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.

American Association of Geographers, 2016: San Francisco

I’m writing from the Hilton in San Francisco’s Union Square on this second day of the American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting 2016, which this year takes place from March 28 to April 2. I’m happy to report that we had some very successful sessions yesterday for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group, and the events this week seem to be gathering momentum for geographies of religion to become increasingly mainstream within the discipline.

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The paper I presented at this year’s AAG was titled ‘”Under a Vast Sky”: Religious Protest Art and Hong Kong Localism’s Demystification of Urban Ideologies.‘ Along with some brilliant graduate students Natalie Hyacinth (Royal Holloway, London) and Laura Cuch (University College London), I co-organized a series of incredibly well-attended sessions titled Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City (March 28). The sessions were titled: 1) Embodied Practices and Narratives of Everyday Religion, 2) Exploring Faith Through Participatory Public-Engagement Art, and 3) Negotiating Difference and Urban Space; I chaired the first session and presented my paper in the third session. My abstract was as follows:

The 2014 Umbrella Movement democracy protests in Hong Kong have been noticed for their production of protest art featuring religious themes in makeshift street shrines and sanctuaries. I claim that such religious protest art, which has been a staple of Hong Kong urban heritage preservation (or ‘localist’) politics since the mid-2000s, offers geographers an opportunity to theorize the ontological nature of religion in global cities. While both religious and artistic production are often seen as belonging to the realm of the purely subjective (sometimes to the point of mystifying material processes), Hong Kong localists – usually describing themselves as a ‘post-80s’ and ‘post-90s’ younger generation – have attempted to use religious protest art since the mid-2000s to exegete the Hong Kong government’s urban vision of the Special Administrative Region as an international financial centre as itself a religious artistic vision, one that demolishes local Cantonese cultural geographies to make way for urban spectacles of conspicuous consumption. Based on ethnographic interviews conducted among 45 Hong Kong Christians in 2012 and an audiovisual archive collected from 2013-5, I argue that Hong Kong localist religious art demystifies the seemingly secular state vision of Hong Kong as a global capitalist city by exposing its theological logics. Localist religious protest art thus works against superstition by recasting the symbolism of the urban landscape in Hong Kong. This paper thus contributes to the creative study of religious cultural geographies by showing that reversing the conventional theoretical wisdom on ideology, as religious art reveals the secular as superstitious.

I am happy to have received some very good feedback and supportive comments, including from colleagues from Hong Kong, on this paper. But more as a point of pride, I’m ecstatic to say that this was among the most well-attended and diverse sessions in the history of GORABS. We had a series of excellent papers, as well as the honour of having Harriet Hawkins (Royal Holloway, London) and David Gilbert (Royal Holloway, London) as discussants to our second and third sessions.

This year, as the Chair of GORABS, I also organized a few more sessions, two of which have a time change for today. They are as follows:

GORABS ANNUAL LECTURE *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
Our Annual Lecture (Session 2684) this year will be given by Dr Katharyne Mitchell (University of Washington) on Sanctuary and Refugees in Europe. The *REVISION* is as follows: while the original program has this lecture in a Thursday slot, it has been CHANGED to Wednesday, March 30, 5:20 PM – 7 PM in Metropolitan B, JW Marriott Hotel, 2nd Floor.

GORABS BUSINESS MEETING *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
We have also revised the time for our Business Meeting (which was originally also on Thursday) to immediately follow the Annual Lecture in the same room. All are welcome to stay; our meeting will last no longer than one hour.

JOINT KEYNOTE:
On Thursday, March 31, there is a Joint Keynote Session held by the China Geography Specialty Group and GORABS that will be delivered by Dr Fenggang Yang (Purdue) on Mapping Chinese Spiritual Capital and Religious Markets. This will be held from 11:50 AM – 1:10 PM in Imperial B, Hilton Hotel, Ballroom Level.

CHINATOWN WALKING FIELD TRIP:
This walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown covers the largest Chinatown in the United States. It will be of interest to geographers studying ethnicity, race, religion, and China. Food is available throughout, and much street shopping will be involved. The walking trip is sponsored jointly by the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems and China Geography Specialty Group. We will depart at 2 PM on Thursday, March 31, from the Taylor Street Entrance of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square and will return to the same building at 4 PM.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in attendance this year – it’s been fun so far!

First as Sociology, Then as Geography: review essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion

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At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a review essay for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion entitled ‘First as Sociology, Then as Geography.’ It’s an essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s 2014 edited volume, New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion. As a 2000-word essay, it’s a bit longer than the average book review.

I had received the book during a coffee session with the Bulletin‘s editor Philip Tite. Among Tite’s many accomplishments, he has taught quite a number of courses at universities in Seattle, including at the University of Washington, and having met at a faculty meeting, we had coffee. He suggested that I review the book for the Bulletin, and as time passed, the book review became expanded into a ‘review essay,’ a long-form essay inspired by the book that simultaneously reviews it and expands on some of my thinking based on the book.

As the review essay will show, I learned quite a bit from the book about the shape of religious studies as a discipline. In fact, I found that one of the greatest insights from the book was that ‘religious studies,’ a field of study often disparaged as a hodgepodge collage of disciplines that takes as its focus a topic of study that is under crisis (‘what is religion?’ and increasingly ‘what is the secular?’), actually has a unitary disciplinary core that inquires into what ‘religion’ is and how it is constituted, with a disciplinary canon to boot. This ambitious edited volume attempts to recast that disciplinary canon away from the founding fathers of religious studies (who happen also to be the usual suspects in terms of the founders of social science writ large) in a New Age key.

It is this second move with which I take some issue. It’s not that I have some commitment to the original founding texts of modern religious studies. However, one of the points of agreement in this diverse volume was that at a sociological level, New Age spiritualities could be seen as becoming the new normal of how to do religion. This basic sociological point about new institutional religions fails to take seriously how this is also a geographical point – that this new sociology often is spatially exhibited by a certain class of middle-class workers trying to find inner peace through New Age spiritualities (a geography about which the authors themselves talk explicitly), and that reframing religion in this social geographic key would reinforce the stereotype that the entire discipline of religious studies is a factory for liberal bourgeois ideology.

It’s funny that I came to this while reading this book and writing this essay prior to taking the work of Slavoj Žižek seriously, even though the essay’s title certainly takes its inspiration from the title of Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (but if you read the essay, you’ll find that there isn’t really a serious engagement with Žižek, not even with First as Tragedy – there’s only a very, very brief reference to Žižek on ideology). By the end of the review essay, I found myself appealing to Marx to suggest that ‘New Age spiritualities’ may well be the new opiate of the masses. However, this is the same point that Žižek makes about ‘Buddhism,’ especially in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. You could say that I’m thankful to the authors of this book, as well as to Tite and the Bulletin, for the chance to get these new thoughts going through pondering such new moves in religious studies as a discipline, though I suspect that it was never anyone’s intention for me to become so critical. I think it’s safe to say that you can expect me to follow this line of thought in my upcoming work.

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ABC Religion and Ethics Report: The role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

I was recently on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Religion and Ethics Report with Andrew West talking about ‘the role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution.’ The other guest on the show, Professor David Palmer, is a sociologist of Chinese popular religions who chairs the University of Hong Kong’s sociology department. They told me that they found me because of my interview with Jennifer Ngo on the South China Morning Post on religion in the Hong Kong protests.

Andrew West asked some very good questions during this show. He began with my comments on Religion Ethnicity Wired and on Ethika Politika (parts 1, 2, and 3), on the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. We then moved into a clarification of how Protestant denominations and ecumenical alliances have been at work on the ground, and we had an extended discussion on the controversial role played by Hong Kong’s Anglican primate, the Most Rev. Paul Kwong, in opposing the demonstrations. Finally, West asked about the connection between the protests and religious freedom in China, to which both Palmer and I emphasized that the Umbrella Movement has little to do with ‘religious freedom’ per se, but that does not mean that people like Joseph Cardinal Zen might not have it in the back of their minds.

I’m very thankful to Andrew West and Scott Spark for an excellent interview and for this chance to meet David Palmer on air. I’m also thankful to Jennifer Ngo for creating this opportunity to speak more about the Hong Kong protests. I’ve actually regularly podcasted ABC Religion and Ethics Report during my commutes, and I was thrilled to be on this show that provides such consistently good religion reporting.

The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC | Society for the Scientific Study of Religion | Indianapolis 2014

Congregation in front of the Christ Church of China, Vancouver, B.C., 1955 | Creator: Leong Ding Bong | Source: UBC Library Digital Archives

I am pleased to be presenting a paper at this current Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis during this weekend of 31 October to 2 November.

My paper is titled ‘The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC.’ It will be given at 1 PM on 31 October, in White River Ballroom B of the JW Marriott Indianapolis in a session titled ‘Religion, Policy, Doctrine.’ Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores the legal implications of immigrant congregational fractures. Examining British Columbia’s 1981 precedent case Chong v. Lee, I explore how internal congregational disputes regarding both the meaning of Chineseness and the practice of baptism at Vancouver’s Christ Church of China produced the Canadian legal doctrine that religious property cannot be diverted for theological purposes that differ from the community’s founding teaching. Drawing 50 key informants interviews, I argue that the private congregational tensions often explored in ethnographies of immigrant religious communities must be re-examined for their legal implications. Not only have other Asian Canadian communities drawn on the Chong case to take their internal theological disputes to court, but Anglican parishes (including three Chinese Canadian ones) departing from the Vancouver diocese over sexuality issues engaged the precedent to insist on keeping their buildings. This paper intervenes in the sociology of religion by insisting that putatively private congregational dynamics in immigrant religious communities inevitably engage the state’s legal apparatus.

I will focus mostly on Chong as a legal precedent and will attempt once again to engage the social scientists of religion here with an argument on the constitution of congregational space. All are welcome. I look forward to a great conversation.

SCMP: Religion on the Occupy Central front line puts faith into practice

Photo: Sam Tsang (SCMP)

I am very grateful for the good work that SCMP journalist Jennifer Ngo has done on religion in the Umbrella Movement protests currently in Hong Kong. She has interviewed an array of religious sources on the Occupy movement. Here were my comments:

Justin Tse, a social geographer and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, conducted extensive research on the relationship of Christians to civil disobedience in Hong Kong including the “Umbrella Movement”. He said Christian influence went beyond the initial participation of believers.

“This is not to say that official church institutions are deeply involved,” he wrote in an email. “Instead, what it means is that Hong Kong people have been so deeply influenced by Christianity through a variety of civil society channels – schools, media, social services – that they are able to practice and articulate their activism in Christian terms.”

Calls made by official church bodies may be modest, while individual clergy or parishes showed more support, he said.

Book Review (Social and Cultural Geography): Yi-Fu Tuan, Humanist Geography

I’m very happy that the book review I wrote for the Canadian Geographer on Yi-Fu Tuan’s Humanist Geography: An Individual’s Search for Meaning is out.

It’s a neat little book. It’s typical Yi-Fu Tuan — very phenomenological, very personal, and very philosophical. It’s a geographical work aimed at a popular audience to try to suss out the meaning of good and evil in everyday life.

What I found the most intriguing was Tuan’s usage of Buddhist philosophies and Christian theology to answer some of his questions. Indeed — and this is a bit of a spoiler alert — the end of the book is a theological meditation on humanistic geography. Because of this, my review relates what Tuan is trying to say here about humanism, morality, and phenomenology to the work in geographies of religion on how ‘grounded theologies‘ disrupt conventional narratives of the secular.

I’m very excited that this is out, and I’m also excited to let people know that I’m also working on another review of Tuan’s work, also for Canadian Geographer. The next one is called Romantic Geography. Stay tuned!