What I learned lecturing to Asian American Pastors.

 

Early in March 2016, I was invited to Seattle Pacific University (SPU) to do one of the most terrifying things for a Christian layperson to do: teach pastors how to do ministry.

Technically, the course fell under a few areas in which I’m supposed to have some academic competence – theology and social theory, Asian American studies, cultural geography. But it was still nerve-wracking for someone working in what populists disparage as the “Ivory Tower” to realize that the collective ministry experience among my students far exceeded my years on the planet.

In case that wasn’t enough pressure, I was also guest-teaching with Soong-Chan Rah, a man who could very well have been my pastor. Many evangelicals have no trouble telling their pastors what to do (as anyone with congregational ministry experience will affirm). It’s also an evangelical truism that practical pastoral experience trumps theoretical knowledge. Having neither silver nor gold, though, I vulgarly offered to the SPU students the only thing I could: theoretical knowledge.

I am, after all, a geographer. I do not study rocks, trees, weather, or water; that is the provenance of the physical geographers I used to see in the lunchroom when I was a graduate student. I am a social and cultural geographer, and that means that all I’m good for (if anything) is theorizing how persons make place.

My greatest discovery from that experience of teaching pastors with Soong-Chan Rah was that pastors and church leaders – who supposedly have no patience for the Ivory Tower – are in fact very interested in theory.

My greatest discovery from that experience of teaching pastors with Soong-Chan Rah was that pastors and church leaders – who supposedly have no patience for the Ivory Tower – are in fact very interested in theory.

A “Gorgeous Mess”

One major theme that emerged from our class, for example, was that Asian American church communities tend to suffer internal division. The students anecdotally corroborated the academic and popular literature describing fractures along generational and racial lines. This seemed to make most of the students more interested in church unity.

The fashionable word for this theological interest in ecclesial unity among evangelical Protestants is ecumenism. However, the root word of ecumenism – ecumene, a Latin perversion of the Greek oikoumene, isn’t really a theology word. It simply refers to “the inhabited world.” Geographers simply think about how the world is inhabited by looking at people and how they make places. This process of contemplation is, as the classical Greeks put it, theoria, a knowledge that is theoretical. What this also means, of course, is that when Asian American pastors talk about unity or complain about church disunity, they’re not only speaking about their practical ministry experience; they’re doing theory – and the most geographical kind, to boot.

It is for such theory that I found my Asian American pastor-students hungering. It may be fashionable in contemporary evangelical discourse to talk about “Asian American Christianity.” Yet few in the class – or in broader evangelicalism – had actually had meaningful exposure to Asian American studies. Giving me all of one evening session and the next morning session, too, Rah was more than generous with the time he provided me to try to give a crash course on the gorgeous mess of a discipline that Asian American studies is.

Chorus of Identities

As I read the discipline, Asian American studies is founded on the radical proposition that persons of Asian descent living in the Americas are in fact persons, not rugs. Beyond this statement, there is no agreement on what “Asian America” actually is. There are too many Asian American identities—and by this I do not mean ethnic categories such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, etc. I mean there are too many Asian American ideologies, ways of inhabiting a space to develop it with an ideal utopic future called “Asian America” in mind.

For conservatives wanting to preserve an established status quo, there’s a “model minority” ideology: Asian Americans are moving into the political and economic establishment through hard work and traditional values. For liberationist activists, there are various versions of a material justice ideology: Asian Americans face historic and contemporary structural barriers and need to dismantle systems of privilege to ensure that their communities get their fair share of material resources. There’s also a cultural nationalist ideology propagated by the likes of Asian American literary godfather Frank Chin: let’s use “Asian America” to reread all of American history through Chinese and Japanese street mythologies.

There are variations, perversions, and inversions of these ideologies too. But suffice it to say that every time an evangelical makes a pronouncement with the words “Asian American” in it, it’s theory of the highest order because every invocation of “Asian America” is an ideological statement about how people who are not “Orientals” (and therefore not rugs) inhabit the earth.

But suffice it to say that every time an evangelical makes a pronouncement with the words “Asian American” in it, it’s theory of the highest order because every invocation of “Asian America” is an ideological statement about how people who are not “Orientals” (and therefore not rugs) inhabit the earth.

The SPU students told me that what I had said had been intuitive for them, but now it had been articulated. To some extent, the divisions that they had experienced in their church communities were born of the same Asian American fragmentations, perhaps not the same ideological content but with similar clashes over how to create an ideal Asian American Christian future. Ministry is thus theoretical because it requires Asian American church leaders to actively produce Asian American ideologies.

But it’s also with this thought that we struggled as a class. By late Saturday morning, we found ourselves gasping for air in this ideological maelstrom. It seemed that Asian American pastors have no choice but to produce ideology. But it also appeared that the fragmentation of Asian America is born of ideological clashes. Doesn’t the participation of Asian American pastors in ideological production, then, go against their ecumenical impulses?

A Way Forward

I concluded with the suggestion that maybe there’s another way to do theory as Asian American pastors. For most of church history, the Greek word theoria did not refer to “ideology,” but to contemplation. The impulse of theoria in fact went in the opposite direction of modern ideology. Rather than seeking to create a utopic future at all costs, the pursuit of contemplative theoria seeks to reject all of these fantasies as mere illusions keeping us from union with God, the subject of our theoretical contemplation. The fathers and mothers of the Eastern Christian churches call this spirituality of negation hesychasm, an inner prayer that brings the mind to stillness so that theory is done by participating in the life of the living God.

If indeed the contemporary state of Asian America and its church communities is one of ideological confusion, maybe the practice of Asian American ministry could be expanded to include a dimension of hesychastic practice. In so doing, Asian American pastors would be helping Asian American intellectuals to be true to their own theoretical tradition, a discipline of negation, a rejection of the ideology that racializes Asian Americans as “Orientals.” In a negative Asian American tradition – which is how scholars like Sucheng Chan, Henry Yu, Kandice Chuh, and Ellen Wu have taught me to read the discipline – we wouldn’t have the responsibility to generate ideology but to dismantle it, to simply say that we are not rugs, we are persons, and for the purposes of inhabiting this earth, there is really no need to agree on much else.

They could be the vanguard in abolishing the division between practical ministry experience and theoretical knowledge. And that could benefit the wider church – indeed, the entire ecumene.

The possibility of re-reading Asian American studies as a negative theoretical tradition and thinking with pastors about the practice of hesychasm in Asian American church communities were takeaways of the class. What I learned is that Asian American pastors are forced by virtue of their ministry circumstances to work out their theoretical engagements with ideology. They could be the vanguard in abolishing the division between practical ministry experience and theoretical knowledge. And that could benefit the wider church – indeed, the entire ecumene. If Asian American pastors continue to work out their theoretical relationship with the ideological kaleidoscope of “Asian America,” they’ll help all of us think through how church communities in the ecumenical provenance with which this publication is concerned might relate to an equally nebulous ideological term: Cascadia.