BEYOND BELIEF, BEYOND CONSCIENCE: THE RADICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FREE EXERCISE OF RELIGION. By Jack N. Rakove. (1) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 240. $22.95 (Hardcover).
CHURCH STATE CORPORATION: CONSTRUING RELIGION IN US LAW. By Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. (2) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. Pp. 192. $27.50 (Paperback).
A pious fan once asked the humorist Mark Twain if he believed in infant baptism. (To preview themes to come: Even the most liberal individual likes to know her faith is shared in community.) "Believe in it?" he exclaimed in response, "Hell, I've seen it done!" (4)
Although it may be only mildly humorous (though I confess laughing every time I hear it), there is a profound turn in the playful substitution of physical facts for theological truths in the ambiguity of "belief." At first, the inversion looks like a dodge. A difficult and highly fraught question of Christian theology, one over which communities have been torn and blood has been shed, (5) turns at once into a seemingly simple question of observation, like whether one can believe in the unicorn or the platypus. The implicit threat behind the question--that an errant answer will sunder fellowship in the here and now, and forfeit life in the world to come--is apparently disarmed, violence exchanged for laugher, swords beaten into ploughshares.
But sit a moment with the humorist's answer and it becomes far less clear that one is watching a simple dodge. In a way, Twain's joke anticipates the course of late-nineteenth century religious ethnography and neatly encapsulates in a line the upshot of William James's The Will to Believe and related writings: first observe the rite, in order to grasp the faith (or be grasped by it). (6) The threat of the question is thrown back on the inquirer. Start with the fact that millions of Christians have observed this rite over thousands of years, most with the steady confidence that they were performing the will of the one true God for their lives. If you don't believe in infant baptism, how do you account for this massive fact of human experience? (7) If one were to tackle the fraught theology of infant baptism, a good place to start is seeing it done.
Moreover, the joke works only because it involves a rite like baptism, a rite that can be experienced, even if not believed. In baptism, Christian belief engages the world of the material stuff. People gather to bear witness; the waters are moved. (8) And there the complications of experience arise. The water must come from somewhere. The persons celebrating the baptism either do or do not have the legal authorization to access, possess, or even own the material stuff that makes up the rite. Baptism, in short, is a propertied rite, one that ultimately depends on the property rights of the corporate body performing the ritual act. Experience turns out to be a much more complicated affair than mere belief.
Over the last decade, a certain skepticism has...