I have not written for a while, and I suspect that some might be glad about that. Some of my astute readers have never ceased to point out the gaps in my knowledge of the Eastern churches, some have even exhorted me to stop writing for fear of harming the Church with my ignorance, and one has even unfriended me on Facebook after discovering me calling myself an ‘evangelical’ and anxiously pointed out that the fount of all knowledge – Wikipedia – says that evangelicals must be Protestants. Now, of course, I will have to explain what I mean by ‘evangelical,’ and probably should, in light of the madness of this election.
All that is to say that it is not for want of material that I have not blogged for a while, but for lack of time. Our fall quarter at Northwestern is now into its fourth week, deadlines for this paper and that application beset me on all sides, and students and colleagues engage me in such productive conversations that I find myself doing what I should be doing (being a scholar of Asian American studies) and not overdoing a fun hobby (blogging here). That is likely a good thing: in concrete terms, students want their research proposals graded by tomorrow in order to have comments for the next phase of their projects, a journal editor wants a paper on Chinese Anglicanism by Friday, an application is due on Saturday, and there is a conference on Critical Geography that I’ll be attending on Saturday as well at the University of Kentucky.
What this means is that my blog is severely backlogged. The Hong Kong Umbrella Movement’s anniversary came and went on September 28, and despite having a new book out on it, I haven’t had time to make some remarks about how much my personal solidarity with participants in the events of 2014 in Hong Kong shaped my journey into Eastern Catholicism. I also attended the consecration of St Elias Church in Brampton on the weekend of September 30-2 October, and – together with being able to be back at the Eastern Catholic Church in Richmond the next weekend – came away refreshed and convinced that I was not crazy to have become Eastern Catholic earlier this year, despite my upbringing in evangelical and charismatic circles. I have also not yet been able to put up a fourth entry from my student Eugenia Geisel in her series ‘Retracing My Steps in the City of Saints,’ continuing her reflections on World Youth Day – not because it needs to be edited, but because I have not yet even been able to read it yet. Finally, I have come up amazingly short on my series on the icons in my Asian American office.
I could ask for forgiveness, but my überdox and rad trad critics would perhaps grant me absolution too quickly.
Instead, the other confession that I have to make is that, like most people I know, my every waking consciousness seems to be being consumed by the elections in the United States. Part of this is because I have discovered that the claim that social media narrows down one’s field of ideological interactions is patently false. Not only is my news feed cluttered with simultaneous denunciations and apologetics for both Drumpf and Hillary (with some mockery for Gary Johnson and the occasional article on Jill Stein), but the comment boxes of my very own posts on the election have been the site of some remarkably funny-and-terrifying conversations as well as some even more remarkable trolling, usually from Drumpf supporters who oddly enough happen to be Chinese evangelicals living in Vancouver where they cannot vote in this upcoming election. I do not support Donald Drumpf for president, but it turns out that there are some in Canada who do.
I was going to write a short greeting post titled ‘Glory to Jesus Christ!’ titled after this beautiful Eastern greeting to simply greet my readers and tell you about my backlog, but the tenor of these remarkable conversations has tilted my reflections in perhaps a more ‘political’ direction, though there is certainly nothing apolitical about a Patriarch showing up for a temple consecration, World Youth Day, and icons, not to mention the Umbrella Movement.
I feel, of course, that I do not have much more to say that my colleagues here on Patheos Catholic have not already said. My editor Sam Rocha has a tremendous piece on the ‘new moral minority’ that is truly going to lose him the last political friend he ever had for the best reasons ever (good thing I was never his political friend – I’m just a friend), Artur Rosman has posted a devastating exposé of Priests for Life’s support for Drumpf, Mary Pezzulo at Steel Magnificat has weighed in with powerful pieces reflecting on her own personal experience of sexual assault over against certain Catholic apologists aligned with the Right, and Keith Michael Estrada has written a brilliant exegesis of the Wikileaked Podesta emails that expose more about the Clinton campaign’s profound lack of ignorance of the Catholic Church than its nefarious plot to enact a ‘Catholic Spring.’
I too have an itch to write about the elections, and I suspect that part of it is that I’m supposed to be some kind of expert about them. I am, after all, teaching a course on Comparative Minority Conservatisms at Northwestern’s Asian American Studies Program, which means that I am all ideologically mixed up by teaching about the Right in a program that positions itself on the Left. I also wrote a dissertation – which means that I have much more forthcoming academic work – on Cantonese-speaking Protestants and their engagements with the civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong, and that meant that I was often interviewing folks who positioned themselves on the Right in terms of sexuality, market-based economic advancement, and playing within the bounds of a corporatized establishment. Shortly before moving my blog to Patheos, I also started writing on my own experience of growing up conservative and am sorry that I haven’t yet finished it. As I perhaps hinted in a recent post, I’d probably have to position myself on the Left, although my Christian orthodoxy likely makes a heretic of me in that camp; if you want to know what I think of the recently published Tradinista manifesto, my complaint about it is that it is so over-the-top Latin/Thomistic that I don’t know if Eastern Catholic persons get to play.
All that’s to say that perhaps I feel a responsibility as some kind of academic ‘authority’ to make a public comment on the elections, but I haven’t written for so long that I feel like the ambulance has passed me a long time ago and there’s no use chasing it.
It would be cliché to make the overdone claim that ‘expertise’ is overrated, though the first book that I read in graduate school was in fact Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts, which excoriates the technocratic hubris that goes into making ‘experts.’ But I think I might have something else to say, and it’s that if my readings and interactions about this election are telling me anything, it is that nobody is listening to the endorsements of the experts and authorities.
The Washington Post has recently pointed out that there is not a single major editorial board in the United States that has endorsed Donald Drumpf for President. The recently leaked audio of Drumpf making comments to Billy Bush about his prerogative as a star to perpetrate sexual assault on anyone he desires has evangelicals in full tail-spin, not least theologian Wayne Grudem, whose earlier embarrassing endorsement of Drumpf as the only moral choice for evangelicals led to the penning of a strongly-worded millennial manifesto on the death of evangelicalism in our generation. Republican politicians have been forced to either defend the impossible (like Mike Pence) or abandon their own candidate (like Paul Ryan), and the only thing that can explain why the Clinton campaign has not been able to fully capitalize on the devastation can be found in yet another leaked email, this one from Colin Powell: ‘Everything HRC touches she kind of ruins with hubris.’
Nobody cares, or at least that’s how it feels to me. Yesterday morning, I posted an editorial in WORLD Magazine by the Marvin Olasky of The Tragedy of American Compassion-fame. Perhaps Chinese evangelical readers in Vancouver are unfamiliar with Olasky’s prescriptions for dismantling the welfare state, but somehow the comment thread on my timeline went from one to two to three to four pro-Drumpf pieces from a guy I hadn’t heard from for ten years, and then turned into a shouting match between Chinese evangelical Drumpf apologists and other Christians excoriating him. There was no sense in appealing to Ryan, Grudem, and Olasky in the ensuing melée; the only source that I ended up quoting was Disney’s Mulan when an anti-Drumpf critic told a Drumpf apologist to be a man (it was not the other way around).
If this scenario doesn’t sound unfamiliar, it’s because it’s all too familiar. Don’t read the comments, my colleagues at Patheos Catholic told me when I started; perhaps their advice even applies to Facebook.
And yet, there is something to be said about these comment boxes, places where people throw off all pretension to respectability and scorn the elites, where you can finally have an opinion that’s different from the endorsements of major newspapers, religious figures, and celebrity politicians.
This is indeed the age of Occupy. I am well aware of the possibility of intellectual suicide for associating Occupy with the politics of the Tea Party and its complete opposition to the welfare state fuelled by white resentment, for whereas the Tea Party gave the semblance of organic populism while being run by corporate elites and media moguls, the glory of Occupy was its anarchy. But I think it might work because multitudes are messy.
As the senior scholar who wrote the foreword of my edited book, Kwok Pui Lan, puts it in her co-authored book with Joerg Rieger, Occupy Religion: The Theology of the Multitude, Occupy signals the coming reign of the multitude. Using the work of critical theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book Empire, Kwok and Rieger say that the power of movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring that preceded it, and the occupy protests that followed from it was that it unleashed the power of the ‘multitude’ over against the ’empire,’ a diffuse network of establishments colonizing the world. People – the laos in Greek, the word from which we get the word laity, the people of God in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium – are opting for leaderless movements (they say) with ideologies of radical equality, breaking down old hierarchies and building a society where every person has a voice.
I am not evaluating occupy movements here – in fact, studying some of the contemporary occupy movements is occupying most of my time now when I’m working on my second project, the one that will hopefully get me a permanent faculty position someday – but I am saying that for better or worse, the multitude is the new normal in our contemporary consciousness, regardless of whether or not they are materially so. The trouble is that the phenomenology of the multitude might not be turning out to be as liberating as Hardt and Negri, Kwok and Rieger, have it. The multitude may not care about the Empire’s establishments, but in some ways, this is because they are more faithful to the project of these establishments than the establishments themselves – faithful to a global market that determines who wins and who dies, faithful to a movement that accuses the Left of sacrificing the unborn for life while sacrificing life for the sake of the unborn, faithful to a vision of government that sees law as obstruction and regulation as a noose. Warn the multitude as movement conservatives might now, but nobody is listening. Who knew that the Tea Party’s pretences to anarchy could give rise to actual anarchism on the Right, an ideology that (at least as Edmund Burke conceived of it) is supposed to be the furthest thing from an anarchic polity? (Kabaservice did, it looks like.)
How do we write in such a world? I am told that I have the responsibility to write because now I have a platform or two, but who am I kidding? This is an age when conservatives are among the loudest voices calling for the conservation of the multitude; the fact that I have a platform means that I am no longer an insurgent.
Ever since I started this blog, I have been discussing it with my spiritual father. At first, he was skeptical, not because I didn’t know my stuff (he tells me he takes personal offence when my astute readers insinuate that I am ignorant of Byzantine things because – as he says – it impugns his catechesis, as he was also my catechist), but because of all the things I discussed at the beginning of this post – do I have time for it?
But lately, he has been singing a different tune. He tells me that he sometimes recommends my blog for others to read because it contains less theological disputation and more spiritual reflection. He says that that puts him in a prayerful space. He encourages me to write devotionally when I have time, an approach with which I think my channel editor would also be pleased.
This has helped me to think about what I am doing as I write – indeed, what I am doing as an academic in an age where the multitude, for better or worse, has become ideologically normative even for conservatives (and this, despite the non-ecclesial shadow hierarchies that exist in our age). It turns out that in the process of writing, I’ve been exploring simply what it means to keep a ‘web-log,’ a log of my thoughts as a person as I explore this big Eastern Catholic house, to read it alongside the world as best as I can. I don’t think I’ve written much with authority, let alone expertise. I think this attitude is seeping into my research and teaching as well, and I confess that I might even like it.
There is, after all, an element of reality in accepting my place as part of the multitude. Whatever I might think about how Pseudo-Dionysius’s mystical ascent by negation radically undercuts the pretensions of radical ideologies to abolish all hierarchies, the fact is that I am indeed just part of the people as a lay person. Especially as I blog about being an Eastern Catholic person, the only place from which I can write is as one among the laos. I am not even a ‘representative’ of Eastern Catholicism on Patheos; I write among giants like Chase Padusniak, Henry Karlson, and Mary and Michael Pezzulo. I am only a person.
This last weekend, I was just back at the Eastern Catholic temple where I was chrismated in June; the weekend before that, I was at the consecration of St Elias Church. I saw my spiritual father at both weekends, and he told me as we talked at St Elias that he had started making a chotki – a prayer rope – for me to wear around my wrist. In fact, I got to watch him make part of it as we hung out between services, carefully tying knots together until he had 33; it appeared that keeping track of how many he had made was the most difficult part.
Last weekend, I came back to the temple, and the bishop decided to show up with a newly ordained deacon – in fact, a deacon who had given my spiritual father tips for making a chotki. They decided to leave the chotki on the holy table for the Divine Liturgy, and then before blessing the people, the bishop took the chotki down to the tetrapod and blessed it with holy water, and then he brought it to where I was standing, personally presented it to me, and blessed me.
There’s something about this chotki that has inspired me to write again, both here and in my real work. After all, there’s nothing to take care of imposter syndrome like repeating ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of G-d, have mercy on me, a sinner’ hundreds of times (I am not at The Way of a Pilgrim‘s thousands yet). There is no need to pretend that I am a sinner; I am one, and all I seek in the Eastern Catholic church of which I am part is the Lord’s mercy.
To not have to pretend to be any more than a person has been incredibly liberating. It frees me from the delusion that I have to be some kind of expert authority that no one will read and everyone will reject. If I remain unread and rejected, it will have less to do with my competence and more because there are probably more colorful sinners out there to read. Best of all, I don’t think anybody cares about my endorsement for this election, which is probably good because then I’ll actually get to write about it. This reminds me that I also owe my readers a reading of Tim Kaine along the lines of what I provided for Ivanka Drumpf a few months ago.
That is all to say that I think I’m going to start writing again. I also have Eugenia‘s posts to publish. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of G-d, have mercy on me, a sinner.