Friday, November 25, 2022

Postcolonial Politics and Theology

I began to conceive the book Postcolonial Politics and Theology: Unraveling Empire for the Global World during the 2019 Hong Kong protests, the global Black Lives Matter movement, and the COVID pandemic. I asked what a postcolonial theologian had to say in a time like ours. I gathered pieces of my writing in the last decade or so to discern if there was a pattern of thought that would be useful for our time. For me, writing is a witness to history—my personal history as well as the history of the world around me.

At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Denver, Colorado, in November, there was a panel devoted to my book. I am very grateful to Traci C. West, Miguel De La Torre, Nami Kim, and Melinda A. McGrarrah-Sharp for their remarks and questions. I have learned so much from each of them through the years and treasure their friendship and critical engagement with my work.

As I look back on my work in the past decade, I notice several changes. I have engaged decolonial thought more intentionally than before. This is partly due to my dialogue with colleagues in Brazil and South Africa, who are developing decolonial religious thought in their contexts. As a result, I have read beyond Spivak and Bhabha and learned more about postcolonial history, economics, and political sciences.

When I started to learn about postcolonial theory in the mid-1990s, China had begun its reform and liberalization. Today, China has become the world’s second-largest economy and China-U.S competition has a worldwide impact. Postcolonial studies needs to scrutinize the so-called “peaceful rise” of China and the ways many countries have been forced to ally with one superpower or the other.

I have also learned from practical theologians, and so the book includes discussion on practices: protest, teaching, preaching, peacebuilding, and planetary mission. Postcolonial theology needs to incarnate in the churches and the wider community if it is to make difference, and not remains an academic exercise.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak talked about “sanctioned ignorance,” when she critiqued the biased white episteme and curriculum. But nowadays, I understand “sanctioned ignorance” to mean also the ignorance of racial and ethnic minority groups about each other’s history and resistance movements. Each group would focus on its own struggles against the white-dominant world and knowledge system, without making connections with other minorities or oppressed groups.

Several panelists raised the question of how to teach to promote the decolonization of theological education. One of the ways I have tried is to promote global awareness because many American students tend to place U.S. history and politics at the center. When we discuss racism in the U.S., we need to connect this with the historical context of colonialism and global racism.

As teachers, we have to resist participating in the disciplining and domesticating of students’ minds. What do we count as theory? Do students need to learn Derrida, Foucault, Agamben, Butler, etc. to be theoretically proficient? When supervising doctoral students, what kind of theoretical frameworks do we want them to follow or develop? Can they find jobs if they don’t cite these known figures?

It is not that these theorists are not helpful. But if we continue to privilege “western” theory, where is our creative edge? Why do we assume that the reality of the majority of the world will be illuminated by scholars whose interests and preoccupations come from different contexts? In other words, do we repeat the mistake of seeing “western” scholarship as universal, which can be applied context-free?

De La Torre has counted that there were fifty-three sessions at the annual meeting related to colonialism or postcolonialism. He raised the concern whether this mainstreaming of postcolonial studies in the academy would lead to its losing its subversive or activist edge. He noted that when liberation theology began to gain traction in the academy, it lost its close connection with social movements for change.

I have also noticed that in recent years, there has been increasing engagement with decolonial or postcolonial theory by religion scholars of different traditions. In last year’s annual meeting, there was a session with a lively discussion on decolonizing the teaching of religious studies. Given the long history of colonial influences on the study of religion, I welcome this self-critical scrutiny of the ways we teach and study. The transformation of the field will hopefully lead to more organic knowledge of the religious practices of the oppressed and not just the elites.

While working on the book, I became keenly aware that we need more work on political theology from the Asia Pacific. With Lester Ruiz, I co-convened a group of Asian and Asian American scholars from many different countries to discuss this topic for about three years. We are going to publish a book based on our Zoom conversations that are transpacific, interdisciplinary, and interreligious. Political theology will not be the same if we shift our gaze from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which is long overdue.

(Adapted from a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion on November 19, 2022) 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Gutierrez Signed My book “In the Same Option”


In the 1970s, I was introduced to A Theology of Liberation by my professors when I studied theology in college in Hong Kong. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Spanish version of the book.

The 1970s was a time of protests among students in many parts of the world. In Hong Kong, students took to the streets to demonstrate against government corruption and colonial rule. Gutierrez’s theology of liberation spoke to the situation much better than the books of those European theologians I read, such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillich.

A Theology of Liberation begins with a critique of the theological enterprise. It offers a new definition of theology as critical reflection of praxis. Reflection cannot exist without praxis. But praxis also needs the aid of critical reflection. The book helps me fathom the vocation of a theologian, because Gutierrez is someone steeped in the Christian theological tradition who cares about the suffering of the non-person.

The 1970s was the period when contextual theology began in Asia. Taiwanese theological educator Shoki Coe coined the term “contextualizing theology.” There was a conscious attempt to develop theology relevant to the socio-political changes happening in many Asian countries. Various Asian theological movements, such as Minjung Theology in South Korea, Homeland Theology in Taiwan, and Theology of Struggle in the Philippines, emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Similar to Gutiérrez’s work, Asian contextual theologies began with critical analyses of the socio-political contexts. But except in the Philippines, Asian countries have not been shaped by the Christian tradition. Thus, the kind of living theology emerging from Asia could not rely on the Christian paradigm alone but had to take into consideration religious and cultural elements of Asian peoples. It was eye-opening for me to see that Asian mask dance, poems of dissidents, folk idioms, stories, protest songs, and shamanistic practices found their way into theologizing for the first time.

In An Asian Theology of Liberation, the Sri Lankan theologian Aloysius Pieris writes, “The irruption of the Third World is also the irruption of the non-Christian world. The vast majority of God's poor perceive their ultimate concern and symbolize their struggle for liberation in the idiom of non-Christian religions and cultures.”* Pieris argues that Jesus needs to be baptized not only in Jordan but also in the Ganges and other Asian rivers.

As Latin American theologians paid more attention to popular religiosity and the religious heritages of black and indigenous peoples in the continent, they opened new avenues of dialogue with Asian and African theologians. Gutierrez has also expanded his views on the culture and religiosity of the poor. As Maria Clara Bingemer points out, in the new Brazilian edition of his theology of liberation published in 2000, Gutierrez wrote a long preface and emphasized the importance of dialogue with African and Asian theologies. He acknowledged the fact of religious pluralism and the emergence of interreligious dialogue as challenges of our time.**

Even though Gutierrez’s book emphasizes the preferential option for the poor, there is no analysis about gender and sexuality in the examination of dependence theory and the proposed liberation project. In 1981, Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye calls the emergence of third world women’s theology “irruption within the irruption.” This irruption has given rise to various women’s theological movements in the two-thirds world. They argue that we need to pay attention to the ways patriarchy intersects with poverty, militarism, gender and sexual violence, and political discrimination.

In the last two decades I have worked in postcolonial theology. What I found missing in A Theology of Liberation is a more nuanced analysis of the subjecthood of the poor and the colonized. Influenced by Marxism, the book has a rather homogenous and flat description of the poor. Many have pointed out that the poor need to be examined through the critical lenses of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and culture. Postcolonial theory opens up a space to interrogate the construction of colonial and postcolonial subject. It asks, what decolonization process would enable a postcolonial or a politically engaged poor subject to be formed.

I have been keenly aware of the cooptation and collaboration of the colonized in the colonial project. I have found that a binary and clear distinction between the colonizers and the colonized is less than satisfactory, for it does not speak to the ambivalence and mimicry of the colonial subject. The poor and the colonized can’t be the subjects of history without going through a decolonial process. For the colonial system would not have been sustained for so long without the complicity and collaboration of the colonial subject willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously.  

I also find that the paradigm of liberation theology can be over-determined if it is not open to critique. The paradigm starts with social analysis of oppression—be it class, race, gender, and sexuality—and then Jesus Christ is seen as the liberator of all from suffering and exploitation. Jesus can be seen as identifying with the suffering people or as the savior who intervenes in human history. As the late Marcella Althaus-Reid has pointed out, Gutierrez has included the poor as theological subject, but his theology is still traditional in the sense that it continues to work within the existing paradigm. 

As we think about the future of liberation theology, what kind of questions do we need to ask? As we have entered the Anthropocene age, in which human activities have significant impact on the planet's climate and ecosystems, churches and faith communities have important roles to play to transform moral values, change consumerist patterns, advocate policy changes, foster international cooperation, and shape a green culture. Leonardo Boff and other liberation theologians have already linked ecological degradation with liberation. We need to shift our anthropocentric model in theology to a much more complex and expansive planetary model. This means we can't talk about equality, human rights, and social justice, with taking seriously our collective responsibility as humans to the nonhuman species and our roles in the evolutionary processes of the planet. 

As a theologian of Chinese background, I also ponder how the rise of China has impacted my response to the book and what kind of future I imagine. When Gutierrez wrote the book, the cold war was raging. Today, we witness a new cold war between China and the US. Much to the chagrin of Gutierrez, his theology will be considered orthodoxy in China for China has been waging a war against Western imperialism for a long time. The change of China from Communism to state capitalism raises the question of what happens after the social revolution?

Today, it is no longer dependency or developmentalism, but the forces of globalization and neoliberal economy that are shaping the world. President Joseph Biden talked to President Xi Jinping of China recently and decoupling between the two biggest economies in the world will not be easy. We need to think about political theology in Asia Pacific that takes into consideration the contestation of two empires with different cultural, religious, and political outlooks. This comparative political theology needs to look beyond Western Christianity to widen its critique of religious and political ideologies shaping world politics.

For fifty years, A Theology of Liberation has challenged us to think about the nature and scope of theology and the vocation of a theologian. This challenge remains. I brought my copy of A Theology of Liberation across the Pacific when I moved. In 2000 when I met Gutierrez while speaking at a conference in honor of him, he signed my book “To Pui Lan, In the same option.” It was in reading Gutierrez’s work in college that I became who I am as a theologian today. And I know doing theology is a commitment and a vocation.

*Aloysius Pieris, An Asian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 87.

**Maria Clara Bingemer, Latin American Theology: Roots and Branches (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), 113.

(Adapted from a presentation at the session “Fifty Years of Teología de la Liberación—Examining Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Influence and the Task of the Liberation of Theology,” at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, November 19, 2021)

Saturday, September 11, 2021

God /Terror and 9/11


What is the significance of discussing Volker Kuster’s book
God /Terror: Ethics and Aesthetics in Contexts of Conflict and Reconciliation today on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11? For me the significance is that we gather to remember, to make sense, and to search for meaning.

Two unforgettable images stand out for me on this day. One was people jumping to their death from the Twin Towers on 9/11. The image elicited the feeling of terror and horror. The second image was the image of two children I saw on TV, a boy and a girl, at the Kabal airport last August, waiting and not knowing what would happen to them and their families in the US evacuation from Afghanistan. I saw terror and horror in their eyes.

On this twentieth anniversary, what have we learned as the human community? What have we not learned? How might we learn anew and again? Kuster’s book helps us to remember, to look forward by looking back.

The book records Kuster’s intense dialogues with artists—painters, installers of memorials and museums, novelists, and writers—to search for meaning and to search for what is possible.

For indeed when language reaches its limits, when we are at a loss of words, we turn to the artists among us. When theodicy seems to fail, when all sorts of theological gymnastics seem to lack the power to explain, to make sense, we ask those who can see, who can still feel, who can come up with shattering beauty in the midst of terror to guide us.

The book speaks of an aesthetic turn in theology. What does it mean to turn to aesthetics to make sense of theology? In what sense is theology aesthetic? On the one hand, What is it about the aesthetic that can turn theological thought? On the other, what is it about aesthetic that theology itself may turn on it?

With numerous images, Kuster’s book is divided into two parts. The first part is “Terror, War and Violence: God Talk in the Memory of 9/11.” The second part is “Guilt, Reconciliation, Grace: God Talk in the Political Conflicts in Germany, South Korea, and South Africa.” The second part is a contrapuntal reading of the first part. The first part has a section on the “conflicting images of God”; the second juxtaposes this with “in conflict with God.” This juxtaposition reminds us of the fact that God/Terror is not only found in one locale, in 9/11, but also in pivotal moments in other histories and timelines.

The book has some of the most striking images depicting terror and horror, the absurdity of life, and tragic memories of history. The aesthetics in the book deconstructs the classical understanding of aesthetics as the study of beauty and taste. Rather, as Volker writes, “The strenuous reconstruction of the relation between aesthetic and ethics is not about an aesthetization of suffering in the sense of its glorification but about its disclosure, its treatment and the preservation of memory” (p. 73).

The book raises the question of how we can bring art in dialogue with Christian theology. Kuster challenges the boundary between the secular and the sacred. He discerns religious meanings in “secular” art and culture. The artworks in the book reveal life and death. Christianity talks about suffering, healing, reconciliation, the cross, and resurrection.

But we have to avoid superimposing a Christian framework on art. We need to ask, How might art reveal and challenge us to think about and reconstruct Christian symbols in new ways.

I want to use two paintings in the book to illustrate. The South Korean artist Hong Song-Dam (b. 1955) depicts a woman’s violated body in a pool of blood in a woodcut titled “Blood and Tears 7.” Women were raped and brutally killed during the Kwangju massacre in 1980. The image of the suffering woman’s body requires us to think about why Christianity has focused on male suffering to the neglect of women’s suffering.

The other image is from Hong’s oil paintings in the series “The Twenty Days in Water” (8 pieces, 1999). The series depicts the agony of a political prisoner who is tortured. The torturers tie him on a chair and presses his head under water. The following painting portrays his close to death experience: imagining that he has grown fins and swims with a fish forming like a yin-yang symbol. While Christians have talked about resurrection, this artwork offers another idea: metamorphosis. How might metamorphosis challenge or supplement our understanding of resurrection?

I am grateful to Kuster, whose dialogue with arts helps us remember the burden of history, the burden of memory.

·        Presented at an international panel on September 11, 2021, for the launching of the book.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Minor Feelings and Asian American Identity

I have seldom read a book that has caused me to pause so many times to reflect on my life as a racial minority in the United States. This is the reason I appreciate Minor Feelings by Korean American award-winning poet Cathy Park Hong.*

Several days ago, my spouse and I went to a supermarket to buy groceries. To space out the customers because of Covid-19, the store put red tapes 6 feet apart in the checkout lane. As my spouse lined up to pay for the groceries, the white woman in front of him demanded that he moved back several steps further to about 9 feet behind her. Did she do this because he is Asian?

This incident reminded me of the “minor feelings” Hong describes in her book: “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed” (p. 55).

Hong grew up in California with immigrant parents, who have worked hard so that their children would have better lives. Her book is not a coming of age story or a story about survival and self-determination. It is an honest reckoning of the psychic life of an Asian American woman struggling to gain her voice when racial identity can box one in.

Hong does not mince words when talking about Asian Americans’ habit of seeking white approval. Before reading the book, I knew that it is not easy to be a poet. But I didn’t know that a poet needs to win prizes and fellowships and be validated by (white) prestigious institutions to make a living or get a teaching position. Yet Hong is tired of writing her life script using the alphabets provided by the white world.

Her ruthless honesty makes her Asian American readers ponder the prices we have paid (or are willing to pay) to be “successful” in a white dominated world. What makes Asian Americans willing to be “the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world” as Hong says? Why do we step on each other to become cogs in the money-making machine?

It is difficult to live with the ambivalence, if not self-hatred, one feels about oneself. Hong writes, “Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. Who let in all the Asians? you rant in your head.” (pp. 9-10).

We are hard on other Asians: we cringe when we hear other Asians speak with an accent or make grammatical mistakes; we frown when we see an Asian woman too fat or wear a dress too short; we burn with envy when our Asian friend gets a coveted fellowship or award.

Hong is merciless in shredding the “model minority” myth. I am surprised and impressed by her willingness to air dirty laundry in the open and pay little attention to cultural taboos. Her mother beat her and her sister. Her father learned to speak in a pleasing way to his customers and clients. In graduate school, she thought writing about Asian identity is “juvenile” and uncool. While many revere the pioneering Korean American author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the author of Dictee, Hong traces the story of Cha’s rape and murder. Filial piety is a cardinal virtue for Koreans, but Hong makes no secret of the burden of having to feel indebted to one’s parents all the time.

Living with contradictions and pulled from all sides, Hong finds solace in poetry and literature. The poetic form allows her to conjure up worlds by stretching language to its limits. She introduces me to many authors I have not known before. She pays attention to how narratives illumine realities and fashion lives. In doing so, she invites theologians and religious scholars to be keenly aware of how religious narratives shape our worldviews and aid or hinder our meaning-making process.

Minor feelings is not an easy read. The book elicits many mixed feelings but does not offer any easy resolution. The best thing from reading the book is that it allows you to feel messy, less perfect, anguish, complicit, and not always in control. It is OK to have these minor feelings because relationships are so racialized and we are constantly conscripted to serve the white world. In reckoning these minor feelings, we can better comprehend the depth of precariousness of the lives of racial minorities, despite appearing successful in the eyes of the outside world. It is only then that the long process of racial empowerment and healing can begin.

*Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (New York: Random House, 2020) Kindle edition

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Sino-American Relations

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to look at the world we live in and the global forces that are shaping it. Joerg Rieger, Distinguished Professor of Theology and Director of the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt University, points out that the U.S. is ill-prepared to face the pandemic because we have not learned the lessons from the Great Recession in 2008 by addressing growing inequity at the hands of financial capitalism. Indeed, when the market and stock indexes reached record highs in mid-February 2020, it was difficult to forecast the market’s sharp decline and volatility because of a tiny virus that has brought the world to heel.

The pandemic shines a spotlight on issues of race and class in American society. In the early days of the pandemic, celebrities and sports stars could get tested for the virus, while ordinary people with symptoms could not. Though professionals and white-collar workers can stay at and work from home, service workers and other low-income earners cannot. Staying at home is a luxury for them. While the coronavirus does not discriminate along racial and ethnic lines, black and brown people are affected disproportionally because of poverty, ill-health, and a general lack of medical support in their communities. Additionally, Anti-Asian racial incidents are on the rise, exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s labeling the coronavirus the “China virus.”

The COVID-19 pandemic spread at a time of tense Sino-American relations amidst trade wars and political and military realignments in the Asian Pacific. This tension has made global solidarity in combating the novel coronavirus more difficult and challenging. In 2003, when SARS reared its ugly head, scientists in Canada, Hong Kong, and the U.S. collaborated to hunt down the virus. But the blame game between China and the U.S. during COVID-19 has created obstacles in scientific collaborations and the procurement of necessary medical supplies and resources. The pandemic shows how much the world is interconnected, from the production of face masks to travel and migration.

The U.S. has shown itself to be slow and ill-equipped to face the COVID-19 pandemic whereas China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, having learned from the SARS and other previous epidemics, were spurred to action swiftly. Trump’s botched response and the government’s lack of preparation have been deadly. As the U.S. became the epicenter for the virus, the rush to get face masks, ventilators, and other basic medical supplies highlighted the lack of government coordination. Rapid responses to the pandemic have been hindered by a market-driven health care system, the lack of universal health care, and no provision of paid sick leave for many workers.

Many commentators have compared the Chinese communist system to the American democratic system to assess which nation is better equipped to handle the pandemic. But there is no time for finger-pointing or the blame game. Christine Loh, a former undersecretary of the environment in Hong Kong, argues that it is simplistic either to attribute China’s success in controlling the virus to authoritarianism or to blame America’s failings on democracy. She argues that the divergent ways that China and the U.S. have responded to the crisis have much more to do with resources and capacities at hand, cultural and societal values, scientific understanding, political ideologies, and their decision-making structures.

The Chinese government did not warn its citizens or the world of a likely pandemic at the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. Had early warnings been made, many lives would have been saved. Similarly, President Trump played down the severity of the impact of the virus until March and does not want to follow the strategies used by Asian countries to contain and mitigate the crisis. He is halting U.S. funds to the World Health Organization for 60 to 90 days, accusing the WHO of being both “China-centric” and slow in responding to the crisis.

The détente between China and the U.S. has sabotaged global efforts to combat the coronavirus. Countries should not be forced to side with one of these superpowers in order to receive help and resources. When the pandemic is over, the world will need cooperation between the two largest economies in the world for concrete actions to bring about economic recovery. The lives and livelihoods of so many people are at stake.

We cannot forget the valuable lessons we are learning from facing this pandemic: namely, that we depend on each other for survival. Without solidarity with one another and with the least among us, we will fall short in responding to the looming crisis of climate change which will devastate human lives and our habitat on a scale that is hard to imagine. We must commit ourselves to building just and sustainable world systems for we can ill afford to go back to life as usual.

* First published as a blog on the Wendland-Cook Program of Religion and Justice Website at Vanderbilt University.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Why I Like Worshiping at Candler's Cannon Chapel

Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown
Worshiping at Cannon Chapel is one of the things I like most in my life as a professor at Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. In the past two years as a visiting professor, I have attended chapel frequently on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

During the week in which we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, I listened to inspiring sermons by Baptist minister the Rev. Dr. Damon P. Williams and by the Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler. They demonstrated the power of the word and deeply moving and engaging black preaching styles. Dr. Fry Brown, who belongs to the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, used Psalm 27 as her text. When she linked the suffering of African Americans to the beginning of the psalm, “The Lord is my light and my salvation-Whom shall I fear?” she provided a new context for me to listen to the words of the Psalmist with new insights.

Bishop Karen Oliveto spoke at Candler
Then this past week, Bishop Karen Oliveto, Bishop of the Western Jurisdiction, Mountain Sky Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church (UMC), came to visit the school and preached about how God’s table is open to all. As the first openly gay bishop in the UMC, she asked us to think about whether the church is “united” or “untied.” Her message was especially important for our GLBTQIA students, who are pondering about their future ministry and vocation in a church that is in the process of splitting over the issue of human sexuality.

This morning Dr. Andrew L. Prevot, an African American Catholic theologian and associate professor of theology at Boston College, preached about the Beatitudes, focusing on the verse, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). He said many people think that we have to wait to go to heaven to see God. But we need to train ourselves to see God in this world. This can only be done if we can see with mercy and compassion. The message was particularly poignant, coming from Dr. Prevot who suffered from many eye problems as a child. He used to carry a card of Saint Lucy and frequently prayed for his eyesight when he was growing up.

Just within the short span of two weeks, I have experienced preaching from four different traditions as well as gospel music, Catholic chants, and evangelical hymns. These worshiping experiences opened me to a spiritual world that is vibrating, inviting, and full of grace.

From left: Dr. Antonio Alonso, Dr. Andrew Prevot, and me
As an Anglican, I am used to following the set liturgy in the Book of Common Prayers. I have not experienced different kinds of ecumenical worship on a consistent basis. My faculty colleagues and students, led by the Rev. Dr. Khalia J. Williams, Assistant Dean of Worship and Music, have put their soul and energy in planning for these worship services. These services and the weekly evensong offered by the Episcopal and Anglican Studies at the school have enriched my spiritual life and sustained my academic pursuit. They provide a supportive and welcoming environment for me to explore the hidden face of God that has yet to be revealed.

As a theologian, I consider theology and spirituality as deeply integrated, partly because I come from a Chinese background. The neo-Confucian philosophers in the medieval period debated about the relationship between knowing and doing. I am firmly with the camp that emphasized that knowing and doing should go hand in hand. I so admired Dr. Prevot’s sermon because he demonstrated that one can combine vigorous theological thinking with the deepest longing for God.

Candler’s worship also challenges me to think about how we can live into God’s realm, embracing differences in race, language, custom, class, gender, and sexuality. It is not easy to study together; it is even harder to worship together. I, for one, can’t clap and sing and move my body. For others, it is so natural.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered the address given by Dr. Rebecca Chopp, who was once a professor at Candler and Emory University’s Provost. In her convocation address, she used the theme of abiding to talk about our faith and loyalty. Coming to seminary and divinity school, she said, provides an opportunity for us to listen to abiding of other people, and to learn to dwell in our own abiding.

Abiding means a sense of belonging and community. In our time of rootlessness and isolation, when we have to check our mobile devices so many times a day to stay “connected,” the opportunity to sing, move, worship together enables us to experience the epiphany of God’s grace.

Without drinking from the spiritual wells of our many traditions, it will be much harder to live in community, to honor difference, and to work together to change the world. Prophet Micah exhorted us “to do justice, and love mercy.” Both justice and mercy can only be nurtured by sustainable practices.* Worshiping together is one such practice to help us see each other as God’s beloved.

*I am grateful to my former student Julian Reid for this term. He mentioned this in the context of discussing how to integrate what we have learned in divinity school and in our different ministries and vocations. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Guard Your Sensory Doors

Today the yoga teacher began by saying that it is through the sensory doors that we get in touch with the world. But during today’s yoga, we wanted to guard the sensory doors intentionally.

This is the reason she doesn’t use music in her teaching, because she wants us to focus on yoga.

During the whole day, I have been thinking if I have guarded my sensory doors mindfully.

We live in a world of information overload. I do not subscribe to printed newspapers. But every day I look at the New York Times, Politico, Huff Post, World Journal (in Chinese) and sometimes South China Morning Post.

In addition, I watch videos from Hong Kong and Taiwan. During the past six months, I have been following the Hong Kong protests and sometimes spent hours watching commentaries by different KOLs (key opinion leaders). Watching the news often makes me upset, sad, and angry.

I have told my students many times about the need to protect our brains and guard our time. In Crazy Busy, Dr. Edward Hallowell says that many of us are suffering from ADT (Attention Deficit Trait). ADT are people who have difficulty staying organized, setting priorities, and managing time. As a psychiatrist who has diagnosed and treated thousands of people with ADD, he is seeing more and more people suffering from ADT.

Our culture and modern life create the environment for developing ADT. We watch TV, eat dinner, check our phone, and talk to our children at the SAME TIME during dinner.

We boast we can multitask, but this may affect our brain’s function. Dr. Hallowell writes, “as the human brain is asked to process dizzying amount of data, its ability to solve problems flexibly and creatively declines and the number of mistakes increases.”*

After I talked about Dr. Hallowell’s research in a class, a student canceled several of her social media accounts and said she needed to wean herself from spending so much time checking messages.

I did not have her problems until two weeks ago. My friends were amazed when I told them that I did not have a smartphone till two years ago. I had only a flip phone. Since I sat in front of my computer all the time, I didn’t need a smartphone to check and respond to emails. I also did not want to be connected 24/7.

I finally decided to change to a smartphone because I found a phone plan that was even cheaper than my flip phone plan. I went to and bought the cheapest one (on sale for $69).

I was not addicted to my phone and did not carry it around every day. Sometimes I purposely left it at home, so that I would not be connected all the time. The cheap phone worked for me, except it could not take beautiful photos as iPhones or Samsung phones could.

During the Thanksgiving holidays, I decided to buy a nicer phone because I need to take a few videos for a project.

So, I bought a top-of-the-line Samsung phone that came out this year. And my problems began!

The screen is so nice and the images so sharp. They appeal to the eyes.

I have always wondered why my friends can respond to Facebook posts so fast. Now I know. My Facebook app shows the number of likes, comments, etc. I have received. It is so tempting to check what my friends have said.

The Outlook app and the Google mail app show the number of new messages. The YouTube app shows the number of new videos I have subscribed to. The apps in my old phone would not show these numbers.

Suddenly, I find myself checking my beautiful phone all day—a practice I had proudly avoided until two weeks ago.

As I am typing this, my phone sits right next to the laptop, smiling at me.

How can I ever do or write something seriously if I am checking my phone all day? I will be busy responding to emails, checking Facebook likes, and looking at how many steps I have taken today through another app.

Guard your sensory doors should be my inner mantra from now on. Dr. Hallowell wrote CrazyBusy after he has written a very popular article, “Why Smart People Underperform” in Harvard Business Review. At my age, I am not so concerned about underperform or overperform. But I need to protect my brain and live a fuller life. Not becoming a slave of a small device that I am attached or addicted to.

In this age when there are so many external demands, close or limit some of the sensory doors may bring sanctity or inner peace. At least a healthier brain, I hope.

p.s. I wrote this in 49 mins, including checking Dr. Hallowell’s article. I could have done it faster if I didn’t check the Facebook likes!

*Edward Hallowell, “Why Smart People Underperform,” Harvard Business Review, January 2005, 57.