Baptism and Eternity

One of the unusual features of Mormonism is its belief that all people must be baptized and perform other rituals on earth in order to live with God in the afterlife. To this end, the church has built many temples where these sacred ordinances are performed. It also has devoted untold resources to genealogy work in an effort to perform proxy "baptisms for the dead." The idea is that baptism is necessary but it is a physical act that the dead cannot complete, their soul having been separated from their body. So, a person stands in for the deceased, who then has the opportunity to accept or reject the ordinance performed on their behalf.

Recently someone performed the baptism of Simon Wiesenthal's parents, for whom the Simon Wiesenthal Center is named. This was in violation of an agreement reached by the LDS Church and Jewish leaders, who decry the baptismal practice. The Wiesenthal Center objected to the baptisms and the LDS Church has apologized for the incident, although the apology is not found at the church's newsroom site. That has been standard procedure in previous instances like this. (Update: Their statement now appears at this link.)

What is different this time is that they also have implemented a penalty to the person who violated the policy against baptisms like this. This is a new and positive change. There are details available at the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper story on the incident, although the newspaper routes links to its main page. (The article will likely be available for just a week before it goes behind their pay wall.)

There is also a more enlightened perspective on the issue from Jana Riess, who writes about religion and Mormonism. She points out that religions view rituals in different ways, and to try to simply discount the act by saying that if you don't believe in Mormon baptisms having any effect, you shouldn't object to a meaningless ritual, is to not completely understand the issue.

For a social psychologist who attends an LDS congregation, this is a fascinating issue. I try hard to be respectful toward others' religious beliefs, even though I have severe doubts about such things as the existence of God. I wish that my church devoted more of its resources toward helping the living, rather than fretting over the fate of the deceased. If eternity includes the active existence of the dead, there wouldn't seem to be any great rush needed to perform rituals to ensure their successful fate in the eons to come. Even in Mormon thought, as I understand it, baptisms and other rites can be conducted after the millennial return of Jesus. Why the rush?

Actually, the push to do such rituals makes a certain sense from a social psychological perspective. It keeps people involved, lends a sense of purpose, and reinforces the belief system, among other things.

Still, were it up to me the time and money devoted to baptisms like this would be focused on the problems of the living. Eternity will continue without our action now. There is no time like the present to alleviate suffering in the here and now.


Anonymous said...

"...to try to simply discount the act by saying that if you don't believe in Mormon baptisms having any effect, you shouldn't object to a meaningless ritual, is to not completely understand the issue."

It seems to me that that would show a perfect understanding of the issue. And talk about "the pot calling the kettle black"! That is, given that until the destruction of the Temple, Judaism was essentially all about adhering to all of the meaningless & bloody ritual required by the Torah...

And not that I think that baptism (or any sort of ritual) might have anything to do with becoming "righteous", but I wonder how traditional Christians explain the fact that some followers of Paul were evidently practicing some sort of "baptism of the dead by proxy".

Michael Nielsen said...

I decided to shape these thoughts into an op-ed piece, and sent them to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah's main newspaper. They published them at this link: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/opinion/53576302-82/mormons-baptisms-believe-eternity.html.csp. The newspaper version seems better to me, but you can be the judge of that.