughts and questions very well, and I probably had an overactive case of teenage cynicism. As a result, I didn’t get baptized like most others my age did. As I learned more about the early history of Judaism and Christianity, I only found more reasons to question the model of faith I thought I had received — the one in which Biblical literalism and a “divine guarantee” of sorts was key.

More recently, I gradually became aware that the model of Christianity I had in mind was one of many views. Christians, Mennonites, and even this church are incredibly diverse groups, and in retrospect, I am surprised that it took me so long to realize this. Three major steps led me to baptism.

The first step was the realization that, whatever our understanding of the literal accuracy of the Bible, literal truth is often inferior to metaphorical truth. As an example, many of us have read the works of Shakespeare. They are fictional, but the reason they have been revered for so many centuries is that they are true. They teach us things about ourselves and our world in a way that no history book can.

By placing such an emphasis on literal truth in the Bible, I was missing out on the message right there for me. By concerning myself with creationism or evolution, I missed out on thinking about what the story in Genesis meant for the Jews, and what it could mean for me. Evolution ceased to be a threat to religion; it became simply a tool for learning about a different sort of truth than we get from religion.

N. T. Wright mentions an incident that illustrates this point. A person attending a religious conference asked the speaker, a prominent theologian, “Is it true that the serpent in Genesis actually spoke like you and I speak?” The theologian answered, “It doesn’t matter whether the serpent could speak. What matters is what the serpent said.”

The second step I took towards being baptized was realizing where the real core of Christianity lies. It’s not some debate about Genesis, but rather the death to one’s old self, and the rebirth and continual remaking of oneself in the example of Jesus. Given that, a lot of questions seem unimportant or even irrelevant. Good can be expressed in many ways, and if one person achieves a remarkably Christian life via a literal understanding of the Bible, and another via a more metaphorical reading, then it is my place only to affirm both and say that they both got it right. If we say that the task of remaking ourselves is like climbing a mountain, then what matters is not how we are climbing the mountain, but simply that we are climbing it.

I used to equate faith with an intellectual belief. I have come to see that was a narrow view. Faith, to me now, is more about vision: do we see the world like Christ did? Where do our loyalties and our trust lie — in God or in human institutions? What are our goals in life?

We humans have failed to understand God, and probably always will. I too share in that incomplete understanding, but I have come to accept that it is OK. I know enough to know that I want my loyalty to lie in Jesus, to know what kind of vision of the world I want to have, and I have learned to accept that intellectual questions can even be a form of meditation, enlightenment, and prayer.

The third step toward baptism was moving past my own shortcomings. For a long time, I thought I didn’t believe the right things, didn’t believe them strong enough, wasn’t certain enough about God, didn’t pray enough, didn’t read enough, didn’t understand enough, didn’t love enough — and ultimately, that I wasn’t good enough. I request baptism today understanding that, despite the various imperfections I still have, and we all have, everyone is good enough and deserving of love and peace. God’s love is for everyone. No exceptions!

Following Jesus boils down to this: I too must be an agent of love and peace to everyone, without exception. My vision must be centered around the fact that we are to emulate the God that loves the entire world, sinners all, and therefore I should as well. I hope I can show others the kind of love that has been shown me.

I hope, too, to share with this congregation and the global church in the vision of love. I hope that we can continually strive to re-focus on Christ’s vision. As an example, we all know that many different viewpoints about whether homosexuality is sinful exist in Mennonite Church USA. These opinions are deeply held and personal for many, and have been discussed over and over and over. But ultimately, they aren’t terribly relevant to the church’s mission. The example of Jesus unites us all: he embraced everyone. He accepted criminals and prostitutes and showed them love and kindness. Our difficult task, which is also my difficult task, is to show this same love to absolutely everyone, regardless of our varying opinions about them and their conduct. The forgotten and repressed of our day — perhaps criminals, homeless, Muslims, addicts, gays and lesbians, illegal immigrants, ethnic minorities, and still prostitutes — deserve the love of Christ’s church and all its members. My hope is that any one of the earth’s 7 billion people could step through the doors of our church, or any church, and immediately feel Christ’s love, and the unconditional, non-judgmental, welcome and love of Christ’s followers, no matter what.

This prayer from Ephesians 3 sums up my hope and my vision, for myself and everyone:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being. I pray that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. And I pray that you will know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (3.16-19)

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Comments Feed26 Comments

  1. Michael Janssen

    That was really great, John. I believe that we should be accepting of all people as well. Thank you for sharing your testimony.

    Interestingly. I was just reading a post earlier today on reddit about the mennonites so it was in my thoughts.

    http://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/hh4t2/i_dont_always_post_pictures_of_my_commute_but/c1vdkni

    Reply

  2. Borden Rhodes

    Welcome to the fold. I’m Anglican, not a Mennonite, but your baptism is as good in our churches as it is in yours. It’s good to see the moderate faces speaking out on the faith and not the radical ones who seem to attract all of the attention. I wish you all the best in your ongoing pursuit of enlightenment and fulfilment.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Thank you, Borden. I appreciate it.

    Reply

  3. Jimmy Kaplowitz

    Beautiful words and thoughts, John. As a secular Jew who mostly encounters Christians in the secular or minimally observant variety and the societally intrusive evangelical variety, it’s refreshing to hear someone reflect my understanding of the loving message Jesus actually taught. (Yes I have read at least part of the New Testament, including the Gospels, and studied it in multiple university religion courses.)

    I am reminded of the famous quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” If the prominent Christians in most of the world’s discourse today followed your inspired example, Gandhi would have had no reason to draw that contrast.

    Even though I am not part of your faith, I am grateful that you and your brethren are bearing truer witness to Jesus’ inclusive teachings than judgmental ideologues like Pat Robertson and Tony Perkins have ever known.

    – Jimmy

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I appreciate your comment quite a bit, Jimmy. Gandhi’s quote was sad but, with respect to quite a lot of the history of the Christian church, true. Martin Luther King spoke at a Mennonite college a few miles from here, and he said that if religious people weren’t feeling “unsettled”, we weren’t doing something right. We have to be agents of change for good, and this is going to cause us to bump into entrenched authority — maybe political, religious, or corporate. When the Romans adopted Christianity as a state church, I think that sense was lost; it was easy to be a settled Christian.

    Despite, and because of, his words, I don’t particularly identify Pat Robertson as a Christian. He has managed to miss the point so completely that it’s not very recognizable.

    Anyhow, I digress. I think that, despite the language people often use, and the obvious differences, you faith and mine are not all that different at their very core.

    Reply

  4. Jean-Denis Koeck

    This religious stuff is getting on my nerves. I do not like getting your faith (which you are of course entitled to) smashed in my face when all I want is Haskell-related blog posts. I am as of now unsubscribing from Haskell Planet, but it’s a relief to know this won’t make it on the Haskell subreddit ever.

    Reply

  5. Chris Dornan

    Jean-Denis Koeck: that is not at all fair. This is a personal blog. I have wondered about Haskell Planet’s (apparently) careless aggregation but that is not an issue for this blog.

    Thanks John. I am not a Christian but it is just terrific to see sincere and intelligent testimonies of religious faith. There is hardly much that is more important than the meaningful life. It shouldn’t be driven from the public discourse.

    Reply

  6. Sam

    Please do not post religious stuff on the planets! This is every time the same thing; it pisses people off.

    Please configure your blog to use tags and set the correct feed URL on the planets!

    Thank you.

    Reply

  7. Paul R

    Sam Jean-Denis, come on, John both do great Haskel hacking and have its personnal faith. This is a personnal blog, about his own life. Of course this post is off topic WRT haskell planet, but your tone and your words are totally inadequate. Is that really such a big deal that some personal posts leaks into the planet, that you can’t ask nicely to the author to do something about it ?

    Reply

  8. Gour

    Hiya,

    Let me just say that I’m no longer involved with Haskell (went back to Python) but follow John’s blog even though ‘my religion’ is not Christianity. :-)

    It’s nice to see intelligent people living & writing about God…Otoh there are plenty of techy blogs not bringing much value for their readers.

    Thank you, John ;)

    Reply

  9. Sam

    Paul, I don’t think my words were inadequate. I’m not against people giving personal opinions on their blog, I don’t want these posts being aggregated by the planets.

    I’m not following this blog, I’m following Planet Debian. Religion and operating systems are nowhere related.

    I’m just asking the author to avoid aggregating all his posts to the planets, if it’s not on-topic.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’ll quickly comment here: first, please don’t assume that I am the one responsible for my blog appearing on every planet it’s on.

    Secondly, within the Debian context at least, I have solicited input from the community. I talk here about Debian, Haskell, Python, my boys, Kansas, religion, philosophy, literature, whatever interests me. Which is no different from what most other people do. Today I see posts about someone getting engaged, a great photo of a cat, some solar power data, someone else’s post about religion and taxation, and a black and white photo of some hands. Plus a lot of technical content. The feedback I have generally received is that most people like it this way.

    All of the above is valuable, and the Planet is one of the few ways I have to get to know my fellow hackers better. If it became a dry, “Debian technical only” place, then I would stop reading it. As it is, there is more there than I have time to read, which is a wonderful problem to have.

    I would like to point out that it is difficult to separate religion from a number of topics. How can one, for instance, review Homer’s Odyssey without discussing religion? Or War and Peace? Or Bach’s music?

    If you have a visceral gut reaction against religion, you might want to read more carefully what I’m saying. My post was not a solicitation for anyone to become religious. It wasn’t a put-down of atheists. It was simply a story of what’s been happening with me.

    Personally, I enjoy reading how people grapple with important issues of our day, whether they be politics, religion, freedom, whatever. I can learn from, and am friends with, atheists, agnostics, and people from all sorts of religion.

    Having said all that, and also recognizing that you have a delete key just as usable as everyone else’s, I don’t want to have my posts appear at places where they’re unwanted. I will contact Planet Haskell people and see if they have a problem with it. (Any Planet Debian person is also welcome to contact me in case they think the situation has changed.)

    Reply

    Jan Schulz Reply:

    +1

    Reply

    Sven Mueller Reply:

    Hi John.

    Thanks for your very nice testimony. And as one of the readers through Planet Debian, I really appreciate all your posts, be it about your religion (which I share to some degree – I’m not anymore a member of any church, but strongly believe in the less controversial christian ideals, which also seems to be your position) or your boys (BTW: If you ever come to northern part of Germany with the boys, make sure to visit the miniaturwunderland in Hamburg).

    kind regards,
    Sven

    Reply

    Borden Rhodes Reply:

    Baptism, like getting your drivers license, having a child, graduating from university, getting a doctorate, buying a house or getting married is a significant and important event for many people. It may not mean anything to some, and that’s fine, but let the poor guy celebrate what’s important to him and if you don’t want to congratulate him, then don’t. It’s just bad manners to sulk at someone’s party.

    Reply

  10. David

    I read you through Planet Debian, and I appreciated your post.

    I like that Planet is a window into what is going on in the lives of Debian contributors. If I wanted technical Debian discussion with no off-topic, personal information, there are plenty of mailing-lists I could read instead.

    Reply

  11. Tillmann Vogt

    Your postings are so annoying to readers of planet haskell that you have your own category on the FAQ: http://planet.haskell.org/faq.html
    \political or religious content\
    Or do you know anyone else who reguarly posts religolous content on planet haskell?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    That FAQ doesn’t seem to have all that much relevance to my blog. I am completely non-tolerant of flamewars, religious, political, or otherwise, and my posts aren’t in that category.

    It’s pretty easy to get a Haskell tag feed of this blog, and if the maintainers of Planet Haskell wish that instead of what they’re currently using, they can use http://changelog.complete.org/archives/tag/haskell-s9y/feed instead of what they’re using now. I’m not going to request it because I think that having a Planet be only technical devalues it, and because I’m not in agreement that these posts violate their standards; however, I also won’t stand in the way if they disagree or change their standards. I don’t want to be the annoying one. But three comments on a blog doesn’t a consensus indicate.

    Reply

  12. wren ng thornton

    The thing I find surprising, rather than your being baptized, is that it’s only just happened. In any case, congratulations on being welcomed into your community.

    As for all the trolls going on about religion, from what I’ve seen over the past few years John seems to post more about his boys than about his church, and yet there’s no flaming about those two being off-topic for whatever planet it happens to fall on. Why not? Honestly, I tend to skip those posts more often than the religious ones (sorry John)— and that’s even accounting for the fact that I’m generally opposed to christianity. But I read and enjoy the religious posts because John asks interesting questions and demonstrates that not all christians are fundamentalists opposed to rational enquiry. I’d be much fonder of the religion if it included more folks like him. I have as little patience for atheistic zealotry as I do for religious zealotry.

    And John’s not the only Haskeller to blog often about politics and religion, I do the same thing on my blog. The fact that mine isn’t syndicated on the planet has more to do with laziness on my part than because of the FAQ. And I agree with both John and the maintainers of Haskell Planet that restricting it to technical content devalues it. The planet is about building community, and in communities people are often driven by things other than whatever it is that brought them together that day. Being aware of those motivations is important for understanding one another and keeping the community together and harmonious.

    Reply

    Borden Rhodes Reply:

    Also, just because it’s delivered to your RSS reader doesn’t mean you have to read it. Just like the flames. I could let the flamers smash their world view in my face but I just skip over their replies and read more interesting things.

    Reply

  13. Kevin Head

    I’m glad you posted about your faith in Jesus. God bless you

    Reply

  14. Lisandro Damián Nicanor Pérez Meyer

    Excellent John! I am a Christian too, and I really loved this post (and much more form you). Thanks!

    Reply

  15. Udi

    Crusades, inquisition, witch hunts, KKK. Those are some of the horrible things that happened in the name of the all loving Jesus. Personally, I don’t think that this is a coincidence. Christianity is based on the violent premise that Jesus suffered for our sins and that we should feel guilty about it. Jesus nailed to a cross, bleeding to death is the symbol of your loving religion.

    I realize that my comment sounds hateful, but I feel that for balance, the other side of Christianity should be mentioned.

    If you just want to spread love, live by the words of the beetles – All you need is love.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Udi,

    I think you will find nobody more troubled by the horrible things you mention than Christians. I agree that some of those things were done under the name of Christianity, but I don’t agree with they were compatible with the teachings of that religion. Do not blind yourself to the good that Christians have done; they were the earliest anti-slavery advocates in the United States, helped slaves escape, and have acted for peace and against violence across the world.

    The image of Jesus’ death isn’t about a guilt trip. I know it can be presented that way sometimes, but that is not the only way to understand it. I don’t actually see it as the core of the religion either. But you are missing what happened there. It was the Romans, not the Christians, that inflicted death; Christians are called to give of themselves for the good of everyone. Many have suffered and died for that. The roots of my own church go back to the time when the anabaptist Christians in Europe were protesting corruption and state relationships with the official churches, and as a result were tortured and killed by other Christians. Not a pretty picture, but you can find two stories there: one, of power-hungry people using Christianity as an excuse to torture and kill; and the other, of peace-loving people willing to endure torture and death rather than hurt others. One famous story involves Dirk Willems. Dirk escaped from a Dutch prison, and having lost a lot of weight, was able to run across a frozen lake. Guards pursued him, and one of them fell through the ice and was drowning. Dirk turned around and went back to rescue the guard, and was himself recaptured and then burned at the stake. There’s a powerful thread of love there that you might be missing.

    Reply

  16. Sam

    John, intriguing post I found here from Planet Haskell. I am also a Christian (at least figuring out what it means to follow Jesus as a software engineer). What particularly intrigued me was your idea of metaphorical truth vs. literal truth. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis says about storytelling and Christianity being the \true myth\. That’s something that’s been on my mind for the last few months, so its nice to see it put into words. Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  17. Carlos Fonseca

    I’m an atheist, but whatever rocks your boat dude.

    Reply

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