Baptism’s knowledge of Christ is that of the bathhouse. It is not a mannered knowledge, for manners, etiquette, and artifice fall away as one takes off one’s clothes. It is a knowledge of appalling candor, robust and intimate. It is less mental than bodily, as when lovers are said to “know” each other. It is the inspired knowledge of the Song of Songs rather than that of the Epistle to the Romans, for God speaks not only in logic but also in smell and in the feel of oil and warm water on the skin. God says much in Romans about his union with humankind, but he says even more about the same mystery in the soft porn of the Song of Songs. There can be little doubt that more people have been willing to die for a lover than for a doctrine of regeneration.
This sort of knowledge is, of course, not awfully civil. It is rarely brittle and never rendered obsolete when cultures change. It abides. Profligates and great mystics share it: converts and lovers learn it quickly. Only the conventionally pious avoid it, rather for the same reasons, one suspects, that bourgeois society avoids having naked people to tea. A mannered situation cannot survive too much knowledge. Thus the noble aunt in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, on being informed of her two grown nephews’ approaching baptism, huffs that such a thing must be regarded as grotesque and irreligious.
That a bathhouse Christ leaves those grown accustomed only to a dining-room Christ uncomfortable is precisely what it should do. For the Great Civilizer was often uncivil, the Most Nice distinctly un-nice, the Cornerstone of all subsequent conventions quite unconventional, the Peacemaker sometime unpeaceful. He was the Paradox Unequaled. Nothing less could have recreated the world.
To live in this knowledge, it is not enough to be a little mad. One has to be among the living dead—dead to all that is not, alive to all that is. For the sin we call original separates us not only from God but from all that is—his creation. It is an option that amounts to choosing ourselves instead of all else and then attempting to recreate all else in our own image. Our sorry state is the result of everything’s intractable refusal to accept our tacky little providence as counterfeit for the Real Thing. Feeling rejected and then frustrated, we savage both ourselves and everything that crosses our path, becoming alien in our own house. Death is the only exit. Which is why, when God came among us, even he had to go this way. Thus our Christian dinners are wakes, and our bathhouses are tombs—not for Christ but for ourselves. He sits at our table fragrant with the ointment of his own blood, and we dine not only with him but on him.
For the “unlively dead,” such things are grotesque and irreligious indeed. But for the”living dead” they are eucharists and baptisms, births and banquets in which Life is celebrated as it was meant to be.