Religium Podcast: ‘A Person with a Face, Facing Other People’

I am thankful to my friend and colleague Maren Haynes Marchesini for having me on the Religium Podcast this week. Maren is undertaking the much-needed task of interviewing those of us who can be called Millennials about our religious affiliations. We talked about how I ended up Eastern Catholic on this week’s podcast, titled ‘A Person With a Face, Facing Other People.’

I was thrilled to get Maren’s invitation to reflect on my spiritual – or perhaps better put, mystagogical – journey. Maren and I had in fact been discussing this story for quite some time beforehand, and it only seemed right to tell her the truth on air. Previously, I had tended to use more benign phrases like ‘hanging out with Eastern Catholics,’ but one simply does not lie to Maren Haynes Marchesini, especially not on a podcast about Millennial religious affiliation. At the time we recorded this podcast, I was still a ‘catechumen’ thinking about whether I should be received into full communion. Maren published this shortly after I had been received.

As you’ll hear on the podcast, ‘communion’ (as far as I understand it) is not a matter of ideology. It is much more about being a person – to be a face, faced by other persons and facing other persons. I am a bit of a stickler about this because my professional academic work is so tied up with Asian and Asian American Christianities, which most people seem to assume means ‘some kind of Protestant’ with a bit of ‘Catholicism’ thrown in (but only the Latin tradition). In this way, most people understand me to be studying myself. As you’ll hear on the podcast, this is not altogether untrue, as I shamelessly talk about my upbringing in a variety of Protestant traditions (I’ve also written about them at Schema Magazine). But as far as I understand my own professional work (and despite the self-deception that often comes with self-interpretation), I do not think of myself as an Eastern Catholic scholar. This does not mean that my scholarship and my professional life aren’t tied together – listeners will note well that my academic interests in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement played no small part in my spiritual explorations – but what I mean to say is that my research agenda on Asian and Asian American religions and civil societies is probably not going to shift any time soon to places that are more populated by Eastern Catholics, such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East – fascinating as those places are in their own right!

Perhaps some may ask about why I am so daring, courageous, or some other romantic word to talk about my own religious affiliations as a ‘secular’ scholar. Most of these comments come from those who assume that ‘secularities’ refer to what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as ‘subtraction stories,’ the elimination of religion from contemporary life. But as Taylor has shown (among many other scholars, such Linell Cady, Winnifred Sullivan, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, etc.), ‘secularism’ as an ideology isn’t very coherent, and as far as I understand it, I prefer to think of ‘secularity’ in its more classical understanding of ‘something to do with the contemporary age,’ however ‘contemporary’ is defined. As far as this goes, my work on Asian and Asian American religions, ideologies, and social and cultural geographies are as ‘secular’ as they go!

In this sense, I don’t think of myself as particularly brave for talking about who I am as a person. In fact, having been trained as a social and cultural geographer to disclose my positionality as I conduct ethnographic research, I think of it more as par for the course. In fact, in previously published writings, I have talked at length about my Protestant backgrounds. I don’t see why it would be bad to talk about Eastern Catholicism either.

So how does Eastern Catholicism affect my scholarship? I don’t think it does very much, actually. If anything, Eastern Christian theology (for all of its current ideological shenanigans) seems at best to place a lot of emphasis on personhood, which is simply about facing other persons. As far as I know, this is how I’ve always operated as a researcher and a teacher. Maybe the only thing it will really do is to give these personal convictions about personhood some extra theological oomph. By ‘theology,’ of course, I don’t mean ‘ideology’; as I said earlier, my journey has been ‘mystagogical’ in the sense that I have been taught by being plunged into the mystery of personhood itself instead of thinking about it in the abstract.

In fact, this circles back to how Maren and I first met: on a panel on the ill-fated Mars Hill Church in Seattle and its former bombastic pastor Mark Driscoll. Organized by my friend Elizabeth Chapin, the panel at the Christ and Cascadia conference in 2014 featured Maren, Elizabeth, my postdoctoral supervisor James Wellman, and me working through issues of gender at Mars Hill Church. Maren presented a spectacular paper on the music of Mars Hill and its imaginations of masculinity, drawn from her doctoral research in ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. After this panel, we went out with a group of colleagues for drinks and became fast friends. Quite literally, we faced each other and continue to do so even now.

To have done a panel on Mars Hill presupposes that we have some kind of ideological stake in American Protestantism. In fact, we are often told to present our positionality in order to make our agendas clear; this is what is often meant by ‘ethical’ scholarship. Perhaps talking about my personal affiliation with the Eastern Catholic churches will show that I have no stake in engaging Protestants except to be a person faced by their faces and facing them in turn. Or perhaps I do not know very much about what my stakes are yet, as I also talk about my own background in Protestant Christianity and may still be more attached to it than I imagine. Perhaps my readers and listeners will be generous enough to inform me and even criticize me, if they feel like it. In any case, I hope that these clarifications will be helpful for my readers, who should not expect very much from me on the Eastern Catholic front in my professional scholarship any time soon, although perhaps they might find some entertainment in finding little Eastern Christian tidbits buried in my work and in their kindness tell me about them so that I can learn something too.

I want to thank Maren for being such a kind and generous interviewer. I hope that these mystagogical reflections will be entertaining to my listeners. Hopefully, they will help us understand the religious affiliations of Millennials just a little better, but then again, I don’t think of myself as a representative for Millennials – or for Protestants, Eastern Catholics, or even Asians and Asian Americans, for that matter. However, there will be more good interviews by Maren on the Religium Podcast, and I know that I for one will be trying to listen to most of them so that I can learn more about Millennial religious affiliation myself.

Advertisements

SCMP: ‘God’s servant’: Beijing-friendly and born again, former HK official Stephen Lam wants to woo Christians in Canada

I am thrilled that journalist extraordinaire Ian Young has put up a story about the upcoming visit to Vancouver of Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary, Stephen Lam Sui-lung, on his blog, The Hongcouver on the South China Morning Post. I was interviewed for this piece. I also discovered that – independent of my leads (which means that Ian has to be credited for doing his homework!) – my colleague Dr Sam Tsang (Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary and Ambrose University) also gave his two cents.

CCM_Full

Here’s what’s happening. Later this month in June 2016, Lam will be visiting three Chinese evangelical churches as part of a ‘cross-Canada evangelistic tour’ where he will be speaking on the theme, ‘From Public Servant to God’s Servant.’ The event is being hosted by the Chinese Christian Mission (CCM) Canada, a parachurch organization that tries to bridge the gap between ‘the church and the world.’ This upcoming set of talks has been generating some commotion among Christians about whether Chinese Protestant churches in Vancouver are, in Hong Kong terms, ‘pro-establishment’ (supportive of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing) or ‘pro-democracy’ (critical of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing for not allowing Hong Kong residents full political agency in, say, ‘genuine universal suffrage’ or even ‘Hong Kong autonomy,’ depending on how radically democratic one is). It is uncontroversial to say that Lam himself is ‘pro-establishment’: as the former second-in-command in Hong Kong’s government establishment, he was active in attempts to push forward a democratic reform bill that would lead to a Hong Kong that would have a democratic façade but be ultimately controlled by Beijing. As Young rightly notes, this reform package split the pan-democratic parties in Legislative Council in 2010 and ultimately generated the frustration that led to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the 79-day street occupation where Hong Kong residents demanded ‘genuine universal suffrage’ (instead of democratic reforms that were all for show with no real substance).

Here were my comments to Young on Lam’s upcoming visit:

Lam’s visit is being debated in Chinese-speaking Christian circles in Vancouver, according to Dr Justin Tse, who teaches religious studies at the University of Washington in Seattle and human geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He said the tour and the reaction to it were emblematic of the way “democracy and establishment forces in Hong Kong [are] vying for the attention of the diaspora” in Canada. Churches, he said “served as political hubs” of the Hong Kong diaspora in Canada, even as they claimed apolitical status.

“It’s a contest over whether these churches should be having a pro-Beijing politician speak for an evangelistic event, a mass rally intended to convert people to Christianity,” he said. The debate was being played out in private Chinese-language social media, drawing hundreds of comments.

One Facebook posting highlighted by Tse called for “joint action” against the tour. “If any of you or your righteous relatives would like to welcome in Vancouver Stephen Lam Sui-lung, the servile former official who tries to wipe the slate clean with theology, please send me your personal messages,” said the poster.

“There’s no denying that for Chinese people living in Vancouver, there is a sense that the Church has a moral voice. Even if you are not Christian, for instance, you might want to send your kids to Sunday school so that they can learn to be good and moral people,” said Tse. “There’s a sense [even among non-Christians] to think of the church as a moral centre of the Chinese community, and we have the former chief secretary come over to speak and spout a particular version of Hong Kong ideology.”

Tse said that Lam’s previous efforts in such venues had amounted to a “Christianised account of his time in office”. “Chinese churches in Vancouver have this thing where famous people – politicians, movie stars, singers whatever – are used to attract people. Stephen Lam’s celebrity comes from his time in political office. That’s the draw.”

He said the CCM was not overtly political, and Chinese evangelical churches traditionally prided themselves on being able to separate “the private face of the church from public political life”. “It’s being billed as an apolitical event, but what we have seen of the content [of Lam’s previous evangelical speeches] they are fairly ideological” he said, and likening such events to claiming a “biblical mandate”.

“Democracy people or autonomy people are lamenting this event – not just that Stephen Lam is being given this platform, but from their understanding that the church as an apolitical institution… is very easily manoeuvred into political positions without knowing it.”

In this way, I hope that I have successfully and clearly made several important points that Young’s audience can easily understand. For many historical and ideological reasons, Chinese evangelical churches in Vancouver have billed themselves as apolitical since the 1970s – they take particular pride in being able to distinguish their private religious community from their involvement in secular, non-Christian politics. That Lam is a politician means nothing except that he is an individual who will be speaking on putatively apolitical things, like why his audience needs to convert to (evangelical Protestant) Christianity. However, as pro-democracy Christians in Hong Kong have been pointing out, this apolitical bent is a politics in and of itself. What sometimes happens is that people and institutions that are good at circulating ideologies will couch their messages in apolitical tones and be able to convince people in apolitical churches that what they are saying is simply the way things are in reality. As Young’s reporting shows several paragraphs above my comments, this is what Lam has been doing since his resignation from political office in 2012: in 2014, he spoke about the ‘resurrection’ of the hotly contested political reform package in 2010 as an example of how God was with him in his political maneuvering. The God-talk feels apolitical; the content, for those who know the context, has a bit more of a bite.

This is by no means something that is unique to Hong Kong-Vancouver Chinese Christianity. The relationships between churches and transnational political geographies constitute a particularly interesting part of our news cycle currently. One useful comparison, for example, could be the way that the ‘Russian World’ ideology from Putin’s government circulates through the Moscow Patriarchate in the Orthodox world and is combatted by, say, Ukrainians who have churches of their own; interestingly, this ideology may well be affecting the last-minute preparations and scrambling for the Orthodox to get their Holy and Great Council together next week. Another interesting case to come through Vancouver’s news cycle is of a Filipino man who fled an authoritarian church in the Philippines but is currently being targeted by that institution through its international membership. All of this seems to be about the political attempts of national church structures attempting to ideologically influence their transnational diaspora churches, which is not a straightforward process because this often results in ideological contestation in the diaspora religious communities – and increasingly so because of social media. I find all of this very geographically interesting, which is why I said what I said to Young.

I am thankful to Young for being interested in this story. It is also good and interesting to have my comments alongside my friend Sam Tsang. I hope that SCMP/Hongcouver readers will find this piece interesting because Chinese evangelical churches are part and parcel of the landscape of Vancouver’s civil society.

Association of Critical Heritage Studies – what does heritage change?: Montreal 2016

I’m so happy to have been invited to Montréal to give a presentation on behalf of the collaborative project that Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), David Ley (UBC, Geography), and I have been working on since 2010. Our joint project revolves around No. 5 Road, a 3-kilometre stretch of road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’ because it is home to over twenty religious institutions. So far, our project has yielded a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia (our funders) and a peer-reviewed article in Social and Cultural Geography. This is heads-up that there is more coming down the pipeline.

The conference at which I am representing our team is called the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS); their theme for this year’s 2016 (from June 3 to 8) meeting in Montréal is ‘what does heritage change?’ David was contacted by Luc Noppen, one of the organizers for this conference who put together a very interesting session titled ‘Heritage and the New Fate of Sacred Places/La patrimoine et le destin des leux sacrés.‘ Luc said that he had heard about our project from various places; we have indeed been presenting snippets of it at various conferences, such as the American Association of Geographers in 2011 and 2012 as well as Metropolis Canada at a policy symposium and their national conference. I was also once on the radio about it. Luc offered to fly one of our team over to Montreal, and after some discussion, the more junior member of the team (me!) got to go.

It will be interesting to be at a conference on critical heritage. I usually associate critical heritage with my friend and colleague Lachlan Barber, who is Assistant Professor of Geography at Hong Kong Baptist University, and when I think of critical heritage, I think of Lachlan’s dissertation on Hong Kong heritage politics, something that I have been thinking a great deal about in light of the origins of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Lachlan is in fact here at this conference talking about Hong Kong. But I won’t be talking about Hong Kong. I’m going to be talking about Richmond. Oh, all of my favourite things…

As I peruse the program, I’m finding that there are a good many sessions on religion at this conference. There is a session on Saturday, for example, on ‘Religion as Heritage – Heritage as Religion?‘ On Monday, there will be an all-day session at the historic church of Saint-Michel de Vaudreuil titled ‘Beyond Re-uses: The Future of Church Monuments in a Secular Society/Au-delà de la conversion: l’avenir des églises monumentales dans une société sécularisée.’ On Tuesday morning just before the session in which I am presenting, there is yet another round on religion as heritage at Concordia University. I’ll try to be at most of these sessions and will be definitely be brushing up on my high-school French when the Francophone presentations happen. Maybe I’ll try to sneak into my schedule a few Asia-Pacific sessions too, especially Lachlan’s paper.

It turns out that the session in which I am presenting on the fate of sacred places is being hosted in a site that has some special meaning for me. On Tuesday afternoon, we’ll be in a conference room at St Joseph’s Oratory. This parish – really, a minor basilica in its final form – was founded by the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC), St André Bessette. CSC tends to be known in secular circles for the University of Notre Dame (which I have not attended) and in Roman Catholic circles for Family Theater (which I do not watch). However, CSC does many other things as well in Catholic education, including running the high school that I attended in the San Francisco Bay Area, Moreau Catholic High School (MCHS), which is named for the order’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau. Moreau was an educator, and he imparted to his order a philosophy of education with which I continue to resonate: ‘We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart’ (Circular Letter 36). If there was anyone who embodied what that kind of education looked like in practice, it was St André, the illiterate doorkeeper who had St Joseph’s Oratory built in the first place. Widely known as a healer who lovingly embraced everyone who came to meet him at the door, St André shows us what the cultivation of the heart in education is: we are educated so that we can come to understand ourselves in relation to others as persons who can look each other in the face with love. One of my closest mentors at MCHS, Fr Harry Cronin CSC (we cofounded a literary magazine there in 2003 called Sea Changes), in fact wrote a play recently about St André called ‘The Lesson of Wood‘ that compares the simple carpentry of Jesus’ earthly father, St Joseph, to St André’s building of St Joseph’s Oratory. St André’s body is still at the Oratory, which means that not only will I get to visit this man who embodies everything I know education to be, but he will be within earshot of what I have to say at this critical heritage conference.

And what will I be talking about in the presence of St André’s relics? SHIT.

Yes, you read that right. Shit. As my students in cultural geography will know well – as well as those who have attended my more recent guest lectures – shit is becoming a bit of a technical term for me. I’d like to say that my new fecal interests were developed by reading the new materialist turns in critical theory, but if I were to be honest, it was because of a previous incarnation of the talk that I’m giving at this conference. I developed the thesis of this talk for a policy symposium with Metropolis BC and Embrace BC – that dialogue on No. 5 Road was really more about infrastructure than interfaith topics – and one item that seemed to make an impression on the audience was my discussion of sewage on No. 5 Road. Because of that, I was promptly invited to Comox for a panel the next month by the Community Justice Centre’s Bruce Curtis. As Curtis introduced me, he declared to a crowd of mostly older, respectable Vancouver Island folks, ‘Justin is going to tell you about SHIT!’ That is the scene that sticks with me now as I make my way through the new materialists, their more-than-human geography disciples, and their theoretical foes who, like Slavoj Žižek (my personal favourite), are equally scatological.

In any case, here’s the abstract for my talk next Tuesday:

Interfaith and intercultural dialogues frequently have an air of immateriality about them, focusing usually on abstract concepts in an effort to reach an idealistic overlapping consensus. The coexistence of over twenty religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as ‘Highway to Heaven,’ provides a remarkably grounded contrast. While this spectacular landscape appears on the surface to be fertile ground for abstract interreligious conversation, our findings from interviews conducted with the City of Richmond and the religious institutions suggest that the religious institutions often conceptualize their property as private, working together only to solve infrastructure problems related to parking, sewage, agricultural land, and the city’s proposals to rework the roads surrounding the area. Advancing an approach to the study of interreligious dialogue in contemporary sacred landscapes that focuses on the material and the mundane, we argue that there has been a shift in the conception of faith communities in relation to their property that has centralized private ownership as a practice of faith for these institutions. We therefore advance the critical study of religious institutions in Canada by showing that religion is not so much a matter of ideological identity as it is related to practices related to land that may have more in common with the secular than previously thought.

That looks tamer than what I think I am going to deliver. What has given me more courage is that I have discovered that I will have thirty minutes instead of my usual twenty. I am sure I could use that to (if I may) talk more shit, especially to sketch out some shitty theory – now that I indeed have a stake in this debate about shit between the so-called ‘new materialists’ and their theoretical foes (as all cultural geographers do, I would argue).

St André Bessette, pray for us indeed. Or as Moreau writes in the same Circular Letter I quoted above, ‘Even though we base our philosophy course on the data of faith, no one need fear that we shall confine our teaching within narrow and unscientific boundaries. No; we wish to accept science without prejudice, and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times. We do not want our students to be ignorant of anything they should know.’ I can only pray that my excremental presentation will be true to this sacramental spirit, which imbues the place where I will deliver it.

13322106_10154327627835962_5428463240540068987_n

MONTREAL MATERIALIST MADNESS!!

I am thankful to the Highway to Heaven team for tolerating this scatological turn in my scholarly endeavours. I am also thankful to Luc Noppen for so kindly inviting me to this conference. As always, we thank our funders Metropolis BC, who also enabled us to hire the best transcriber who exceeded our hopes and dreams, Airra Custodio. I am looking forward to the hilarity that will inevitably ensue as we discuss heritage this week.