Godparents, with or without God

Why the Christian tradition is important in a secular world.

Godparents, with or without God

Why the Christian tradition is important in a secular world.

A couple of weeks ago, we had our three-month-old son christened at the Methodist church in the County Durham village where my partner, Edie, grew up. I’m not religious myself, but Edie was raised in the church — her dad leads the singing for every service, sitting in the corner with his guitar. Almost four decades ago, her parents met there, when they found themselves running a youth group together. A few years ago, the church was refurbished to also function as a café, and on one side of the room is sprawled Edie’s family’s biggest donation to the operation: their old couch and lounge chairs. Whenever I’ve been there, at least one of Edie’s female relatives has been puttering around, tending to various chores. Her generation of her family is the first in more than a century to not produce at least one Methodist preacher. For Edie, the church is both a house of worship and an extension of her own, literal home.

So it was no surprise that the place was packed to see Iggy get baptized. By the start of the service, it was standing room only; by the end, the back room was already snaking round with a great queue as everyone waited for Edie’s gran to dole them out soup. In the meantime, we had all been given acorns, to plant as a symbol of our love and support for this new life; one of the members of the congregation had changed some of the lyrics to the hymns, so that (for instance) instead of God having the whole world in his hands, he was holding “tiny little Iggy” instead.

But this was not a community bound together, for the most part, by religion. My half of the family and most of our friends all had basically no prior connection to the Methodist faith, but still, almost all of the people I love most in the world were in that church hall. What had drawn them there was not Christ but simply The Baby — a desire to acknowledge his existence, to welcome him to the world.

“This is a very good baby,” everyone was presumably thinking. “He has very alert eyes, is quick to smile, and has exceptional neck control. I have every hope and expectation that he will be able to continue this tradition of excellence well into adolescence and beyond.”

In this sense, the religious ceremony also fulfilled a certain secular need. People didn’t just want to see our son baptized to witness him being recognized by God, they also wanted to recognize him themselves. It is unsurprising, then, that in a country with steeply plummeting church attendance like the UK, there has been a rise in people staging secular alternatives to baptism. Humanists UK, for instance, which will perform a naming ceremony for you “wherever the parents want it” for a fee in the region of £200, reports a 60 percent increase in such ceremonies over the past five years. Essentially, a humanist naming ceremony is just a Christian baptism with all the references to God stripped out. “The ceremony focuses on the child, their personality and their friends and family, and might include readings or poems, parental promises to their child, the appointment of ‘guide-parents’ and perhaps a symbolic action such as planting a tree, signing a certificate or writing in a wish book.”

This must remind us of one of Nietzsche’s key lessons from the “Death of God” passages in The Gay Science. “After Buddha was dead,” Nietzsche states in the aphorism “New Battles,” “they still showed his shadow in a cave for centuries — a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way people are, there may still for millennia be caves in which they show his shadow. And we — we must still defeat his shadow as well!” Later on, when Nietzsche’s “Madman” is running round the marketplace declaring the death of God, he is not trying to convince believers, Dawkins-style, of the unreality of the divine. On the contrary, Nietzsche specifies that the majority of the madman’s audience are atheists. The point that the madman wants to press home is that, given the rise of secularism and atheism, God is dead — and we have killed him. But no one seems quite ready to confront the full significance of this fact.

“We are all his murderers. But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? … The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us?”

What Nietzsche is telling us is that the common or garden, politely secular version of atheism which was on the rise in his time and has now become, in most of Western Europe at least, the cultural default, takes its own unbelief for granted. It has not realized how seismic a shift it would be, to do away with the authority of the divine; the degree to which confronting this would shake the foundations of almost every established body of learning, the extent to which we would all need to re-think how we relate to one another, often in the most basic ways. This is why such polite “default atheism” is able to simply take something like Christian baptism, leave out the God part, and carry on mostly as before.

So then I worry that what we’re left with, in such secular ceremonies, is a sort of husk — an empty, almost private ritual, with no deeper principle working behind it. A couple of weeks before Iggy’s baptism, I happened to read a Guardian article about christenings, and in particular about becoming a godparent. The headline: “It locks you into a disintegrating friendship for life: the new rules of godparenting”, is a fair-enough indication of the cynicism of its overall message.

According to the article, even though Christian baptisms are becoming increasingly rare — only 10 percent of British babies were baptized by the Church of England in 2017 — many people are still naming godparents (or the Humanist equivalent, “guideparents”), regardless of whether they have any sort of ceremony to mark this or not. Traditionally, godparents were supposed to help raise the child in the Christian faith. After Iggy’s ceremony, his all got a certificate stating they had promised to: “Pray regularly for him... Set him an example of Christian living... Help him to grow up in the faith of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit... Give every encouragement to him to follow Christ and to fight against evil,” and ultimately guide him towards Confirmation.

We feel cold and hollow, in society, because we need and desire each other’s warmth — but atomization, like an opposing magnetic force, prevents us from huddling together.

But with no Christian context left to animate their duties, the “ambiguity around the role” can leave contemporary godparents victims of “misunderstanding, awkwardness and resentment... The rich godparent may suspect she is being shaken down for birthday presents; the gay godparent may feel he is being offered a consolation prize for assumed singledom,” the Guardian went on. The article then quotes one “multiple godfather,” who apparently feels that even being asked to godparent a child is “passive-aggressive.” The reader is left feeling as if they inhabit a world where basically everyone secretly hates each other, even the people they say are their friends.

Perhaps then the emptiness of contemporary godparenting is simply the reflection of a principle which has come to hollow out almost all of our relationships with one another: the icy coldness of social atomization, which obliges us to act, for the most part, not in the collective but only in our short-term, individual, selfish interest. We feel cold and hollow, in society, because we need and desire each other’s warmth — but atomization, like an opposing magnetic force, prevents us from huddling together.

Is there anything that can help us beat the cold? Certainly, the hope that we might helped guide our choice of godparents. Edie and I agonized for months over who Iggy’s godparents might be. Ultimately, we chose them on the basis of two things: who did we feel would be most there for Iggy, whether spiritually or otherwise? And who, did we feel, through being there, would set the best example? The duty of Iggy’s godparents, as we saw it, was to help him exist warmly, even in a very cold world; to grow up to be someone who could himself be there for other people.

Iggy’s godparents are all warm, wise, funny people in their various quite different ways. Two of them live very nearby, and have a child not much older than Iggy; others live much further away — even on the other side of the Atlantic. But who says that a godparent’s duties imply their regular, physical presence? Our communities are no longer formed solely from our physical neighbors, most likely, Iggy will grow up in a world where it seems a bit strange to think they ever were.

Whatever shape his community ultimately takes, I want Iggy to grow up feeling able to be a part of one. And in a way, of course, this desire is itself deeply Christian. As Adorno points out in Minima Moralia, the true lesson of Christ is that there is no salvation for oneself alone. The kingdom of heaven will not open its gates to isolated, atomized individuals, motivated solely by self-interest. The cold will only be saved by community — they could be thawed only through the love our present form of life conspires to make them feel they should reject.

And this I think is the core what we must most naturally call religious content that even the most secular naming ceremony, organized by the most disenchantedly secular parents, must require: the element of belief necessary to animate the event if it is to even go ahead at all. This is not a conclusion I’ve reached without at least a degree of ambivalence. I was baptized myself, but I stopped going to church when I was six, on the day that I figured out there was no evidence for the existence of Santa Claus and that, by the same token, there was none for God as well (I now think that this is a deeply childish analogy to draw — but then, I was a child, so that seems fair enough).

Around a week before Iggy’s christening, I had a bit of panic after meeting with the minister and reading the liturgy, which as his father I would be expected, of course, to participate in. There was a lot more God in it than I was originally expecting. In order to get your child baptized, you have to do things like affirm the authority of God the father, and state your belief that you’ll need his grace to raise the kid well. I felt it would be dishonest to stand up in front of half the people I know and say that.

In the end, of course, I did it — and not just as a favor to my partner. You never know how these things are going to strike you, in the moment. When I looked out across that packed church, filled as I’ve said with so many of the people I love most, I felt something like the “oceanic feeling” with which Freud associates all religious impulses: “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.” I’m still inclined to think of God the father as a guilty projection, which serves to trivialize morality by turning right action into a matter of absolute and unquestionable dogma (if Nietzsche was right that this God was dead, then it is indeed a good thing we were able to kill him).

But I felt what I suppose one could call a Holy Spirit there: I felt, through others, the possibility of salvation. I saw around me a community, and assembly of people whose interest, in at least this one moment, was bound, not to their own personal, selfish wants but rather to the needs of this new life, to future generations; to the interest in a better life to come. It was into this spirit — this community — that Iggy was being inducted.

Our greatest responsibility to our children is to ensure that they can love, and are loved — that they are loved, because they are loveable; and are loveable, because they can love. In an atomizing world, we must help them find the strength to think and act with the collective good in mind. The day of Iggy’s christening was a good day, and I hope it was a good start to that.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.