A slow day at work (so far) allows me to reflect on some of the past few, very busy weeks -- filled with visitors, events, a family holiday, and lots of work. One of the momentous events of the summer was my daughter's confirmation of her Christian faith. This followed two years of "confirmation instruction," in which she was (supposedly) instructed in the basics of Lutheran doctrine and history.
It's an odd thing, I imagine, to have an arm-chair (and curmudgeonly, at that) theologian as a father. It must, too, be odd to have that same father as one of your "confirmation instructors." But Erika bore the cross with aplomb, seeming even to enjoy some of the interaction. And for my part, I tried not to interfere unduly or to be too nosey or critical. For example, as a part of prepartion for the rite of confirmation, each confirmand had to write an individual "faith statement" for reading during the liturgy. The understanding was that parents were to keep their hands off the composition, and I did. I didn't even see Erika's until after she had submitted it (I expect for both her benefit and mine). (It was quite good, actually -- witty, sincere, and, contrary to her father's wishes, not ponderously theological.)
Of moment for me in all of that was the relative meaninglessness of the exercise. What is the point of confirmation? (Now there's an ages-old question.) Why do we do it? Why do our youth submit to it (aside from their legal inability to refuse)?
Confirmation, in the words of Frank Senn (noted liturgical scholar and pastor), is a rite in search of a theology. It really doesn't do anything original. It's not the completion of baptism, as some of us were taught, because the baptismal rite does everything to initiate one into the Body of Christ. We are not half initiated by baptism. Witness that in our congregation, one is admitted to the Lord's table upon baptism, as full members of the Body of Christ. (That, of course, is an entirely different thing from admission to the voting membership. We haven't really faced that issue. Thus, for example, if a newly confirmed person wants to be counted among the quorum to vote on the congregation's budget, would we allow that? What about if there is a vote on property acquisition, which in most congregations and states requires the votes to be cast only by people who have reached their majority?)
As I (only begin to) understand matters: Confirmation has a long and uncertain history. Fundamentally, however, it was the bishop's (later, in Protestantism, the presbyter's or pastor's) conferring of the Holy Spirit, marked by "chrismation" -- i.e., by anointing the person with oil and invoking the blessings of the Holy Spirit. This would take place following the interrogations and "washing" of the individual catechumens at the Easter vigil. The bishop -- who in earliest times, was simply the pastor of the congregation -- did not participate in those washings. Deacons (male deacons in the case of men and female deacons in the case of women, because the candidates were likely naked when they were baptized) handled that part of the process. Following the washings, the candidates were dressed in white robes and led to the pastor for the completion of the rite -- the anointing with the Spirit.
The rite was separated from Baptism, in history, at that time when bishops started "overseeing" more than one congregation. He (yes: in those days, only "he") would travel around to the various congregations and "confirm" (i.e., complete) those baptisms that had occurred at the Easter vigils in the individual congregations. The lag, of course, between washings and anointing (or confirmation) was relatively short -- nothing similar to what it became. Apparently, at least in the Western Church, the issue of confirmation got all wrapped up with notions of personal appropriation of the grace of God, of rational acceptance of one's place in the Church, and similar concerns. And slowly the rite of baptism deteriorated.
Cut to the twentieth century. While I was yet in Seminary (in the late 70s), the Lutheran churches in the US began to re-think the whole complex of issues regarding the raising of children in the church. So we checked out the ancient sources and liturgies, we thought theologically, we integrated insights from psychology and sociology (not always a good thing, I've learned). And we began to re-think our received notions about the fullness or incompleteness of baptism, the nature of Christian education (there was some really fascinating stuff from a British catechist named Goldberg or Goldman), confirmation, first communion. And it got complex.
Confirmation was recognized for the vague thing it is, so the church (at least, the predecessor bodies of the ELCA) lost any unanimity in practice and theory (theology actually had little to do with it, frankly). It now often was seen as a ministry to the confirmands -- assuring them of the Church's/congregation's care for them. (How that could be manifest in special requirements that they undergo a kind of boot camp not required of adults or younger children was not answered.) It was recognized as a rite of passage, not necessarily theologically inspired, but culturally warranted. (There was little serious consideration of when it might be best to schedule such a thing -- or actually there was a lot of consideration, but no consensus.) The intellectual side of preparation for confirmation was discounted, but that left a void that was never, in most places, adequately filled.
And the confusion continues to this day.
At root, I would like to see an abandonment of confirmation -- at least for a generation -- in favor of closer attention to and major emphasis on education for Christian Lutherans of all ages. The educational level of the average Lutheran congregant is depressingly low, and we need to undertake a major effort to convince adults that they don't know what they don't know and that they need to learn it and to pass it on to their children. Further, that education needs to be in the fundamentals of the faith, not in the latests comings and goings of the local alderman or mayor or hunger project. (Those are, of course, important and should be a part of a rich education program. But I suspect most of our members know more about the current political bluster than they do about the importance of the formulation "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," and that should change.
Having cut the Gordian knot, we can then examine the propriety of rites of passage vis-a-vis the growth in grace to which we are called by the Gospel. We might, I think, too, recognize that confirmation-like personal affirmation of faith might be called for a various points in a person's life. The liturgy books of the ELCA certainly provide for the "Reaffirmation of Baptism" -- under which title "confirmation" now is classified. But how about college kids who may have strayed from the faith and now wish to return or who, because of a good teacher or campus pastor, are brought to a new and existentially meaningful appreciation of the historic faith? Should we not provide for them (as the ELCA rites theoretically do) an occasion for the public affirmation or re-affirmation of their faith? (I'm not really hot on personal testimonies. But with the proper education and training, such things can be a meaningful part of even Lutheran conversation, it seems to me.)
Underlying this post is my sneaking suspicion that we have so psychologized the life of faith, that we need a major shaking to bring us back to reality. And what that means would make this post too long. (I have already indicated something about the psychologizing of sin, I think.) So I'll work on that and try to figure out what I mean.
In any event, we confirmed my daughter. She received some lovely gifts to mark the occasion -- among them an LBW from the congregation, the "magazine Bible" (that I tore my hair out about some time back and that she thinks is pretty cool) from the neighbors, a lovely prayerbook (Roman Catholic in origin, of course) and icon from her parents, and lots of things I don't remember. And I was once again reminded in a most graphic way of the importance, some times, of just grinning, gritting, and bearing discomfort.
Perhaps we both marked a transition. But I'm not going there.