Retrackings

Toward the end of his career, St. Augustine wrote his Retractions, in which he corrected, revised, or further explained points that he had labored to make in writings throughout the course of his life. Much more modestly, I have outlined my own retrospective reflections about some theological shortcomings of my own, in my short theological autobiography, “Ecology, Justice, and Liturgy,” in Theologians in Their Own Words, ed. Derek R. Nelson, Joshua M. Moritz, and Ted Peters (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 217-32. Here I invent a slightly different task for myself, “Retrackings.” Here I want to give a voice of my own to the experience of many, if not all, authors, “If only I had known this earlier!” In this way, retrospectively, I would like to “re-track” my earlier discussions.

Case One: The Theology of Baptism. I discuss Baptism enthusiastically both in Ritualizing Nature (132-136) and in Before Nature (9-15). In the first work, I reflect about the cosmic meanings of Baptism. In the second, which is autobiographical in many ways, I talk about the development of a certain “Baptismal mysticism” in my own spiritual life over the years. In both places, as well as elsewhere in my writings, I allude to or even highlight the liturgical setting and meaning of Baptism.

When I was preparing those discussion, if I had known, I would have wanted to refer to the remarkable Baptismal theology and Baptismal praxis of Ambrose of Milan, a figure of great significance in the life of Augustine of Hippo. But Augustine rejected, or let slide, those liturgical riches in response to the challenges of his own ministry in North Africa. This is how Gary Wills describes those developments in his striking, short study, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism (New York: Oxford, 2012), 137:

For a variety of reasons having to do with his African duties, Augustine’s approach to Baptism differed at a basic level from Ambrose’s. Ambrose had a mystical, poetic, and all-inclusive theology of Christian initiation. He saw Baptism as the culmination of the entire sacred history leading up to Jesus’ fulfillment of all the prophecies that pointed directly to Baptism. The whole meaning of the Trinity was enacted and revealed in the action at the font, which brought new Christians into the inner dialogue of the persons with each other in the Godhead. The reality of the church was embodied in the rebirth of humanity out of the saving waters.

Augustine, by contrast, had what has been called a “minimalistic” view of Baptism, legalistic, almost mechanical, with further steps often needed to reach the full Christian life, beginning with the relatively impoverished procedures of infant Baptism (in contrast to the rich indoctrination of Ambrose during Lent and the Easter octave).

I would now like to think of my own discussions of Baptism over the years as more Ambrosian than Augustinian. This historical reference, had I been able to underscore it, might have helped my own readers to better grasp what I was trying to say. Modern American readers, I suspect, will have mainly experienced Baptism in some Augustinian form, mediated by various (although not all) Protestant traditions, legalistic, almost mechanical – and, I should add, probably, sentimentalized. So: a Baptismal mysticism!? What is that?! How could I make compelling sense out of my own Baptismal mysticism, if many of my own hearers and readers were under the influence of Augustinian conceptions and practices of Baptism?

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