CLASS: Comparative Minority Conservatisms (Fall 2016)

During the 2016 Fall Quarter at Northwestern University, I will offer my first course in the Asian American Studies Program on Comparative Minority Conservatisms. In this course, we will compare the circulation of ‘conservative’ ideologies through communities of color. Here’s the course description:

As the 2016 federal elections arrive on our doorstep, much of the popular commentary has revolved around “conservatism,” especially the phenomenon of racial minorities embracing social, economic, and political forms of conservative ideology. But what is “conservatism,” and what are conservatives, especially those who are people of color, trying to conserve? In this course, we will explore the ideological content of various strains of American conservatisms as a way of exploring what ideology itself is and how it operates in communities of color. To do this, we will read texts in the “conservative tradition,” compare them to texts and events produced by minority conservatives, and discuss their relationship with the racial justice tradition of ethnic studies, especially (but not limited to) Asian American studies. In the first part of the course, we will read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in relation to student activist movements since the 1960s, the communities that they created, and the minority conservatives who challenged them. In the second half, we will read Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution to compare “the conservative tradition” with contemporary articulations of minority conservatism. We will also spend some time on the stereotype of the “model minority,” which is why this course will be of special interest to those in Asian American studies. This course should also appeal to students in ethnic studies more broadly, as well as those interested in political philosophy.

When a syllabus is ready, I will post it as an update here. I look forward to teaching this course and hope that many will sign up for this class, especially as we explore together parts of Asian American studies – and ethnic studies more generally – that have not been covered much in the discipline, but (as I see it) is an excellent alternative way of entering into the practice of ethnic studies and racial justice activism. I also see this as very much of interest to students who simply want to understand conservatism and its contortions during the current 2016 federal election in the United States.

See you in the Fall, Northwestern!

UPDATE: Syllabus is here!

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.

Seattle Pacific University: Guest Lectures, Asian American Ministry Program Church Leaders Class with Soong-Chan Rah

I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be giving some guest lectures in Soong-Chan Rah’s ‘Church Leaders Class‘ at Seattle Pacific University’s new Asian American Ministry Program (AAMP). The course is being held on two weekends in February and March 2016: Rah kicked off the course during the February 5-6 session (which I did not attend, but I heard went extremely well), and I will be joining the March 4-5 session. I’m especially thankful to the AAMP’s director Billy Vo for making this happen.

Church20Leaders20Class1

This is a very interesting endeavour because Rah and I probably come at the question of Asian American ministry from very different disciplinary and philosophical perspectives. Rah lays out his framework very clearly in his books like The Next EvangelicalismMany Colors, and his commentary on Lamentations Prophetic Lament. From what I understand of this work, he uses a sociological understanding of culture – think Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann on ‘plausibility structures’ and ‘externalization’ – and understands his work on Asian American theology as coming out from an immigrant church experience, especially a Korean American one. My understanding is that the first session was devoted to explicating this framework under the banner of a ‘theology of culture’ and ‘contextual theology,’ showing that all theology is done within a sociological, cultural context.

I’m coming in as a dialogue partner who is trained as a human geographer as well as in Asian American studies. My plan – which may get happily derailed by class discussion (which I understand to be very lively) – is to give two lectures. The first will be on what geography has to do with Asian American studies (answer: everything), and the second will try to locate the doing of evangelical theology in relation to (and perhaps even within – which will be an interestingly awkward fit) Asian American studies. I suppose this isn’t an altogether new endeavour; one sociologist who has achieved this remarkable synthesis throughout his career is Russell Jeung (San Francisco State).

Rah tells me that the class is mostly composed of theology students seeking to do some kind of Christian ministry, as well as by pastors who are actually practicing ministry. Because this is a class on race and pastoral ministry, part of my motivation for helping to teach this course is to get a sense of how to navigate my new postdoctoral research on Asian Americans and Black Lives Matter with a focus especially on Seattle. I’m looking forward to meeting the course – and of course, keeping Soong-Chan up until the wee hours of the night in discussion.

Syndicate: John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order

symposium-header16

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!’

Association of Asian American Studies, 2015: Evanston, IL

I was glad to be able to attend the Association of Asian American Studies in Evanston, IL in April 2015, which was taking place concurrently with the American Association of Geographers in Chicago. I presented a paper in a session organized by Russell Jeung (San Francisco State) that mostly consisted of research projects that Jeung himself had organized to reorient the study of Asian American ‘secularity.’ My co-panelists included Seanan Fong (Harvard), Helen J. Kim (Harvard), and Alice Liu (Ohio State).

My presentation focused on ‘The passion of Hak-Shing William Tam: California’s Proposition 8 and the Secular Ironies of Asian American Privilege.’ The abstract is as follows:

Dr. Hak-Shing William “Bill” Tam has not been a sympathetic figure in Asian American studies. Castigated for being one of the official proponents of California’s Proposition 8, the legal and journalistic wranglings around Tam’s socially conservative stances on sexuality have been discussed as attempts to impose his private religious morality onto secular public space. This paper argues precisely the opposite. A closer examination of Tam’s rationale for vehemently opposing same-sex marriage suggests that his social conservatism is rooted in the secular trope of the model minority. Indeed, Tam’s central contention, I will show, is that same-sex marriage is the vanguard of an attempt to undermine heteronormative Asian American families that he conceptualizes as vehicles for social mobility through education in the hard sciences. This conception of the private sphere is a secular one, relying much less on a theological tradition than on the defense of a perceived socio-economic ideology of upward assimilation. This call for even the conventionally religious to be understood as secular opens up the conversation about how Asian American secularities might include the studies that have been criticized as privileging Christianity in Asian American religious studies.

I’m very thankful to Russell Jeung for pulling this panel together. It is always good to be among friends and colleagues doing compelling scholarly work. I’m also very thankful for session attendees like Brett Esaki (Georgia State) and Jonathan Lee (SF State) for their comments and for their personal support of my scholarly endeavours.

American Association of Geographers, 2015: Chicago, IL

In April 2015, I attended the American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting, held in Chicago, IL. I presented a paper, took part in a panel, and presided over the Business Meeting of the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS).

The paper I presented was titled ‘Sexualized unions: Cantonese evangelicals, educational politics, and labour politics in Vancouver, BC.’ This was in a session called Education, Faith, and Place 2 (3522) organized by Peter Hemming (Cardiff) and chaired by Betsy Olson (UNC-Chapel Hill). The abstract is as follows:

Since the late 1990s, Cantonese evangelicals in British Columbia have become known for their socially conservative politics against sexual liberalization, especially with regards to schools. Not only did they oppose the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada, but they have organized against school boards introducing anti-homophobia curriculum and transgender policies while standing in solidarity with Trinity Western University in its struggle against the teachers’ union refusing to acknowledge its Teachers’ College because its community covenant proscribes homosexual practices. These socially conservative politics have seldom been interrogated in relation to the geographical literature on the transnational Hong Kong-Vancouver social field, where geographers have observed that Asia-Pacific migrants import a style of neoliberal privatization to Vancouver’s property market and educational institutions (Olds 1996; Mitchell 2004; Waters 2008; Ley 2010). Instead of presuming that religious sensibilities predispose Cantonese evangelicals toward social conservatism, my ethnographic findings reveal that economic subjectivities also shape ‘grounded theologies’ (Tse 2014). I argue that Cantonese evangelicals who oppose sexual liberalization in British Columbian schools do so because their practice of faith is shaped by their neoliberal opposition to labour unions. Cantonese evangelicals suggested that the teachers’ union used sexual liberalization as part of a larger public strategy to undermine their private economic and educational aspirations. This paper advances geographies of religion, education, and migration by examining how secular economic subjectivities can be deeply embedded in the practice of grounded theologies.

The panel in which I took part was: Geography and Asian-American Studies: Past Reflections and Future Collaborations. This was an intimate discussion organized by Sean Wang (Syracuse University), and featured some very good reflections from Wendy Cheng (Arizona State), Yui Hashimoto, Timothy Huynh (Pennsylvania State), Stevie Larson (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Ishan Ashutosh (Indiana University).

I was also privileged to preside as chair over this year’s Annual Lecture for GORABS given by Banu Gökariksel (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Anna Secor (University of Kentucky) on ‘the post-secular problematic.’

Our specialty group also had a field trip organized by Richard Dodge to Sacred Places in Chicago, in which participants visited the Seventeenth Church of Christ Science, the Chicago Temple (Methodist), the Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple in Oak Park, and the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette.

As I’m posting this super-late, I’m just going to end by saying that I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at AAG 2016 this year in San Francisco!

Society of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion: Rethinking Reparations to Chinese North Americans (with Grace Kao)

I’m very excited to be going to Denver to present new research that I’ve done with my friend and colleague, Grace Kao (Claremont School of Theology). We’re delivering a co-authored paper at the Society of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion at the Iliff School of Theology. The keynote speakers include James Evans, Orlando Espín, and Rita Nakashima Brock. Grace and I are sharing the stage on Friday afternoon with Jeffrey Robbins, Kristian Diaz, and Grace Ji-Sun Kim.

Our paper is titled Rethinking Reparations to Chinese North Americans: A Comparative Analysis Between the U.S. and Canadian Case. We’re comparing the (non)apologies that were given to Chinese Americans for the exclusion era by Congress in 2011 and 2012 to the Chinese head tax redress that culminated in the Harper government’s apology with reparations in 2006. We’ll be assessing these apologies in light of the United Nations-backed international standard for reparations as well as the comparative case of Japanese American and Japanese Canadian redress for World War II internment. We’ll also suggest some ways to repair the reparations in light of new redress efforts, especially for African Americans and Canada’s First Nations.

We’re very excited for this conference and the conversations that will unfold from this. At a personal and professional level, I’m thrilled to be working with Grace. Grace served as a discussant for a panel that I organized at the 2012 American Academy of Religion. Her critique of my paper was so incisive that over coffee with her afterward, I asked her to teach me the ways in Christian ethics. It’s really because of her that I know anything about the Niebuhrs, Ramsey, and Rawls, as well as where Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas fit on the map of Christian ethics. The brilliance of this project is that someone that I have long considered my teacher has become my peer. Bringing our projects together – mine on Cantonese Protestants in Vancouver and hers on the ethics of reparations to aggrieved communities – we’ve managed to write a paper that we both like, bridging geography and ethics. Of course, we talk quite a bit in geography about ethics, but to actually work with an ethicist – that’s the next level!

Needless to say, I’m very excited for what will come of this collaboration, and I am looking forward very much to this conference.

Head tax redress, 2006 (Source: CBC)