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.

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2015: Newport Beach, CA

I was happy to be able to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, CA from October 23-25, 2015. Aside from the session at which I presented, there was so much fine work on religion in China and the Chinese diaspora because of Fenggang Yang’s presidential influence over this year’s SSSR, including a special presidential session on the Umbrella Movement where two of the three leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Drs Benny Tai (University of Hong Kong) and Chan Kin-man (Chinese University of Hong Kong), attended.

The session at which I presented was organized by my postdoctoral supervisor James K. Wellman, Jr., and focused on Megachurch Fantasies, with a special emphasis on affect theory and evangelical studies. Our co-panelists were all from the University of Washington: Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Chapin. My paper, entitled ‘Global Cities of God: the ideological fantasies of Chinese American megachurches,’ had the following abstract:

In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese American evangelicals started a series of congregations that aspired to megachurch stature in California’s Silicon Valley. While only one of them has over 2000 congregants (River of Life Christian Center in Santa Clara, CA), this paper examines what Slavoj Žižek calls the ideological “fantasies” – the imagined objects of desire – that underwrite their implementation of church growth theory. Employing a qualitative methodology comprising 47 key informant interviews with Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that these Chinese American churches seek to establish themselves as sites of influence in the global political economy, precisely the same ideology that drives the neoliberal restructuring of global cities in the Asia-Pacific. This paper advances the affective study of congregations by merging the global cities literature with the social science of religion.

My reflection after this session was that, unbeknownst to us at the same institution, each of us had a different take on affect and emotion. To be quite honest, Jessica Johnson’s work on the pornographic affect in Mark Driscoll’s understanding of Christian teaching and his governance of Mars Hill Church probably followed the line of thought on affect more closely as the field intends, pace Deleuze and Guattari as well as Sara Ahmed. My orientation tracks much closer with Slavoj Žižek, whose psychoanalytic tendencies the Deleuze/Guattari crowd would likely find distasteful.

buechsel_tse_tai
Tim Buechsel, myself, and Benny Tai

But the most insightful parts of the conference came through interactions with the Chinese scholars as well as with Tai and Chan (OCLP). These engagements also helped me as I prepared to speak that very weekend at San Diego’s Ethnos Community Church on ‘Global Jesus’ in the Umbrella Movement (the ‘Greater China’ moniker can be read almost as a Barthian move, in which ‘Global Jesus’ subverts the ideology of ‘Greater China’ as an integrated economic regional zone), which I took to mean an exposition of the fields of Global Christianity and World Christianity as they applied to the Hong Kong democracy movement – an intellectual opportunity that I had not yet pursued until this point. I am thankful to Tim and Isabel Buechsel, as well as Reyn and Joy Nishii, for their very kind hospitality as I stayed with them, and to congregants at Ethnos for their very warm welcome to me and the traditions of critical theory and ecumenical theology – different from their evangelical practice in many senses, yet genuinely complementary in surprising ways – that I brought with me. Careful listeners to the podcast will note some factual errors in my extemporaneous delivery (at one point I call the third member of OCLP, the Rev. Chu Yiuming, a ‘professor’ by mistake); my hope is that especially those in Hong Kong will both forgive me for these inaccuracies and see my engagement with the democracy movement as a small contribution to a genuinely democratic society, as they are an example of what Pope Francis means to ‘care for our common home.’