Association of American Geographers, 9-13 April 2013: Los Angeles

I am right now at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. I’m mainly attending religion panels and meeting with lots of geographers, putting what I do in conversation with everyone else. You can find the rundown of geography of religion events here in the AAG’s religion newsletter.

I am presenting as part of a panel on Post-secular Spaces: Explorations Beyond Secular Theory and Research. It’s organized by two geographers at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Banu Gökariksel and Betsy Olson. Here’s the session description:

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches. This paper session hopes to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy.

My paper is on Friday, 12 April 2013, at 1 PM at the Pacific Ballroom Salon 3 in the LA Hotel, 3rd floor. It’s titled Cantonese Protestant Activism and Secular Geographies: religion, ethnicity, and the secularization thesis. Here’s the abstract:

Geographers of religion have long assumed that the resurgence of religious practice in contemporary spaces are signs of the vitality of religion, demonstrating the falsity of the secularization thesis.  Fieldwork that I conducted in 2011 and 2012 with 140 Cantonese-speaking Protestant key informants and 115 Cantonese-speaking Protestant focus group participants in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong would seem to indicate no different, for they have been active in advocating for traditional family values and offering social services to the poor through religious agencies.  While some might label these signs of post-secular geographies, I follow Wilford’s (2010) argument that geographies of religion need to be conceptualized in the context of secularization in the modern world.  I demonstrate that Cantonese Protestants active in the public sphere imagine their contributions as secular engagements, both espousing individualistic conceptions of the self and policing their activities as universally rational, not theological.  This paper advances the geography of religion by properly understanding such phenomena in the context of secular modernity while speaking to migration, ethnic, and political geographies by showing that new religious resurgences require modern contextual interpretations.

The reference to Justin Wilford in there is part of a broader discussion with his work that is most accessible in his book on Saddleback Church, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Go read it, if you haven’t.

The Annual Lecturer for the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group this year is Professor Ann Taves (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). It’s unfortunately at the same time as a panel for post-secular spaces organized by Gökariksel and Olson, but I will be at the Taves’s lecture and skip the panel. The lecture will be on Friday, 12 April 2013, from 4:40 – 6:20 PM at the Santa Barbara B, Westin, Lobby Level. It’s titled Mapping Significance: A Building Block Approach. Following the lecture, Adrian Ivakhiv (University of Vermont) will give a response via Skype. Ann Taves’s lecture abstract is here:

Ivakhiv (2006) has argued that religion and sacrality are unstable signifiers that should be studied as ways of distributing significance across geographic spaces and distinguishing between different kinds of significance.  To implement this agenda, we need to attend more carefully to the processes that work together to create a sense of significance.  A building block approach to significance would suggest the importance of at least three factors: setting apart, which marks things as non-ordinary; valuation, which ranks and orders them; and positioning, which situates them in relation to other things.  Examples will be used to illustrate the interplay of these factors, the contestations surrounding them, and thus the way that point of view constitutes such maps and makes them unstable.

Finally, everyone is welcome to the GORABS Business Meeting. This is from 7:30 – 8:30 PM in Santa Monica D at the Westin, Level 3. You can find an agenda on p. 46 in the GORABS newsletter.

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.

*UPDATED* CFP: AAG 2013: Post-secular spaces; ORIGINAL: CFP: AAG 2013: Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion

*UPDATE*
Betsy Olson (UNC Chapel Hill, Geography) and Banu Gokariksel (also UNC) have been in touch with me.  The themes set out in their CFP is so similar to mine that we might as well make it a joint effort.  I am now referring all interested persons in my original CFP to their paper session.  Here it is:

AAG Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013
Post-secular spaces: geographical explorations beyond secular theory and research

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches.

Our hope with this paper session is to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy. We would especially encourage contributions from scholars who don’t consider religion to be their central interest, but have perhaps been trying to explain religious influence upon economic, social or political practices. Papers might therefore be either historical or contemporary studies, and could address themes such as:

·      Religion and technologies of communication
·      Geopolitics in the secular age
·      Class and religion
·      Spirituality in social movements
·      Religion, labor and rights
·      Environmental ethics and spirituality
·      Law, secularism, and religion
·      Piety, embodiment, and the body
·      Secularism and public space
·      Religion and the economy
·      Feminism and the secular critique
·      Popular culture and religion

Please send your abstract of no more than 250 words to Betsy Olson (eaolson@email.unc.edu) and Banu Gökarıksel (banug@email.unc.edu )

MY ORIGINAL CFP:
Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion
Sponsored by the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group
AAG 2013: Call for Papers

Recent work in geographies of religion has suggested a need for the tenets of the subfield to be debated.  Lily Kong (2010) argues, for example, that not enough work has been done to examine the theological and metaphysical aspects of geographies of religion and to engage the interdisciplinary enterprise of religious studies.  An emerging topic of debate is secularization and whether or not emerging geographies of religion can be seen as post-secular spaces.  While Beaumont and Baker (2010) argue that cities with new configurations of faith-based organizations are developing new post-secular approaches to social activism, Kong (2010) cautions against this idea for its over-emphasis on European phenomena.  On the other hand, Justin Wilford (2011) argues that religious phenomena, while significant, need to be conceptualized as ‘sacred archipelagoes’ in a sea of secularity, for secularization has in fact affected all facets of modern religious practice.  The theoretical underpinnings of geographies of religion and its requisite attachments to the secularization thesis are thus currently under debate.

This session calls for papers that examine the theory and practice in geographies of religion in light of these debates.  Papers that will be submitted do not necessarily need to be completely theory-oriented papers; indeed, empirical studies that contribute to these theoretical debates, as well as papers that deal with theological and metaphysical issues, will both be strongly considered.  Suggested topics include:

  • Geographical studies that either support or refute the secularization thesis
  • Theological and metaphysical treatments of religious themes in geography
  • Post-secular cities
  • Faith-based organizations and their treatment of religion and the secular
  • Geographies of religious migration, with a theoretical treatment of religion and the secular
  • Interfaith geographies as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Positionality in the theory and practice of geographies of religion
  • Religious geopolitics as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Non-European geographies of religion and their relation to secular geographies
  • Feminist approaches to geographies of religion and the secularization thesis

Papers should be submitted to Justin K.H. Tse at tse.justo@gmail.com no latter than October 20, 2012 for submission to the AAG.

PhD Field Work: San Francisco Bay Area

I have been in the San Francisco Bay Area since 4 June 2011 and will be here until 19 July 2011.  I am continuing to conduct field work for my PhD project on Cantonese-speaking evangelicals, their conceptions of civil society, and their engagement in society and politics.

I am interested in the following things (although this list is by no means exhaustive):

  • Chinese Christian engagement in local neighborhood politics and social services, including advocacy for the marginalized, entrepreneurial work, and inter-Christian cooperation
  • Engagement with the perceived secularism of San Francisco
  • The issue of same-sex marriage and other family values politics (including anti-gambling activism)
  • Demographic shifts within Chinese Christian communities
  • Interactions between Chinese mainline Protestant groups and Chinese evangelical groups, including the similarities and differences of their engagement with society and politics
  • Chinatown Christian political and social activism
  • Activism around the 1989 Tiananmen incident
  • Comparisons among the City, the East Bay, and the South Bay
  • Engagement with American politics, especially self-identifications with Democrat and Republican
  • Engagement with the People’s Republic of China
If you’d like to be interviewed for this project or know of any leads related to these issues, please contact me at tse.justo@gmail.com or jkhtse@interchange.ubc.ca.

Religion and Society: a policy symposium on immigration, multiculturalism, and social change in Canada (Metropolis BC and Embrace BC)

On Wednesday, 2 February 2011, I had the pleasure of being the lead presenter on work done in collaboration among Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), Dr. David Ley (UBC Geography), and myself on Richmond’s No. 5 Road, otherwise known as the “Highway to Heaven” for its over-20 religious institutions on three big blocks of converted Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

The talk we chose to give was entitled: Talking infrastructure: another topic for interfaith dialogue on Richmond’s “Highway to Heaven.” I was the lead presenter.

Our main point was that because the “Highway to Heaven” lay on mostly newly-converted ALR, its lack of infrastructure often forced religious institutions to cooperate to get things built, often only as one-off projects.  We discussed three key issues.  The first was that while No. 5 Road has been portrayed as a miracle of interfaith cooperation (mostly in the sharing of parking lots), our research shows that there have been potentials for conflict, particularly within ethnic groups, although these clashes have also tended to be minor.  The second was a demonstration through the case of sewage lines that interfaith collaboration were often one-off projects and that failures and successes were usually not the product of theological or cosmological conflicts.  The third was that policy from the City of Richmond often had the unintended side effects of frustrating some religious practices, such as in the proposed Blundell Interchange onto Highway 99 or the requirement to farm the back third of the lots for tax exemption.

We got great feedback on this project.  People from the City of Richmond who were present were very receptive to our comments and are beginning to discuss with us more possibilities for collaboration to minimize those unintended policy side effects.  We have also begun to learn much more about the ALR as a result and are finding that rural and urban spaces really do matter for geographies of religion.  We also met many members of the Richmond community, including representatives from two interfaith organizations (one English-speaking, another Chinese), who encouraged us to do more thinking along the lines of theological reflection and interaction with the City as good neighbours.  We were very pleased with the turnout for the event and grateful for all the suggestions for our project, which is still a work in progress.

The PowerPoint should be available from Metropolis BC at some point, and I will keep you posted on when.

Other interesting talks of the day included talks by the co-organizers of the symposium, Paul Bramadat (University of Victoria, Centre for Studies in Religion and Society) and Meharoona Ghani (Embrace BC) on the necessity of a policy discussion of religion in a world where faith and politics are increasingly important, especially in British Columbia.  In our panel on Space, Place and the Sacred: Managing Religious Diversity in a Multicultural Society (chaired by Paul Bramadat), there were two colleagues whose work focused on the Greater Toronto Area as comparative sites for British Columbia: Heidi Hoernig (McGill University, Office of Research Services) and Sandeep Agrawal (Ryerson University, School of Urban and Regional Planning).  Another panel on projects from Embrace BC’s Interfaith Bridging Projects featured talks from Clare Whelan-Sadike (Embrace BC), Tahzeem Kassam (DIVERSECity, Surrey), Bruce Curtis (Community Justice Centre, Comox Valley), and Julie Papaioannou (CIC BC/Yukon).  The day was capped by an open discussion on post-secularism led by Paul Bramadat and Julie Drolet (Thompson Rivers University, Social Work), where much of the discussion focused on the need for education for religious literacy at all levels of schooling to address a multicultural, multi-religious society that is increasingly not following the patterns of secularization once prescribed for it in the 1960s and 1970s.

We are looking forward to a larger conversation that will happen at the Metropolis Canada conference to be held in March 2011.  Claire Dwyer and I are co-organizing a session on religion and migration, and our panel will include people from Embrace BC, the City of Richmond, and Richmond’s Interfaith Advisory Committee.