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Water: A Spiritual History

Theo Hobson

RWater.jpgIan Bradley

Near where I live there's a tradition of sea-bathing on New Year's Day. These 'polar bears' shriek with pained delight as they splash in the near-freezing water, and emerge all abuzz. It's like a secular purification rite, I said to my wife, as we looked on, huddled in scarves. She wondered why I have to see secularized religion everywhere. Fair point: maybe it's just a natural secular thrill, to go for a freezing dip, and enjoy a sense of camaraderie with friends and strangers. But on the other hand a cold dip does have a cleansing, energizing effect, and so the language of spirituality comes naturally.

Having a hot bath often has a similar effect, restoring a sense of bodily life. Is that also a spiritual experience? What about a morning shower, which doesn't just cleanse the body but brings a slight sense of clarity and purpose? There's no need for New Agery: 'spiritual' is really the same word as 'psychological'. Enjoying the benefits of water obviously has a positive psychological/spiritual effect, and this is magnified if one is out in the open, for instance skinny-dipping in a stream, like Rupert Brooke. It is also magnified if the experience is shared, communal, like those polar bears, or like an ancient Roman at the baths, or a Muslim at the 'Turkish baths'. A repeated shared psychological event is a sort of ritual event, whether or not it uses religious forms.

So you don't really need religion to explain the appeal of immersion in water, whether it's a thrilling cold dip or a hot soak. But on the other hand, being in water has a psychological effect, with religious echoes. Spa treatments vaguely promise purification of the spirit, inner peace. There is also a natural tendency to venerate fresh water, which gives and sustains life. The place where it suddenly appears in a hillside is a pretty special place. It's little surprise that springs are basic to paganism.

Christianity reflects these natural tendencies: it associates God, and Christ, with purifying, healing, life-giving water, and it features a purification ritual for initiates. (Baptism is unusual in being a 'one-off' purification ritual, a decisive re-birth.) There is a tension: water is given a very high symbolic role, but hydolatry is rejected - water is just part of God's creation. And baptism suggests the non-necessity of a regular purification ritual.

This huge topic can either be approached in a general, anthropology-of-religion    way, exploring various traditions, or from a more particular theological or historical perspective. Bradley's title vaguely claims to do the former, and an introductory chapter flits through the world religions, but in practice he focuses almost entirely on Christian history. The problem is that he offers only a sketchy account of Christian attitudes to water. There are interesting glimpses: we hear that St Jerome disapproved of bathing: 'He who has once bathed in Christ has no need of a second bath'. But there is no sustained reflection on the meaning and evolution of baptism, and only brief discussion of the wider sacramental use of water. We learn that the blessing of water was standardized in the ninth century, and that being sprinkled by holy water was a major reason to attend church.

It quickly emerges that Bradley's real interest is not baptism, or other liturgical use of water, but sacred wells and bathing holes. He is fascinated by sites that combine pagan and Christian elements, especially from the Celtic world, and by the Protestant and post-Christian reinvention of such sites as holiday resorts and health-centres. Protestants had dual cause to be suspicious of these places: some wells, such as Holywell in Wales, continued to attract Catholic pilgrims, and others were effectively brothels. But the attraction of the waters prevailed over moralists' qualms, and they generally became seen as healthy Enlightenment places. In the 19th century the elite flocked to spas, and new Catholic water shrines also emerged, such as Lourdes. And the spa industry has recently exploded, buoyed by health-conscious consumerism and New Age sentiment. The spa treatment is the product of our age, combining hedonism ('indulge') with a vague promise of inner meaning. (In John's Gospel Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that he is the living water. Today's Samaritan woman would be a woman at a spa, and he would tell he that he is the living detox-bodyscrub.)

Bradley's gushing fascination with these sites outweighs careful theological reflection. Unless one believes in miraculous cures at holy wells, why do these sites matter theologically? Isn't it just a natural human thing to seek to plunge into pure water, especially if it emerges at a nice warm temperature and baths haven't been invented yet?

Baptism should be the clear focus of Christian-oriented book about water, but Bradley only briefly returns to it, noting that large baptismal pools are favoured by some recent thinkers (according to Richard Giles, fonts should be 'big enough to drown in, reminding us that the water of baptism symbolizes a death through which we pass into life'). In preferring babbling brooks to the liturgy, Bradley has been seduced by pagan allure.