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.

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Posting with Jim Wellman on Niebuhr and Obama

My friend and supervisor for next year’s post-doctoral fellowship, Jim Wellman, and I collaborated on a post for his Patheos blog on American religion. It’s titled ‘Drones, Mr. Niebuhr, and President Obama.

As we watched Barack Obama justify drone warfare as a just war policy yesterday, we were struck by how many allusions there were to the work of mainline Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Wellman is arguably one of the current top authorities on Niebuhr, and generously, he took on some of my comments in his blog, including some work on Christian pacifism that responds to Niebuhr. If you have not seen Obama’s speech, do watch it here:

I see these comments as continuous with my work in geographies of religion, a field that I have theorized as not only as a subfield within cultural geographies (as it is more popularly conceived), but as an analytical axis by which political, economic, and cultural geographies can be interpreted. As I argued in my piece on ‘grounded theologies,’ geographers who use religion and secularization must reveal modern geographies to be theologically constituted, as the ‘secular’ can also be read (as per the Immanent Frame) as a theological orientation. Obama’s speech on security, counterterrorism, and geopolitics is a prime example. While it is ostensibly non-religious and non-theological, that he uses Niebuhr’s ‘proximate justice’ theory to argue that drone warfare is a form of just war policy suggests that he is in fact doing theology through public policy. Wellman and I argue that whatever you think of Obama, you really have to contend with Obama’s theological framework if you want to seriously engage him in democratic conversation and debate.

The implication here is that religious and theological literacy is a primary task for any ‘secular’ discipline. While there are hard secularists who may scoff at this notion, that even those parties lay claim to something called ‘secular’ is to say something about ‘religion’ or ‘theology’; if those statements are said ignorantly, it does a disfavour to everyone in the public forum. This is why I feel so happy that I’ll be working with Wellman. Recently, he had me sit in a seminar class that he’s teaching on American megachurches, where we conversed with non-geography students with arguably one of the most important books to come out in geographies of religion, Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions. As we covered a lot of ground exploring how Wilford conceptualizes Saddleback Church’s usage of space as a cultural geographer, I couldn’t help but be cheered that a discipline like human geography–one that has been conceptualized as uncritically secular until very recently–was contributing to public religious literacy in the form of these students grappling with this geography text. I think this signals good times ahead for geographies of religion, if I might be so presumptuous.

Working with Wellman will allow me to sharpen some of my own theological and religious reading, especially in American mainline Protestant theology, which will supplement what I currently know about geographies of evangelicalism and the critical crypto-Catholic conversation on secularization in theology and religious studies. This in turn will help refine what I have to say about Asian American, Asian Canadian, and Asia-Pacific religions. All of this is not a deviation from my work in geographies of religion and grounded theologies. It’s an extension and refinement, as all of this stuff is very spatially oriented and thus very geographical.

Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity. I look forward to the fun times ahead.

Progress in Human Geography: Grounded Theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography

As I noted in the previous post, I am excited to announce the publication of two articles today.  This post deals with the second one.

Progress in Human Geography, a widely-read journal where geographers publish reviews of current geographical research that point to new agendas for study, has published a piece that I contributed to them. It is available on OnlineFirst. It is titled ‘Grounded theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography.‘ Again, I will post again when a print issue comes out.

This is a theoretical paper that deals with how ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ should be studied in human geography.  I’ve had a long interest in examining these concepts more deeply, and I’m still interested in going deeper.  In 2007, when I began my master’s degree in geography at the University of British Columbia, I had to take an introductory course called Geography 520: Theory and Practice in Human Geography (here’s a sample syllabus, taken from 2011).  One of our assignments for that seminar was to write a short, 3,000 word essay modeled on Progress in Human Geography‘s review style. As I recall, we were told to review some 30 recent articles and books. I told our seminar instructors that I wanted to do a review essay on geographies of religion. They replied with something to the effect of: ‘Oh, let us know if you can find anything.’

In many ways, this is my way of saying: ‘I found something.’  I began developing these ideas more fully after that introductory course, which then culminated into my master’s thesis on Chinese churches in Vancouver. As I began my doctoral work, I began to toy with the idea of ‘grounded theologies’ in my directed studies courses, and I finally wrote about it in my comprehensive examinations on geographies of religion, secularism, and social theory.  That was when my supervisor, David Ley, encouraged me to develop this piece and put it into Progress in Human Geography, even as I was writing up my doctoral thesis proposal.

The reviews came back as I was conducting field work for my doctoral project. To my pleasant surprise, the editors and the reviewers were not only supportive, but extremely thorough, profound, and constructive, advising me on how to maximize my arguments for the best possible impact on the field. I then revised the paper, foregrounding the notion of ‘grounded theologies’ in human geography.

The paper is basically about how geographers should study ‘religion’ and the ‘secular.’ I began by engaging the work of Lily Kong, a cultural geographer and the Vice President at the National University of Singapore, who had suggested that geographers need to define what ‘religion’ is and is not.  I am an admirer of Lily’s work, as she has recently opened up many possibilities for us to study religion in geography. I was also struck by her corollary call to engage theology and religious studies more deeply. Engaging this literature, I found that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are very contested terms and that to define what religion is and is not would reinforce the binary idea that some spaces are religious and others aren’t.

The alternative path proposed in the piece is that of grounded theologies, ‘performative practices of place-making informed by understandings of the transcendent’ (p. 2).  While there has been a growing literature in geography on the possibilities of ‘post-secularism’ (in fact, Paul Cloke and Justin Beaumont have a piece on this in the most recent print issue of Progress), there have also been some complaints that this literature doesn’t take seriously what secularization actually means (especially by Justin Wilford, also in Progress). I propose that the way forward is to see ‘the secular’ as much as a grounded theology as ‘religion.’  After reviewing the relevant literature on ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in theology and religious studies, I demonstrate how this concept has already been put into practice by social, cultural, and political geographers.

In doing so, I had to engage with what is known as the ‘canon’ in religious studies (e.g. the foundational work of social scientists like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, William James, and Clifford Geertz), formative debates among religion scholars about what ‘religion’ is (e.g. a critical juxtaposition of the work of Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, as well as more recent work by Jonathan Z. Smith), and the recent critical conversation on secularization that blurs the lines between theology and religious studies (e.g. the work of John Milbank, William T. Cavanaugh, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Brad Gregory, and Charles Taylor). I then put this literature to work by looking at how geographers have already been engaging to some degree with grounded theologies as they undertook studies of how different religious subjects understood their identities by intersecting their social spaces. I also looked at recent discussions in critical geopolitics surrounding religion, especially as geographers have been interested in the eschatological dimensions of religious engagements with the public sphere.

My hope for this paper is that it will open avenues for geographers to research ‘religion’ and the ‘secular,’ as well as engage with scholars in theology and religious studies. Moreover, my aim has been to critique the notion that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are mutually exclusive.  By doing this, we might be able to show ironically how people conventionally labeled ‘religious’ sometimes employ ‘secular’ ways of making place while people who call themselves ‘secular’ are guided by implicit theological narratives in their geographical practices.

I’d really like to thank David Ley for guiding me through this process, as well as the editors of Progress in Human Geography who oversaw this publication, Noel Castree and Anssi Paasi. The five anonymous reviewers who critically turned over every part of this piece have greatly strengthened this paper; I also feel extremely humbled that they have taken my work so seriously and have engaged it with such profound insights. Claire Dwyer, with whom I am working concretely on a project dealing with grounded theologies in Richmond, British Columbia’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ has also been very encouraging. My friends, Robert Edwards and Carl Hildebrand, also read the piece and offered very constructive thoughts. I am very thankful that this piece is out, and I look forward to engaging fellow students of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ on how these concepts describe grounded theologies put to work in the making and contestation of real places in the world.

CFP: Consolation-scapes (Emotional Geographies, Groningen 1-3 July 2013)

I’ll likely be unable to make this conference, but I thought this was an excellent example of how geographies of religion are integral to current trends in social and cultural geography.  If you are interested, please apply following the instructions at the end of the call for papers.

Consolation-scapes: Analysing grief and consolation between space and culture
Emotional Geographies, Groningen 1-3 July 2013

Human beings are grieving animals and, moreover, animals that cannot let death have the last word. Anthropologist Douglas Davies (1997) famously suggested the simile of ‘words against death’ to address the manifold ways in which human beings respond to bereavement (words, music, rituals, architecture) and express their ‘trust in hope over fear’.

With the ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities and the social sciences at large, and the growing interest in human geography for the works of mourning, the phenomena of bereavement and memorialization have increasingly been analysed through a ‘spatial lens’ (see e.g. Maddrell & Sidaway 2010) and from the perspective of material culture (see e.g. Hockey et al. 2010).

The present session wants to carry the discussion further by focusing on consolation, a phenomenon which stayed on the background of earlier discussions. This altered focus is compounded in the session’s title. There have seen excellent analyses of ‘deathscapes’ (Hartig & Dunn 1998; Kong 1999; Maddrell & Sidaway 2010), what we want to achieve in this session is an analysis of ‘consolation-scapes’. How is space/place involved in consolation? How can material culture approaches inform analyses of consolation? Where do we stand today, consolation-wise, and how have we got here? How does our contemporary outlook differ from the outlook of times past, and how does all this relate to the spatial dimension of consolation?

The present session calls for contributions from a wide range of disciplines: geography, history, theology, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.

Session convenors:
Christoph Jedan (c.jedan@rug.nl), Associate Professor of Ethics, Department Christianity, Philosophy and Culture, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. Currently working on the history and continuing relevance of argumentative consolation across theology and philosophy. Together with Eric Venbrux (see below), he is founder of the thematic group Death and Consolation in the Netherlands School for Advanced Studies in Religion. Most recent monograph: Stoic virtues: Chrysippus and the religious character of Stoic ethics, London/New York 2009.

Eric Venbrux (e.venbrux@ftr.ru.nl), Professor of Anthropology of Religion, at Radboud University Nijmegen. He is director of its Centre for Thanatology. Eric Venbrux has researched widely on ritual change, in particular the transformation of rituals surrounding death in the Netherlands. Among his numerous publications is also the co-edited volume Rituele creativiteit: Actuele veranderingen in de uitvaart- en rouwcultuur in Nederland [Ritual creativity: Recent transformations in the burial and bereavement culture in the Netherlands], Zoetermeer 2008.

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.