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Ron Rolheiser, OMI - Thu, May 11th 2023

Inside the rite for Christian baptism there’s a little ritual that is at once both touching and unrealistic. At one point in the baptismal rite the child is clothed in a white garment symbolizing innocence and purity. The priest or minister officiating says these words: “Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As touching as it is to say those words to an innocent baby, one cannot help but think that unless this child dies in childhood, this is an impossible task. Our baptismal robes inevitably take some stains. Adult life sees to that. No one goes through life without losing the innocence of a baby.

But that being admitted, innocence still remains an ideal to be fostered and continually recovered. And that needs some defense today because innocence and its attendants, purity, and chastity, have fallen on hard times in a world that tends to value sophistication above all else and which generally sees innocence as naivete and prudery.

There’s a long history to this. For centuries, the churches held up innocence, purity, and chastity as salient virtues within Christian discipleship and within life in general. However, from the 17th century, right down to our own time, major thinkers have tried to turn this on its head, suggesting that these (so-called) virtues are in fact the antithesis of virtue. For them, innocence and its counterparts, purity, and chastity, are fraudulent ideals, fantasies of the timid, symptoms of an unconscious hostility towards life. Nietzsche, for example, once wrote: “The church combats the passions with excision, in every sense of the word: its practice, its cure, is castration.” Freud suggested that in the ideals of innocence, purity, and chastity there is more than a trace of narcissism, frigid arrogance, and a fantasy of invulnerability. According to these (Enlightenment) thinkers, in idealizing innocence, purity, and chastity, humankind has agreed to make itself unhappy in that the medicine we take to purify our souls lets in the moral toxins of self-righteousness, arrogance, and insensitivity, a mischief that makes lust look benign.

Our culture, minus some of the harsh rhetoric, essentially buys in to this. There are of course a few salient exceptions within some of our churches, but our cultural ethos pretty much identifies innocence, purity, and chastity with timidity, naivete, and fundamentalism.

Where to go with all of this? Well, one isn’t quite sure where to look.

Conservatives, in their very makeup, tend to fear the breaking of taboos, not least those surrounding innocence, purity, and chastity. This has a healthy intent. This is J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) looking at innocent young children playing and wishing they would never grow up but could always remain this innocent and joyful. Conservatives fear any kind of sophistication that destroys innocence. That’s well intended but unrealistic. We need to grow up and with that comes complexity, sophistication, mess, and stains on the purity of our baptismal robes. God did not intend for us to be children forever playing in innocence in a rye field.

Liberals have a different genetic make-up, but struggle equally (just differently) with innocence, purity, and chastity. They are less fearful about breaking taboos. For them, boundaries are meant to be stretched and most times broken, and innocence is a phase you pass through and outgrow (like belief in Santa and the Easter Bunny). Indeed, for liberals, real self-actualization begins with owning your complexity, recognizing its goodness, and accepting that complexity and lost innocence is in fact what opens us up for deeper meaning. Experience brings knowledge. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, their eyes were opened, not closed. To the liberal eye, naivete is not a virtue, sophistication is. Innocence is judged as unrealistic, purity as sexual timidity, and chastity as religious fundamentalism.

Both these views, conservative and liberal, wave some healthy warning flags. The conservative flag of caution can help save us from many self-destructive behaviors, while the liberal flag inviting us to more fearlessness can help save us from much unhealthy timidity and naivete. However, each needs to learn from the other. Conservatives need to learn that God did not intend for us to make an idol out of the innocence and the naivete of a child. We are meant to learn, to grow, and to become sophisticated beyond first naivete. But liberals need to learn that sophistication, like innocence itself, is not an end in itself, but a phase through which one grows.

The renowned contemporary philosopher Paul Ricoeur hints at something beyond both. He asserts that growth to final maturity goes through stages. We are meant to move from the naivete of a child, through the lost innocence, messy and often cynical sophistication of adulthood, towards a “second naivete”, a post-sophistication, a second innocence, a childlikeness which is not childish, a simplicity that is not simplistic.

In this second naivete, our baptismal robes will emerge again unstained – washed clean in the blood of a new innocence.

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