The Ties That Bind: Reflections of a visiting professor

Article—Issue 24 (May, 2019)

Dr. Jayeel Cornelio

Too often religion is associated with the transcendent. Its narratives are most compelling when they set people’s hopes on the future. But for sociologists, the power of religion is more subtle than this. It lies in its ability to bring people together. Religare, the Latin root word of religion, encapsulates this idea of binding. Religion has the resources to bind people to its rules and norms. But even more importantly, religion has the power to create and solidify community. Thus the endurance of religion rests upon the continuity of the community. This is why for the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim, the most elementary function of religion is the celebration of people’s most cherished virtues, often couched in the mystery of rituals and worship. Along the same lines, religion, for Daniele Hervieu-Leger, is a chain of memory that brings people of the past, present, and the future together.

Community, I have to admit, is the beauty of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College. It is for this reason that its students, faculty, staff, and even alumni are in an ongoing conversation of what it means to be Christian in this day and age. While I was part of it for only one semester, my stay was long enough to discover the richness of its religious heritage. To be sure, every seminary or theological faculty has its own heritage. But in my view, the Divinity School is unique because of how it fosters greater commitment to the cause of its community.

Indeed what was most striking for me as a visiting professor was the commitment of my colleagues and students to social justice. The emphasis on social justice at the Divinity School stands in contrast to the evangelical tradition that I inhabit. I must admit that I found it refreshing and helpful in deepening my understanding of the richness of the faith in different contexts. Time and again, I heard my students in pastoral sociology (the course that I taught) get concerned about the plight of the socially excluded in their respective communities, whether they may be in China, Hong Kong, or Southeast Asia. Tobias Brandner and I have had many inspiring conversations about his prison ministry. At one point I even had the chance to join his activities at Shek Pik Prison. During that visit I spoke with inmates who had their own stories to share about faith in the midst of hardships. And at the Divinity School’s worship services, that students were committed to the marginalized was clear and even moving. The School is clearly a safe space where the most avoided topics in Christian circles are brought to the surface: democracy, homelessness, and the discrimination that LGBT face. Its commitment to social justice is what imbues its community of students and faculty with depth and unmistakable relevance much needed among people of faith.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues, friends, and students at the Divinity School of Chung Chi College. It was not difficult for its people to offer what they could for the success of its weekly services, fundraising events, and outreach activities throughout the semester. At the same time, I found it inspiring that even though I was new and only temporary in the community, I was readily accepted as one of their own. In their own ways they have embraced me in the relationships in which I was initially a stranger. The many informal fellowships, conversations, and meals all convinced me that the Divinity School was in fact my home. Months after I have left Hong Kong, partnerships that were forged then continue on. I have, for instance, hosted Victor Chan for his engagements in Manila. Tobias Brandner and I are involved in a project that investigates religious life in the penal system in the Philippines.

In the spirit of justice, mercy, and peace, that strangers are brought into its fold is precisely that which sets the Divinity School apart from other communities. Its religious vision is radical, one that pursues inclusion. And so may the ties that bind its people together be their source of strength and hope. If religion were indeed a chain of memory, then I have no doubt that the Divinity School is creating powerful memories for its people to carry on what we have all been called to do: to love justice, to do mercy, and to walk humbly with the Lord our God.