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!’

Relegens Thréskeia: Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC

I am very pleased to announce that I’ve published a piece in a special issue of Relegens Thréskeia, an open-access Brazilian religious studies journal. This recent special issue, edited by geographer Clevisson Pereira (Universidade Federal do Paraná), focuses on Espaço e Religião (Space and Religion). While most of the articles are published in Portuguese, they also brought on Thomas Tweed (University of Notre Dame) and myself to contribute English-language pieces. While Tweed’s piece proposes a theoretical framework for the study of geographies of religion, my piece is an empirical study of Ken Shigematsu, an Asian Canadian pastor in Vancouver. It also puts to work themes from my theoretical piece on ‘grounded theologies’ to understand Shigematsu’s church, Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, as what theologian John Milbank calls a ‘complex space.’

My piece is titled ‘Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC.’ Focusing on the spirituality of Ken Shigematsu, it demonstrates that his spiritual practice and his Asian Canadian sensibilities have reshaped Tenth Church, a historic Anglo-Canadian church, into a complex, multiracial, multi-class space. This analysis also suggests that there is a theoretical link between church growth theory and the ‘new religious economics’ in the sociology of religion and contends that a geographical approach might be able to complicate the models proposed by these approaches. The theological basis for Shigematsu’s theology, moreover, is the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) from New Testament studies; while I have written elsewhere of postcolonial Paul-within-Judaism models espoused by Mark Nanos and Sam Tsang, what is important to understand is that Shigematsu is himself deploying NPP and achieving these spatial results.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how the evangelical spatiality of an Asian Canadian senior pastor at a historically Anglo-Saxon congregation has transformed it from an ethnically homogeneous, aging church to a heterogeneously-constituted gathering in an evangelical Protestant tradition. This piece challenges the conventional wisdom of the church growth movement and the new religious economics in the sociology of religion, both of which advise religious groups to construct homogeneity and consensus in efforts for numerical growth over against secularizing forces. The paper argues instead that Pastor Ken Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality from the mid-1990s to the present must be understood as a theological embrace of difference in a church gifted to him by God over which he prayerfully pastors along with his staff. This paper understands Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality through his own New Testament exegesis, his denominational affiliation with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, his ancient spiritual practices of indiscriminate hospitality, and his mystical reception of Tenth as a welcoming space toward a multiplicity of ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds. This article contributes to Asian Canadian Christian studies by discouraging a future where pan-Asian churches in Canada are homogeneously constructed and by exploring the concrete possibility of non-strategies in which heterogeneous, complex spaces that include Asian Canadians are received by pastors and studied by academics as a divine gift.

I am thankful to Clevisson Pereira for inviting me to participate in what for me is an exciting international endeavour, and I am also grateful to have worked so closely with Ken Shigematsu to have this paper produced. I have written about Shigematsu at a popular level in Ricepaper Magazine; consider this the full academic spelling-out of the thinking there. The paper is open-access, so I will be posting it on Academia.edu, and interested readers can also download it directly from Religens Thréskeia.

Syndicate: The Umbrella Movement and Theology

I’m happy to announce that I’ve become a section editor for Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology. Syndicate is a new publication with both online and print fora for new titles and issues in contemporary theology. I’m responsible for topics relating to what theologian John Milbank has called ‘theology and social theory,’ which as a geographer I include to encompass geographies of religion, secularization, and social theory.

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My first foray into this editorial role has been to collate a forum on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Theology. Modelled after the forum on Ferguson and Theology, this conversation brings together three theologians to talk about the theological significance of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests that erupted into international attention on September 28, 2014 and that are expecting to be cleared on December 11. Because a fourth contributor was unable to submit his essay, I contributed the final piece in this forum.

The four essays are:

Here’s a bit from the blurb that I wrote to introduce the forum:

While all this has been novel for Anglo-American audiences, the protests have been long in coming for those who have watched and participated in shaping the ground in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. If theology has percolated to the surface of the Umbrella Movement, one can be sure that theologians have also been watching and participating. The Umbrella Movement may be far from over. But if its themes of democracy, church-state relations, and grounded theologies have been simmering under the surface for quite some time, it is still worth asking some theologians how the movement’s theological significance might be articulated.

With a liberation theologian (Kung), a feminist theologian (Wu), a New Testament scholar (Tsang), and a social scientist interloper (yours truly), we’ve only scratched the surface of what theologies need further exploration in Hong Kong, but we hope that we have raised enough issues for good conversation for some time to come.

WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Some of the forthcoming titles that I’ll be working on include Gil Anidjar’s Blood, Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, and John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order. I’ll also be contributing to a forum on geographer David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Stay tuned.

Converge Magazine: Subverting the Culture War: why I am a Christian in the secular university and not a culture warrior

I am pleased to announce the publication of a short piece in Converge Magazine, a periodical for young evangelicals based in Vancouver.

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The article is concerned with what sociologist James Davison Hunter has called ‘culture wars,’ especially the notion that evangelicals in secular universities have a responsibility to take back academic space for Christ in a battle for the mind. After reviewing some of the prevailing evangelical approaches since the 1970s, I explain that these practices are not only naïve about the place of young people in universities, but that they may be distortions of Christian theological praxis. I base this article on a re-reading of what evangelicals call ‘the Great Commission,’ a quotation from Jesus at the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew (28.18-20) where he tells his followers to go make disciples of all nations, baptize them into Triune life, and teach them to obey everything he has commanded. I propose that readings of the Great Commission have become distorted because they fail to read it in the context of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s texts. In Matthew, Jesus’ call to repentance is to a kingdom founded on humility, charity, and forgiveness, with a mission that is based less on organized strategy as it is on living out this new mode of existence. Reflecting at the end on the notion of the ‘secular,’ I also make reference to the last chapter of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age as an alternative way through which the Great Commission can be practiced in secular universities.

The argument, of course, is nothing completely original and is part of a much larger discussion both among evangelicals and about evangelicals. Younger evangelicals have reportedly become disenchanted with the notion of culture wars, and books and blogs such as Rachel Held Evans‘s Evolving in Monkey Town, Jonathan Merritt’s A Faith of Our Own, and Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God are all good examples. These cases have also been highlighted in the flagship evangelical publication Christianity Today as a sign of a generational shift. Moreover, academic studies such as Martha Pally’s The New Evangelicals (see The Immament Frame’s blog series), Omri Elisha’s Moral Ambition, and Christian Smith’s Christian America have observed these changes, and even William Connolly–a political scientist who has not been known to be sympathetic to evangelicals–gives a positive appraisal of these re-formulated paradgims in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. As for how Christians should participate in secular universities, there has been an ongoing discussion among theologians and social scientists in books like John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular, Stanley Hauerwas’s State of the University, and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. In other words, what I am saying here isn’t completely new, but it is my own reflective theological reading of Christian praxis and positionality in secular universities.

My purpose in writing this article is to clarify my own positionality in my academic work for a popular evangelical audience. I began this project of public dissemination in a post I wrote for Schema Magazine, in which I detailed why being a Chinese Christian myself should not paste over my own personal intersectional complexities and thus continues to allow for what geographer Paul Cloke calls a simultaneous ‘critical distance’ and ‘critical proximity’ in ethnographic work. That piece was directed to a popular secular audience as an exercise in public academia, explaining my own social location in relation to my academic project to people who don’t do academic work for their day job. In this post, I speak more directly to evangelicals who may assume that my project is to take back the secular university for Christ, clarifying my own theological praxis while calling my brothers and sisters to reflect deeper on Matthew’s Gospel account. To address this audience more directly, I chose to publish popularly in an evangelical magazine, but I will reflect on my positionality to academic readers in a scholarly journal in the future. There is, of course, a great deal of precedent for academics in religious studies studying evangelicals to publish in evangelical magazines, including reflective pieces and regardless of their own theological orientations, such as those written by Christian Smith, Tanya Luhrmann, and Russell Jeung. Indeed, these are publics that academics studying evangelicals must engage both as a way of giving back to communities we have researched and by way of meeting our duties to contribute to public discourse.

I am pleased overall by the editors’ discretion in preparing the piece for publication, especially by clarifying my meaning in several places where my language was more convoluted. One slight modification, however, that is a bit more significant is the final sentence in which it reads that we ‘show this world another way of thinking and being, one based around His ways, rather than our own.’ My original draft was a more direct quotation from St. John’s Gospel (17.22-23) where Jesus prays for Christian unity that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son. As it is printed, it sounds like I am calling for Christians to be examples to others through their character. Yet as I read Jesus’ prayer in John and Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, he doesn’t call Christians, including evangelicals, to lead from any moral high ground. Instead, the command is to simply be the church and live humbly in a sacramental ontology where justice is done precisely out of a humble spirituality and solidarity with the poor. This all said, though, the editorial choice is still sound if the reference to ‘His ways, not ours’ is taken from the words of the prophet Isaiah (55.8) where he discusses divine grace in calling out from exile a people that is marked by their new-found humility and charity. If that is so, the Isaianic passage’s meaning converges with both John’s and Matthew’s Gospel accounts about practicing a radically humble ontology, and the sentence is not only clarified, but enhanced.

I want to thank Converge Magazine for printing this piece and especially to Shara Lee for encouraging this publication. As I wrote in the byline, my friends Sam, Diana, Anna, Karl, and Aaron were valuable advisors who sharpened the piece significantly. I am thankful to be able to publish to an evangelical audience, and I hope that the piece will provoke thought and stimulate further discussion on Christian praxis.

Comprehensive Exams, 17-21 January 2011

Since 20 October 2010, I have been reading for comprehensive exams.

The PhD in Human Geography at the University of British Columbia requires three exams to be written in the second year of the PhD.  These three exams address three broad fields that will be addressed in the dissertation and that can serve as broad teaching areas for a future career in academia.

My exams are set for 17-21 January 2011.  I sit one exam for each of 17, 19, and 21 January.  These are written, take-home exams where I have to answer two questions about a broad field in human geography; the normal length of each answer is a 7-10 page literature review.  On the following week, I also sit a three-hour oral exam with my doctoral comprehensive exam committee.  Currently, my doctoral committee consists of: David Ley (UBC Geography), David Edgington (UBC Geography), Henry Yu (UBC History), and Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography).

The rumour has gone around UBC that the Geography exams are among the most difficult in the Faculty of Graduate Studies.  I cannot confirm the truth of this rumour, but what I can say is that it is simultaneously difficult and rewarding.  The aim of these exams is to give a broad understanding of the field and to invite interdisciplinary approaches to the subject matter (which only goes to show how interdisciplinary Geography is as a discipline!).

The three fields I will sit are as follows:

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #1:
GEOGRAPHIES OF RELIGION, SECULARISM AND SOCIAL THEORY

  • “Old” and “New” Cultural Geographies of Religion (the “old” refers to the Berkeley school of cultural geography led by Carl Sauer, the “new” to Jim Duncan’s turn toward process in the politics of placemaking)
  • Theories of religion
  • Anthropological and sociological approaches to religion
  • Political constructions of secularity
  • Islam and the West: liberal, feminist, and ethnographic approaches
  • Religion and transnational migration
  • Congregational studies (i.e. R. Stephen Warner’s “new paradigm”)

Major thinkers I address in this list include a diverse range: Wilbur Zelinsky, David E. Sopher, Lily Kong, Reinhard Henkel, Peter E. Hopkins, David Ley, Claire Dwyer, Kevin Dunn, Banu Gokariksel, Philip Kelly, Paul Bramadat, R. Stephen Warner, Helen Rose Ebaugh, Janet Chafetz, Peggy Levitt, Steven Vertovec, Peter Berger, Harvey Cox, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Clifford Geertz, William James, Rudolf Otto, Karl Marx, Rodney Stark, Max Weber, Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Charles Taylor.

While religion is the major focus of the list, such a diversity of sources also enables a broader address of the following in future research and teaching:

  • social and cultural geography
  • intellectual histories of the social sciences
  • multiculturalism and migration studies

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #2:
PACIFIC WORLDS IN MOTION: ASIAN MIGRATIONS AND GEOGRAPHIES OF MIGRATION AND ETHNICITY

  • Theories of international migration
  • The “mobilities” paradigm (John Urry)
  • Multicultural theory and policy
  • Labour migrations
  • Transnational migration studies
  • Second-generation issues
  • Asian American studies
  • Race theory and race studies
  • Asian Canadian studies
  • Pacific Rim studies

Major thinkers I address include: Stephen Castles, Mark J. Miller, Catherine Bretell, James Frank Hollifield, Nancy Foner, John Urry, Ghassan Hage, Robert Putnam, Brenda Yeoh, Katie Willis, Christian Joppke, David Ley, Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, Christina Szanton Blanc, Elaine Ho, Peggy Levitt, Mary C. Waters, Aihwa Ong, Ien Ang, Laurence Ma, Carolyn Cartier, Ronald Takaki, Glenn Omatsu, Sucheng Chan, Lisa Lowe, Jack Tchen, Robert G. Lee, Henry Yu, Helen Zia, Kay Anderson, Dorothy Fujita-Rony, Madeline Hsu, Alexander Saxton, Judy Yung, Peter Ward, Patricia Roy, Charles A. Price, Eiichiro Azuma, Carlos Bulosan, Yen Le Espiritu, Vijay Prashad, Chris Lee, and Peter Li.

While Pacific migrations and ethnicities are the major foci of the list, this list also enables me to address the following in future research and teaching:

  • Globalization theory
  • Citizenship in theory and practice
  • Global economics and geopolitics
  • Theories of social and cultural capital
  • Race and ethnic politics

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #3
CITIES IN THE ASIA-PACIFIC: HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES

  • Asian cities in global and regional contexts
  • Colonial and post-colonial cities
  • Global cities/world cities
  • Pacific Rim studies
  • Cities and the welfare state in post-colonial Asia
  • Cities and the neoliberal state in post-colonial Asia
  • Convergence/divergence theory (e.g. Terry McGee’s desakota model)
  • Garden cities and urban utopias
  • Sustainable cities
  • Rural-urban relations and migrations
  • Labour in Asian cities
  • Urban development in Asia

Major thinkers I address are: Terry McGee, David Edgington, W.B. Kim, Anthony King, Fucheng Lo, Peter Marcotullio, Karen Y.P. Lai, Saskia Sassen, Brenda Yeoh, Fulong Wu, S.O. Park, Ryan Bishop, Abidin Kusno, Laurence Ma, Kris Olds, Manuel Castells, H.W. Dick, P.J. Rimmer, Michael Douglass, G.L. Ooi, John Gugler, Jonathan Rigg, Andrew Sorenson, and Dean Forbes.

Though the list focuses on Asian cities in particular, broader areas for future writing and teaching include:

  • Comparative Asian, North American, and European cities
  • Migrant labour
  • Pacific and Pacific Rim studies
  • Urban sustainability
  • Theories of “orientalism”
  • Colonial and post-colonial studies
  • State politics: welfare and neoliberal models

So now…it’s back to reading!  The labour is rewarding, the knowledge both intellectually stimulating and relevant to the contemporary situation.

Fall 2009: Notes on the Start of a Ph.D.

The Fall 2009 term has drawn to a close.  I have finished both my course work on cities in the Asia-Pacific at the Institute of Asian Research with Dr. Abidin Kusno as well as my teaching assistant duties for the UBC-Ritsumeikan Exchange’s Introduction to Canadian Studies.  It is time to take a breath and recharge…

And yet I am thinking…

What happens when you start your Ph.D. is that suddenly, you are talking to so many people who seem to be interested in your research that inevitably, your research begins to be shaped by these conversations.  This is a good thing.  It is collegiality at its best.  And that is what is causing me to think heavily on certain things this holiday season, which include:

  • Why religion matters in a time/space we assume to be secular (an interesting book I have picked up as an “in” this holiday break is John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason).
  • The role of colonial segregation in post-colonial cities in shaping ideas about race and religion
  • Class consciousness in post-colonial Asian cities and transnational Asian networks
  • The politics of calling ourselves Asian Americans and Asian Canadians: what does it mean to belong to America/Canada? does it mean that we’ve cut ourselves off from Asia?
  • The development of local elites in colonial cities and the new middle class in post-colonial Asian cities and transnational networks

Of course, all this thinking doesn’t mean I haven’t had time to rest; after all, thinking is best done when my mind comes to a place of almost-shut-down, and then the brain starts to kick in a bunch of random thoughts that (if I have the willpower) I get into my red field notebook.

What this means, of course, is that academic work is to a large extent contemplative work.