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.

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.

American Association of Geographers, 2015: Chicago, IL

In April 2015, I attended the American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting, held in Chicago, IL. I presented a paper, took part in a panel, and presided over the Business Meeting of the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS).

The paper I presented was titled ‘Sexualized unions: Cantonese evangelicals, educational politics, and labour politics in Vancouver, BC.’ This was in a session called Education, Faith, and Place 2 (3522) organized by Peter Hemming (Cardiff) and chaired by Betsy Olson (UNC-Chapel Hill). The abstract is as follows:

Since the late 1990s, Cantonese evangelicals in British Columbia have become known for their socially conservative politics against sexual liberalization, especially with regards to schools. Not only did they oppose the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada, but they have organized against school boards introducing anti-homophobia curriculum and transgender policies while standing in solidarity with Trinity Western University in its struggle against the teachers’ union refusing to acknowledge its Teachers’ College because its community covenant proscribes homosexual practices. These socially conservative politics have seldom been interrogated in relation to the geographical literature on the transnational Hong Kong-Vancouver social field, where geographers have observed that Asia-Pacific migrants import a style of neoliberal privatization to Vancouver’s property market and educational institutions (Olds 1996; Mitchell 2004; Waters 2008; Ley 2010). Instead of presuming that religious sensibilities predispose Cantonese evangelicals toward social conservatism, my ethnographic findings reveal that economic subjectivities also shape ‘grounded theologies’ (Tse 2014). I argue that Cantonese evangelicals who oppose sexual liberalization in British Columbian schools do so because their practice of faith is shaped by their neoliberal opposition to labour unions. Cantonese evangelicals suggested that the teachers’ union used sexual liberalization as part of a larger public strategy to undermine their private economic and educational aspirations. This paper advances geographies of religion, education, and migration by examining how secular economic subjectivities can be deeply embedded in the practice of grounded theologies.

The panel in which I took part was: Geography and Asian-American Studies: Past Reflections and Future Collaborations. This was an intimate discussion organized by Sean Wang (Syracuse University), and featured some very good reflections from Wendy Cheng (Arizona State), Yui Hashimoto, Timothy Huynh (Pennsylvania State), Stevie Larson (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Ishan Ashutosh (Indiana University).

I was also privileged to preside as chair over this year’s Annual Lecture for GORABS given by Banu Gökariksel (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Anna Secor (University of Kentucky) on ‘the post-secular problematic.’

Our specialty group also had a field trip organized by Richard Dodge to Sacred Places in Chicago, in which participants visited the Seventeenth Church of Christ Science, the Chicago Temple (Methodist), the Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple in Oak Park, and the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette.

As I’m posting this super-late, I’m just going to end by saying that I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at AAG 2016 this year in San Francisco!

Syndicate: ‘If capital is a god,’ forum post on David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

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On April 8, 2015, Syndicate published my review essay on David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradiction and the End of Capitalism. Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology has been among the best outlets for my academic creativity over the last year, as they constantly push me to think thoroughly about the theory that undergirds my work on grounded theologies.

In this essay, they pushed me on my own discipline: human geography. And they did so by having me engage my PhD supervisor David Ley‘s nemesis, David Harvey.

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Harvey (left), Ley (right)

Finding the presence of theology inhabiting both Ley and Harvey’s work, I wrote my engagement with Harvey’s newest book by examining how both Ley and Harvey do theology – and how that theology can possibly bring them together under the acknowledgement that capital has become a personal god in the modern order. As you’ll see in the response, Harvey was intrigued by these thoughts, but he doesn’t buy it completely.

I had planned to write a reply to Harvey on the site, but I never got around to it as April was a very busy conference month for me. I did get to meet Harvey at the American Association of Geographers meeting later that month in Chicago – an encounter that Ley tells me he witnessed but did not want to disturb as he was descending an elevator into the hotel lobby. This essay will probably turn into something bigger (and hopefully better) as I play around some more with these ideas, and hopefully then, I’ll have an even more serious engagement with Harvey.

I’m very thankful to Syndicate’s managing editor Christian Amondson for publishing this piece and the editor/founder of Syndicate, Silas Morgan, for his very able organizational powers in making this forum happen. Read his forum introduction here.

Relegens Thréskeia: Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC

I am very pleased to announce that I’ve published a piece in a special issue of Relegens Thréskeia, an open-access Brazilian religious studies journal. This recent special issue, edited by geographer Clevisson Pereira (Universidade Federal do Paraná), focuses on Espaço e Religião (Space and Religion). While most of the articles are published in Portuguese, they also brought on Thomas Tweed (University of Notre Dame) and myself to contribute English-language pieces. While Tweed’s piece proposes a theoretical framework for the study of geographies of religion, my piece is an empirical study of Ken Shigematsu, an Asian Canadian pastor in Vancouver. It also puts to work themes from my theoretical piece on ‘grounded theologies’ to understand Shigematsu’s church, Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, as what theologian John Milbank calls a ‘complex space.’

My piece is titled ‘Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC.’ Focusing on the spirituality of Ken Shigematsu, it demonstrates that his spiritual practice and his Asian Canadian sensibilities have reshaped Tenth Church, a historic Anglo-Canadian church, into a complex, multiracial, multi-class space. This analysis also suggests that there is a theoretical link between church growth theory and the ‘new religious economics’ in the sociology of religion and contends that a geographical approach might be able to complicate the models proposed by these approaches. The theological basis for Shigematsu’s theology, moreover, is the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) from New Testament studies; while I have written elsewhere of postcolonial Paul-within-Judaism models espoused by Mark Nanos and Sam Tsang, what is important to understand is that Shigematsu is himself deploying NPP and achieving these spatial results.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how the evangelical spatiality of an Asian Canadian senior pastor at a historically Anglo-Saxon congregation has transformed it from an ethnically homogeneous, aging church to a heterogeneously-constituted gathering in an evangelical Protestant tradition. This piece challenges the conventional wisdom of the church growth movement and the new religious economics in the sociology of religion, both of which advise religious groups to construct homogeneity and consensus in efforts for numerical growth over against secularizing forces. The paper argues instead that Pastor Ken Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality from the mid-1990s to the present must be understood as a theological embrace of difference in a church gifted to him by God over which he prayerfully pastors along with his staff. This paper understands Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality through his own New Testament exegesis, his denominational affiliation with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, his ancient spiritual practices of indiscriminate hospitality, and his mystical reception of Tenth as a welcoming space toward a multiplicity of ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds. This article contributes to Asian Canadian Christian studies by discouraging a future where pan-Asian churches in Canada are homogeneously constructed and by exploring the concrete possibility of non-strategies in which heterogeneous, complex spaces that include Asian Canadians are received by pastors and studied by academics as a divine gift.

I am thankful to Clevisson Pereira for inviting me to participate in what for me is an exciting international endeavour, and I am also grateful to have worked so closely with Ken Shigematsu to have this paper produced. I have written about Shigematsu at a popular level in Ricepaper Magazine; consider this the full academic spelling-out of the thinking there. The paper is open-access, so I will be posting it on Academia.edu, and interested readers can also download it directly from Religens Thréskeia.

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.