Spirit of the Disciplines – Introduction

Many years ago Dallas Willard wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines, a helpful and influential book examining spiritual disciplines in the Christian tradition. He explored what they were and how they worked. A couple years ago I worked my way though the book, finding much of value.

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The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way

The United Methodist Church is, after years of inner dissension, at the beginning of formally breaking up. In some places (like my own Texas Annual Conference), the monetary cost of disaffiliation is low. At the other extreme conferences like Baltimore Washington have very high monetary costs. From the arguments I see on social media we are very far from what Bill Hinson called “amicable separation.”

From what I see, one of the most beneficial things we can do in this season is to gain/regain clarity about our identity as Methodist Christians. One of the helpful studies that’s come out in recent years is The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way by Phil Tallon and Justus Hunter. I created a study guide for each chapter when we did it in our Sunday school classes a couple years ago. I thought these might be of use to others doing the study, so here they are for your benefit:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

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An Illustration of Why Latin Can Be Useful

Christian theology has often affirmed Si comprehendis, non est Deus. In English one might translate it as “If you understand it, it’s not God.” This statement gets at the basic idea of apophaticism: God is beyond us, not just quantitatively but qualitatively. Because God is the creator and we are created, there is an infinite gap between us.

We make efforts to know and understand God. Sometimes we have great confidence in thinking we understand God. That’s when we need to remember, Si comprehendis, non est Deus.

So why prefer the Latin rendering? It’s not just to be pedantic or prideful. It’s not to show off one’s learning. For the advantage is in the non-use of pronouns. If you haven’t studied Latin, take my word for it: there are no pronouns in this sentence. What about the English? Do you see the pronouns in “If you understand it, it’s not God?” They’re right there in the middle, first as an object, then as a subject: “It.”

The antecedent of “it” in both cases is “whatever it is you think you’re understanding.” But it’s easy to think we’re using the pronoun for God. I have a problem with using pronouns for God (and also not using pronouns for God). The first problem is theological, the second is literary.

In English we have three normal 3rd person singular pronouns: he, she, and it. “He” is a masculine pronoun and is usually a stand in for males. “She” is a feminine pronoun and is usually a stand in for females. “It” is a neuter pronoun, usually a stand in for objects, for things that are not alive.

So what is God? God’s not an object. Biblically God is alive and active. What about male or female? Some of us are more used to using masculine pronouns for God; some even think of God as masculine. Some, especially those influenced by feminist theology, may use feminine pronouns for God.

Masculine and feminine (and neuter, as well as any other genders that might exist) are aspects within the created order. Things can have gender; God is not a thing, and as Creator is beyond gender. Our challenges are that although God (Father, Son, and Spirit, whom we see active in scripture) does not have gender, Jesus, as a fully human Jewish male does have gender; even more, our words have gender. When we use scriptural language and call God “Father,” it seems natural to use the pronoun “He” for “Father.” Also, though we don’t see it in English, the word “god” is gendered in many languages. All this gives us reason to associate God with a particular gender.

But again, since gender is an aspect of creation, not the Creator, we should think carefully and circumspectly about our use of pronouns for God. For me, that’s a reason to use Latin in this case, since we can get by merely implying pronouns rather than using them.

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Wesley’s Sermon on The Catholic Spirit

I’m working through some of Wesley’s works to help United Methodist churches in the discernment process many are in now. Throughout the document, I provide analysis of what Wesley is saying and questions for consideration. My intention is that these would benefit churches regardless of their theology, ideology, or current stance toward contentious issues. They ought also to be of value to churches at any time in their life.

When we deal with issues of disagreement and conflict, this sermon is probably Wesley’s work that is most frequently cited. I’m not sure it’s read and studied as much as it’s cited, however. It’s worth our spending some time with.

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Thoughts upon John Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Methodism

At the current season of division and denominational chaos, many churches in the United Methodist Church are entering an official period of discernment. I think getting back to Wesley is a good thing, so I’m going back to some of his writings and creating study guides for them. So far I’ve finished one on his Thoughts Upon Methodism and am nearing completion of one on his sermon The Catholic Spirit. You can follow the link if you’re interested in checking it out.

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Living in Anxious Times

We live in highly anxious times. We might hear more about young people being anxious and the role social media plays in creating and exacerbating their anxiety, but increased anxiety is a reality for all groups. Here are a few of the causes I see:

  • The Pandemic: Even though the pandemic is, apparently, winding down, its effects are still with us. We’ve heard of increased cases in various parts of the country but are happy to hear that increased cases haven’t led to severe increases in hospitalizations and deaths. I know people that are still very anxious about going out in public. Being around crowds terrifies them. Some of our people who haven’t yet returned to church are people who are uncomfortable being out and about in enclosed spaces.
  • Politics: It is to the advantage of both our major parties to speak apocalyptically about the possibility of the Other Team taking control and bringing irreversible disaster upon the country. Adherents of both major parties are told repeatedly that the Other Team is winning. When the future of the country and the well-being of our families is felt to be on the line, anxiety is to be expected.
  • The Economy: Some places are booming. Small towns like ours, frequently not so much. Our tax base has been changing over the years. Jobs have been going away. Now we have inflation at the highest level in decades and the Fed is raising interest rates. Some tell us that rising interest rates will crush the stock market, slow the economy, and send the country into recession. Can you imagine why some people would be anxious?
  • The Church: If you pay attention to demography (the study of populations), you’re aware that the church is going through a rough time these past few years. We have scandals on top of increasing secularization. We have kids raised in church growing up and not coming back. We have conflict within churches. In our own denomination it looks like the 1968 synthesis of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (that resulted in the United Methodist Church) is falling apart. We can look at our own congregation and the conflicts over the past couple of years. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve felt the anxiety.

When there’s increasing anxiety, other things start happening. It doesn’t matter whether it’s anxiety within society, an organization, or a family – there are consequences that hurt us. Here are a few I see:

  • Anxiety decreases our intelligence. When we’re anxious we feel like we need to respond to things immediately. We must respond, we cannot wait and take time to think things through. We grab ahold of the stories anxiety tells us – stories of guilt, shame, failure, and blame. Anxiety blinds us to other stories, other possible explanations. When we become aware of this feature of anxiety, we can do the work (it is work) of intentionally slowing down and becoming aware of our reasoning processes. It can help us to begin each day with a prayer asking God to heighten our awareness to what happens around us during the day. Instead of rushing to judgment, we can ask God to slow us down so we can make every thought captive to Christ.
  • Anxiety leads to conflict. Yes, I did say above that conflict leads to anxiety. It’s a feedback loop. More conflict leads to more anxiety which leads to more conflict – and so on. This is especially true when we don’t recognize our anxiety for what it is. It’s at those times that we tend to lash out or even explode at the people around us. Next time you’re around someone who is exploding at you, pause for a moment and consider: “Could this explosion be caused by anxiety?” Whatever the cause, we’re responsible for how we act toward others, but when we recognize that the explosion is caused by anxiety (whether theirs, ours, or both), we can maybe turn down the volume a bit. Perhaps we could say something like, “Considering what you’re saying/doing, I’m feeling anxious. Maybe some of what you’re saying is being fueled by your anxiety. Whatever the role anxiety might be playing, how about we sop for a moment and offer ourselves, our situation, and our anxieties to God in prayer. We can invite God to share his insights and be quiet before him as we wait on him.”
  • Anxiety leads to withdrawal. When we’re anxious, whether we recognize what we’re feeling as anxiety or not, we tend to withdraw. Being around people amps up our feelings of anxiety, especially if we feel like they are somehow part of the problem. It doesn’t matter if we’re thinking about family, business, church, or other groups. We want to decrease anxiety and we think withdrawing from a possible source of anxiety is the way to go. Sometimes withdrawal, at least for a time, is necessary. We need time to breathe, time to calm down, time to seek and hear from God. As one who values healthy families and healthy churches, however, I wouldn’t want withdrawal to be a permanent strategy. Because we’re human and live in a fallen world, anxiety and conflict are unavoidable. Sometimes just when we think we’ve escaped it, it taps us on the shoulder from behind. We don’t have and shouldn’t expect perfect, unendingly happy churches and families. God gives us each other to encourage and support us in our times of need. As we learn to love each other through trying times, we gain the strength to do better next time. It’s like physical exercise. We grow our muscles of forgiveness, love, and restoration through use.

Here’s a prayer I pray for myself today. Maybe some of you could find value in praying it for yourself today:

Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know my thoughts from afar. You know my heart, all my feelings, ideas, fears, anxieties, and discomforts, even when I am blind to them myself. Open my eyes so I can see the things in me that are dragging me down – or dragging down the people around me. As I become aware of my anxieties give me the strength to name them as such and to lay them at your feet. Deliver me from the lie of the enemy that those anxieties define me and get the last word in my life. Deliver me to the truth of your word, that my identity is in Christ, and that because he has bought me with his blood, there is no condemnation. Help me live out of the reality that being “in Christ” is not something I do as an individual, but something we do together through the presence and work of your Spirit. Bind us together in love. I know, Lord, that the world doesn’t think this way. The world insists on my performance. The world insists I withdraw when I’m anxious. The world insists that there is no hope for recovery. Help me – help us – find our hope and security in you, knowing that whatever changes come, your grace is sufficient. You have promised to never leave us or forsake us – to be with us always. I lean on that promise now.

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A Problem of Truth

You’ve probably heard the claim, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” You may not have heard that claim in its context. In John 8:31-32 Jesus is speaking to some people who “had believed him” and said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The people in Jesus’ audience that day, the people who “had believed him” weren’t too keen on the truth. Well, they might have liked the idea of truth, but they had major issues with what Jesus said about it. Their main issue was with the “set you free” line. Those people who “had believed Jesus” didn’t take themselves to have any need to be set free. They were good Jews, part of the Chosen People of Israel. Gentile sinners might need to be set free, but not people like them.

How would we do if Jesus said those words to us today? Do we feel a need for the freedom he offers? I’m not asking if we have a theory about it but if we feel the need. When we feel a need we’re inclined to act on that need. In this case Jesus was very clear. Notice his language: “IF you hold to my teaching, THEN you are really my disciples.” In generalized form, IF X, THEN Y.

Do we really want to be Jesus’ disciples? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on what he means by “disciple.” A disciple is a “student,” an “apprentice.” When we are someone’s apprentice, we attach ourselves to them to learn how to do what they’ve mastered. We listen to them, we learn from them, we put what they teach us into practice. “Put into the practice” is what Jesus meant by “hold to my teaching.” “Put into practice” goes beyond just “believing Jesus.” When we put his teaching into practice, we learn to see ourselves, people, and the world around us from his point of view. We act in ways that are in alignment with his kingdom purposes.

Let’s make this personal. Do you want to be this kind of person? Are you willing to live in a “disciple” relationship with Jesus – to take his word as truth? Having taken his word as truth, are you learning to see your deep need for him and for the freedom he offers?

I understand that there are reasons to just take Jesus as a religious figure who offers eternal fire insurance, a way out of the inevitability of death. I get my ticket, I’m good to go, I can get on with my life. When we listen to Jesus, however, we hear things like, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross.” Or we could listen to Paul who listened to Jesus and found the freedom of which he spoke: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Our culture has trained us to think of Jesus and the salvation he offers as the ultimate consumer product. As long as we think that way, we’ll miss him every time. When we’re “really his disciples” we’ll be living as if he’s bought us with his blood and we belong to him. We’ll freely give him “absolute sway” over our lives. When I pray for my people, I pray that that’s how their lives will go – but only after praying it for myself.

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The Problem of Perfection

One of the essays I ask my Ethics students to write is on Moral Expertise. They write on whether there is such a thing as Moral Expertise and, if there is, what it looks like and how it can be acquired.

The most common response has been a rejection of the possibility of Moral Expertise. The reasoning goes like this:

No one is morally perfect

One must be morally perfect to be a moral expert

Therefore, there are no moral experts

I reject the second premise. There are experts in diverse fields like cooking and golf – who do not display perfect performance in either domain yet are counted as experts. Why should perfection be a requirement of expertise?

What about safety? Wearing a seat belt does not guarantee 100% that I will be ok after a car wreck. It does significantly decrease the chances of significant injury, however. You know, all that “an object in motion tends to stay in motion” bit – when your body is the object in question. If my body goes from 60mph to 0mph in a matter of seconds, that’s going to be difficult no matter what.

We have a virus loose on the earth. Over a million have died from it, thousands of others have had their health adversely affected, millions are suffering economically.

What if we could do something about the virus? What if there was something akin to a “seat belt” that while not guaranteeing protection, could improve our chances?

It appears that there are a few things out there. Many kinds of masks offer some protection. If and when we get a vaccine, the vaccine will offer some protection.

Even the best masks worn and used properly don’t guarantee perfect protection. They have side effects – the least of which they are uncomfortable and bothersome.

Even a vaccine tested, approved, distributed, and properly administered won’t guarantee perfect protection. Vaccines can have side effects – serious ones. Some people don’t like them because they fear needles.

For me, accepting imperfect forms of mitigation is worth my while. With population effects, decreasing my chances of getting the virus offer benefits not just to myself, but to the people around me. If I am part of a population that is also doing things that lessen the chances of transmission, that’s good for the population as a whole.

As with other viruses out there, it appears there is no way to eliminate the chances of getting the virus (other than continuing total isolation – maybe – but most of us don’t consider that a live option). Risk management requires making trade offs. The assumption that risk mitigation must be perfect is unrealistic.

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Annual Conference in the Age of Coronavirus

We had our meeting of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church this past weekend. The clergy session back in June, Friday’s business session, and Saturday’s ordination service were all done online, mostly via Zoom. Normally Conference runs several days. Normally Conference requires over a thousand people to take time off work, travel hundreds of miles, stay in a hotel, eat out, and in other ways inconvenience themselves.

By doing Conference online we were able to eliminate much of the cost. Instead of spending days away from our normal work and life, we did our business Friday between 8:30am and 4:30pm. We were fast and efficient. We saved thousands of dollars by not having to stay in hotels, eat out, and drive the hundreds of miles to get to Houston. Doing Annual Conference this way was a model of efficiency in so many ways!

It was horrible. I hope we never have to do it that way again.

Conference traditionally starts with Charles Wesley’s hymn:

And are we yet alive,
and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
for his almighty grace!

Watching Conference online we saw SOME faces as they sang the song – but the video doesn’t start at the beginning, so we don’t even hear the first part of the hymn. We DO NOT see “each other’s face.” We did not see each other at all.

We all know there’s a good reason we did things the way we did. We know that with a highly contagious virus on the loose, a virus that has killed at least 170,000 in our country (some estimates put the number well over 200,000), a virus that has maimed thousands with lasting health impairments, it’s makes sense to play it safe and NOT be face to face this time around.

I understand it, but I don’t like it.

Those who know me know that I’m all in favor of efficiency and saving money. Being efficient and cost effective are good things to aim for. But if we make them our highest goals, if they become our focus, we’ve lost.

God made us embodied creatures. We’re not just, as James K.A. Smith says, “brains on a stick.” If we were just “brains on a stick,” hearing reports and engaging at the distance online “connection” affords may be just fine. But we need more – we need to personal connection, the “having our bodies in proximity to each other.” We need to “see each other’s face.”

When we focus on efficiency alone, we miss the other dimensions of Annual Conference. We can say that it’s the annual need to do business that draws us together. On my own list of why I go to conference “conducting business” is way down the list. For me the top reasons for looking forward to going to Conference are:

  1. Seeing each other.
  2. Worship with enthusiastic, vigorous singing.
  3. A change of pace for my life

Seeing the faces of people I know – laity and other pastors – builds me up. It creates and strengthens our frayed connection. Taking time to sit down and catch up with people I see once a year touches my soul. The pace of a multi-day conference, a style with inefficiency built in, makes it possible to step away from business sessions so I can engage with people without feeling like I’m missing something earth-shattering. By having sessions extended over days we have the opportunity for chance meetings in hallways. We get to meet new people and establish new friendships.

Our United Methodist connection is frayed. We’re divided beyond repair, with each side finding the convictions and practices of the other side not just wrong or misguided, but repulsive, ungodly, and evil, contrary to the gospel. Having personal relationships with people – even friendships – across the lines of conflict, has slowed our demise. Now, being unable to be face to face, unable even to set up the terms of our divorce in a peaceable, structured, thought-out manner, is hurting us all even more.

I’m not optimistic – if optimism means looking at where trends and events in the world are taking us. I do have hope, hope based on the resurrection of Jesus, his gift of the Holy Spirit to the church and the saints, and the continued call to fulfill his Great Commission. I’ll be coming boldly before the throne of grace in my time of need. I need more than Zoom, more than virtual conferencing, more than efficiency.

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What About History?

There’s been much talk about history lately. From doing family history research for over forty years to being a history major in college and having history as my minor field in my doctoral work, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to the subject over the years. In this piece I’ll keep things short and simple.

It’s important to know that there are multiple ways to use the word “history.”

The first use of the word “history” is probably what ordinary people first think of when they hear the word. In this sense, “history” is simply “things that happened.”

The second use of the word “history” is for the stories we tell about “things that happened.” Obviously there is a connection between the stories we tell and the “things that happened,” but they are not the same thing.

The third use of “history” points to the use we make of our stories of “things that happened.”

When we look at history in the first sense, considering it as “things that happened,” I’d say we’re dealing with things that are the way they are whether we like it or not. I can dislike the fact that the Portuguese ran my ancestors out of the Dutch colony in Brazil in the 17th century, but I can’t do anything about it. I didn’t learn this bit of history when I was in school. Sure, I knew that Portuguese was the dominant language of Brazil, but it wasn’t until well after I’d finished school that I learned there had even been a Dutch colony there, let alone that some of my ancestors had been there. When I started researching this history some of the sources I found were in Portuguese, some in Dutch. I’d never studied either language, but since I’d taken Spanish in junior high and German in high school, I could figure out some bits of each. Through careful effort I was about to learn a little bit about the “things that happened.”

The thing is that I’ll NEVER know EVERYTHING that happened in that bit of history (or any other bit, for that matter). Oh, I can tell you stories about the “things that happened.” The stories include pirates and the hardships of a poorly paid missionary pastor. This second use of history is ALWAYS selective. When we tell the stories that we call “history” we have to choose which “things that happened” that we’re going to talk about. We have to interpret them and tie them together. We have to make hypotheses about causes and effects. Since the events I mentioned happened over 350 years ago, we don’t even have access to all the details of the “things that happened.” That history – history in the sense of the “things that happened” – cannot change, but we only have limited access to that kind of history. History as the STORIES well tell about the past, well, that changes all the time. As we learn more, possibly by finding new sources, by giving more weight to some sources and less to others, by a different selection of details (and there is no way to get beyond selecting some details and excluding others), or by having new audiences, we tell the old stories in new ways or tell new stories entirely.

The stories we tell are always open to criticism. One side of my wife’s family tells of an ancestor who came to America as a pirate with LaFitte. Another side tells of the ancestor coming to America with LaFayette. To my English-speaking ears (forgive the image), I can imagine how LaFitte and LaFayette can be confused. We can tell the story of the immigrant ancestor either way, fitting into early piracy along the gulf coast or of heroism helping in the American Revolution. Attention to evidence of “things that happened” can give us reason to believe one account or the other. Well, as things stand so far, my assessment of the “things that happened” doesn’t give credence to either story. This particular ancestor was born in France in 1795 and came to America in 1807, settling in Maryland. As a 12 year old, he likely came with parents, but I’ve yet to find any data on them. In this case I continue to look for evidence of “things that happened” so I can tell a better story. For me – as for some of you, I bet – a “better” story is not just one that is more entertaining or one that connects our ancestors with famous people, but one that is more likely accurate, more likely in line with “things that happened.”

What about the third sense of “history” that I mentioned above, the uses to which we put our stories of the “things that happened?”

I spent several years teaching at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. If you’re trying to think of where you may have heard that name, mentioning that it is the school featured in the movie The Great Debaters may help. That movie was based on “things that happened.” Wiley College has existed since 1873. One of the “things that happened” was that Professor Melvin B. Tolson became coach of the debate team. Though the subject of the film is the performance and triumph of the debate team, many other “things that happened” are depicted in the film. Early on we see a lynching. Of the “things that happened” in our country lynchings were one of the most disgusting. Maybe even more disgusting than the lynchings themselves (if such is possible) was the fact that they were often treated as entertainment. People who looked like my ancestors would have postcards made of themselves and their children gathered around the “strange fruit” hanging from the (not just southern) trees, the hanged and mutilated bodies. Some would even take home body parts as souvenirs.

I’m getting carried away – back to the story. As I recall, the lynching theme is very subdued in the movie, and only displayed once – and quickly at that. The thing is, the main characters had seen it. They didn’t talk about it, they didn’t protest it. They knew it could have been them. Or their father. Or their mother. Or their child. Throughout the film they struggle not only with becoming skilled debaters, but with life in a society that could turn on them and kill them at a moment’s notice.

When we compare the movie – a story about “things that happened” with the actual “things that happened,” we see some differences. The story was essentially accurate, but merged & modified some characters. Also, the climactic debate for the national championship, was depicted in the movie as a debate against Harvard, but was, in the course of the “things that happened,” a debate with USC, the reigning national champion at that time.

How was this story used? Some tellings of the story of Professor Tolson and his team’s victories could be used to show racists that African Americans were fully capable of academic work and scholarly argumentation. The story of those “things that happened” could also be told to encourage young African Americans to believe in their potential, against the Jim Crow prejudice of the age. More recently, the story of these “things that happened” was used to restart the heritage of debate at Wiley College. I had many of these later day “Great Debaters” in my classes, and I happily continue to cheer them on as they advance in life.

I’ve heard talk about “erasing” or “removing” history. As a historian, I don’t care for that idea. As a philosopher of history, I stop and ask in these contexts, “Which sense of history are we talking about?”

We cannot erase or remove history in the sense of the “things that happened.” We can burn a courthouse (as a family history researcher I lament that so many have burned through the centuries) or documents (I heard a story of one family that had a old family trunk full of old family letters and documents from the 1850s; they kept the trunk and burnt the papers, since they couldn’t read German). We can work to forget things that we don’t like. Though some who talk against “erasing history” sound like they mean “erasing the ‘things that happened.'” I don’t think that’s what they’re pointing at.

What I believe they are primarily pointing at is the change in the stories we tell about the “things that happened.” Those stories are not themselves “the things that happened” but they are how we understand and remember the “things that happened.” When I tell a person who’s heard all his life that the there’s no evidence that the ancestor came to America with LaFayette – or served in the Boston Tea Party – that can be disappointing, even offensive. It’s the story they’ve heard all their lives – maybe even a story that’s shaped their sense of identity.

There is also change in the way stories are used. The use to which we put stories is twice removed from history as “things that happened.” The stories we tell, as I mentioned above, are always selective. We can’t tell everything. Not only do we not know everything, but telling everything fills too much space and would be exceedingly dull. We choose some details, omit others. We weigh the details and come to an interpretation – or more often, sets of interpretations. We then deploy these stories to some end – often an end we have in mind before we even started composing the stories. The famous 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke spoke of history’s job as telling it wie es eigentlich gewesen – “as it actually was.” Sure, that’s true. Sort of. To some degree. By why this story and not that story? Why this interpretation and not that interpretation? We may have “objectivity” at the level of “things that happened,” but our stories and the uses to which we put them are inescapably subjective.

So, what does all that do for our current arguments? I’d encourage people to slow down. Think things through, whether those “things” be tearing down statues or condemning people. I know there is plenty of righteous indignation on each side. Each side will likely think I have my head in the clouds (or in the sand?) and am stuck in an ivory tower. That may be. But history is worth thinking about slowly and carefully, whether it’s our study of the “things that happened,” the stories we tell about the “things that happened,” or the uses to which we put our stories about the “things that happened.”

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