AAR 2018: ‘Orthodoxy in solidarity with the Umbrella Movement: the backdrop of Chinese politics for evangelical and Eastern Catholic cooperation in Vancouver’

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.

Patheos Catholic – Eastern Catholic Person

I have been blogging with Patheos Catholic as Eastern Catholic Person for a little over a month now. In fact, both of my previous blogs – a theological one known as ‘Chinglican at Table’ and a current events one called Religion Ethnicity Wired – have both been migrated there.

It has been quite a rewarding experience to be able to blog so personally, and I expect the engagements to become even more lively in times to come. What I write about on Eastern Catholic Person is quite different from my professional academic work on Asian modernities, Asian American ideologies, and theological ontologies. Instead, I write simply as a person who happens to have become ‘Eastern Catholic,’ which means that my canonical place in the Catholic communion is among the Eastern Catholic Churches that are in full communion with Rome but do our theology in ways are different from but are ultimately complementary with the Latin tradition. The church that I joined is the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC); we are a people who practice the Kyivan tradition of the Byzantine Rite, an liturgical mode of Christianity with its origins in the city of Byzantium-Constantinople. In other words, we are part of the ancient Byzantine church that comes from the city of Kyiv, and our hope is that we do not exist in a sort of museum preservation mode, but actually have something to offer to the contemporary world by way of peacemaking, human liberation, solidarity, and supernatural wisdom.

In the contemporary humanities and social sciences, we are often called upon to be explicit about our positionality when we write, to situate ourselves as persons so that our readers understand how we are reading whatever texts, events, interviews, and other phenomena we find ourselves to be studying. I’ve been finding that blog to be helpful for writing myself to clarity on my own positionality as an Eastern Catholic person studying situations that usually have nothing to do with Eastern Catholicism.

In fact, I see the blog as an exercise in what my friend, Patheos editor, and philosopher of education Sam Rocha calls folk phenomenology. Drawing from personalist philosophy and liberation theology, Rocha explains that all that we really are as scholars and teachers, students and children and adults, are persons. As persons, we seek to make sense of the world around us, a world in which we are faced by other persons. All that a person can do in such a world is to offer themselves to the other, without even the presumption that the other will reciprocate. The world of ordinary folk is thus one of offerings.

All I understand myself to be doing as a scholar and teacher is to offer myself as a person and what I have learned in my research and teaching. But the offering that I have in my academic work usually only hints at who I am as a person; after all, I don’t presume to be studying myself. What the blog does is to make what is implicit there explicit, to be yet another outlet of offering alongside my scholarly repertoire.

This means of course that I am no expert in Eastern Catholicism, nor do I write as such. My training is in geography, Asian American studies, and religious studies, and those comprise my academic offerings. Eastern Catholic Person is a complement to that as an even more personal offering, despite the personalism that also pervades my academic writing.

I hope that this blog will be as fun for my readers as it is for me to write. I have been learning a lot from my personal engagements there, and I expect that I will learn a lot more as I continue to write.

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.