Christ and Cascadia: Theory Matters in Ministry

I’m very pleased to share my latest work: a piece for the online journal Christ and Cascadia entitled ‘Theory Matters in Ministry: what I learned lecturing to Asian American pastors.’


The post is an account of the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) course in which Soong-Chan Rah (North Park) invited me to guest lecture in early April. Because it was a course on Asian American (evangelical) ministry, many of my comments in that course were about what Asian American studies is as a discipline, which (as I read the discipline) is a tradition of negation, an activist-academic project to dispel the ideology that frames persons inhabiting Asian bodies as ‘orientals’ (and therefore rugs). As it was also a theology course, I reflected on the relationship between Asian American studies and the theological project of ‘ecumenism,’ especially with some reflections on a topic on which evangelical Protestants do not usually reflect: the Eastern Christian practice of ‘hesychasm.’

I’m grateful to Billy Vo (SPU) for organizing my collaboration with Rah. I’m also thankful that David Leong (SPU) kept on getting on my case for writing for Christ and Cascadia, an initiative in which I have had some participation in the past and am always looking to critically engage so as to provide what geographer Paul Cloke calls both ‘critical proximity and critical distance’ in its ideological engagements. Thanks are also due to Christ and Cascadia‘s editor David Dyck and assistant editor David Arinder for trimming the piece, especially with an eye to engage their evangelical Protestant readership – an audience that I engage with more critical distance than critical proximity. My hope is that this piece is helpful in continuing the conversation between evangelicalism and Asian American studies as well as helping to interrogate the ideological entanglements in which evangelicals often find themselves due to their ongoing attempts to engage ‘culture,’ a loaded word with so many possible meanings. Perhaps cultural geography – maybe even an anchoring on the word ‘ecumene’ combined with the disciplined practice of negation found in both Asian American studies and hesychastic spirituality – could provide some focus.

PhD Defence and Program Completion

With the successful completion and defence of my doctoral dissertation, I am pleased to announce that the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has sent me a note to tell me that I have completed all of the program requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Geography.  This means that I officially have a PhD in hand.  The degree will in turn be formally conferred at the next Spring Convocation in 2014.

I am happy to share the link for my dissertation, Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies, from cIRcle, UBC’s online repository of theses and dissertations. I am in the process of finalizing the details as I start a postdoctoral fellowship externally funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. This will take place at the University of Washington in Seattle under the direction of Professor James Wellman, Jr. I will be starting on a new postdoctoral project there (details forthcoming), and I will also be trying to turn this dissertation into a book while generating academic journal articles from it.

I defended the dissertation on 3 December 2013. My supervisory committee consisted of Professor David Ley (UBC Geography; my advisor), Professor Henry Yu (UBC History and Principal, St. John’s College), Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), and Professor Rudy Busto (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). Of this committee, David Ley and Henry Yu were present. The departmental examiner was Professor Dan Hiebert (UBC Geography). The university examiner was Professor Don Lewis (Regent College, Church History). The external examiner was Professor Paul Cloke (University of Exeter, Geography). Chairing the proceedings was Professor Leanne Bablitz (UBC, Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies).

The defence took place at 9 AM on 3 December. After the chair read the rules (including the very ironic statement that ‘latecomers will not be admitted’), I gave a 25-minute presentation on my dissertation. This was followed by almost two hours of questions from each of the examiners; David Ley voiced the questions from the external, Paul Cloke. I passed the entire ordeal with minor revisions, which were completed in one day and then submitted to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies with the approval of the committee. The dissertation was archived today.

The defence covered many of the fundamental points of the thesis’s overall argument. The dissertation set out to answer the question, What are the imaginations and practices that constitute the engagements of Cantonese Protestants with the civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region? The argument was that most Cantonese Protestants unintentionally but inadvertently reinforced the secularization thesis as a theological practice when they engaged in such public activities because they tended to reinforce the privacy of religion while leveraging an essentialized ethnicity to maximize their impact on secular public spheres. Accordingly, most of the questions addressed this central question. Many asked me to defend my view that secularization and ‘religion’ are not binary opposites but fall under the rubric of ‘grounded theologies.’ Others poked into whether my assertion that transnational linkages between Hong Kong and the North American sites were sparse could be generated from the empirical material (it can, if one takes a grounded public/private split seriously, which forms the basis of my argument about secularization). Still others interrogated my spatial re-orientation of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ to signify how congregations relate spatially to their civil societies.

I am very grateful to each of the committee members for reading the thesis with such care. I am also extremely thankful for my friends who attended the defence and critically engaged me during the public discussion. I am told that few candidates have so many friends who attend, let alone ask such pointed–yet supportive–questions. These were from members of the community, one of which asked me to point hopeful ways forward for Cantonese Protestant theologies (revealing my very open positionality as a confessing and practicing Christian) and another of which asked me to relate my findings to parallels and contrasts with the black church (speaking into very interesting emerging conversations in theology about race and theology). For more about my personal theological practice, including my strange connection with the black church, see here.

I will emphasize that what it means that I have a PhD in hand is that now I am recognized by the academic community as someone who has demonstrated that I can do research and teach in my field. In other words, I am now officially qualified to learn more. This does not signify the end of things; it means that I’m at the very beginning of a very long journey. I have a lot more to learn, a lot more to think about, and a lot more to stay in conversation about. That I am revising the thesis into publications suggests that I will do much more thinking about the topic in addition and connection to my postdoctoral project, and for that, I will appreciate the chance to remain in conversation with those who are interested. The program is completed, but the conversation is just starting. I am grateful and excited.

POSTSCRIPT: for those who want to read the periodic updates I had on my program, they can be found here:

Progress in Human Geography: Grounded Theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography

As I noted in the previous post, I am excited to announce the publication of two articles today.  This post deals with the second one.

Progress in Human Geography, a widely-read journal where geographers publish reviews of current geographical research that point to new agendas for study, has published a piece that I contributed to them. It is available on OnlineFirst. It is titled ‘Grounded theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography.‘ Again, I will post again when a print issue comes out.

This is a theoretical paper that deals with how ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ should be studied in human geography.  I’ve had a long interest in examining these concepts more deeply, and I’m still interested in going deeper.  In 2007, when I began my master’s degree in geography at the University of British Columbia, I had to take an introductory course called Geography 520: Theory and Practice in Human Geography (here’s a sample syllabus, taken from 2011).  One of our assignments for that seminar was to write a short, 3,000 word essay modeled on Progress in Human Geography‘s review style. As I recall, we were told to review some 30 recent articles and books. I told our seminar instructors that I wanted to do a review essay on geographies of religion. They replied with something to the effect of: ‘Oh, let us know if you can find anything.’

In many ways, this is my way of saying: ‘I found something.’  I began developing these ideas more fully after that introductory course, which then culminated into my master’s thesis on Chinese churches in Vancouver. As I began my doctoral work, I began to toy with the idea of ‘grounded theologies’ in my directed studies courses, and I finally wrote about it in my comprehensive examinations on geographies of religion, secularism, and social theory.  That was when my supervisor, David Ley, encouraged me to develop this piece and put it into Progress in Human Geography, even as I was writing up my doctoral thesis proposal.

The reviews came back as I was conducting field work for my doctoral project. To my pleasant surprise, the editors and the reviewers were not only supportive, but extremely thorough, profound, and constructive, advising me on how to maximize my arguments for the best possible impact on the field. I then revised the paper, foregrounding the notion of ‘grounded theologies’ in human geography.

The paper is basically about how geographers should study ‘religion’ and the ‘secular.’ I began by engaging the work of Lily Kong, a cultural geographer and the Vice President at the National University of Singapore, who had suggested that geographers need to define what ‘religion’ is and is not.  I am an admirer of Lily’s work, as she has recently opened up many possibilities for us to study religion in geography. I was also struck by her corollary call to engage theology and religious studies more deeply. Engaging this literature, I found that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are very contested terms and that to define what religion is and is not would reinforce the binary idea that some spaces are religious and others aren’t.

The alternative path proposed in the piece is that of grounded theologies, ‘performative practices of place-making informed by understandings of the transcendent’ (p. 2).  While there has been a growing literature in geography on the possibilities of ‘post-secularism’ (in fact, Paul Cloke and Justin Beaumont have a piece on this in the most recent print issue of Progress), there have also been some complaints that this literature doesn’t take seriously what secularization actually means (especially by Justin Wilford, also in Progress). I propose that the way forward is to see ‘the secular’ as much as a grounded theology as ‘religion.’  After reviewing the relevant literature on ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in theology and religious studies, I demonstrate how this concept has already been put into practice by social, cultural, and political geographers.

In doing so, I had to engage with what is known as the ‘canon’ in religious studies (e.g. the foundational work of social scientists like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, William James, and Clifford Geertz), formative debates among religion scholars about what ‘religion’ is (e.g. a critical juxtaposition of the work of Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, as well as more recent work by Jonathan Z. Smith), and the recent critical conversation on secularization that blurs the lines between theology and religious studies (e.g. the work of John Milbank, William T. Cavanaugh, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Brad Gregory, and Charles Taylor). I then put this literature to work by looking at how geographers have already been engaging to some degree with grounded theologies as they undertook studies of how different religious subjects understood their identities by intersecting their social spaces. I also looked at recent discussions in critical geopolitics surrounding religion, especially as geographers have been interested in the eschatological dimensions of religious engagements with the public sphere.

My hope for this paper is that it will open avenues for geographers to research ‘religion’ and the ‘secular,’ as well as engage with scholars in theology and religious studies. Moreover, my aim has been to critique the notion that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are mutually exclusive.  By doing this, we might be able to show ironically how people conventionally labeled ‘religious’ sometimes employ ‘secular’ ways of making place while people who call themselves ‘secular’ are guided by implicit theological narratives in their geographical practices.

I’d really like to thank David Ley for guiding me through this process, as well as the editors of Progress in Human Geography who oversaw this publication, Noel Castree and Anssi Paasi. The five anonymous reviewers who critically turned over every part of this piece have greatly strengthened this paper; I also feel extremely humbled that they have taken my work so seriously and have engaged it with such profound insights. Claire Dwyer, with whom I am working concretely on a project dealing with grounded theologies in Richmond, British Columbia’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ has also been very encouraging. My friends, Robert Edwards and Carl Hildebrand, also read the piece and offered very constructive thoughts. I am very thankful that this piece is out, and I look forward to engaging fellow students of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ on how these concepts describe grounded theologies put to work in the making and contestation of real places in the world.