First as Sociology, Then as Geography: review essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion

510ehl2bf9nl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a review essay for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion entitled ‘First as Sociology, Then as Geography.’ It’s an essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s 2014 edited volume, New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion. As a 2000-word essay, it’s a bit longer than the average book review.

I had received the book during a coffee session with the Bulletin‘s editor Philip Tite. Among Tite’s many accomplishments, he has taught quite a number of courses at universities in Seattle, including at the University of Washington, and having met at a faculty meeting, we had coffee. He suggested that I review the book for the Bulletin, and as time passed, the book review became expanded into a ‘review essay,’ a long-form essay inspired by the book that simultaneously reviews it and expands on some of my thinking based on the book.

As the review essay will show, I learned quite a bit from the book about the shape of religious studies as a discipline. In fact, I found that one of the greatest insights from the book was that ‘religious studies,’ a field of study often disparaged as a hodgepodge collage of disciplines that takes as its focus a topic of study that is under crisis (‘what is religion?’ and increasingly ‘what is the secular?’), actually has a unitary disciplinary core that inquires into what ‘religion’ is and how it is constituted, with a disciplinary canon to boot. This ambitious edited volume attempts to recast that disciplinary canon away from the founding fathers of religious studies (who happen also to be the usual suspects in terms of the founders of social science writ large) in a New Age key.

It is this second move with which I take some issue. It’s not that I have some commitment to the original founding texts of modern religious studies. However, one of the points of agreement in this diverse volume was that at a sociological level, New Age spiritualities could be seen as becoming the new normal of how to do religion. This basic sociological point about new institutional religions fails to take seriously how this is also a geographical point – that this new sociology often is spatially exhibited by a certain class of middle-class workers trying to find inner peace through New Age spiritualities (a geography about which the authors themselves talk explicitly), and that reframing religion in this social geographic key would reinforce the stereotype that the entire discipline of religious studies is a factory for liberal bourgeois ideology.

It’s funny that I came to this while reading this book and writing this essay prior to taking the work of Slavoj Žižek seriously, even though the essay’s title certainly takes its inspiration from the title of Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (but if you read the essay, you’ll find that there isn’t really a serious engagement with Žižek, not even with First as Tragedy – there’s only a very, very brief reference to Žižek on ideology). By the end of the review essay, I found myself appealing to Marx to suggest that ‘New Age spiritualities’ may well be the new opiate of the masses. However, this is the same point that Žižek makes about ‘Buddhism,’ especially in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. You could say that I’m thankful to the authors of this book, as well as to Tite and the Bulletin, for the chance to get these new thoughts going through pondering such new moves in religious studies as a discipline, though I suspect that it was never anyone’s intention for me to become so critical. I think it’s safe to say that you can expect me to follow this line of thought in my upcoming work.

9780262740258

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.

Comprehensive Exams, 17-21 January 2011

Since 20 October 2010, I have been reading for comprehensive exams.

The PhD in Human Geography at the University of British Columbia requires three exams to be written in the second year of the PhD.  These three exams address three broad fields that will be addressed in the dissertation and that can serve as broad teaching areas for a future career in academia.

My exams are set for 17-21 January 2011.  I sit one exam for each of 17, 19, and 21 January.  These are written, take-home exams where I have to answer two questions about a broad field in human geography; the normal length of each answer is a 7-10 page literature review.  On the following week, I also sit a three-hour oral exam with my doctoral comprehensive exam committee.  Currently, my doctoral committee consists of: David Ley (UBC Geography), David Edgington (UBC Geography), Henry Yu (UBC History), and Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography).

The rumour has gone around UBC that the Geography exams are among the most difficult in the Faculty of Graduate Studies.  I cannot confirm the truth of this rumour, but what I can say is that it is simultaneously difficult and rewarding.  The aim of these exams is to give a broad understanding of the field and to invite interdisciplinary approaches to the subject matter (which only goes to show how interdisciplinary Geography is as a discipline!).

The three fields I will sit are as follows:

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #1:
GEOGRAPHIES OF RELIGION, SECULARISM AND SOCIAL THEORY

  • “Old” and “New” Cultural Geographies of Religion (the “old” refers to the Berkeley school of cultural geography led by Carl Sauer, the “new” to Jim Duncan’s turn toward process in the politics of placemaking)
  • Theories of religion
  • Anthropological and sociological approaches to religion
  • Political constructions of secularity
  • Islam and the West: liberal, feminist, and ethnographic approaches
  • Religion and transnational migration
  • Congregational studies (i.e. R. Stephen Warner’s “new paradigm”)

Major thinkers I address in this list include a diverse range: Wilbur Zelinsky, David E. Sopher, Lily Kong, Reinhard Henkel, Peter E. Hopkins, David Ley, Claire Dwyer, Kevin Dunn, Banu Gokariksel, Philip Kelly, Paul Bramadat, R. Stephen Warner, Helen Rose Ebaugh, Janet Chafetz, Peggy Levitt, Steven Vertovec, Peter Berger, Harvey Cox, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Clifford Geertz, William James, Rudolf Otto, Karl Marx, Rodney Stark, Max Weber, Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Charles Taylor.

While religion is the major focus of the list, such a diversity of sources also enables a broader address of the following in future research and teaching:

  • social and cultural geography
  • intellectual histories of the social sciences
  • multiculturalism and migration studies

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #2:
PACIFIC WORLDS IN MOTION: ASIAN MIGRATIONS AND GEOGRAPHIES OF MIGRATION AND ETHNICITY

  • Theories of international migration
  • The “mobilities” paradigm (John Urry)
  • Multicultural theory and policy
  • Labour migrations
  • Transnational migration studies
  • Second-generation issues
  • Asian American studies
  • Race theory and race studies
  • Asian Canadian studies
  • Pacific Rim studies

Major thinkers I address include: Stephen Castles, Mark J. Miller, Catherine Bretell, James Frank Hollifield, Nancy Foner, John Urry, Ghassan Hage, Robert Putnam, Brenda Yeoh, Katie Willis, Christian Joppke, David Ley, Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, Christina Szanton Blanc, Elaine Ho, Peggy Levitt, Mary C. Waters, Aihwa Ong, Ien Ang, Laurence Ma, Carolyn Cartier, Ronald Takaki, Glenn Omatsu, Sucheng Chan, Lisa Lowe, Jack Tchen, Robert G. Lee, Henry Yu, Helen Zia, Kay Anderson, Dorothy Fujita-Rony, Madeline Hsu, Alexander Saxton, Judy Yung, Peter Ward, Patricia Roy, Charles A. Price, Eiichiro Azuma, Carlos Bulosan, Yen Le Espiritu, Vijay Prashad, Chris Lee, and Peter Li.

While Pacific migrations and ethnicities are the major foci of the list, this list also enables me to address the following in future research and teaching:

  • Globalization theory
  • Citizenship in theory and practice
  • Global economics and geopolitics
  • Theories of social and cultural capital
  • Race and ethnic politics

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #3
CITIES IN THE ASIA-PACIFIC: HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES

  • Asian cities in global and regional contexts
  • Colonial and post-colonial cities
  • Global cities/world cities
  • Pacific Rim studies
  • Cities and the welfare state in post-colonial Asia
  • Cities and the neoliberal state in post-colonial Asia
  • Convergence/divergence theory (e.g. Terry McGee’s desakota model)
  • Garden cities and urban utopias
  • Sustainable cities
  • Rural-urban relations and migrations
  • Labour in Asian cities
  • Urban development in Asia

Major thinkers I address are: Terry McGee, David Edgington, W.B. Kim, Anthony King, Fucheng Lo, Peter Marcotullio, Karen Y.P. Lai, Saskia Sassen, Brenda Yeoh, Fulong Wu, S.O. Park, Ryan Bishop, Abidin Kusno, Laurence Ma, Kris Olds, Manuel Castells, H.W. Dick, P.J. Rimmer, Michael Douglass, G.L. Ooi, John Gugler, Jonathan Rigg, Andrew Sorenson, and Dean Forbes.

Though the list focuses on Asian cities in particular, broader areas for future writing and teaching include:

  • Comparative Asian, North American, and European cities
  • Migrant labour
  • Pacific and Pacific Rim studies
  • Urban sustainability
  • Theories of “orientalism”
  • Colonial and post-colonial studies
  • State politics: welfare and neoliberal models

So now…it’s back to reading!  The labour is rewarding, the knowledge both intellectually stimulating and relevant to the contemporary situation.