Syndicate: Thomas Pfau, Minding the Modern

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In late September and early October 2015, Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology hosted a symposium that I edited on Thomas Pfau’s magisterial tome, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge. This is a magnificent exegesis of key thinkers from antiquity to the modern period on what it means for a person to think and act; indeed, thinking and reading are acting, according to Pfau, making this ‘phenomenology of reading’ a profoundly empowering book for those of us who read for a living.

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Thomas Pfau

My symposium introduction can be read here. We had six panelists:

I’m grateful as this symposium’s editor for Pfau’s close engagement with each of these essays, as well as these authors’ close reading of Pfau’s very deep book. The interaction in this forum speaks to each of these persons’ deep commitment to the real mission of the academy, the rigorous close reading and dialectical engagement for which Pfau calls in Minding the Modern.

I’m also grateful for Christian Amondson and his very able skills as the managing editor, freeing my hands to simply engage as the Theology and Social Theory section editor.

Canadian Association of Geographers 2015 | Vancouver, BC

In June 2015, I attended the Canadian Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting in Vancouver, BC, held at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Harbour Centre and the Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

My paper was in a session entitled The Politics of Urban Social Policy 3, organized by Tom Baker (SFU), Cristina Temenos (Northeastern), and Joshua Evans (Athabasca), with Nick Blomley (SFU) as our respondent. The other presenters were Natalie Oswin (McGill) and Eugene McCann (SFU). Here was my abstract:

In this paper, I intervene in conversations about ‘postsecularism,’ the possibility of civic discussions between religious and secular citizens, in global cities, urban financial hubs attracting investment, skilled migration, and tourism that geographers have noted for their economic polarization and social exclusions. I do this through a case study of an interfaith coalition, Faith Communities Called to Solidarity with the Poor (FCCSP), in Vancouver, BC, in the mid-2000s. Ostensibly, FCCSP lobbied for the religious freedom of one evangelical Protestant congregation, Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, to conduct its homeless shelter and meal program without acquiring a social services permit. While the opposition called for secularization, this religious activism needs to be understood as contesting discourses that sought to render invisible the “poor,” the “socially excluded and economically marginalized” in material need of food and shelter (FCCSP 2007). FCCSP countered the aspirations of Tenth’s neighbourhood and Vancouver’s City Hall to become a global city, especially in the municipal policy Project Civil City attempting to produce a marketable urban landscape by reducing the rate of homelessness ahead of the 2010 Olympics. Not only do I demonstrate that these gentrifying processes developed into secularizing geographical visions, but I argue that the presence of the poor in religious communities means that the urban postsecular is not so much situated in dialogues between religious and secular citizens, but in material encounters in religious communities across class divisions exacerbated by global city aspirations. I substantiate this argument with key informant interviews with FCCSP and Vancouver’s City Hall. Combining work on global cities and gentrification with geographical debates about the postsecular, I advance conversations in human geography about religion in urban spaces by exploring the material work of religious actors in demystifying secular capitalist ideologies used to construct social exclusions in global cities.

I enjoyed the robust conversation that we had about urban social policy, and I especially enjoyed Blomley’s comments on my paper and the relationship between Project Civil City and religion. These comments are very helpful as I am taking this paper back to the drawing board and revising it for publication, from which I hope to generate more dialogue.

Review of Religion in Chinese Society 2(2): ‘Under the Umbrella: Grounded Christian Theologies and Democratic Working Alliances in Hong Kong’

In 2015, the Review of Religion in Chinese Society published a peer-reviewed paper that I wrote trying to unpack the Umbrella Movement’s cultural geographical background. In this paper, I especially advance the approach of the new cultural geography in understanding the many layers of history behind democratic movements in Hong Kong and their engagement with Christian theological sources. Here’s the abstract in both English and Chinese:

Taking the geographies of the 2014 Umbrella Movement as the point of departure, this paper provides a geographical reading of democratic landscapes in Hong Kong. Using a new cultural geography approach, this study unpacks the grounded theologies that undergird the participation of Christians in democratic movements in Hong Kong. The central argument is that two Christian grounded theologies in Hong Kong – collaborative and critical – have been generated by how Christians acting within two different working alliances have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Hong Kong government. Drawing from both ethnographic and public archival research, I trace the origins of a democratic working alliance to the 1978 Golden Jubilee Incident, after which a democratic consensus was developed in Hong Kong. Following this thread through the 1997 handover, I demonstrate that this consensus bifurcated among Christians who disagreed theologically as to whether collaborating or critiquing the government was the ideal way to implement democratic reform. This paper contributes to the study of religion in Chinese societies by providing a geographical approach that can be used for comparative work in the social scientific study of religion and democracy.

本文是以二零一四雨傘運動的地理為起點, 用地理學的角度去看香港的民主景觀。此硏究乃以一個新文化地理途徑去分析多種的接地神學如何從下鞏固了香港的基督徒參與民主運動。其論點中心是兩個不同的香港基督教多種的接地神學 —— 合作性及評論性 —— 已經從基督徒如何在兩個不同的合作聯盟之內把自己與香港政府的關係定位而產生。由於一九七八年金禧事件之後香港發展了民主共識,本人便從人種學及公共檔案硏究去追溯金禧事件為民主合作聯盟之起源。隨著這線索一直至一九九七回歸,本人演示了此共識使在神學上意見分歧的基督徒分义成兩派,一派認為與政府合作乃執行民主改革的理想途徑,另一派則認為評論政府才是執行民主改革的理想途徑。本文提供了用地理途徑去作宗教和民主的社會科學硏究比較,因此對華人社會的宗教硏究頗有助益。

I’m deeply thankful to the editor, Fenggang Yang (Purdue), for graciously accepting this manuscript and seeing to its speedy publication. I hope this paper is useful for understanding democracy movements in Hong Kong,their many complex histories, and their relation to theory in social science.

Book review: Frédérick Douzet, The Colour of Power: Racial Coalitions and Political Power in Oakland. (Canadian Geographer)

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In 2015, Canadian Geographer published a book review I did of Frédérick Douzet’s The Color of Power: Racial Coalitions and Political Power in Oakland.

This was an interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying, book. What’s interesting is the theoretical framework: Douzet, a French political geographer who studies California and its geopolitics, advanced an urban geopolitics framework to understand the City of Oakland and its racial politics as they played over time in space and through its electoral system. However, what I didn’t find very helpful was the way that Douzet talked about race as absolute categories in Oakland. I also found that she seemed to talk more to the police than to urban youth at some points.

Of course, read the book yourself and the review too, perhaps. If you want an interesting framework for understanding Oakland, this could be helpful for your shelf. But in terms of a penetrating analysis, I think Douzet’s other work on California’s state geopolitics more broadly speaking is much more helpful and better framed.

Conference: Freedom of (and from) Religion | University of California, Santa Barbara

From April 30 to May 2, 2015, I attended the ‘Freedom of (and from) Religion’ Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Hosted by the UCSB Religious Studies Department alongside their Virgil Cordano Catholic Studies Program, this conference was part of their conference series on religion and law. There was a stellar lineup of speakers, including Winnifred Sullivan (Indiana University), among other junior scholars as well. Ann Taves, who was our GORABS Annual Lecturer in 2013, played a representative faculty role for UCSB Religious Studies and Catholic Studies.

My paper, which took a different spin (a more legal one) from the iteration I gave at the AAAS earlier in the month, was titled ‘The Passion of Hak-Shing William Tam: Perry v. Schwarzenegger and the Question of Religious Privacy.’ Here’s the abstract:

Some religious activists claim that their public actions against same-sex marriage should not only be publicly accommodated, but understood as fundamentally private. Instead of philosophizing on the actual legitimacy of this claim, I examine why its proponents argue that it is legitimate. My case study centers on Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam in the federal court case Perry v. Schwarzennegger, which ensued after the passage of California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Called as a hostile witness, Tam – an official grassroots proponent of Proposition 8 – argued that his privacy had been violated when his private emails were introduced as evidence that he had imposed his private religious animus against gays and lesbians onto the public sphere. That the court discredited the Proposition 8 proponents based on this evidence suggested to Tam and his colleagues that the judiciary was in the sway of the private interests of sexual minorities. A closer examination of the Perry transcript shows that this privacy emphasis framed the interests of sexual minorities as competing with those of religious communities. I argue that Tam’s privacy claim was part of an attempt to fashion a legal consensus where public action on either side of Proposition 8 was fundamentally about defending private communities. In this way, the Proposition 8 proponents defended actions such as Tam’s by claiming that he had not so much sought public accommodation for his views, but the victory of his private interests over against competing ones. Claims to religious freedom may not thus only be requests for public accommodation; they may well be political tools to refashion American society as solely composed of competing interests vested in private communities.

I enjoyed the chance to be at UCSB and to interact with the conference participants and the UCSB faculty. As this signals an interest that I have developed in geographies of religion and law from since my PhD, I hope this is the first of many encounters to come.

Metropolis Canada 2015: Vancouver, BC

In March 2015, I participated in a panel organized by Paul Bramadat (University of Victoria) at the 2015 National Metropolis Conference in Canada. The panel was on Religion and Immigration in Canada: Policies, Practices, and Problems and featured as speakers Jack Jedwab (Association for Canadian Studies), David Seljak (Waterloo), and myself.

My talk had been tentatively titled ‘National or Transnational: Chinese Christians in Vancouver, BC,‘ but by the time we got to the conference, I had changed it to the more provocative ‘Against homeland politics: Cantonese Protestant identity politics in Vancouver and the problem of transnationalism.‘ Unfortunately, there is no abstract available of the talk, but the gist of the paper deals with the contests between Raymond Chan (Liberal) and Alice Wong (Conservative) over being Member of Parliament for Richmond, British Columbia.

I look forward to developing my thinking in this paper and am thankful for the comments I received on it at the conference. I am especially thankful to Paul for organizing and for Jack and David for being such great interlocutors.

Our Whole Society: Vancouver, BC (March 2015)

From March 22-24, 2015, I attended a conference organized by academics, policymakers, think-tankers, and religious leaders called Our Whole Society: Bridging the Religious-Secular Divide. Highlights of the conference included addresses by Andrew Bennett (Canada’s Religious Freedom Ambassador) and Doug White (Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation, Vancouver Island University), among others. It was also good to see my colleague Paul Bramadat (University of Victoria) give such incisive comments throughout the conference. I was also pleased to see my Roman Catholic friends represented so ably by the deep Vatican II-inspired comments of Shawn Flynn (St Mark’s College).

I participated in a panel called Doing interfaith in a secular age alongside Gianni Castiglione (President, University of Toronto Secular Alliance) moderated by the Very Revd Peter Elliott (Dean, Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver). The story of how I was invited dates back to January 2015, when the key conference organizer, University of Toronto PhD student-extraordinaire Helen Mo, contacted me to offer my thoughts on identity and religion in Vancouver. As we got closer to the date, I discovered that she had put me on the ‘Charles Taylor panel’ with an interfaith twist. My comments therefore revolved around Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age with examples of interfaith cooperation in Vancouver, BC, especially the interreligious social justice alliance from 2007-8, Faith Communities Called to Solidarity with the Poor. This panel offered many opportunities to interact with the audience, who participated quite vigorously. I was also glad to meet Dean Elliott, a person who has been so influential in the Anglican Church of Canada (and in the Anglican Communion writ large) and who above all is a real pastor and therefore a real person.

I wrote up my reflections on the conference at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion‘s blog. Read it here. As the reflection will show, I valued my time at this conference, although I had my disagreements with a great many of the speakers. But most of all, I’m glad for the friendships that developed from this conference, especially with Helen Mo, in whose very able hands this conference generated some very productive thoughts.