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Baptism in ritual perspective: myth, symbol and metaphor as anthropological foundations for a baptismal theology

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Abstract

This thesis argues that Christian baptism is most profitably understood from the perspective of anthropological studies of ritual, A dialogue with its categories establishes that baptismal theology has often implicitly assumed social anthropology's findings on ritual in general. It also suggests that the primary ritual categories of myth, symbol and metaphor are foundational to baptism's theological development. The anthropology of myth is deployed to locate the narrative basis for baptism. The proposal is made that the story of Jesus' Baptism, which is understood as the revelation of the eschatological new creation, provides baptismal ritual with its imitative source and legitimates its symbols and metaphors. An analysis of iconography is an important part of this justification. This proposal is developed by exploring the properties of baptismal symbols. The concepts of symbolic elusiveness, deep structure and natural symbolism are exploited to give an account of symbols based on water and oil. The sensual experience of olfaction and the flow of human blood are found to be important interpretative concepts which lead naturally to a consideration of the corporeality of baptismal symbolism. Recognising that symbols promote a shared ritual experience, the properties of ritual metaphors are then considered as the primary means for facilitating a baptismal identity. Criteria for an evaluation of the three major metaphors - birth, death and washing - are derived from anthropology and applied. It is concluded that the metaphor of childbirth has a strong claim to be regarded as the appropriate primary metaphor for organising baptism's ritual context. Baptism thus understood offers fresh contours for baptismal theology today and overcomes some of the difficulties presented by more traditional methodologies. Especially, it allows contemporary concerns about baptism to be effectively addressed. Among these are questions about the intelligibility of its liturgical symbols and the relationships between its key metaphors.

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