Syndicate: John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order

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From late December 2015 to early January 2016, Syndicate Theology ran what is being advertised now as the most-read symposium that the site has ever run, a fact that contributor Matthew Tan was generous to point out in his write-up on the forum. I was honoured to be the section editor for this forum, not least because the Theology and Social Theory section played host to the work of the scholar who wrote Theology and Social Theory in the first place: John Milbank. Our symposium focused on his newest book, Theology and Social Theory‘s sequel: Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People.

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John Milbank

The book itself is controversial, for reasons that you can read about here in the symposium introduction that I wrote. This led to a controversial forum, which we rolled out in the order of most sympathetic to most outright hostile:

Milbank is beyond generous in his responses. Not only were his answers thoughtful and thorough, but they managed to elicit a new response from Singh calling Milbank’s project ‘racist.’ There’s also a point-for-point refutation of McCarraher that not only reads as a genuine invitation to conversation, but also is surprisingly revelatory of Milbank’s own working-class position in relation to both British politics and the hegemonies embedded in the academic discipline of theology.

Not that anyone is counting, but as a point if one were to go down the ‘identity politics’ route and accuse us of selling out to white theology: I note that three of the contributors are men of colour (in fact, two are Asian American, and one is Asian Australian) from very different ideological perspectives, and the white woman is married to a Korean American. I am (quite obviously) not white. And yet, here we are – engaging. There’s something to be reflected upon there – I’m not quite sure what it is, but it may have something to do with Milbank’s theology, for all the shots fired at it as a white man’s ideology, having some resonance in geographies that are not white, surprisingly not from the elite classes, and perhaps weirdly socialist in political orientation.

I’m grateful to Christian Amondson for having the fortitude to host such a wild and crazy symposium on Syndicate. Milbank’s oeuvre has been profoundly influential in my own work on grounded theologies, so to have done this forum where the contributors engaged each other with such gusto is a deep honour and privilege. As for the symposium being widely read, all I can say to our readers is, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘Hang on tight!’

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.

Schema: Just Another Chinese Christian?

I recently had the privilege to contribute to Schema Magazine’s “But Where Are You Really From?” series. The series asks writers to write a real answer to a question series that’s posed to persons of various ethnic backgrounds in North America.

Q: Where are you from?

A: _______

Q: Oh, but where are you really from?

They don’t mention it, but this question series was made apparent in academia through the work of cultural studies scholar Ien Ang in a discussion of multiculturalism in On Not Speaking Chinese.

My answer was titled “Just Another Chinese Christian?”  In many ways, this is a popular positionality piece for the research I’ve been conducting for my doctorate.  In the piece, I deal with my upbringing in Northern California, the diversity of religious communities of which I’ve been a part, and the multiple understandings of Chineseness at play in my life.

The photo credit goes to my uncle in Hong Kong, Yung Wai Leung. Thanks, Goo Jeung!

Enjoy, and if you feel so called, contribute your own answer to Schema Magazine! The editors there, particularly Beth Hong and Sadiya Ansari, who both helped so much with the fine-tuning, are awesome!

Sing Tao Daily (3 Feb 2011)

At the Metropolis BC conference, I was interviewed by a journalist for Vancouver’s Sing Tao Daily (星島日報).  He asked for supplemental information to our talk on No. 5 Road and wanted to discuss especially the Chinese Christian organizations in the talk.  He asked specifically about new migrants from the People’s Republic of China.

Most of what I said was fairly represented in the following article.  The Chinese version is here.  I have translated most of it (with assistance from family and girlfriend) into English here:

New immigrants are changing the culture of religious communities
Chu Lam (Sing Tao Daily, Vancouver)

An immigration research organization has pointed out that as NGOs and religious communities become increasingly concerned about multiculturalism, multiple levels of officials need more attention and understanding as they make new policies toward minorities’ religions and cultures.

Metro Vancouver’s immigration research organization invited Canadian academics, the government, NGOs, and religious communities for a dialogue on Wednesday.  They spoke from the perspective of all three levels of government on what they should pay attention to in policymaking.

The provincial economic and capacity development organization [Embrace BC] and immigration research Metropolis BC on Wednesday was entitled: Religion and society: a policy research symposium on immigration, multiculturalism, and social change in Canada.  This academic symposium invited the academics, government officials, and NGO leaders from all over the nation to participate in researching minorities and immigrant religious cultures and their impact on the changing Canadian social landscape.

UBC Human Geography’s doctoral candidate Justin Tse used ‘tsunami’ to represent the increasing numbers of PRC migrants to Canada.  He pointed out that Canadian Chinese religious organizations are mostly Cantonese-speaking and are mostly from Hong Kong, and that new migrants from the PRC find a gap in language and political values.  Although there are barriers, Chinese religious organizations are step-by-step incorporating new migrants, and the new migrants are participating willingly and happily because of their curiosity and need for religion, so the religious culture is changing from the inside, and it changes people’s view of politics and culture, causing the policymakers to pay attention.

Ryerson University’s urban planning professor Sandeep Agrawal expressed that up till now, the government has planned insufficiently for religion.  For example, in the Greater Toronto Area, there are 147 religious organizations, but there are only 123 religious places of worship, so on average one of these organizations must serve 10,000 people.  Many religious organizations can only hold their events in residential areas.

Agrawal said that when the government plans the city, they need to have the right amount of religious sites planned, so that they can ensure that multicultural and different religions are incorporated into the city development plans.

——

A FEW CLARIFICATIONS:

Sadly, and perhaps fortunately, I was not the one who coined the term “tsunami.”  I got it from another article written on 5 February 2010 in a Christian newsletter on Canadianchristianity.com on Chinese churches by Meg Johnstone entitled “Chinese churches thrive.”  In my own interviews for my master’s project on a transnational Hongkonger church, there were also people who expressed the phenomenon as new migrants “flooding into” the church “all of a sudden.”  We found similar sentiments expressed by some of the Cantonese-speaking churches on No. 5 Road.  A similar phenomenon was also noted by a fourth-year undergraduate geography student I helped who studied a prominent Cantonese-speaking church in Vancouver for his Research Methods: Migration course in Geography.  So no, “tsunami” is not from me; it is common parlance from the ground.

My comments on language also need to be taken in the context of Chinese Christianity in Metro Vancouver, not religion as a whole.  Most of the Buddhist places I’ve been studying on No. 5 Road are actually Mandarin-speaking: the Lingyen Mountain Temple is mostly from Taiwan (although there is a Cantonese tour guide, as well as a prominent figure who is non-Chinese), as is the Dharma Drum Buddhist Meditation Centre; some of the monks at Thrangu Monastery are proficient in Mandarin in addition to Tibetan.  But 74% of the Chinese Christian churches in the 2007 Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Ministerial Fellowship’s directory are Cantonese-speaking; the major Chinese Christian events also seem to be in Cantonese.  This situation is quickly changing as we speak, though, as many churches have started Mandarin ministries.  Moreover, far from all Mandarin ministry being new, there are also very well-established Mandarin-speaking churches in Metro Vancouver, such as Evangelical Chinese Bible Church (ECBC); I also have some very good Taiwanese Christian friends in the area as well; and Stream of Praise (讚美之泉), a very popular Taiwanese Christian music group based near Irvine in Orange County, CA, comes here to tour quite a bit too (and their Mandarin songs are sung in many Cantonese churches too!).

Christianity is important within the Chinese population because according to the 2001 census, there were more Christians (24%) than Buddhists (15%) within the Chinese population in Metro Vancouver.  For further reading, see Yu Li’s chapter on “Christianity as Chinese religion” in the edited 2010 volume on Asian Religions in British Columbia as well as my 2010 article in Population, Space, and Place on “Making a Cantonese-Christian family.” David Ley also has a section in his new book Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines (2010: pp. 213-217) on Chinese Christian churches as new civic spaces as well as a 2008 article in Urban Studies on the immigrant church as an urban service hub that focuses on German, Korean, and Chinese churches in Metro Vancouver.

On the difference of “political values,” I was referring to what my respondents had noted as a difference of political sensibilities between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.  Of course, the PRC is a big place, and Hong Kong is also very diverse, but this was also a common sentiment on the ground.  As I told the reporter, I think the jury is still out on whether PRC migrants are more politically conservative, liberal, apathetic, etc. than their Hongkonger counterparts in Vancouver.  That may partly comprise some of my doctoral research.  Stay tuned.

The paragraph also seems to suggest that I think that Chinese religious organizations in Vancouver will completely change from Hongkonger to PRC.  I think it’s messier than that, although with new migrants coming into the church, some things will inevitably change.  I am starting to see that already.  But will it completely change?  That also remains to be seen.

Lastly, on the policymakers paying attention, yes, I think this was a hopeful sentiment.  I spoke with a policymaker today, however, who couldn’t care less.  But I think this is perhaps the main thrust of my upcoming doctoral project: what are the civic imaginations and practices of Hongkonger Christians in the Pacific region?  If there is change from new, non-Cantonese migration, then perhaps some things may change politically in perhaps swinging religious votes or perhaps affecting land use or perhaps engagement in new forms of civil participation.  Perhaps.  I still have to do the research there.  But yes, like the article, I hope that policymakers do pay attention to Chinese Christians.

All this said, I think this article is overall a fair representation of the interview I gave and the symposium as a whole (at least the morning portions).  My hope is that the comments quoted especially by Sandeep and myself will not be taken as written in stone by the experts but will prompt further research by academics and policymakers as well as deeper reflection on religion and society by the people reading this in their daily newspaper.