2014 AAG CFP: Geography of Religions and Belief Systems

Please distribute widely.

Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group
Call for Papers
AAG 2014: Tampa

The AAG’s Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group invites papers and session to be submitted for sponsorship for the AAG’s Annual Meeting in Tampa, FL in 2014.

GORABS promotes the use of religion as a geographical analytic. Historically, the group has focused on how religion impresses a human impact on the environment and vice versa. Complementing these environmental approaches, more recent work in geographies of religion have revealed that religion is a productive lens through which to understand and debate secularization processes, the intersection of religion in social identity formation, the role of religion in cultural processes of placemaking, and issues of religion in political geography. Geographers of religion are contributing to current conversations and challenges in race, gender, sexuality, age, migration studies, critical geopolitics, global development studies, political ecology, hauntological approaches, post-secularization, piety movements, evangelicalisms, and public religions. Religion has thus progressed beyond being an object of study or subject of inquiry in geography, but a way by which to practice human geography critically.

We are interested in papers and sessions that will push these emerging conversations further.  Specific topics that we encourage incluude:

  • Gender, religion, and sexuality
  • Youth, childhood, and religion
  • Religion and migration
  • Critical geopolitics, critical development studies, and religion
  • Religion and post-humanist approaches
  • Debating approaches to religion and the environment: cultural geography and political ecology
  • Debating the post-secular
  • Islamist/post-Islamist (geo)politics
  • Geographies of evangelicalisms
  • Geographies of race and religion
  • Geographies of religion in Latin America
  • Geographies of ‘Asian’ religions

Papers and sessions can be submitted online through the AAG’s paper submission console. During the submission process, please contact the GORABS chair, Justin K.H. Tse, at jtse@geog.ubc.ca to request sponsorship for your session.  To organize sessions, we also encourage you to contact GORABS with a call for papers before widely distributing a call so that GORABS sponsorship can be listed along with your distributed call for papers.

Introducing: Religion. Ethnicity. Wired.

I am pleased to announce that I’ve started a public blog. It’s called Religion. Ethnicity. Wired.

Religion. Ethnicity. Wired. is where I’ll be blogging about current events in light of what I work on in geographies of religion, ethnicities, migrations, politics, and Pacific cities. I explicitly apply the grounded theologies axis of analysis wherever possible to some of the things I discuss. As you’ll see, the issues there are broader than the Cantonese-speaking Protestant Christians on which I’m actively writing in my doctoral dissertation. It’s a chance for readers to be able to see the breadth of what my seemingly narrow doctoral topic can actually encompass.

It’s also an exercise in public academia. On the blog, I routinely articulate how I think academia should be conceptualized as a public good. While academics are often perceived as impractical theoreticians pontificating from their revolving chairs, I make the case every so often on the blog that academics are interested in contributing the knowledge of their fields to an ongoing public democratic discussion, one that often results in concrete policy implications. This is not to say that academics pitch policy solutions–more often than not, we refrain from doing that–but this means that academics have a vital contribution to make to the public sphere that should not be overlooked by either the public or the university. In my posts, then, I try to be explicit about precisely where the academic contributions lie in the issues I’m raising.

So do follow me, and find me on Facebook and Twitter. And (I can’t resist this tagline) remember, if you stalk this page long enough, religion and ethnicity will wire you like coffee too.

Posting with Jim Wellman on Niebuhr and Obama

My friend and supervisor for next year’s post-doctoral fellowship, Jim Wellman, and I collaborated on a post for his Patheos blog on American religion. It’s titled ‘Drones, Mr. Niebuhr, and President Obama.

As we watched Barack Obama justify drone warfare as a just war policy yesterday, we were struck by how many allusions there were to the work of mainline Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Wellman is arguably one of the current top authorities on Niebuhr, and generously, he took on some of my comments in his blog, including some work on Christian pacifism that responds to Niebuhr. If you have not seen Obama’s speech, do watch it here:

I see these comments as continuous with my work in geographies of religion, a field that I have theorized as not only as a subfield within cultural geographies (as it is more popularly conceived), but as an analytical axis by which political, economic, and cultural geographies can be interpreted. As I argued in my piece on ‘grounded theologies,’ geographers who use religion and secularization must reveal modern geographies to be theologically constituted, as the ‘secular’ can also be read (as per the Immanent Frame) as a theological orientation. Obama’s speech on security, counterterrorism, and geopolitics is a prime example. While it is ostensibly non-religious and non-theological, that he uses Niebuhr’s ‘proximate justice’ theory to argue that drone warfare is a form of just war policy suggests that he is in fact doing theology through public policy. Wellman and I argue that whatever you think of Obama, you really have to contend with Obama’s theological framework if you want to seriously engage him in democratic conversation and debate.

The implication here is that religious and theological literacy is a primary task for any ‘secular’ discipline. While there are hard secularists who may scoff at this notion, that even those parties lay claim to something called ‘secular’ is to say something about ‘religion’ or ‘theology’; if those statements are said ignorantly, it does a disfavour to everyone in the public forum. This is why I feel so happy that I’ll be working with Wellman. Recently, he had me sit in a seminar class that he’s teaching on American megachurches, where we conversed with non-geography students with arguably one of the most important books to come out in geographies of religion, Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions. As we covered a lot of ground exploring how Wilford conceptualizes Saddleback Church’s usage of space as a cultural geographer, I couldn’t help but be cheered that a discipline like human geography–one that has been conceptualized as uncritically secular until very recently–was contributing to public religious literacy in the form of these students grappling with this geography text. I think this signals good times ahead for geographies of religion, if I might be so presumptuous.

Working with Wellman will allow me to sharpen some of my own theological and religious reading, especially in American mainline Protestant theology, which will supplement what I currently know about geographies of evangelicalism and the critical crypto-Catholic conversation on secularization in theology and religious studies. This in turn will help refine what I have to say about Asian American, Asian Canadian, and Asia-Pacific religions. All of this is not a deviation from my work in geographies of religion and grounded theologies. It’s an extension and refinement, as all of this stuff is very spatially oriented and thus very geographical.

Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity. I look forward to the fun times ahead.

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.

Social Geographies of Religion: guest lectures

This week, I gave two lectures on the social geographies of religion for the University of British Columbia at Vancouver’s Geography 357.  The instructor is my friend, Elliot Siemiatycki, a labour geographer who has been doing a fantastic job teaching a course focused on what social geography is and what social geographers do social geography in the context of neoliberal urbanisms.  The course has covered theoretical themes (such as the move from positivism to the humanist/Marxist debates in social geography, feminist themes of embodiment and intersectionality, and the neoliberal restructuring of post-1980s cities) and empirical themes (such as segregation, homelessness, crime, architecture, work and leisure spaces, urban political ecology, and cyber-geographies).  He gave me an opportunity to deliver two lectures for the course on the social geographies of religion.

In these lectures, I simply reviewed the field, where we’ve been and where we’re going.  In the first lecture, I spoke on geographies of religion and intersectionality, how religious practitioners intersect their religious social spaces with other spaces like family, work, leisure, as well as spaces marked by gender and class.  In the second lecture, I introduced the current debate on post-secularization in social geographies and approached this through José Casanova’s (1994) work in Public Religions in the Modern World as he disaggregates the secularization thesis.  I am aware, of course, that discussions of secularization theory are wide-ranging, but to adequately cover the major theorists in theology and religious studies (e.g. Berger, Cox, Eliade, JZ Smith, WC Smith, Casanova, Asad, Taylor, Habermas, Milbank, Pickstock, Cavanaugh, Ward, Bruce, Davie, Lilla, Bellah, Butler, Brown, Mahmood, Hirschkind, Modood, Jakobsen, Connolly, Calhoun, Lilla, West, Herberg, Finke/Stark, R. Stephen Warner, Michael Warner, Fraser, etc.), I would need a whole course devoted to this (if not several), if not a graduate seminar (if not two).  I also presented some of my own original PhD research on Cantonese-speaking Protestants and the public sphere in the second class.

The material was very well-received by the instructor, the students, and my supervisor.  The sense that I got was that this material is very new and fresh to them, which speaks to the need for this material to actually be taught at the undergraduate level.  I was happy to hear that I was both clear and passionate–I would refrain from self-commenting on my own performance, but these seem to be the anecdotal consensus–and after delivering these lectures, I hope to be doing this long-term.  Indeed, my hope is one day to teach courses on geographies of religion and secularization where I can adequately cover the field in its emerging breadth, as well as to host graduate seminars where the material can be adequately debated by emerging scholars joining the effort.

CFP: AAAS 2013: Empire and Asian American Religions

Call for Papers
Empire and Asian American Religions: approaching religion in ethnic studies
Association of Asian American Studies 2013: Seattle

Religion has a contested place in Asian American studies, especially as it pertains to themes of empire.  The work of American missionaries in their attempts to “civilize” the “inassimilable alien Oriental” is continuously critiqued as having enacted narratives of white supremacist racism under the guise of benevolent activity.  Moreover, Asian American religion scholars such as Jane Naomi Iwamura (2011) and Joseph Cheah (2011) have demonstrated that appropriations of Asian American religions in American popular culture have perpetuated ideologies of orientalization toward Asian American religious practitioners.  Indeed, a recent president of the American Academy of Religion, Kwok Pui-lan (2012)—herself an Asian American—laments the complicity of religious studies with imperializing projects.

However, as recent work in Asian American religious studies, including the publication of a Pew Forum report on Asian American religions, has shown, religion is an inescapable part of many Asian American communities.  This paper session attempts to collect papers that span this seeming paradox in an attempt to chart a way forward in approaches to religion in Asian American studies.  How are religions in Asian American studies to be studied, given the imperial context in which many approaches have been complicit?  Will the approaches differ between progressive traditions and conservative ideologies?  Are religions inescapably imperialistic, or do they, as Kwok Pui-lan suggests, hold within themselves keys to imagining an alternative world where the marginalized can speak back?

We welcome both theoretical papers and empirical studies.  Suggested topics include:

  • Theoretical approaches to religion in Asian American studies
  • Religion and discourses of the inassimilable alien
  • Religion and white supremacy
  • Religion and anti-racist politics
  • Religion and post-colonial imaginings
  • The role of religion in reinforcing and/or challenging orientalizing discourses
  • Progressive religious traditions and their relation to empire
  • Conservative religious ideologies and their relation to empire

Please submit all paper proposals to Justin K.H. Tse at tse.justo@gmail.com no later than October 20, 2012 for consideration.

American Academy of Religion + Society of Biblical Literature, San Francisco, CA, 19-22 November 2011

This year, I am presenting two papers at the joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. It will take place from 19-22 November 2011 in San Francisco, CA at the Moscone Center and surrounding hotels.

Here are my abstracts.

For the American Academy of Religion:
Sunday, 20 September 2011, 3:00-4:30 PM.
Sponsored by the Asian North American Religion, Culture, and Society, our theme is: Evangelism, Education, and Leadership: Transnational Strategies and Local Adaptations in Asian North American Religious Communities.
Drawing from case studies of Evangelical Diasporic Chinese in Vancouver, Indo-Caribbean Hindu practices in New York City, and Japanese and European American Buddhists in Seattle, the papers in this interdisciplinary panel provide a comparative framework for considering ways that local Asian North American religious communities utilize cross-cultural and transnational strategies and frameworks in adapting to changing circumstances and traversing divisions shaped by generational, migration, ethnic, racial, and national boundaries. The papers also consider new challenges and tensions created by these strategies.

Courtney T. Goto, Boston University, Presiding
Russell Jeung, San Francisco State University, Discussant

Evangelism, Eternity, and the Everyday: Ambivalent Reconciliation in a Chinese Canadian Christian Church in Metro Vancouver, BC
Christian evangelism and proselytism has often been seen as a problematic form of religious imposition. Recent scholarship in religious studies, however, has been more ambivalent toward proselytization as they are caught between the tension of allowing religious duty while cognizant of colonial advances (Han 2009; Casanova 2010; Sturm and Dittmer 2010; Megoran 2010). This paper examines the grounded practice of Christian evangelism in a transnational Hongkonger church in Metro Vancouver in British Columbia through a nine-month congregational ethnography in 2008 that included 38 semi-structured interviews with 40 participants. First, evangelism is articulated as a strategy for eternal family togetherness that has created a demand for transnational speakers from Hong Kong at evangelistic meetings as well as a debate over the nature of second-generation English-speaking ministries. Second, Hongkongers practicing evangelism have unexpectedly found that this Christian practice breaks down everyday geopolitical barriers between themselves and new migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This paper thus portrays Christian proselytization as an ambivalent practice of intra-family and geopolitical reconciliation within a Chinese Canadian congregational context.

Other presentations in this session:
Michele Verma, Rice University
How Transnational Education Shapes Indo-Caribbean Hindu Traditions in the United States

Sharon Suh, Seattle University
New Euro-American Dharma Protectors: Jodoshinshu in Transition

For the Society of Biblical Literature:
Saturday, 19 November 2011, 5:30-7:00 PM, Hilton Hotel, Van Ness Room
Sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC), the session is entitled: ISAAC Fifth Anniversary Celebration.
As we prepare for the next five years of advocacy for the study of Asian American Christianity, we would like pause for a moment to reflect on our work. Please join us for our Fifth Anniversary Celebration in San Francisco two Saturdays from now.

America, Return to God? Chinese American Christian conservatives and Asian American Christianity
America, Return to God was a publication released by the Great Commission Center International in the late 2000s. Its premise was that the declining morality of American civil society, mainly in sexual practice, will lead to eschatological disaster for the nation. While praised by some evangelical leaders, it also garnered attention both in the secular press and among some Christians as what was perceived as a homophobic publication. What is seldom interrogated, however, is America, Return to God as a Chinese Christian missionary publication in the tradition of the Lausanne Movement. Such an analysis reveals a dilemma in Asian American Christianity by problematizing the conservative-progressive divide in these circles. This paper fills that gap in the literature. It argues that America, Return to God should be read as a Chinese evangelical compilation of American Christian articles on public morality as part of an effort to fulfill the Great Commission with social and cultural awareness of American issues. First, I perform a critical reading of America, Return to God, highlighting the theology of the nation at work in its articles. Second, I demonstrate that this publication is part of a Chinese Christian missionary effort on the part of its founder, Christian evangelical patriarch Thomas Wang, underscoring the integral role of Chinese Christians to global evangelical movements. Third, I reveal that America, Return to God presents Asian American Christianity with the dilemma of whether or not to allow conservative evangelical voices to speak for Asian American evangelicals. This paper advances Asian American Christian studies by beginning a conversation on how Asian American Christians have engaged America with their own particular theology of the nation.

Other presentations in this session:
Tim Tseng, ISAAC
ISAAC’s First Five Years

Book Announcements:
Young Lee Hertig, Fuller Theological Seminary, Mirrored Reflections: Reframing Biblical Characters (Wipf and Stock, 2010)

Russell Yee, Graduate Theological Union, Worship on the Way: Exploring Asian North American Christian Experience (Judson Press, 2012)

I welcome engagement on both of these papers and can be reached at jkhtse@interchange.ubc.ca.