Performing God

"Can faith equal faith? Do gods of one faith take care of the believers of other faiths? Who will protect my god when he falters and his faith fails? Do the gods of one faith take care of the gods of other faiths?" These questions all come from the poem "Faith," by Justin Chin. In the poem, the questions seems to arise out of the poet’s wonderings at the differing and apparently conflicting ideas and beliefs of the world’s religions, and at similar contradictions within himself. His questions come quickly, conjuring disorienting images of decidedly human and imperfect gods. Despite his questions, though, despite the uncertainties that he hurls at the reader, as both challenge and invitation, Justin Chin closes his work with an affirmation of his own faith, of a theology that has been shaped and given form by the experience of the AIDS pandemic. He writes:

"…Here is my bloodstained faith.
On my wrist, in these boxes of pills,
in this blood test, tubes of scarlet proof,
in this inoculation, dead cells,
of ancient disease flow the fur pelt
of the dog and bit and bit right
through to bone and brain; it is
in this string of obituaries, this book
I am yet to read, this newspaper, these words,
this cure, these half-truths that burst into full
truths, these lies that rot into complacency,
the memory of all the dead and all the living
behind and in front of me, this
is my blood-stained faith." [1]

The dramatics of poetry and theater are vitally intertwined with the work of religion and of spiritual seeking. Done well, drama and spiritual expression are frequently one and the same. There is a stirring power in the finest examples of both that can move people to startling generosity and sickening brutality. Both religion and theater have a proud history of challenging governments for their crimes and wrongdoings, and likewise a sorrowful legacy of collusion with the powers that be. Socrates, the ancient Greek thinker, so feared the influence that the poets had over the citizens of Athens that he counted them as the enemies of philosophy and banished them from the ideal society he imagined. He equated the work of the theater with deception, pointing out that the actors took on names and spoke words that were not theirs, wearing costumes and masks to give them false identities. [2]

Today, modern psychology and philosophy still find costumes, and especially masks, distasteful. As metaphors, masks are considered deceitful, presenting a falsehood which obscures the truth of a person or idea. At best, masks are imagined as necessary defenses, protecting the virginal nudity of the true and vulnerable self. The mask hides the truth because truth here is imagined as a naked human face, unadorned and "pure". It is rare for me, as for many of us, to show my bare face in public, because I wear glasses. Those of you who are familiar with the story of Superman already know that glasses can be a type of mask. Superman was born Kal-el, a refugee from a distant planet, and wears glasses only when attempting to pass for an earth-born human under the name Clark Kent. To be received as he wishes to be, as a rightful resident of his adoptive home planet Earth, to prevent his citizenship from being called into question and hide his otherness from friends and co-workers, Superman wears a pair of glasses that do nothing to help him see. Even though their only visible differences are in costume and eyewear, Clark Kent lives beyond suspicion of being that strange visitor from another world—after all, Superman could never be a clumsy reporter with weak eyesight.

But in a multitude of religious traditions, masks have the precedent of illustrating, rather than obscuring, spiritual truth and meaning. Here, the mask is worn to evoke and invoke what the naked face cannot. By donning the appropriate mask, celebrants give body to gods, monsters or figures of mythic importance. The mask unbinds and unravels the set potential and preconceived limitations of the individual. To take another example from the mythic world, I’ll ask your patience in considering the character of Batman. Batman’s birth name is Bruce Wayne, but that name is not truly his. As the comic book character repeats again and again, Wayne is a persona, a part of him perhaps, but not his deepest, truest self. The time when he is most himself, when he feels most in line with his own ideals and his sense of purpose in life, is when he dons the mask. Batman and Bruce Wayne are both costumes worn by the same person, but it is the one with a literal mask that feels the most real to the person wearing it.

Performance makes meaning, for the performer and for the audience. The philosopher Judith Butler argues that our identities, our ideas about who and what we are, come from our performance of these identities in the world. [3] What we act out becomes our personal reality. With this idea, our flexibility in living and imagining becomes very important; in order to change ourselves and reshape our self images, we have to practice stepping outside of familiar behaviors, performing new roles as we live our lives. Changing requires crafting new masks for us to wear, and the changes these masks permit are a vital part, the vital part, of living. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker put it this way: "each creature is self-creating in relationship with all other creatures," including, Dr. Parker adds, "God." [4]

Unitarian Universalism, as it is lived in the world today, grows in no small part from our experiences, both ancestral and personal, of being coerced and commanded to believe and to not believe certain things about god. To hear the word god, particularly in church of all places, can cause many of us to relive past traumas, to begin itching at theological scars, or to simply fall asleep. I don’t know what each of you thinks about god. I don’t always know what I think about god. But I believe in our responsibility to other human beings. Within and without the walls of homes and meeting houses, in ages past and in this very moment, human beings have used the word god as a means for discussing the source of their courage and their hope. God is the name given by many to the deepest meaning of their existence and the purpose of their lives. To speak to and with others about what is most important in life, we must be willing, from time to time, to employ the word god, and to hear it used by those in our midst.

For this same reason, it matters very much how we perform god. Unitarian Universalists have done much to critique and question the view of god that they inherited from European Christianity. In his 1977 book "Is God a White Rascist", William R. Jones, a Unitarian Universalist minister and public intellectual outlined many of the lasting harms done by a common image of god modeled on rich white men. [5] Others have pointed to the implicit and explicit heterosexuality of this image of god, of its able-bodied bias and binary gender. Unitarian Universalists have been outspoken in their confrontations with popular imaginings of god, and in many cases, our response has been to limit all together our imaginings of god. Dismayed by the problems of a god with one specific set of identities, we have, many of us, opted to view what some call god as generally as possible: as a force which pervades the universe, as the interdependent web of all existence, an idea free of all identities, so no one is left out.

I love that framework. I grew up with that framework. I believe in that framework. But, my friends, it is not enough on its own. Our collective commitment to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning demands something else of us as well: we must be willing to entertain that feared specificity. We have a responsibility to flex our theologies, to entertain the idea of gods we do not know, born from experiences and identities we do not share. Unitarian Universalists have long cherished and nurtured the understanding that revelation is not sealed, that the wisdom and insight that give purpose to life exist not only in the words and signs of long ago eras, but are here in and among us now, in the events and ideas of the contemporary age. Revelation is meant to challenge our assumptions and criticize our status quo—if it did not do this, it would not be revelation.

You have probably already heard more than one Unitarian Universalist sermon on the subject of hospitality. In the nomadic cultures that shaped the origins of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition, hospitality was an ideal desperately necessary to coexistence. Some of the most wonderfully humanistic passages in the Hebrew Bible endorse and proclaim an ambitious and uncompromising hospitality. And of course, looking to the Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we find a covenantal affirmation of both "acceptance of one another", and the call to love "our neighbors as ourselves."

Mindful of this strain of our tradition, I invite you to look on the entertaining of strange gods as an act of hospitality in pursuit of revelation. What I am suggesting is the practice of inviting a guest into your company, in order to find the parts of your soul which have gathered dust and are in need of your attention. I will leave you with this example:

"God is a DJ and you are the music." [6] This bold theological claim was made by a song that was popular on the radio a few years ago. It comes from a singer named Pink, a member of that distinguished club of musical artists known primarily by a single name, a group whose ranks include the likes of Cher, Prince, and sometimes Elvis. I admit that I dismissed the song at first as nothing more than an invitation to dance. But, like so many neglected opportunities it stayed with me, and gnawed at me, until I permitted myself to entertain this seemingly frivolous image of god.

A DJ, the abbreviation for the long out-of-favor phrase disc jockey, mixes records, taking music that has already been recorded and disassembling and recombining it. What has gone before is made into something new. To imagine yourself as music, and god as a DJ means that god is what breaks you apart and puts you back together again. Whatever changes you, shifting around the different pieces of you without entirely destroying or strictly-creating any of them, that’s god. In the spirit of revelation then, I invite you to let the records of your life be mixed this week; open yourself up, to the god you do not know.


[1] From the poem "Faith", by Justin Chin, as published in the anthology Take Out: Queer Writing From Asian Pacific America, Quang Bao and Hanya Yanagihara, ed. Temple University Press, 2000.
[2] This is based on accounts of Socrates as provided by his student Plato, most notably in the later’s famous work The Republic (enemy of undergraduates everywhere).
[3] Performativity is a theme of Butler’s entire body of work, first outlined in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge, 1990
[4] As quoted in a sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Stevens, Kitsap Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 9/24/06
[5] Rev. William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology, Beacon Press, 1977
[6] Pink, "God is a DJ", from Try This, La Face Records, 2003