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.

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.

“The Last Acceptable Prejudice” and “The Last Civil Rights Struggle”: Anti-Catholicism, Same-Sex Marriage, and Racial Solidarity (Catholic Newman Center at UW)

I am giving a talk on March 20 entitled “The Last Acceptable Prejudice” and “The Last Civil Rights Struggle”: Anti-Catholicism, Same-Sex Marriage, and Racial Solidarity. The venue for this event is the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Washington, and it is being hosted by Frasatti: UW Newman Young Adults and Grads. The talk starts at 7:30 PM, and the discussion will end by 9 PM. Drinks and refreshments are provided by the Newman.

Let me tell you a little bit more about the talk, what prompted me to generate this topic, and why I’ve chosen to give it first at the Catholic Newman Center.

WHAT’S THE TALK ABOUT?
The talk itself combines three conversations that are unlikely companions: anti-Catholicism in America, the same-sex marriage debate over the last two decades, and prospects for racial solidarity in the twenty-first century. The Roman Catholic Church in America and the proponents of marriage equality seem to have been locked in a die-hard zero sum game. On the Catholic side, there seems to be a push toward a more just society through religious freedom, often invoking the need to overcome the historic American prejudice toward Catholics. On the marriage equality side, there seems to be a push for more sexual equality, often invoking the need to overcome the historic American propensity toward heteronormativity. The discourse goes that if we overcome anti-Catholicism, we will have overcome “the last acceptable prejudice.” If we overcome barriers to marriage equality, we will have overcome “the last civil rights struggle.” The problem is that these two “lasts” seem locked in an epic battle to the finish.

My talk calls both sides to revisit the racial struggles from which they both borrow. The trouble with the arguments on both sides seems to me that they both implicitly think that the struggle for racial justice is a done deal.

But is it? And if it isn’t, what new unlikely solidarities can be called forth? How have Catholic already been tied to racial and sexual justice movements? And if, as Andrea Smith would put it, new unlikely solidarities are developed (or have already been developed!), how would it reframe the epic “last” battle for equality?

WHY THIS TALK
I’m a scholar who works on public spheres. Oftentimes, these publics are conceptualized as “secular.” I agree that publics might be secular if we were talking about secularization as a theological process. But if secular means that these publics are non-religious, then I think that’s a mistake.

I came to this conclusion while working on Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with the public sphere. It was there that I began thinking about the same-sex marriage debate, as many of my field subjects in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong were concerned with opposing same-sex marriage. Far from imposing their religious views onto the public sphere, though, they often adapted their arguments to be more secular so as to attempt to effect maximum impact.

The accusation that religion was entering the public sphere struck me as a very Catholic way of putting things. It reminded me of how many of the founding works in the social science of religion were in fact positioned against the Catholic Church; due to the work of folks like Andrew Greeley, however, I should note that this is much less the case nowadays. It led me to think more about how Catholics approached the marriage equality and religious freedom questions differently from their evangelical allies. It made me curious about how Catholics engage the public sphere differently from evangelicals and yet how they have worked together over the last thirty years.

There was also a lot of talk by the Cantonese Protestants about the race question, accusing LGBTIQ activists of basically stealing from race to advance their “special rights.” That made me think about how some LGBTIQ scholar-activists themselves (such as Judith Butler and Jasbir Puar) were themselves conflicted about whether advocating for things like marriage equality cast the race problem as essentially settled when it was not. At the same time, it made me ponder over whether the religious freedom activism also borrowed from the Civil Rights Movement. It made me think about how all of this talking about the “last acceptable prejudice” and the “last civil rights struggle” may have contributed to a Supreme Court decision like Shelby County v. Holder where race is seen as a done deal in comparison with more purportedly important and contemporary civil rights struggles.

The result is this talk, that is, my musings on topics beyond the scope of my immediate work, has direct bearing on my future work. I see this talk as a place to voice what I have been thinking about for a long time and to get a conversation about this unlikely bundle of topics going.

WHY THE NEWMAN
It’s one thing to theorize all of this in the secular classroom, which I have been doing in my American religion class. There, we have dealt with anti-Catholicism, race, and sexuality issues. It’s another thing altogether to try this topic out on people with faith commitments.

That’s where the Newman comes in. Yes, I think my musings can be developed into an academic paper in a “secular age” (as Charles Taylor would put it), but the Catholic Newman Center is a place to try this out to make sure that Roman Catholics who very much obviously have a stake in the anti-Catholicism part of the talk might be able to give some feedback. With the references to Butler and Puar, I’d be just as happy to shop this around to LGBTIQ activists as well (some of whom, mind you, might also be Catholic).

However, I think there’s something particularly Catholic about this talk that I do want to highlight. It seems that what is intriguing about Catholicism as classically conceived might be its solidarity dimensions. It’s this that I want to explore in this talk.

Consider this an attempt to hear directly from the publics that I research about how I conduct my research. I look forward very much to this talk and especially to the conversation that will follow. My hope is that we will be able to imagine some unlikely solidarities that can be built in order to contribute to a more just and peaceful world.

PhD Defence and Program Completion

With the successful completion and defence of my doctoral dissertation, I am pleased to announce that the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has sent me a note to tell me that I have completed all of the program requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Geography.  This means that I officially have a PhD in hand.  The degree will in turn be formally conferred at the next Spring Convocation in 2014.

I am happy to share the link for my dissertation, Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies, from cIRcle, UBC’s online repository of theses and dissertations. I am in the process of finalizing the details as I start a postdoctoral fellowship externally funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. This will take place at the University of Washington in Seattle under the direction of Professor James Wellman, Jr. I will be starting on a new postdoctoral project there (details forthcoming), and I will also be trying to turn this dissertation into a book while generating academic journal articles from it.

I defended the dissertation on 3 December 2013. My supervisory committee consisted of Professor David Ley (UBC Geography; my advisor), Professor Henry Yu (UBC History and Principal, St. John’s College), Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), and Professor Rudy Busto (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). Of this committee, David Ley and Henry Yu were present. The departmental examiner was Professor Dan Hiebert (UBC Geography). The university examiner was Professor Don Lewis (Regent College, Church History). The external examiner was Professor Paul Cloke (University of Exeter, Geography). Chairing the proceedings was Professor Leanne Bablitz (UBC, Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies).

The defence took place at 9 AM on 3 December. After the chair read the rules (including the very ironic statement that ‘latecomers will not be admitted’), I gave a 25-minute presentation on my dissertation. This was followed by almost two hours of questions from each of the examiners; David Ley voiced the questions from the external, Paul Cloke. I passed the entire ordeal with minor revisions, which were completed in one day and then submitted to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies with the approval of the committee. The dissertation was archived today.

The defence covered many of the fundamental points of the thesis’s overall argument. The dissertation set out to answer the question, What are the imaginations and practices that constitute the engagements of Cantonese Protestants with the civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region? The argument was that most Cantonese Protestants unintentionally but inadvertently reinforced the secularization thesis as a theological practice when they engaged in such public activities because they tended to reinforce the privacy of religion while leveraging an essentialized ethnicity to maximize their impact on secular public spheres. Accordingly, most of the questions addressed this central question. Many asked me to defend my view that secularization and ‘religion’ are not binary opposites but fall under the rubric of ‘grounded theologies.’ Others poked into whether my assertion that transnational linkages between Hong Kong and the North American sites were sparse could be generated from the empirical material (it can, if one takes a grounded public/private split seriously, which forms the basis of my argument about secularization). Still others interrogated my spatial re-orientation of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ to signify how congregations relate spatially to their civil societies.

I am very grateful to each of the committee members for reading the thesis with such care. I am also extremely thankful for my friends who attended the defence and critically engaged me during the public discussion. I am told that few candidates have so many friends who attend, let alone ask such pointed–yet supportive–questions. These were from members of the community, one of which asked me to point hopeful ways forward for Cantonese Protestant theologies (revealing my very open positionality as a confessing and practicing Christian) and another of which asked me to relate my findings to parallels and contrasts with the black church (speaking into very interesting emerging conversations in theology about race and theology). For more about my personal theological practice, including my strange connection with the black church, see here.

I will emphasize that what it means that I have a PhD in hand is that now I am recognized by the academic community as someone who has demonstrated that I can do research and teach in my field. In other words, I am now officially qualified to learn more. This does not signify the end of things; it means that I’m at the very beginning of a very long journey. I have a lot more to learn, a lot more to think about, and a lot more to stay in conversation about. That I am revising the thesis into publications suggests that I will do much more thinking about the topic in addition and connection to my postdoctoral project, and for that, I will appreciate the chance to remain in conversation with those who are interested. The program is completed, but the conversation is just starting. I am grateful and excited.

POSTSCRIPT: for those who want to read the periodic updates I had on my program, they can be found here:

*UPDATED* CFP: AAG 2013: Post-secular spaces; ORIGINAL: CFP: AAG 2013: Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion

*UPDATE*
Betsy Olson (UNC Chapel Hill, Geography) and Banu Gokariksel (also UNC) have been in touch with me.  The themes set out in their CFP is so similar to mine that we might as well make it a joint effort.  I am now referring all interested persons in my original CFP to their paper session.  Here it is:

AAG Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013
Post-secular spaces: geographical explorations beyond secular theory and research

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches.

Our hope with this paper session is to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy. We would especially encourage contributions from scholars who don’t consider religion to be their central interest, but have perhaps been trying to explain religious influence upon economic, social or political practices. Papers might therefore be either historical or contemporary studies, and could address themes such as:

·      Religion and technologies of communication
·      Geopolitics in the secular age
·      Class and religion
·      Spirituality in social movements
·      Religion, labor and rights
·      Environmental ethics and spirituality
·      Law, secularism, and religion
·      Piety, embodiment, and the body
·      Secularism and public space
·      Religion and the economy
·      Feminism and the secular critique
·      Popular culture and religion

Please send your abstract of no more than 250 words to Betsy Olson (eaolson@email.unc.edu) and Banu Gökarıksel (banug@email.unc.edu )

MY ORIGINAL CFP:
Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion
Sponsored by the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group
AAG 2013: Call for Papers

Recent work in geographies of religion has suggested a need for the tenets of the subfield to be debated.  Lily Kong (2010) argues, for example, that not enough work has been done to examine the theological and metaphysical aspects of geographies of religion and to engage the interdisciplinary enterprise of religious studies.  An emerging topic of debate is secularization and whether or not emerging geographies of religion can be seen as post-secular spaces.  While Beaumont and Baker (2010) argue that cities with new configurations of faith-based organizations are developing new post-secular approaches to social activism, Kong (2010) cautions against this idea for its over-emphasis on European phenomena.  On the other hand, Justin Wilford (2011) argues that religious phenomena, while significant, need to be conceptualized as ‘sacred archipelagoes’ in a sea of secularity, for secularization has in fact affected all facets of modern religious practice.  The theoretical underpinnings of geographies of religion and its requisite attachments to the secularization thesis are thus currently under debate.

This session calls for papers that examine the theory and practice in geographies of religion in light of these debates.  Papers that will be submitted do not necessarily need to be completely theory-oriented papers; indeed, empirical studies that contribute to these theoretical debates, as well as papers that deal with theological and metaphysical issues, will both be strongly considered.  Suggested topics include:

  • Geographical studies that either support or refute the secularization thesis
  • Theological and metaphysical treatments of religious themes in geography
  • Post-secular cities
  • Faith-based organizations and their treatment of religion and the secular
  • Geographies of religious migration, with a theoretical treatment of religion and the secular
  • Interfaith geographies as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Positionality in the theory and practice of geographies of religion
  • Religious geopolitics as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Non-European geographies of religion and their relation to secular geographies
  • Feminist approaches to geographies of religion and the secularization thesis

Papers should be submitted to Justin K.H. Tse at tse.justo@gmail.com no latter than October 20, 2012 for submission to the AAG.

PhD Field Work: San Francisco Bay Area

I have been in the San Francisco Bay Area since 4 June 2011 and will be here until 19 July 2011.  I am continuing to conduct field work for my PhD project on Cantonese-speaking evangelicals, their conceptions of civil society, and their engagement in society and politics.

I am interested in the following things (although this list is by no means exhaustive):

  • Chinese Christian engagement in local neighborhood politics and social services, including advocacy for the marginalized, entrepreneurial work, and inter-Christian cooperation
  • Engagement with the perceived secularism of San Francisco
  • The issue of same-sex marriage and other family values politics (including anti-gambling activism)
  • Demographic shifts within Chinese Christian communities
  • Interactions between Chinese mainline Protestant groups and Chinese evangelical groups, including the similarities and differences of their engagement with society and politics
  • Chinatown Christian political and social activism
  • Activism around the 1989 Tiananmen incident
  • Comparisons among the City, the East Bay, and the South Bay
  • Engagement with American politics, especially self-identifications with Democrat and Republican
  • Engagement with the People’s Republic of China
If you’d like to be interviewed for this project or know of any leads related to these issues, please contact me at tse.justo@gmail.com or jkhtse@interchange.ubc.ca.