Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Baptism to Die For

Religion is a puzzling gallimaufry - a "santorum" - of curious belief and even more curious practice; and saving perhaps serpent handling or communal celibacy (both of which seem somehow shortsighted), none more so than baptism of the dead. At its simplest, vicarious or proxy baptism is the Mormon practice of baptizing a living person on behalf of one who is dead, the live person receiving baptism for the ethereal "target."

Baptism would loom preternaturally important to one whose cosmology includes a maelstrom of invisible souls in torment, some of which may or may not be related to the subject. I don't know what the averages are on hitting something so elusive as a soul in outer space, but apparently they nail them pretty regularly. In the circumstance, and weird as it seems to me, it would be a humane and decent thing to settle one's family obligations by receiving proxy baptism for those deceased next-of-kin who may have in life neglected the offices and privileges which alone can lead to salvation.

 Souls in torment

We might even make the case that the living owe any of their deceased fellow communicants such a service. The obligation arguably pales as we move farther from the circle of the blessed, unless of course we're still talking about our lapsed Uncle Louie who passed away while on parole, in serious financial arrears and without having enjoyed the benison of one's own chosen fold and tabernacle.

To extend one's ministrations to the fallen of another creed appears to me to go above and beyond the admonitions of Jehovah (cf. Exodus 17:13, for example), and to troll a rather long line in the hope of picking up some free radicals who now have a second chance to share one's peculiar version of eternity. It turns out that the Mormons have been doing just this, most notably in the case of survivors of the Holocaust and in particular the relatives of Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel. 

Some people are never happy

The Nobel laureate has objected strenuously to this practice, seemingly indifferent to the fact that it makes his Mormon brethren feel better in doing it, and heedless as well of the prospect that for all he knows he may be passing up his only ticket to Heaven, Deseret-style, a Nash Rambler in every driveway and a beehive in every back yard. What could be wrong in the prospect of enjoying an anodyne Eternity that only an American faith could imagine? Admitted, it could bore you to death if it weren't that you'd already be alive forever.


Or, as Pascal put it nearly four centuries ago, what's the flap-pay all about? Why get all hot under the collar, Elie? What if, in other words, the poor sap is wrong and all those Mormons are onto something? "God is, or He is not," Pascal argues, offering a disjunction that takes no prisoners.  "Reason can decide nothing here. . . . Which will you choose then . . . since you must of necessity choose? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is . . . If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."

Now strictly speaking, the plaintiff has no gripe with God in particular that I'm aware of. His case is with the Mormons, who have had the temerity, the bald-faced, brass-bound gall to concern themselves with his infidel soul and those of his dead ancestors. (Wiesel's own name, it turned out, is in the Mormon genealogical database, awaiting the orisons and supplications of the faithful in his behalf upon his own translation into outer space as a poor damned soul - which I think in charity you'll agree is not quite the same as a damned poor soul.)

But I'm betting that in the end it won't matter what the Mormons pray for. And, of course, they could always be right. Or, to take Pascal's argument to one logical extreme, never look a gift horse in the mouth. Or again, as Mrs. Wiesel might have once told young Elie, what could it hurt? - you can't be too careful. Why does your father buy insurance, meshuggah?

 Gates of Hell, or Thinking About Insurance
(William Bates)

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