Baptized in Music
Towards a Disruption of Systematic Theology
by Roshan Roy
May 22nd, 2023
Illustration by Joseph P. Sgambati
“The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotion
overflowed, so that the tears streamed down”
Music in the Western World, “The Testimony of St. Augustine”
Trans-rational Wanderings on Faith and Music
Why does someone like you still sing in the church?
Where does someone like me go, if not to a place of faith?
What place does someone like me have? To sing? If not for a church?
What do people like me, who grew up to be ‘queer’—in Catholic households—have if not for faith? Where do people like me—queer men—sing if not in a church? These assertion-queries are new. I did not always feel this way. As a young adult, I had a turbulent relationship with faith, specifically the one I was born into. I protested the logocentric use of scriptures and theology to inculcate shame, guilt and fear during the carefully curated Sunday school classes—compulsory till one is ‘confirmand,’ a sacrament to affirm our faith in the institution and divinity. 1 Oddly, none of these performative rituals, like the Sunday mass or the sacrament of confirmation, planted a seed of faith in me. To me, these practices conformed bodies to the exploitative and violent institution of religion. So, this essay is a quest, and a method of untangling those strands that instill in me a faith in the divine, one that has lasted.
When I began to write this essay, I would sit at my desk and gaze at the morning sparrows resting on my favourite mango tree. I watched their poetic dance—one branch to another; a chirrup of praise. My trans-rational desire, to move beyond human reason or acceptable ways of knowing, pushed me to think with my favourite mango tree. So, I started collecting mental clues of moments where I felt the divine: was it during my baptism? Or perhaps during my first communion? Or was it when I would volunteer as an altar server, assisting the priest with preparing for the mass?
This straightforward way of thinking about Catholicism—through the sacraments and rituals—exhausted me. I knew faith was trickier than it appeared to be. Because, like the mango tree, which looks ordinary if viewed from my living room, revealing itself differently depending on the room from where I'd watch, faith is multi-dimensional. As I'd gaze at the mango tree for hours on end to catch the exact moment sunshine touched the tree transforming its colors, I wanted to drown myself in the landscape of my catholic experiences to see or make known the moments of my transformation.This desire to access my past ‘affects’ 2 by thinking with a tree allowed me to acknowledge the ‘other’ ways in which I can or already think about faith, away from logocentric theology, in the embrace of art, literature and music.
Confirmation is a rite of passage—a journey to seal and strengthen the faith in God established during infant baptism. In Goa, and in other Roman Catholic congregations, confirmation ceremonies occur in the presence of a bishop. As the leader of a diocese (for example, the diocese of Goa), the bishop visits the various parishes in the diocese and conducts the Christian rite of confirmation. It is one of the seven sacraments that the faithful receive for being a part of a catholicism (i.e., baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders). Catholic Children attend Sunday classes at a school adjacent to the church to prepare themselves for the holy eucharist and confirmation. When they turn 15 or 16, and once they have acquainted themselves with the key prayers, bible passages and other literature, they are ready to be confirmed. In Goa the ceremony is called Crism, which is also the term used for the holy oil (in ecclesiastical latin) used during confirmation.
Affect is a term which is often used in the context of literature, music and/or the arts. For instance, whenever a text deeply moves me—i.e., if it makes me joyous, repulsive, or desirous—I say: “my affective experience of reading Coconut Milk transported me to the chaos that represents my sexuality.” I draw the term from Sara Ahmed who herself is quite reluctant of it. But uses it to talk about how our bodies get affected as they are in constant touch with other phenomenons or bodies. I am interested in thinking about the ways in which the performing or the listening body gets affected by music in the context of faith.
John 13: 34 NKJV “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
As a civilization always in pursuit of uncovering the inexplicable wonders of existence, music becomes a vehicle of experiencing bouts of faith, a practice to feel the ungraspable followed by silences just as saturated with truths.
This is a tale about faith and music. A wandering through my catholic self, lodged in the vastness of faith, in relation to the divinity, to the wonders of life, and to each other. Because, the connection between music and theology (through which we mostly make sense of faith, nowadays) is not only that faith and music are constantly developing each other, but that music has its own logic; 3 an “implicit theology” as Jonathan Arnold puts it in Faith and Music. To understand this further, it is essential to understand what explicit and implicit theology means: Explicit theology relies on the ‘word (logos) of god’ or the written scriptures to access, but not necessarily experience, the divine. Implicit theology, on the other hand, caters to the less explicit, more “opaque and numinous area of our relational faith.” 4 While explicit theology outlines the ways in which we can experience the divine–theoretically, implicit theology emphasizes on praxis—how one begins to experience this particular divine. Musical sound is invested in the latter—in an implicit theology. Because the role of music, has always been, to widen the “rationalist route to knowledge” (developed during reformation), to unearth the “links between revelation, liminality, transcendence, epiphanic moments and theology” (as it was during the medieval and late medieval period). 5
In my experience, music jolts me out of stasis, and transports me to a lucid space. Unlike the written or spoken word, which too has artistic possibilities but is instead used as absolute fact or truth about our being, music lies on the borderline of language and performance, where knowing and being, epistemology and ontology, is not connected to an explicit theology. It is instead artistic and imaginative, in the embrace of creative possibilities. Music is a transrational way of meeting the metaphysical. As a civilisation always in the pursuit of uncovering the inexplicable wonders of existence, music becomes a vehicle of experiencing bouts of faith, a practice to feel the ungraspable followed by silences just as saturated with truths. Music, then, gives birth to a unique theologisation of faith.
Theologizing Faith Through Music
If theology as we know it implies a “conscious or unconscious sexual or political praxis” based on certain normative or “acceptable social codifications'” (which then shape the way we experience the sacred or the divine); then music invites bodies. 6 Bodies which produce and consume sacred music through artistic processes of singing or participating. Music invites them to depart from the acceptable to transition to the multiple. Multiple ways of birthing faith, like a bridge to encounter the sacred. Meaning if there is an acceptable way of untangling the complexities of faith prescribed by normative theology, then music pushes bodies to dislodge such prescriptions.
Music encourages bodies to bring their multiple subjectivities and desires to the fore. Theologizing with music 7 —although an implicit theology according to Arnold—could be a path towards a disruptive theology rooted in mystery, aesthetics and affects (which are different from body to body; culture to culture). The sensual and the erotic are excluded from theology and hence from understanding our relationship with faith. 8 But what happens when I pray to God about my (un)holy desires for men before taking communion? What happens to the church when a diverse ( young, old, men, women, queers, priests, Hindus etc.) group of singers perform Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross for an even more sexually, culturally, linguistically, and geographically diverse audience? Theologizing faith through music may not lead us to answers, but it prompts an array of questions at the intersection of performance, literature, symbolism, and human desires. Music humanizes faith.
Introduction, page 1; Enlivening Faith, Edited by June Boyce-Tillman, Stephen B. Roberts and Jane Erricker
Introduction, page 1: Enlivening Faith
Introduction, page 3; Music and Faith, Jonathan Arnold.
Introduction, page 4: Indecent Theology
I am following from Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology which looks at liberation theology—interested in the ‘liberation’ of the oppressed, widely used in the global south by oppressed Catholics—through the vantage point of sexuality and ‘sexual perversion’ to complicate and re-frame its central tenets. Music, for me, does the kind of disruption—to systematic theology—the way indecent theology—does to normative registers of liberation theology.
As if religion is bereft of sensuality. The intimate act of thinking about a godly figure in relation to our existence is a deeply sensual, personal, and spiritual act. Religion teaches us to desire god. Although it is largely mediated by rituals and other explicit ways of connecting with the supernatural, there are moments when I am with my lord. Because he is “my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (Psalm 91). Like Dan McMullin’s American boy (in “Fa’afafine Poem Number Five”) When no one was looking standing on my toes I kissed the painting of Jesus beautiful English face I kissed him on his red red lips again and again, with his rosy white movie star skin and black Irish hair (Coconut Milk, 47).
The Church swallows you and your life like a black hole of colonial antiquity, and spits back a version of logo-centric (Catholic) truth.
Music and Faith as Lived in Goa
Even more, in Goa 9 (where I am from), the church is not only a cathedral or a building; it is a living institution intersected with the life of the village. But Goa wasn’t always like this: the Portuguese conquest did not only criminalize cultural practices pegged to the temples—such as Hindu marriages, the performances of kalvants, and other forms of dance which were being taught in ‘school’ settings—but they also eradicated temples and erected extravagant churches, in every village, to disseminate western, Catholic ways of being. Today, as has been for decades, it is not unusual to wake up to the bells of the early morning mass, or to stop playing football in the field to draw a sign of cross, when the church bells chime at 7:00 pm—sharp, or to get lost in the acoustics of the Portuguese churches.
The church swallows you and your life like a black hole of colonial antiquity, and spits back a version of logo-centric (Catholic) truth. One that you must follow to be a “true” catholic. As my partner, who has been a part of the religious order for several years, often says: when you are catholic “there is a personal self and a collective self, personal values and collective values, a personal truth and a collective version of a truth.” 10 You oscillate between these different sets of knowledge systems, or truths about your being. Like bees that colonize different flowers for morning nectar, you start living different lives for and of faith. Hence, my desire to be clear, in this essay, is ruptured by the unclear nature of ‘faith.’
Faith, in the way I think about it, is also not only a thing of scriptures, theology, or the written word. It is something more evasive and inexplicable, like the complexities of life, sometimes anchored in moments of performative action. Which is to say, faith is not only found in the repeated actions of our daily lives—of drawing a sign of the cross, or stopping every day in the football field—but it also resides—for bodies which are open to the adventure of faith—in the in-between moments, in the silences and pauses. Faith is alive when we drift in a river of thoughts without any direction and in the liminality and fixity of ritualistic experience and the performative self.
It is strange and violent—if not funny—how tele-evangelists and priests desire to categorise the phenomenon of faith by teaching the bible as a book of facts—as an example. The ‘factual’ priests my mother listens to on YouTube, while lamenting about her existence in an “evil” world, reduce the melody of faith to a credo (pun very much intended). 11 When in reality, the bible is an experience of literature—an “imaginative, experiential encounter.”
I arrived at such an understanding as a queer teenager: I remember being uncontrollably anxious of my desires then. Some days I would watch ‘queer’ porn, after school, at an isolated cyber cafe. The tantalizing joy of traversing an online space—for which I would have to save five rupees; one rupee a day—opened me up to a newer world. This world also gave birth to guilt. At the Sunday mass, I would sit frozen on the bench— “opening myself”—as the priest would ask us, to a higher entity. In actuality, I would hide from the gaze of God—as if avoiding the ‘truth’ that I had eaten the forbidden fruit. Where is God? –I would wonder. Was he at the ceremonial altar? At the reredos—the grand, golden, and enormous statues or panels at the back of the altar? In the communion?
Just like how a table is defined as a particular table—study, dining, drawing etc., —based on what one does at the table; an altar is the affectivities it gives birth in the congregation. Rather than fearing the divine, for not bringing certain acceptable desires at the altar; the ceremony of placing our intentions at the altar, in the company of the mellow offertory hymns, allows us to fashion the altar with our own desires. The altar wears my desires, and the varied desires of other congregants. Such a formulation of faith is not only indecent to normative ideologies of systematic theology, but it disrupts its singularity by threatening to unravel the apparently neat dichotomy between decent and indecent, acceptable and unacceptable, holy and unholy.
Such a disruptive theology comes alive at the intersection of music, art and literature. Rather than conforming my body to the exploitative rules of the congregation, music allows me to carve a space within the church. A world within a world. A strategy to survive the normative lifestyles prescribed during every sermon. Music pushes me to look beneath the gold clad altars, to unearth a chasm of desires they swallowed over the years. It pushes me to rest in the shade of poetic bible passages. Be nurtured by the love and belonging I feel with my choir and our performances. Be gazed upon fondly by the art and sculptures that populate Christian imaginations in Goa, my homeland.
Apart from the ceremonial baptism I received after being born, of which I have no memory, I was baptized over and over another way. I remember being baptized in music—multiple times. I sang during the Good Friday service as Jesus, in my queer body: ‘Oh, my people, what have I done to you? / What sorrows have I given you? / Oh, please answer me’—I oscillated between myself and the divine . My self, which was being prosecuted like that of Jesus, pleaded to the congregation about the pain that is inflicted on me, everyday of my being. Like the parasites on my favourite mango tree, I wore Jesus on my body and my tongue. The slow tempo of the hymn, spread across various verses, allowed me to carve a space in my body. My immoral body, a temple of the holy spirit, a vessel of desire, was now a landscape for the metaphysical. There, in the company of literature and music, my body had transformed “for the lord and the lord for the body.”
Located on the western coast of India, Goa is a tropical tourist destination. As a Portuguese colony, Goa underwent 450 years of Portuguese colonialism. It served as the important base for Portuguese expansion in Asia. Years after Indian independence, Goa was liberated in 1961. Before becoming a part of India in 1987, the people of Goa resisted the union territories merging with Maharashtra through the 1967 Goa Status Referendum. Although dominant scholarship on Goa only looks at its Portuguese past, Goa used to be and is still a bustling syncretic cultural landscape.
Silveira, Andy. "Pursuing the Sacred: Discovering the Profane." Journal of Autoethnography 3.4 (2022): 445-458.
This post-reformative, modern need to rationalize liturgical language and scriptures as static facts is a “tendency to objectify God through language,” manifesting in serious right-wing propaganda and religious violence in post-colonies.
Roshan Roy is a community educator, research scholar and writer in gender, sexuality and cultural studies from Goa, India. After a post graduate diploma from Ashoka University in Advanced English Literature, they led a community teaching and engagement project at the Goa Institute of Management called 'Queering Goa.' Apart from working on independent research projects in care studies and critical autoethnography, Roshan is an avid performer, and also a tenor with the Goa Stuti Choral Ensemble.