Monday, January 31, 2011

Postcolonial Spirituality?

I am teaching a course on Spirituality of Contemporary World in the spring semester. I have 16 students in my class and we will be reading Christian authors (e.g. Sandra Schneiders, Marjorie Thompson, Owen Thomas, Michael Battle) as well as the Dalai Lama's Toward a True Kinship of Faiths and Thich Nhat Hanh's Teachings on Love.

We are very fortunate to have a colleague Katherine Stiles, who had an audience with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in northern India in January. She is going to share with us her exciting pilgrimage with the EDS community later in the spring.

I have long admired the work of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and have introduced him to my students. I visited his Plum Village near Bordeaux in southwest France some years ago and had a most tranquil and transforming experience.

Postcolonial spirituality must be interfaith, fluid, hybrid, and not be boxed.

This I know. What I am less sure is how traditional Christian practices fit into the picture.

For example how can you go back to the pre-critical stage of reading the Bible "spiritually"? The Christian tradition has the venerable tradition of Lectio Divina, which has been practiced for centuries. The four basic phases of this spiritual reading consist of lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. You can read more about this in Thompson's Soul Feast.

This method of reading is meant to inculcate submission to the authority of Scripture as the Word of God. But this can be "dangerous to your health" both physically and spiritually, if you were a woman and a postcolonial.

How can communal worship be a source of spiritual sustenance when Rite Two of the Book of Common Prayer (the most often used rite for Eucharist in the Episcopal churches) is full of androcentric language? Even though the priest can inclusivize it, your mind is still constantly distracted.

What about the hymns we sing--still so full of Christian triumphant images, and sometimes very militaristic.

As this semester progresses, I would like to reflect more deeply on how we can reclaim and reconstruct the Christian spiritual practices, so that they are no longer relics of the past, but joyful guides for Christian living.

I wrote this poem in 1992 when I attended the Third Assembly of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians in Nairobi. I asked the theologians present images that had come up for them during the conference and built a poem around them. Together we read this during our first spirituality class.

We see the Spirit in the ancient gong
Calling us to silence, to listen
The embryonic rhythm of life
Vibrating, resounding, all-embracing

We see the Spirit in the water
Cleansing our body, healing our soul
We drink from the same cup
Renewing, sustaining, replenishing

We see the Spirit in the fire
Errupting with passion, like a volcano
Our anger against injustice
Burning, glowing, fast-spreading

We see the Spirit in the circle
Learning Miriam's dance, taking first steps
In solidarity with all women
Dancing, chanting, spiraling

We see the Spirit in the colors
Taking pride in our culture, our rites
Black, yellow, brown, and white
Celebrating, living, rejoicing

We see the Spirit in our bonding
Confessing our brokenness, our division
Hope we offer to each other
Visioning, struggling, empowering

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Swedish Mission and China

On Tao Fong Shan, Hong Kong, is a beautiful Chinese Christian center and chapel. The work has been supported by Swedish and Norwegian missons.

I knew very little of the Swedish mission and have never heard of Eric Folke (1862-1939).

There is an article on Folke in the Swedish Missological Themes in 2010 written by a Norwegian scholar Ole Bjorn Rongen.

Folke came to China in 1887 after the abortive earlier missionary efforts in the 1840s and 1850s. He stayed in China till 1904 and worked to establish mission stations in Shanxi, Shaaxi, and Henan, poor provinces in the heart of China. After his return to Sweden, he occupied leadership positions in the Swedish Mission Council.

Just as the English James Legge (1815-1897) and the German Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930), Folke became missionary-cum-Sinologist. He translated Daodejing, Zhuangzi, and excerpts of Confucian classics into Swedish. He was the first one to have done so.

Unfortunately Folke's work as a sinologist was soon forgotten, as he was overshadowed by the Norwegian Karl Ludvig Reichelt (1877-1952), whose books became better known because they were translated into English. Reichelt also founded the Christian Mission to the Buddhists first in China and then moved to Hong Kong. When Reichelt died, he was buried at the Tao Fong Shan cemetry.

I must spend more time to understand this history better.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Swedish Church and Society

I went to the baptism of Ingrid, the six-month girl of a friend of Dr. Ann-Cathrin Jarl and Rev. Cia Wadstein, this morning at St. Mark's Church in Stockholm. Ingrid was conceived by artificial insemination for her parents are a lesbian couple.

I have not been to a baptism of the Church of Sweden and when Cia said that she would be the celebrant I was glad to go along.

The church outside is very plain looking, but the inside is quite beautiful, in typical simple, artistic northern-European style. The pews are made of very fine carpentry and the kneeling stools are covered by wool. The altar is very simple, with a cross, candles, and vases with flowers.

I was surprised that each child has her/his own baptism ceremony, surrounded by relatives, friends, and loved ones. In the U.S. baptism is usually done in a group. The Church of Sweden has confirmation when the child grows up, similar to that of the Anglican Church.

The Church of Sweden is one of the progressive churches in Europe. In 1958 the Church approved the ordination of women and women were first ordained in 1960. Gay men and lesbians then demanded to be fully accepted in the church and sexual orientation has not become an issue for ordination.

When Bishop Eva Brunne was consecrated as the Bishop of Stockholm in 2009, her lesbian identity attracted much international attention. But it was not an issue in the Swedish church.

Sweden allowed for civic partnership of gay men and lesbians in the mid-1990s. When the constitution was changed to allow same-sex marriage in 2008, the church synod approved same-sex marriage to take place in churches in the same year.

After the baptism, Ann-Cathrin and Cia took me to see the old town of Stockholm. We passed by the Cathedral and I fondly remembered that my former dean at Harvard Divinity School Krister Stendahl was the Bishop of Stockholm from 1984-88. He had written a book on Paul's view on women in the 1950s and made a strong case for the equality of women and men.

Sweden is a democratic socialist country and the state provides a lot of services. Education is free and health care is very affordable. You need to pay a co-pay of $20 when you visit the doctor or check in the hospital, but after you have paid $150 for the year, everything is free!

Emma has multiple sclerosis and wanted to come to Ingrid's baptism. She has a personal assistant 7/24 provided by the government. The government also paid for her taxi to come from northern Uppsala to Stockholm, some 40 mins away.

Ingrid's birth-mother has a one-year maternity leave with paid, and the other mother has several months off. Educated and working mothers can thus afford to have 2-3 children.

Sweden has central heating for the city, and garbage is burnt to generate power. It has also a very good recycling system: food for compost, paper and plastic, and bottles.

I am very impressed by the ways the Swedes take care of the sick, old, and marginalized. It this a better society because people think more of the common good?

President Obama has been criticized as a "socialist" and for wanting to change USA into "Europe." Well, the system in Sweden is not bad, and Obama is far from being a socialist.

I asked my hosts why the Swedes have chosen for such a social order. Ann-Cathrin said the Swedes were literate for several hundred years. One had to learn to read the catechism in order to be baptized. Lutheran teachings also inform social morality and influence the social order.
For my Swedish friends, Americans hardly read newspapers and they are not educated by TV programs, which are full of advertisements. Ann-Cathrin called the Tea Party movement a stupidity movement.

Healthcare accounts for about 10% of the Swedish GNP, and the percentage in USA is much higher. Isn't it stupid not to have a public option? Why are Americans supporting the Tea Party, which wants to stop Obamacare. Is it really because of stupidity, I wonder.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Gold Ring and a Top Hat

I received an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University this afternoon. I was given a gold ring (with seven crosses). It symbolizes faithfulness toward science and scholarship.

At first I wasn't sure it would be real gold. At Harvard you can order a class ring from the Coop. Needless to say, these class rings are not real gold.

At Uppsala you have to order it from one of the top jewellers in town. It is custom-made and comes in a black elegant leather box.

Yesterday, when I got it from the jeweller, it was a bit small. I had given them size 4.5 American. The jeweller said it might be because my finger had swollen because of the long flight. Today it fits.

It was the top hat that totally fascinated me.

The Doctor of Theology was meant for men. I was told that they got a hat, a sword, and a gold ring in ancient days.

I had to find a hatter in Boston to have my head measured. I could not easily find one. So I went to Macy's and a hat shop in Boston near the Boston Common. Their hats have sizes small, medium, and large, so it was not very helpful.

The last hatter in Boston Arthur Stephens died in 1990. No one could tell me how to find someone with a conformateur to measure my head. When I saw this conformateur in Google, I realized how uncultured Boston men have become after poor Arthur died.

The conformateur measures the shape and the size of head, since the head is not exactly round.

The hat symbolizes freedom and power. Only the faculties of Theology, Law, Medicine, and Pharmacy give out a hat, the other faculties give out a laurel-crown. I was glad that I got a hat, since the laurel will not last. They are made of real leaves.

The ceremony lasted about two and a half hour. It included a lecture, the conferrment of doctorates, and music. The canon outside the building saluted each of the honorary doctorates. The ceremony was very formal, and only the Finns and the Swedes still keep the tradition.

We had to bow to the Vice-Chancellor and other dignitories after we received our diploma. The trick was to keep the hat on the head when you did so. Instead of bowing, I did a curtsy.

In the evening we had a festive banquet in a castle, where the king in the fifteenth cenury entertained his guests. It was almost 11 p.m. when I left, but guests stayed on for the dancing. It was a memorable day.

Tradition, Tradition

The canon fired at 7 a.m. this morning to salute the young doctors and the honorary doctors.

The Cathedral bell rang at 8 a.m.

The ceremony will take place at 12.15 p.m.

The tradition dated back to 1600.

Uppsala Uiversity was founded in 1477, and the first graduates received their degrees in the 1480s. Classes were suspended during the turbulent years of the Reformation.

The first Doctor of Theology was conferred in 1617, since then the Swedish king could appoint the doctors. This was changed in the modern period.

The first woman to receive a Doctor of Theology was in 1968.

The medieval ceremony will last for three hours, men in tails and white bow ties, women in long gowns. There will be a formal banquet in a castle afterward. The Nobel prize banquet models after the festivities of this one.

You can watch the ceremony of 2009 here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Silver Bible and Other Surprises

The most treasured book in Uppsala is the sixth-century Silver Bible (Codex Argenteus).

While I have seen other handwritten
and beautifully decorated medieval Bibles in Europe, this is the first time I saw a codex dated back to the sixth century.

The Silver Bible contained the manuscript of the Gothic translation of the four Gospels in Greek in the fourth century. It was written in silver and in gold, and probably for the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great. The Goths were nominally Arians.

In addition to seeing the Silver Bible, Uppsala has many surprises for me. Let me begin with breakfast. I ate breakfast this morning in the hotel. It consisted of bread, cheese, egg, different cold cuts, cereal, veggie salad. Conspiciously absent were the sweet things in American breakfast: pancakes and muffins. There were also large jars of almonds, flax seeds, and walnuts.

The other surprise was which way to open the door. After I brought my luggage to my room, I tried to get out. I couldn't open the door and thought I was locked. I was pulling the door inside the room. But it should be pushed outside. I have never pushed a hotel door toward the corridor. Then I was never sure whether to push or to pull the doors.

This afternoon I gave a lecture with Powerpoint to the faulty and students of the Faculty of Theology. I asked for a lectern and was told there wasn't any. Surprise, surprise, I was asked to sit down to deliver the lecture, in a classroom in which those at the back could not see me.

I was glad to see my Swedish friends who came to the lecture: Dr. Elisabeh Gerle, an ethicist, Dr. Helene Egnell, author of Other Voices and specialist in gender and interreligious dialogue. My Olso friends Dr. Marianne Bjelland Kartzow and Dr. Anne Hege Grung also attended.

But the most enjoyable surprise was the rehearsal for tomorrow's ceremony. The Master of Ceremony began by saying that he would give a lecture before the actual rehearsal. He really gave the history of the medieval ceremony for 45 mins! It was so entertaining and I laughed so hard that tears were dripping down my face--imagine I had make-up on. . .

The recipients of honorary doctorates in theology were to receive the degrees first. Theology was the oldest faculty and queen of the sciences in the medieval period. The other person who will receive it is Professor Per-Arne Bodin of the University of Stockholm.

He presented a lecture on "At the Bath of the Hole in the Ice: On a Religious Ceremony and the Soviet Tradition." He is a specialist in the Russian Orthodox tradition. He talked about the celebration of the Christ's Baptism in Russia. The congregation would process down to a hole in the ice, often carved in the shape of the cross. After the priest blessed the water, the people would take some home, as it was thought to have healing property. Some even immersed themselves in the icy cold water. The Russian word for winter swimmers, morzj, literally means walrus. He also elaborated how this tradition figured in Chekhov's work and in Russian novels and poetry.

One fellow wrote a novel called The President's Last Love. Putin invited other presidents to take a winter bath in a hole in the ice. The Ukrainian president was able to withstand the cold. But the British Prime Minister and the American President could not. I guess Putin showed his manhood.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The taxi driver drives a Saab. I saw the little ring about the aphabet A. So I have arrived in Sweden.

The ride from Stockholm airport to Uppsala took about half an hour, and everywhere was covered in snow. The whole country has been frozen since November, and the snow will not melt till May.

The Uppsala University is the oldest university in northern Europe, established in 1477. The Faculty of Theology was established since the beginning. Currently it has 14 faculty members and about 1,500 students, including majors and other students taking courses.

Even though it is called Theology, the Faculty of Theology also offers courses in religious studies. My host Professor Kajsa Ahlstrand teaches World Christianity and Interreligious Studies. She is a friend of my colleague Christopher Duraisingh and visits India often.

About 80% of Swedes belong to the Church of Sweden. The Uppsala Cathedral is a red brick huge building with twin towers. The Dean of the Cathedral is a woman. Out of the 14 bishops, 3 are female, including a lesbian, the Bishop of Stockholm.

Gay and lesbian couples can be married in the Church of Sweden, though some conservative bishops allow only a blessing after the civil marriage.

I asked Kajsa whether there is a schism over the issue of homosexuality within the Lutheran World Federation, just as that in the Anglican Communion. She said the polity of the LWF is quite different. First, the Lutheran church has not been an instrument of colonialization to the extent of the Anglican Church. Germany had a few colonies, but was not a huge empire, like those of the British and the French. Second, there is no equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Lutherans are more polycentric. Third, the LWF still has a lot of money and the African churches benefit from the fundings and do not want to separate from it.

In the afternoon I went to see the Cathedral. It has many side chapels and one devoted to Brigitta, the patron of Sweden and Europe. There is also a relatively new sculptor of Mary the mother of Jesus, as an adult woman dressed ina peasant long blue skirt. We often see Mary the young virgin. I was delighted to see Mary of my age. She looks human.

Archbishop Nathan Soderblom was buried in the Cathedral. Soderblom was a professor at Uppsala from 1901-1914 before he went on to become a bishop and archbishop. He was a churchman and a historian of religion. He was ahead of his time for insisting that students in theology should learn about other religious traditions.

I found out my book Chinese Women and Christianity, 1860-1927 is used as a textbook for undergraduates. It is quite expensive and does not have an eye-catching title. Yet, the students have quite good reviews of it.

This is my third time to Sweden. The first time was in Lund, where I delivered a lecture on Ecology and Christology almost 15 years ago. I was so surprised at the time to find so many Volvos on the road because Volvos are expensive cars. At Uppsala I saw Ford, Toyota, and other European cars. But the Volvos are very durable and they are still running after 25 years. I guess if you have half of the year icy and snowy, you really need a good reliable car.

I will not do much shopping here. The sale tax is 30-50 % and a pair of jeans costs more than US$200 and a T-shirt $50 at a boutique!

Tonight, I am going to have dinner with Kajsa and two of her friends from Oslo who flew here to hear my lecture tomorrow. My lecture better be good.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Transnational Political Theology

Tonight I am leaving for Sweden to receive an honorary doctorate on Jan. 28 from Uppsala University. It is a great honor to be recongized by such an esteemed educational institution.

I was asked to deliver a lecture on "Transnational Political Theology in the Asia-Pacific" and see if you understand the Swedish in this announcement.

In my lecture I want to use the critical de-imperial and postcolonial theory of Taiwanese scholar Chen Kuan-Hsing, whose book Asia as Method is truly groundbreaking.

While we have heard much about cultural studies in the USA and Europe, Chen and his colleagues have been promoting inter-Asia cultural studies.

Based on his social location from Taiwan, he talks about the three phases of postcolonial work in the Asian context: de-colonization, de-Cold War, and de-imperialization.

Chen says that the legacy of colonialism has transfigured the inner structure of the cultural imaginary of both the colonizers and the colonized. Decolonizing the cultural imaginary involves the following: (1) placing colonialism at the center of analysis, (2) revealing hidden Eurocentrism, and (3) emphasyzing the relative autonomy of local history.

The shape of the cultural imaginary in a specific time and space depends on the interaction between the colonial, the historical, and the geographical. Since the nation-state is no longer sufficient to explain the workings of the globalized world, he proposes to focus on geographical spaces to develop a more appropriate understanding of the formerly colonized world in the neoliberal economy.

Instead of constanly talking to the West, he suggests inter-referencing among Asians and peoples of the Third World. Instead of the binary "the West and the rest," he proposes multiple-referencing.

I learned a great deal from his work. Political theology has become a popular subject and most of it has been done with the USA and Europe in mind. I am developing a transnational political theology from Asia-Pacific.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Tiger Mom Syndrome

Everyone around me seems to be talking about the Tiger Mom. My colleague Larry Wills forwarded to me an email from his daugher about the essay "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" from The Wall Street Journal. His daugher has classmates from Hong Kong and Singapore when she was in college.

In fact, I had already read the essay before Larry sent to me.

Then Patrick S. Cheng sent me a link from the Angry Asian Man blog about the book. And Gale A. Yee complained that she grew up in a working class family, and unlike the Tiger Mom, her parents did not have money to send her to learn piano or violin.

Who is this Tiger Mom? Why everywhere people are obsessed about her? Imagine David Brooks writing about your book on The New York Times, Tina Brown and Arianna Huffington criticized your parenting on Morning Joe, and the Time magazine has a cover story about it! Not to mention all those Chinese- and Asian-American commentators on Slate and the blogsphere.

The largest Chinese newsaper in the U.S., The World Journal, ran a full-page story on the Tiger Mom on two consecutive days. Such attention will be a dream for all authors. The PR agent, if there is one, deserves an award.

I first came to know Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, through her first book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. Before she is known as Tiger Mom, Chua, a Yale Law professor, was known for her work in ethnicity and development of Third World countries.

Because of the buzz, I decided to buy and read the book. And boy, I found it witty and very interesing. Like Amy Chua, I have a daughter who plays the piano, and learned it for 11 years.

Chua compares the lax Western parenting with the demanding and strict Chinese parenting. Many Western moms would think that she is unloving and hurts her daughters' self-esteem. But for Chua, these Western parents do not have high expectations for their kids, and give up easily.

As I read the book, I wonder how Chua finds so much time to coach her daughters to play the piano and violin, shuttling them to lessons from New Haven to New York, and taking careful notes to teach them at home. Secretly deep down, a lot of moms must have lamented that they do not do enough for their kids. Does Chua have 50 hours a day? When does she find the time to write 3 books, many articles in Law Review journals, and teach at Yale?

It is not just about the Tiger Mom, it is also about the Super Mom. And the perennial debate of a working mom.

Are all Chinese moms like Amy Chua? I guess not. But imagine a country with 1.3 billion people. If you want your children to succeed, you better make sure that they can compete. Lang Lang, China's piano protege, thanks his parents for their sacrifice.

I asked my daughter if she has heard about the Tiger Mom. She said she has heard it from a friend. I guess if you happen to be Chinese, people will ask for your opinion.

"Is your mom a Tiger Mom?" I jokingly asked.

"No, just the opposite. I told my friend." She said.

I am more "Western" in my parenting, if we want to use the stereotypes. As a feminist, I believe that I should raise my daughter to respect herself and have her own opinion. But on hindsight, I wish I have accompanied her more when she practiced her piano. Her piano teacher, a Jewish mom, said she had a lot of potential.

I seldom buy a popular book that I would only read once. But I decided to buy this one, because I wanted to pass onto my daughter to see what she has to say about it. So stay tuned.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Remembering Reynolds Price

I do not remember how I came across Reynolds Price's memoir A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing. I remember on the book cover I saw Price sitting in a wheelchair. Price had an incurable illness--a 10-inch long malignant tumor wrapping around his spinal cord. He was 51 then, a well-known novelist and writer, who wrote about the South.

What impressed me most was Price's lack of self-pity. After several surgeries and dozens of radiation treatments, he survived, but was left paralyzed from the waist down. He was constantly in pain and sought hypnosis to ease his discomfort. At the end of the book, he said that he had hoped he would have learned earlier not so much to cure the illness, but to live with it.

Price continued to write despite his illness. I always wonder how these people could be so productive even when they suffered so much. Edward W. Said was shaking all over as a result of the treatment for his leukemia, yet he persisted to write his memoir Out of Place. Price would finish three memoirs before he died of heart attack at 77 on Jan. 20, 2011.

"Writing is a fearsome but grand vocation--potentially healing but likewise deadly," he told the Paris Review. He would not trade it for anything.

Price left behind a treasure showing how he worked: Learning A Trade: A Craftsman's Notebook, 1955-1997. If you think writing a novel is just imagination and not a lot of work, this book would surely change your mind.

Price was an "unchurched" Christian. He has long been dissatified with the church. He said the church has not spoken prophetically against racism and against poverty. As a gay man, Price found himself at olds with the teachings of the church on homosexuality. He called his faith "outlaw Christianity."

I have not read his books in which he discussed Christianity, such as Letter to a Godchild: Concerning Faith and Three Gospels. His colleague at Duke University for 30 years and EDS alumus Bruce B. Lawrence spoke highly of him, saying that Price's imaginative retelling of the gospels has opened up new horizons.

Although I have never met him, I hope he will rest in peace, knowing that many of his readers mourn his death.

99 Brattle: A Blog for EDS

Last December, I discussed with Charlene Smith, the new Director of Communications and Marketing of the Episcopal Divinity School, and my colleague Patrick S. Cheng about starting a communal blog for the EDS community. The blog called 99 Brattle was started on Jan. 1, 2011. Please follow us at I wrote about why we started the blog here.

Chinese President Hu Jintao was in the USA for a state visit from Jan. 18-21. I wrote an essay about the religious revival in China in Religion Dispatches. I visited universities and seminaries in China in the fall of 2009 and discussed issues such as methodologies for the study of religion, homosexuality, and popular religion with my Chinese colleagues.

You are most welcome to follow my blog and leave your comments.