“That causes me pain.”   — Sentiment expressed endlessly from the floor of General Conference

“You mock my pain!”   — Princess Buttercup

“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”   – Westley, as the Man in Black

Let’s talk about reason and emotion at the General Conference. I am going to put up a post on significant happenings at General Conference later today, but first I wanted to make a couple of comments about the nature of the rhetoric that I’ve picked up from watching several hours of the live streaming from umc.org.

Here’s what I mean:

There is a rhetoric going on at the General Conference that strikes me as somewhat morbid in its emotionalism. That rhetoric has to do with the language of “pain” and the way in which the actions of the General Conference, the attitudes of some involved, and “the process” itself affect the felt well-being of delegates and observers. This often gets couched as the way in which pain is inflicted on persons with regard to their identities: as young people, as people of color, as people from other parts of the world, as gay or lesbian people, as people new to the process (i.e., first time delegates). People not present sometimes get invoked in the same way: Jews, Palestinian Christians, those “back home” in our churches, etc. (For the record, this rhetoric is as prominent in news stories and commentaries covering the GC as much as it is at the GC itself.)

Let me say first that pain is essentially a subjective experience. Sure, we can point to the nervous system and the way pain receptors in the brain function physiologically. But that’s not the kind of pain that is playing such a prominent part in GC rhetoric. It is emotional pain or the pain associated with offending someone’s self-worth or self-regard. I certainly don’t want to suggest that those who have claimed to suffer pain have not, in fact, been pained. If someone says she’s hurt, then she has probably felt hurt in some way.

That said, the use of the position, “You have caused me pain,” as the primary reason why a body like the General Conference should or should not act in a given way is fairly unconvincing. It is also not very helpful in moving us along in the practice of conferencing. Conferencing – and yes, even conferencing as a means of grace – must fundamentally be a process guided by practical reason. Sometimes the reasoning of a body of people will cause one person or some people pain, but the fact of that pain does not necessarily mean that the action was wrong-headed.

I think a lot of this drives at the church’s recent language around inclusiveness and the way in which that language has taken on a life of its own. Inclusiveness ought to be about the doctrine of free grace and the calling to make disciples of all peoples and all nations. Instead, in our cultural milieu, it has become about making sure that every category (or “identity”) of people are included on their own terms and in a manner that nothing about their felt needs is infringed upon in whatever setting is at hand. (Which, in this case, is the General Conference session itself. Although it also includes the broader reality of the church, as anyone who has watched the GC deliberations will see.)

How has this happened? Part of it may well be related to a decided “thinness of skin” that has emerged in American culture, where we have lost the ability to engage in vigorous debate where issues are separated from personalities. (That is, everything is taken to be ad hominem, meaning that there is no differentiation between issues and people espousing views about those issues.) Another part of it may be related to what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues is the dominance of emotivism in the culture; by this he means that we’ve lost our ability to reason well (which requires a shared set of agreed-upon goods as a foundation for debate) and instead connect all opinions with the individual preference of those opining.

If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, then just consider some of the more contentious issues that the GC has taken up: divestment from companies doing business in Israel/Gaza/the West Bank, issues of human sexuality, issues related to young people in the church, and how ecclesiastical restructuring affects the inclusion of various groups, ages, ethnicities, etc. (As a recently graduated “young person” in the church – meaning that I am no longer a young person at the age of 36 – it is the use of emotivism by young adults that for years has frustrated me the most; young adults should be arguing in a reasoned way rather than just expressing their shallow, felt sense of experiencing pain.)

All of these issues are important and deserve to be engaged in vigorous debate. But vigorous debate is a process that is going to require well-intentioned people offering points of view backed up by solid reasoning, and with an aim of persuading the whole about those opinions. In matters related to the church and the Christian life, this is part and parcel of what it means to do practical theology. A response along the lines of “that causes me pain” may be true in the most basic sense, but its helpfulness in conferencing is limited. Anyone who bases his reasoning (such that it is) on that kind of emotivism is adopting the stance of the misologue.