Baptism as World Collapse

by jdavidcharles

We make a narration of our lives, choose roles, vocations, because we are finite, temporal creatures. Any possibility I am faced with I actuate because I am certain that there will be a time when I am not—what Martin Heidegger called the possibility of no more possibilities. It is only in light of knowing that I cannot fulfill all of my possibilities that I must “narrate” my life; why would I limit myself to being a student, a teacher, an artist, a construction worker if I could actuate every possibility? It is in anticipation of death that I choose a particular role for myself, a certain set of possibilities and no other. My language, location, role, and meaning in this life are defined in their particularity only because I face this possibility of no more possibilities that is death.

In so living out a role, a narrative, I am limited to a certain background, a common condition by which those possibilities are presented to me. For instance, the fact that I am born in a particular place, raised with and in a certain language, culture, and, of course, that I am to die all shape a certain background by which I am faced with choice and possibility. This background is not a choice or willing on my part, yet it is something that I inevitably “take up” as it were, it is what I live through. When speaking with someone else there is a shared background that we each work through that communication may occur—we speak a certain way, stand a proper distance apart, speak at an appropriate volume, etc. All this background activity is not rightly “our conversation,” rather it is what all conversation presupposes, it is a condition of possibility as Merleau-Ponty would say, the medium by which possibility is possible. These conditions of possibilities and backgrounds are all facets of the world, the unified whole that we all work from and have in common and represent to one another; as Heidegger says, we are “the world existingly” (Being and Time, Harper & Row, 1962, p.416). By representing the world it is not meant that our actions are determined, but our conditions of possibility are a given thing, fixed, like how close I stand to someone when I speak is a societal “given” although what I choose to speak is not.

There are cases apart from my own death which cause a possibility of no more possibilities, cases in which my background radically changes, what has rightly been called a world collapse. When a particular, finite something enters my world and becomes a narrating force, i.e. a location, culture, individual, this can collapse my entire operational framework, not just what I see, but how I see. If a tornado destroys my home, if a loved one dies, if my government is overthrown, not simply have my possibilities changed, but my entire means of making choices have—my background has shifted, my conditions have changed. I have lost something I used to feel my way around in the world.

Depending on what phenomena narrates my existence world collapse gains deeper and greater significance. A divorce does not de facto destroy ones whole mode of being or how one goes about in the world; however, as embodied creatures we do not just think through abstractions and analyses but through our spaces and relationships. I think about everything always against the background that I am a body and it is here and now in a certain space with certain people. When I lose a loved one I do not just lose them but I lose the world as a place with them. This loss is like the soldier returning from the war lame—he has not simply lost the use of his legs, but he has lost the world as a place to be walked in or stood on. He has lost a certain mode of being in the world altogether. Likewise the widow sees the world as a place shot through by absence, feeling for the limb so to speak which is not there and denies her her possibilities. A world collapse is this falling out from possibility, the recognition of our world haunted by impossibility.

Thus there is a way in which I can be living in denial of an already collapsed world, like the widow who continues to act as if her husband were still alive. She deliberately lives within a paradox, living as if her husband where there, thinking of her role still as wife-of-someone (the condition of possibility), while yet clearly being denied of his actual presence and possibility. In the same way the man with the lost limb can deny his deficiency and continue to see the world as a world to be walked in, creating a “phantom-limb,” or he could recognize he has a new set of possibilities and can no longer live as if in the old world. This dilemma presents itself in unhappy marriages and dissatisfaction in a career or location—one recognizes that what they thought was possible is in fact no longer possible, and thus collapse this aspect of their world in hope of a new, more satisfying one. In so many words this is how William James describes the phenomena of religious conversion—one is faced with the dissonance between the intentional and lived world, and, like the corrupt marriage or state, the individual must articulate the collapse by a psychical and physiological experience, a rite of passage, a divorce so to speak. This is precisely why the sacrament of Baptism is not just metaphorically called a death; it is the articulation of an entire world collapse, a literal death of a world, of an entire background I live through. Baptism is first and foremost a sacrifice of the old world, a burying of the old man—out of that collapse though a space is opened for a new world to be articulated, the birth of life in the Spirit.

Conversion into Christianity then is not the assumption of a foreign world per se, but also of the intentional world actuated, the death of the self and its world in order that it may be more truly and meaningfully itself. It is like the lame man giving up his phantom-limb in order that he may live more fully as he actually is. In death we are raised into a life not lived in face of the possibility of no more possibilities anymore. Rather the Resurrection of the Dead demonstrates that death is to be anticipated as that by which our roles and narrations gain their meaning. Our resurrection authenticates not just our bodies into what they were intended to be, but the whole of the life we live as Baptized. The life of the Spirit and grace does not stop at the ego, the individualistic level, but extends to the furthest reaches of our world. By being raised to new life I reflect that life in each action I make—my actions as a resurrected creature bring the Kingdom of God to fruition on earth. However, because the Kingdom runs alongside the world of man the new world is still haunted by the old, and each possibility declares both that I am a dead as well as a living thing. In other words, each choice declares that I am baptized, and every decision I make is a looking-back, the taking up of my cross, as well as a looking-forward, my bodily resurrection and perfection. Possibility is therefore always an artistic endeavor for the resurrected individual, for in every action is the destruction of the old world and the creation of the new.

Thus living out a “role” is no longer done so in avoidance of or in spite of our actual death, but rather in anticipation and in hope of that death—I am no longer a teacher because of the limited possibility of my world, a teacher for-myself, but I am a teacher because it is my vocation, I am a teacher for-the-world. My role then is not just something to do in the face of death, but an actuating of the future infinite in the finite, the City of God within the City of man.