Baptism, Flood Myths, and the Symbolism of Water

For K.C.

There’s some interesting symbolism to the baptism ceremony. OK, for Catholics baptism is more than symbolic, since it removes Original Sin, but for some Protestant denominations it’s purely symbolic.

These days during my morning commute I’m listening to a Teaching Company audio CD-ROM course entitled Myth in Human History, taught by Grant L. Voth. I’ve learned that some creation myths start off with a large, dark, body of water, a “sea of chaos,” out of which a deity brings the universe. A big example is the Egyptian creation myth. So the water is a sort of primeval state of potentiality, out of which the universe is realized.

(Makes me think of quantum mechanics. My limited understanding is that the wave function is only a distribution of possible outcomes, a state of potentiality, a “sea of chaos”; but you need an Observer to “collapse the wave function”, and only then does a physical event actually happen. “Wave” in “wave function” reminds me of the waves in the “sea” of chaos.)

Here’s a quote from a book I’m reading entitled Parallel Myths, by J.F. Bierlein:

“In Jungian psychology, water is a dream symbol manifest in the myths and the unconscious mind and the wisdom contained therein. Thus, our dreams of bathing in or drinking water may be interpreted as symbolic of the quest for wisdom or for communication between the conscious and unconscious mind. Another possible Jungian approach to the water motif in the Creation myths is the dawn of human consciousness.”

Water can be destructive, too — lectures #9 and 10 in the Teaching Company course are about flood myths. (Of course you’ve heard of Noah’s Ark , but have you heard of Utnapishtim’s Ark?) Still, Dr. Voth points out that in these flood myths, the world is given a second beginning after the flood recedes, and that the Flood is therefore a sort of second creation. So, one symbolic component of the baptism ceremony is of a rebirth of the person getting baptized, a new beginning.

I read or heard somewhere — possibly in one of the Teaching Company audio CD-ROMs — that in the days of early Christianity, some people thought that you shouldn’t baptize babies or children, because they aren’t fully responsible for themselves yet. They felt that you should baptize only adults, who can make a conscious, informed decision to become a Christian. And some people thought that baptism cleanses all your sins, and that you could be baptized only once. So their strategy was to have a lecherous, gluttonous, sinful life, and get baptized only way at the end, on their deathbed; that way, when they die they have a clean soul and they go to Heaven. Somehow, I doubt that God would respect their bid for Heaven.

Addendum: (09/10/10):
Sea of Chaos at the time of Creation: Big Bang Was Followed by Chaos, Mathematical Analysis Shows


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