I was pleased with how this interview went, though the truth of the matter is that Mondays are my most serious workday, and my greatest hope when I arrived to speak with Jerome McDonnell was that I would at least be coherent. The questions were, as usual, very good, covering a range of topics from the appeals to the American government for support, Joshua Wong’s visit to Germany, the drama around the announcement about the bill’s imminent withdrawal in Legislative Council, and the possible futures of the protests. Jerome’s questions even got me to pull back deep into the heart of the research that consumed me from my undergraduate days and has percolated into the graduate work that fuels my career: the identity politics of the ‘Hong Kong person’ from the 1970s to the present. We also got to speak about protest music; my only regret is that I did not mention the new song being sung as an anthem titled ‘Glory to Hong Kong.’
I see these interviews as the community engagement portion of my scholarly work. As I told Jerome, the task of scholarship is to describe, not prescribe, so all that I am doing here is to see, to sort, and to say what I see and am sorting. It is an offering, then, for ongoing conversation on these momentous events in Hong Kong. I am thankful to Jerome and the team at Worldview, especially the producer Julian Hayda, for bringing me in yet again, and I hope that I was coherent enough in my description of the problems and prospects at hand to encourage further discussion among the publics who listened and will listen to this segment.
I’m very pleased to have been interviewed as part of the journalist Douglas Todd’s piece ‘Hong Kong protesters turn 1970s hymn into anthem.’ My main role in this article is to sketch how the protests in Hong Kong have been using the Jesus Movement chorus ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,’ which I also did with my colleague Melissa Borja on her Anxious Bench group blog on Patheos, and how Christians may or may not be part of the protests in personal and institutional ways.
I like how Todd positions my comments as the lead-in to the story that he really wants to talk about, which is the hundred or so pro-China protesters who picketed the evangelical Tenth Church Vancouver during a Hong Kong prayer rally organized by an inter-denominational and ecumenical group of clergy. Interviewing one of the clergy leaders Samuel Chiu, Todd sketches a broader picture of Chinese Christians in North America — and indeed, Chinese communities in a more secular sense — that are internally divided in terms of transnational politics.
In addition to the Hong Kong interest, this is a developing and interesting story in Vancouver. I’ve written about the senior pastor Ken Shigematsu before as a ‘different kind of evangelical‘ who emphasizes an Asian Canadian sense of social justice and contemplative spirituality, and I’ve also put an article on Tenth into the Brazilian journal Relegens Thréskeia. On this particular issue, Shigematsu has commented on the church’s solidarity with ‘justice issues’ in a non-partisan way, and Fr Richard Soo SJ — the Eastern Catholic priest who brought me into the Greek-Catholic church that has formed so much of my recent musings on the postsecular even while I continue to write, research, and teach on publics on the Pacific Rim — has written an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun about how religious solidarity with Hong Kong is not the practice of partisan politics.
I am so pleased that my friends on the show Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago had me back on to discuss the Hong Kong protests and the recent mass arrests there. The host Jerome McDonnell wanted to discuss a number of issues with me, including the significance of the date August 31 to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the (non)ideological stances of the protesters and the issues of (non)representation in a leaderless movement, the ramifications of ‘one country, two systems’ for the question of rule of law, and the future of the protests. My reflection on working through each of these themes is that it was not unlike giving an undergraduate lecture. There were quite a few technical terms that I found myself having to define as I was speaking, including ‘black hand’ and ‘white terror.’
As usual, my interpretations represent no one except for me, and in the context of a rapidly developing story, that ‘me’ is but a snapshot in time. The tentative arguments I make are, if you will, the work of a scholarly observer, and as I’ve clarified numerous times in the past, I have never claimed to be a ‘Hong Kong person.’ I also note that analytical commentary on protests is not the same as participating in them, and my comments are descriptive, not prescriptive. Just as I did as the lead editor of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement(Palgrave, 2016), my aim is to offer analysis based on what we know to be facts, not invented opinions. Needless to say, scholars like me also have minds of our own, so as is always the case, our views do not represent anyone except for ourselves. This understanding is the basis for the academic freedom that enables the dialogue and conversation that helps us to understand the world, instead of imposing on it models, theories, and conjectures that lead more to confusion than clarity. It also means that all errors of judgment are strictly my own and that acknowledging them is how we come together to grow in knowledge.
I am very excited to be teaching the Big Questions course that is being rolled out with the newly revised Core Curriculum at Singapore Management University. Each year, the ‘Big Questions’ rotate themes. This year, it’s Happiness and Suffering. I’m told that next year will focus on ‘global and local.’
Some people have asked me how a geographer like me can teach such a philosophical course. I often respond with an answer that I once heard from a prominent feminist geographer as to what geographers do, that our readings are quite ‘intellectually promiscuous.’ Our discipline focuses on the examination of space, what it even is and how that interacts with human agents and non-human actors, so there is an element of theory that is shot through all of our work. I see teaching something like ‘happiness and suffering’ as an opportunity to move from the theoretical to the philosophical, to be invested not only in the applicability of ideas about space but also to test whether how we think about the basic concepts of feelings, affect, interiority, the self, and so on are even sound, even as we are interested in how they come to be deployed in space.
It is in this sense that I’ve articulated my sections of the course to be focused on the philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular dimensions of happiness and suffering. There is a field within academia called happiness studies that I understand to try to measure what happiness is, while alleviating suffering. What I want to do is to locate such discussions in a broader theoretical conversation about the structures of feeling and what Charles Taylor calls a secular age. In some ways, teaching the course in this way is, like all of my other colleagues who are trying out pedagogical pathways into this topic this year, a grand experiment to see whether these ideas will interest students who are faced with a real world in which they’ll have to work and build lives.
Teaching begins soon, so I must sign off on this update and keep up with my preparations. I’m very excited to meet my students.
Today, I wrote my final post on Patheos. As I told the Catholic channel editor Rebecca Bratten Weiss when I resigned a few weeks ago, I am leaving on very good terms. The community of writers on the Catholic channel has been a dream to work with, and I hope that the friendships I’ve made there will last a lifetime and maybe even spin off into new projects. I’ve written my heart out there, literally, in keeping with the words of the original channel editor who brought me there in the first place, the philosopher of education Sam Rocha.
Writing for Patheos has been the fulfillment of an aspiration of mine since I was in graduate school. Then, a few of us started a blog called A Christian Thing hoping to write about how we negotiated the secular academy as persons of faith. We aspired to be a group blog not unlike the Catholic portal Vox Nova, which challenged the neoconservative lines that had become standard in American Catholicism with fresh new voices. We also looked to the conversations that were happening on Patheos, a portal of blogs that seemed to break new ground in allowing persons across religious and theological traditions to write deeply about their faiths, even if it sometimes made for some personal discomfort. As a postdoctoral fellow, I studied with James Wellman at the University of Washington, who also wrote on American religion on his Patheos Progressive Christian blog.
I always wanted to be part of the Catholic channel, though I haven’t always been Catholic. It was suggested to me before I was received into the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv that I might consider writing for the Evangelical or Progressive Christian channels, as my practice of Anglicanism might be amenable to both. The trouble was that there are, broadly speaking, three streams of practice in the Anglican Communion — evangelical, broad church, and Anglo-Catholic — and despite getting along with people in all three, my convictions, mostly shaped by my scholarly involvement in the critical revision of the secularization thesis afforded by John Milbank, Charles Taylor, and Talal Asad, tended to be more Catholic, in the sense of attempting to tap directly into how the world is constituted and sustained by the supernatural. A Catholic sensibility presumes that the path to such connection is primarily personal, through the person who at the end of the day is, in a variation of what the ancient monastic Macarius the Great put it in his meditations on the visions of the Prophet Ezekiel, a face faced by others. It is the interrelation with a world that is primarily spiritual that is what is universal in the sense of Catholicism, a sublime connectedness with the divine that is common to all humanity and throughout all creation. After my formal reception into the Kyivan Church, I was also received onto the blog, with the name Eastern Catholic Person.
It would be a mistake to think that the blog title made me a sort of representation of Eastern Catholicism. On Patheos alone, there are at least three Eastern Catholic blogs other than mine, such as Henry Karlson’s Little Bit of Nothing, Chase Padusniak’s Japplers and Janglers, and Pete Vere’s Orthodoxy in Communion with Rome, as well as the Pezzulos’ writing on Steel Magnificat about their own forays through Byzantine churches. The name of the blog was much more about being a person who has now found myself in an Eastern Catholic church, much to my own surprise. It took three years to blog through that story and to admit that I really have found my way home.
The reason for my resignation is simple: with a new permanent academic position, I simply cannot do everything. As it is, the blog is going dormant today, the exact date of its third anniversary. It is poetic that when Rocha brought me on, he said he’d give me three years to narrate myself. It is now exactly three years, and I’m done with the narration, there at least.
The 2018-2019 school year has wrapped up, and summer is upon us. It’s been quite a year for me. I have a number of things coming through the pipeline, some articles, some book chapters, even a manuscript for a monograph that I’ve been crafting on Cantonese Protestants and postsecular civil societies on the Pacific Rim.
Some stuff has been happening already. A chapter of mine on cultural geography came out in the volume Theorizing ‘Religion’ in Antiquity, edited by Nickolas Roubekas, in which I continue my unlikely defence from my piece on ‘grounded theologies‘ of the legacy of Mircea Eliade as a historian of religion who is a central figure (at least as I argue) in geographies of religion. I gave a colloquium talk at Calvin College’s Department of Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies on an article I’ve been crafting on Chinese American megachurches in the Silicon Valley. My critical reflective piece on the concepts ‘uniatism’ and the ‘model minority’ that the magazine Patriyarkhat invited me to write has come out, first in Ukrainian translation in the print version in December 2018, then online in English, and now also with footnotes and extended clarifications in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. I’ve attended four conferences — the American Academy of Religion in November 2018, a very interesting conference on Christian social activism and Chinese societies at Purdue’s Center for Religion and Chinese Society, the American Association of Geographers in April 2018 where I organized and presented an exegesis of Paulo Freire in a session on pedagogy and religion in geography, and the Association for Asian American Studies in that same month, during which I had the honour of organizing an all-star, standing-room-only panel on the historian Gary Okihiro’s provocation ‘Asians did not go to America; America went to Asia.’ We are going to continue the intervention with Okihiro’s work at the American Studies Association later this November in Honolulu, with another panel titled Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies, as a conversation around Okihiro’s longstanding argument that the internationalist sensibilities that gave rise to anti-colonial critiques of racial formations caved to liberal nationalist frameworks that led to the siloing of identity in the academy.
As I wrapped up my third and final year as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, I expanded the scope of my teaching. My course offerings this year ranged the full gamut of my repertoire in Asian American studies: Asian American history, Chinese American studies, Asian American religion, Asian American social movements, Global Chinatowns, and Asian American geographies. But this year especially, I have been drawn more directly into the formal individual supervision of students. In the past, I had taught some directed studies courses, as well as supervised research, on topics closer to my own research interests on Asian American Christianities and their relationship to Asian American studies. But this year, there has been a wide much range of independent studies topics, including Korean dance and ‘the invention of tradition,’ sonic orientalism in popular movie soundtracks, Global China and feminism, research methods in Chicago’s Chinese churches and trans-Pacific theologies, indigeneity and orientalism on the Pacific, the postsecular Pacific, and psychoanalysis and the Pacific. I also had the privilege of supervising my first thesis student Irina Huang, an undergraduate senior in American studies, who wrote a theoretically rigorous piece woven in with personal creative nonfiction essays on how obsessive-compulsive disorder functions in the normative public sphere as a ‘model minority’ of mental illness.
I continue to be active in my public engagements as well. The journalist Douglas Quan interviewed me for a very interesting piece last October on Richmond’s ‘cultural diversity policy.’ I have also been invited by Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM in Chicago four times over the last school year to offer scholarly analyses of Hong Kong, its tradition and practice of protests, and the recent blow-ups about the incarceration of some figures from the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement occupations in 2014 as well as the controversial extradition law.
In terms of service, one role that I have taken on over the last year is to be program co-chair of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Reading through the abstracts and thinking about organizing the program has given me new insight into what we do as social scientists of religion. I am glad to be working with our president Elaine Howard Ecklund and my co-chair Ryon Cobb as we expand the diversity of our organization, especially for the conference in St Louis this year in October.
Finally, my biggest and most exciting announcement is that I have just started work as Assistant Professor in Humanities (Education) at Singapore Management University. In addition to teaching courses in the School of Social Sciences, my major role there is to offer the Core Curriculum, a program that seeks to engage students across the school with the big concepts that are fused throughout our contemporary world. This year, the theme will be Happiness and Suffering, which I will teach, along with my colleagues, as a philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular exploration of these affects, emotions, and orientations to the world. As an academic, my work is to write and to probe the complex phenomena common to our shared inhabitation of the earth, so it obviously goes without saying that my published views anywhere are in no way to be associated with my employers, as if academics could fully agree on anything anyway. Indeed, my convictions about all academic work — whether under the pillar of research, teaching, service, or community engagement — is that it should all be a springboard into a larger discussion in which all participants are strengthened through engagement, never the final word on any topic. I am thrilled to ‘let my work grow up,’ as I heard one senior academic once describe to a junior colleague, in this intellectual community, and I look forward to spirited engagements and enthusiastic conversation here.
The American Academy of Religion is meeting in Denver this year. It is shaping up to be a productive time for me, with meetings dotting my schedule across committees and other professional chats. I find that these discussions are a big part of the joy of going to a conference like this, especially because everybody is here. I started coming to this conference when I was still in graduate school as a geographer. I think I still am one of the fewer geographers here, but I feel like I’ve gotten over the initial hangup of not knowing how to engage religious studies from my disciplinary background. Perhaps it is a sign of integration.
Apart from being on the steering committee of the Chinese Christianities Seminar, I also presented a paper in its Saturday session on ‘Crossing Ecclesial Boundaries’ in the Convention Center, Room 204, in the 1 pm session. Here was the abstract:
Eastern Catholic Church Richmond, a small temple in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in British Columbia, has an outsized reputation in both the global Ukrainian public and local Chinese Protestant networks as a ‘Chinese mission’ worshipping in a Byzantine tradition in communion with the See of Rome. Empirically, this church’s multiculturalism, and its smallness of numbers, reveals such claims to be exaggerated. In this paper, I explore how the temple gained this reputation by tracing the participation of its pastor Fr Richard Soo SJ in solidarity events with the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, during which Chinese Protestants in Vancouver came into contact with the church. My central argument is that what enables that theological boundary-crossing is the imaginative backdrop of Chinese politics, a transnational imaginary through which conversations about social justice in Vancouver can be discussed with some distance. In this sense, the ‘Chineseness’ of the temple is not about its ethnic identification, but its political practices. This paper contributes to the study of Chinese Christianities by proposing that ‘Chineseness’ is not about ethnicity, but about the political locus of China as a material and imagined site in which Christians across ecclesial boundaries collaborate to stage civic interventions.
It was an interesting experience presenting a paper where I myself am the key informant, and we had an intriguing discussion across all the papers about the phenomenon of ‘conversion’ in Chinese Christianities. I feel that the field is growing fruitfully. It has been an honour to be part of it.