The “Dr.” on my calling card represents a PhD in history from the University of Malaya, focusing on Southeast Asia. When you are historian of non-Western cultures working in a non-Western university there are a couple of things you should recognize early.
First that different cultures are really different. Reading primary sources, even in translation but certainly in the original languages, offers more than enough evidence that the ways in which different cultures frame the human experience lead not only to different answers, but completely different questions from those asked in the West.
(I teach a doctoral seminar in English on cultural difference. If you are interested in reading through the required readings below you’ll get an idea what I mean.)
The second thing you learn is that everything changes, and everything dies.
Take religious identity.
Because we have labels for religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, etc.) we are very tempted to believe that there is something unchanging in each of them. But while theologians can argue that there is an essence, and argue about where to locate it, a historian needs to be skeptical of any claim to an unchanging religious identity.
Modern Hindus tend to claim that theirs is the world’s oldest religion. And yet the self-identification as “Hindu” is entirely modern. It is a particular way of appropriating the vast and variegated history of philosophical, devotional, literary, artistic, and scientific traditions on the sub-continent that arose in tandem with and response to British colonialism. Vedanta, a “Hindu” reform movement, appropriates that tradition in a rather different way, as the name implies.
Other religions, including Christianity, are similar; containing within themselves not only variations in how to appropriate the traditions of their past, but even the basis on which to do so. Martin Luther didn’t create a new religion, but he did find a new way to appropriate forgotten parts of the Christian tradition. And it was a new way sufficiently different that for centuries Protestants and Catholics didn’t regard each other as Christian at all.
Put another way, far from being somehow static over time, religious identities are created as a community chooses a genealogy for itself by selectively appropriating, interpreting, and leaving out parts of a much larger and more variegated tradition.
My father (also a professional historian) used to remind his children that if you go back 20 generations (roughly 400 years) each of us has more than a million ancestors, even accounting for a fair number of genealogies that fold back on themselves. Go back 22 generations and you appear to have more ancestors than there are humans who have ever lived.
So when I call myself a “Hunt” and invoke my Methodist circuit riding grandfather and his Quaker ancestors what I’m really doing is pruning way back on my roots to create a genealogy that leads to a man with the surname “Hunt” who sailed a few hundred years ago into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (And was kicked out for being a “free thinker.”)
It is pruning away most of my roots that makes me who I am.
When I identify myself as a United Methodist I must engage in an equal process of pruning. First I must choose my Methodist roots carefully. Do I prune off the north or the south or the free or the Wesleyan or all of them. Do I prune off British Methodism? I’m back to Calvin and Luther and Armenius. Who goes and who stays? Further back can I really have roots in all the early church theologians? Or do I choose Wesley’s favorites. And then back in the Bible I’ve got to choose whether I buy into episcopal or presbyterian roots, unless I figure Wesley chose for me.
Because he also pruned his roots to find a distinct genealogy justifying his understanding of himself as Christian and his movement within Anglicanism. A genealogy different from that of his brother Charles who never bought that “scriptural episcopoi” and its quick pruning away of 1600 years of tradition.
(I’m working on a biography now. It is the story of a man who claimed to still living witnesses that he never married. It was a claim essential to his identity as an “old stove up cowboy” who “never got roped and tied.” It runs through the stories he told and published. Yet among his literary remains are certain letters, and a marriage license. We also prune our lived experience in order to create ourselves.)
These choices we make in creating our religious identity aren’t entirely arbitrary, but they are voluntary. More importantly they become normative for others only when we join in a community, a family, that has chosen a particular path through all those tangled roots, pruning as it goes, to create its identifying genealogy.
But let’s start from the other end, from the beginning going forward, and examine the historical process by which Christians created their family tree. What look like roots from the future looked like branches at the time. And what Christians did to create Christianity was a process of cutting off and ultimately killing off (if they don’t die naturally) all those variations on whatever they thought was original apostolic Christianity.
Even with the kind of broad mindedness that allows for different “denominations” there are branches modern Christians don’t allow as part of their tree. Unitarians, for example, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Or Seventh Day Adventists.
Some of us prune both roots and branches pretty severely. Others are wiling to admit and allow a greater confluence of influence.
So from one perspective as a historian I’m an observer of how things die. And the history of United Methodism can be understood as a history of things being pruned off and dying away.
For example, much of the movement Wesley founded, at least as he founded it, has been pruned off. Little of Methodism in Wesley’s day remains at a structural level except in name. The guiding documents of his movement are more than historical touchstones given how differently they are interpreted among contemporaries claiming a United Methodist identity. Wesley himself has become a figure so fissiparous in our conceptualization of his legacy that all we see are a thousand hall of mirror variations on his death mask.
He is in good company in this respect, joining Calvin and Luther and St. Augustin and the Apostle Paul. Unlike Jesus they have no eternal Spirit to enliven and correct their memories all of them. So they, like all of us, are left to the inevitable corruption of human minds and the inevitable pruning process that is the way human memory acts as executor of every human estate.
(My dissertation was a biography. Writing it was a lesson in what it means to create a person out of the detritus of history. Would William Shellabear recognize himself in my book of the same title? (University of Malaya Press, sold at MPH, if you are interested.) I’m not sure I’ll ever know him well enough to decide whether he would be amused or infuriated. I hope he would be flattered.)
The same process of pruning happened to the Methodist Episcopal Churches South and North. The formation of the United Methodist church slowly strangled off their distinctive theological perspectives and liturgical traditions to create something new, even as it reworked their structures of authority and cooperation to draw on the Evangelical United Brethren (who themselves saw death in all this eventually.)
Whatever happened to the Agnus Dei and the Scottish chants in the liturgy that I grew up with? A whole liturgical tradition has been pruned away. On the other hand The Cokesbury Hymnal proved more tenacious than a crepe myrtle in a garden of dandelions despite the newly created (in 1966) bureaucratic executors of the Methodist and United Brethren wills.
Pruning, pruning, pruning. We United Methodists have left dying roots and not a few branches all over the place in order to create our current highly threatened identity.
Which is the way of the world. And the reason I will not spend much time grieving if in the near future we divide into two or three or a dozen different groups, each of which has pruned off the others from the branches of its family tree, leaving them to die or possibly (like a crepe myrtle) to reemerge from their roots to form new trees.
“But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”