Syndicate: John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order

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From late December 2015 to early January 2016, Syndicate Theology ran what is being advertised now as the most-read symposium that the site has ever run, a fact that contributor Matthew Tan was generous to point out in his write-up on the forum. I was honoured to be the section editor for this forum, not least because the Theology and Social Theory section played host to the work of the scholar who wrote Theology and Social Theory in the first place: John Milbank. Our symposium focused on his newest book, Theology and Social Theory‘s sequel: Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People.

The book itself is controversial, for reasons that you can read about here in the symposium introduction that I wrote. This led to a controversial forum, which we rolled out in the order of most sympathetic to most outright hostile:

Milbank is beyond generous in his responses. Not only were his answers thoughtful and thorough, but they managed to elicit a new response from Singh calling Milbank’s project ‘racist.’ There’s also a point-for-point refutation of McCarraher that not only reads as a genuine invitation to conversation, but also is surprisingly revelatory of Milbank’s own working-class position in relation to both British politics and the hegemonies embedded in the academic discipline of theology.

Not that anyone is counting, but as a point if one were to go down the ‘identity politics’ route and accuse us of selling out to white theology: I note that three of the contributors are men of colour (in fact, two are Asian American, and one is Asian Australian) from very different ideological perspectives, and the white woman is married to a Korean American. I am (quite obviously) not white. And yet, here we are – engaging. There’s something to be reflected upon there – I’m not quite sure what it is, but it may have something to do with Milbank’s theology, for all the shots fired at it as a white man’s ideology, having some resonance in geographies that are not white, surprisingly not from the elite classes, and perhaps weirdly socialist in political orientation.

I’m grateful to Christian Amondson for having the fortitude to host such a wild and crazy symposium on Syndicate. Milbank’s oeuvre has been profoundly influential in my own work on grounded theologies, so to have done this forum where the contributors engaged each other with such gusto is a deep honour and privilege. As for the symposium being widely read, all I can say to our readers is, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘Hang on tight!’

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2015: Newport Beach, CA

I was happy to be able to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, CA from October 23-25, 2015. Aside from the session at which I presented, there was so much fine work on religion in China and the Chinese diaspora because of Fenggang Yang’s presidential influence over this year’s SSSR, including a special presidential session on the Umbrella Movement where two of the three leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Drs Benny Tai (University of Hong Kong) and Chan Kin-man (Chinese University of Hong Kong), attended.

The session at which I presented was organized by my postdoctoral supervisor James K. Wellman, Jr., and focused on Megachurch Fantasies, with a special emphasis on affect theory and evangelical studies. Our co-panelists were all from the University of Washington: Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Chapin. My paper, entitled ‘Global Cities of God: the ideological fantasies of Chinese American megachurches,’ had the following abstract:

In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese American evangelicals started a series of congregations that aspired to megachurch stature in California’s Silicon Valley. While only one of them has over 2000 congregants (River of Life Christian Center in Santa Clara, CA), this paper examines what Slavoj Žižek calls the ideological “fantasies” – the imagined objects of desire – that underwrite their implementation of church growth theory. Employing a qualitative methodology comprising 47 key informant interviews with Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that these Chinese American churches seek to establish themselves as sites of influence in the global political economy, precisely the same ideology that drives the neoliberal restructuring of global cities in the Asia-Pacific. This paper advances the affective study of congregations by merging the global cities literature with the social science of religion.

My reflection after this session was that, unbeknownst to us at the same institution, each of us had a different take on affect and emotion. To be quite honest, Jessica Johnson’s work on the pornographic affect in Mark Driscoll’s understanding of Christian teaching and his governance of Mars Hill Church probably followed the line of thought on affect more closely as the field intends, pace Deleuze and Guattari as well as Sara Ahmed. My orientation tracks much closer with Slavoj Žižek, whose psychoanalytic tendencies the Deleuze/Guattari crowd would likely find distasteful.

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Tim Buechsel, myself, and Benny Tai

But the most insightful parts of the conference came through interactions with the Chinese scholars as well as with Tai and Chan (OCLP). These engagements also helped me as I prepared to speak that very weekend at San Diego’s Ethnos Community Church on ‘Global Jesus’ in the Umbrella Movement (the ‘Greater China’ moniker can be read almost as a Barthian move, in which ‘Global Jesus’ subverts the ideology of ‘Greater China’ as an integrated economic regional zone), which I took to mean an exposition of the fields of Global Christianity and World Christianity as they applied to the Hong Kong democracy movement – an intellectual opportunity that I had not yet pursued until this point. I am thankful to Tim and Isabel Buechsel, as well as Reyn and Joy Nishii, for their very kind hospitality as I stayed with them, and to congregants at Ethnos for their very warm welcome to me and the traditions of critical theory and ecumenical theology – different from their evangelical practice in many senses, yet genuinely complementary in surprising ways – that I brought with me. Careful listeners to the podcast will note some factual errors in my extemporaneous delivery (at one point I call the third member of OCLP, the Rev. Chu Yiuming, a ‘professor’ by mistake); my hope is that especially those in Hong Kong will both forgive me for these inaccuracies and see my engagement with the democracy movement as a small contribution to a genuinely democratic society, as they are an example of what Pope Francis means to ‘care for our common home.’

Syndicate: Thomas Pfau, Minding the Modern

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In late September and early October 2015, Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology hosted a symposium that I edited on Thomas Pfau’s magisterial tome, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge. This is a magnificent exegesis of key thinkers from antiquity to the modern period on what it means for a person to think and act; indeed, thinking and reading are acting, according to Pfau, making this ‘phenomenology of reading’ a profoundly empowering book for those of us who read for a living.

My symposium introduction can be read here. We had six panelists:

I’m grateful as this symposium’s editor for Pfau’s close engagement with each of these essays, as well as these authors’ close reading of Pfau’s very deep book. The interaction in this forum speaks to each of these persons’ deep commitment to the real mission of the academy, the rigorous close reading and dialectical engagement for which Pfau calls in Minding the Modern.

I’m also grateful for Christian Amondson and his very able skills as the managing editor, freeing my hands to simply engage as the Theology and Social Theory section editor.

Review of Religion in Chinese Society 2(2): ‘Under the Umbrella: Grounded Christian Theologies and Democratic Working Alliances in Hong Kong’

In 2015, the Review of Religion in Chinese Society published a peer-reviewed paper that I wrote trying to unpack the Umbrella Movement’s cultural geographical background. In this paper, I especially advance the approach of the new cultural geography in understanding the many layers of history behind democratic movements in Hong Kong and their engagement with Christian theological sources. Here’s the abstract in both English and Chinese:

Taking the geographies of the 2014 Umbrella Movement as the point of departure, this paper provides a geographical reading of democratic landscapes in Hong Kong. Using a new cultural geography approach, this study unpacks the grounded theologies that undergird the participation of Christians in democratic movements in Hong Kong. The central argument is that two Christian grounded theologies in Hong Kong – collaborative and critical – have been generated by how Christians acting within two different working alliances have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Hong Kong government. Drawing from both ethnographic and public archival research, I trace the origins of a democratic working alliance to the 1978 Golden Jubilee Incident, after which a democratic consensus was developed in Hong Kong. Following this thread through the 1997 handover, I demonstrate that this consensus bifurcated among Christians who disagreed theologically as to whether collaborating or critiquing the government was the ideal way to implement democratic reform. This paper contributes to the study of religion in Chinese societies by providing a geographical approach that can be used for comparative work in the social scientific study of religion and democracy.

本文是以二零一四雨傘運動的地理為起點, 用地理學的角度去看香港的民主景觀。此硏究乃以一個新文化地理途徑去分析多種的接地神學如何從下鞏固了香港的基督徒參與民主運動。其論點中心是兩個不同的香港基督教多種的接地神學 —— 合作性及評論性 —— 已經從基督徒如何在兩個不同的合作聯盟之內把自己與香港政府的關係定位而產生。由於一九七八年金禧事件之後香港發展了民主共識,本人便從人種學及公共檔案硏究去追溯金禧事件為民主合作聯盟之起源。隨著這線索一直至一九九七回歸,本人演示了此共識使在神學上意見分歧的基督徒分义成兩派,一派認為與政府合作乃執行民主改革的理想途徑,另一派則認為評論政府才是執行民主改革的理想途徑。本文提供了用地理途徑去作宗教和民主的社會科學硏究比較,因此對華人社會的宗教硏究頗有助益。

I’m deeply thankful to the editor, Fenggang Yang (Purdue), for graciously accepting this manuscript and seeing to its speedy publication. I hope this paper is useful for understanding democracy movements in Hong Kong,their many complex histories, and their relation to theory in social science.

Conference: Freedom of (and from) Religion | University of California, Santa Barbara

From April 30 to May 2, 2015, I attended the ‘Freedom of (and from) Religion’ Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Hosted by the UCSB Religious Studies Department alongside their Virgil Cordano Catholic Studies Program, this conference was part of their conference series on religion and law. There was a stellar lineup of speakers, including Winnifred Sullivan (Indiana University), among other junior scholars as well. Ann Taves, who was our GORABS Annual Lecturer in 2013, played a representative faculty role for UCSB Religious Studies and Catholic Studies.

My paper, which took a different spin (a more legal one) from the iteration I gave at the AAAS earlier in the month, was titled ‘The Passion of Hak-Shing William Tam: Perry v. Schwarzenegger and the Question of Religious Privacy.’ Here’s the abstract:

Some religious activists claim that their public actions against same-sex marriage should not only be publicly accommodated, but understood as fundamentally private. Instead of philosophizing on the actual legitimacy of this claim, I examine why its proponents argue that it is legitimate. My case study centers on Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam in the federal court case Perry v. Schwarzennegger, which ensued after the passage of California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Called as a hostile witness, Tam – an official grassroots proponent of Proposition 8 – argued that his privacy had been violated when his private emails were introduced as evidence that he had imposed his private religious animus against gays and lesbians onto the public sphere. That the court discredited the Proposition 8 proponents based on this evidence suggested to Tam and his colleagues that the judiciary was in the sway of the private interests of sexual minorities. A closer examination of the Perry transcript shows that this privacy emphasis framed the interests of sexual minorities as competing with those of religious communities. I argue that Tam’s privacy claim was part of an attempt to fashion a legal consensus where public action on either side of Proposition 8 was fundamentally about defending private communities. In this way, the Proposition 8 proponents defended actions such as Tam’s by claiming that he had not so much sought public accommodation for his views, but the victory of his private interests over against competing ones. Claims to religious freedom may not thus only be requests for public accommodation; they may well be political tools to refashion American society as solely composed of competing interests vested in private communities.

I enjoyed the chance to be at UCSB and to interact with the conference participants and the UCSB faculty. As this signals an interest that I have developed in geographies of religion and law from since my PhD, I hope this is the first of many encounters to come.

Syndicate: ‘If capital is a god,’ forum post on David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

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On April 8, 2015, Syndicate published my review essay on David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradiction and the End of Capitalism. Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology has been among the best outlets for my academic creativity over the last year, as they constantly push me to think thoroughly about the theory that undergirds my work on grounded theologies.

In this essay, they pushed me on my own discipline: human geography. And they did so by having me engage my PhD supervisor David Ley‘s nemesis, David Harvey.

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Harvey (left), Ley (right)

Finding the presence of theology inhabiting both Ley and Harvey’s work, I wrote my engagement with Harvey’s newest book by examining how both Ley and Harvey do theology – and how that theology can possibly bring them together under the acknowledgement that capital has become a personal god in the modern order. As you’ll see in the response, Harvey was intrigued by these thoughts, but he doesn’t buy it completely.

I had planned to write a reply to Harvey on the site, but I never got around to it as April was a very busy conference month for me. I did get to meet Harvey at the American Association of Geographers meeting later that month in Chicago – an encounter that Ley tells me he witnessed but did not want to disturb as he was descending an elevator into the hotel lobby. This essay will probably turn into something bigger (and hopefully better) as I play around some more with these ideas, and hopefully then, I’ll have an even more serious engagement with Harvey.

I’m very thankful to Syndicate’s managing editor Christian Amondson for publishing this piece and the editor/founder of Syndicate, Silas Morgan, for his very able organizational powers in making this forum happen. Read his forum introduction here.

Syndicate: Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity

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In February 2015, I edited a symposium of review essays on Gil Anidjar’s Blood: A Critique of Christianity for the Theology and Social Theory section of Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology.

Blood is a powerful set of essays on the pervasiveness of Christian political concepts in the modern West. You can read my symposium introduction here. The four essays are as follows:

I’m thankful to Anidjar for his generosity in responding to each of the essays and for catching my slip-up in the symposium introduction about the ‘one-drop rule’ (it has been corrected). As usual, I’m grateful to Christian Amondson, our managing editor, for assigning this book to my section, as reading this book and synthesizing my thoughts has helped me immensely with my own theoretical orientation in my own work, especially in the development of the concept of ‘grounded theologies.’