“Water is at the origin of the world, the Jordan is at the origin of the Gospels.” (Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures III)

We are living at a time of profound ecological and moral crisis. By ecological crisis, I do not refer to what is commonly called today environmentalism, which is itself I believe indicative of the crisis. Instead, we are living in the midst of what scholars call a ‘socialized ecology.’ Modernity theorist Anthony Giddens notes that the modern age is characterized by an unprecedented level of human intervention in the natural world. Irrigation and sanitation systems, drainage and sewer technologies, mechanisms for monitoring weather currents, and improved management of the natural environment collectively spare us from the droughts, contagions, floods, and other natural hazards that would have devastated pre-modern societies. Indeed, ours is an age distinguished by what Bill McKibben has termed the ‘end of nature’; society and ecology are now so intimately bound together that the natural world no longer exists as a phenomenon independent of human activity and society.

This ‘loss of nature’ comes with an additional depletion. Giddens observes that the end of nature also entails the ‘end of morality.’ Insofar as social ecologies are organized and governed by modern scientific processes, they are comprised of mechanisms and operations considered value neutral and thus devoid of moral frames of reference. Social ecologies in effect sequester morality from a dominant ontology constituted by control and technique, management and prediction. As such, social ecologies are inhabited by persons emancipated from classical moral definitions, dispositions, and constraints. To the extent that the human person is an extension of the same processes that organize and govern socialized nature, there is an inward turn toward the self as the source for life, where the same processes that manage and manipulate nature can be applied to the reconstruction of the self. As theologian David F. Wells has observed, what was once a moral age has transformed into a therapeutic age, characterized by “a confidence in self-mastery, the belief that the self can be reconstructed, that its aches and pains, its bewilderment, its confessions, can all be healed with the right technique.”

Within the Christian faith, there is a potent answer to these twin losses: the sacrament of baptism. I don’t believe, however, that the profundity of baptism is grasped by the modern Christian. Perhaps looking at its ‘revolutionary’ nature against the backdrop of the Roman world will help recover the ecological and moral vision so desperately needed today.

As part of the reconstruction of the world in their image, Roman water management was pivotal. In fact, Roman water projects and technologies were aimed at expressing Roman power over the natural world. Technical feats of wetland drainage and reclamation, flood plain control, etc., were demonstrations of Rome’s ability to conquer and control ecological phenomena. The Roman statesman Pliny, in his letter to Caninius Rufus in 107 AD concerning Rufus’ plans to compose an epic poem celebrating Trajan’s victories in the Dacian Wars, wrote: “You will sing of rivers turned into new channels, and rivers bridged for the first time, of camps pitched upon craggy mountains.” In another poem lauding the Emperor Domitian’s bridging of the Volturnus River, the river is personified as proclaiming to Domitian: “But I give thanks, and my servitude is worth the while, because under your rule and your command I have yielded, and because you will be read of perpetually as supreme lord and conqueror of my bank.”

Situated within this Roman demonstration of ecological control, we can see more clearly the counter-imperial significance of early Christian baptism. The declaration of Christ’s Lordship over the baptized person in effect set apart baptismal water from its Roman possession and dedicated it to a different Lord, a different King. From Rome to Corinth, from Philippi to Thessalonica, small communities constituted by Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, males and females, were returning the waters of the earth to their rightful owner, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The baptism rite revealed to the world that God has exalted his Son to the highest place and given him the name above all names, before whom all knees would one day bow and to whom all tongues would finally confess: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” As such, baptism would have had profound counter-imperial significance. Christian baptism signified that the world, the created order, was no longer under the control of Caesar; it was now, in the midst of the sacred space of the church, a material expression of the redeeming purposes of God and his Christ, the true Lord of the cosmos.

As such, baptism in a very real way incorporated the whole of Roman-dominated ecology into itself. By the third-century, the baptismal ritual began with exorcisms over the water, which was associated with the kingdom of the dead in ancient mythology. As death was the domain of Satan, the fourth-century theologian Cyril of Jerusalem could speak of baptism as a victory over the demonic forces indwelling the waters (Catechetical Lectures, III:10). Not only did the catechumenate undergo exorcism, but Christ’s conquering the seas of death meant that the spirit of evil was exorcised from the entire sacred space surrounding the baptismal font. Hence, baptism functioned as the beginning of the recreation of the entire cosmos.

One of the earliest baptismal practices, as witnessed most explicitly by the Syrian Theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia, was the initiates’ wearing of sackcloth before their baptisms, signifying the garments of shame when Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden. The garments were then removed, exposing the initiates’ nakedness (most likely undergarments). The initiates were then baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and upon coming out of the water, they were clothed with a “wholly radiant” white garment, signifying their transference back into the garden, consummated by their eating of the Eucharist, the Tree of Life restored.

The historic practice of Christian baptism reveals a distinctively ecological and moral vision of the human person. We are, in our nakedness, characterized by a sinful state, having been expelled from paradise, in full need of a sanctifying redemption. And this redemption comes through the restoration of paradise in the Incarnation of the Son of God in Christ, who incorporates the totality of the cosmos into his transformative life, death, and resurrection. Thus, through baptism, the very waters by which the baptized person is transformed are themselves transformed. The water of baptism is being redeemed right along with the human person, so that creature and creation are already experiencing the beginning of the new creation in Christ.

In this modern day and age, we are in desperate need of this ecological and moral vision of baptism. For such a vision can once again transfer the waters of our industrialized world away from its secular possession and return them to their true Lord, the restorer of paradise, our original and everlasting home.

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For more on baptism and the Apostle Paul’s vision of a sacramental society, see my book, The Ritualized Revelation of the Messianic Age: Washings and Meals in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, available here.