Cutting Edges: "Upheavals of Thought" and Remembering the 2019 General Conference
From April 2019 Issue of Aware
By Rev. Dr. Barry Bryant, associate professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
As I have tried to express my reaction to the General Conference in St. Louis, I have turned to the use of metaphor. This is what people often do as they fumble and stammer to find the words to express an experience. I have heard several people resort to metaphor. “It was like watching a married couple who has been together for 50 years finally decide to call it quits because of ‘irreconcilable differences,’ complete with a division of property.” “It was like watching the slow death of a family member, while some argued over who would get the house when she died.” One metaphorical comparison cut closer to the quick: “It was like being disowned by my family and being told I would never be welcome at a family gathering again.”
The power of metaphor is its ability to connect what we know and the new, the familiar and the novel. It forms a bridge between common experiences and shared emotion to something new, inexplicable, and even alien. Some have argued that all theology is ultimately metaphorical in nature because we can only talk about God by using them.
What these metaphors all have in common are the many and varied emotions they provoke and convey. These feelings and emotions are just as essential to how we know what we know as reason and rationality are. This connection between emotion and knowing is what Marcel Proust and Martha Nussbaum have described as “upheavals of thought.” Emotions are not irrational but are suffused with intelligence as well as a source of awareness and understanding. Emotions cannot be sidelined by our theology or ethical judgment but must be incorporated into doing theology and ethical reasoning.
As Nussbaum puts it: “Emotions shape the landscape of our mental and social lives. Like the ‘geological upheavals’ a traveler might discover in a landscape where recently only a flat plane could be seen, they mark our lives as uneven, uncertain, and prone to reversal.”
General Conference was indeed an emotional experience and will be remembered as an “upheavals of thought,” forever jutting up like a mountain range on the horizon of our memories and shaped by personal emotional experiences. For many, these upheavals of thought have taken a stand in the twilight of transition from light to darkness, from the hope held in resurrection to a sudden sense of questioning loss. It is a mountain that arose in contours cut, shaped, and hewn by feelings of sorrow, anger, love, grief, rage, confusion, rejection, and uncertainty. These are feelings inspired by the thought of damages that cut to our own hearts and the heart of Christ’s Church, our relationships to one another as members of the body of Christ, our place of baptism and belonging. They are all feelings and emotions that should be named and owned because only in naming and owning them may we realize the value of what was lost or what might be gained. Regardless of what happens in the future, the church we once knew will exist no more. The United Methodist Church has become The Untied Methodist Church. We will realize the significance of this by what we have attached to the emotional experiences of General Conference.
There is no point to disowning or even suppressing the emotions attached to General Conference. They must be embraced and will be necessary to imagining what the church should look like as we think theologically about the emotions related to General Conference. Whatever we may think about the nature of the church will be incomplete without these “upheavals of thought.” Emotions help us in the valuation of experience and are an intelligent response to our perception of the church’s value and our own value, both to God and the church. The experience of General Conference demands that we deal with the messiness and confusion around our feelings of love and grief, faith and fear. This is not to say our emotions should occupy a privileged place or to consider them beyond the scrutiny of reason itself. It is to say emotions are essential to our humanity and should be taken into consideration as important to our flourishing and even our theology.
So how might we reflect on General Conference as an experience of the “upheavals of thought?” First, think about the metaphors you might use to describe and communicate your experience of General Conference. Where does that metaphor come from and what in your life experience makes that metaphor work for you? How does it connect to the experience of General Conference? How does it help you to understand that experience? What does the metaphor say about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the church?
Secondly, what is the emotional content of the metaphor? That is, what emotions are conveyed in it? Make a list of them. Emotions are usually formed around life events. So what are those events that are attached to the emotion in your life?
Thirdly, emotional health is essential to human wellbeing, and this means thoughtful and careful analysis of these emotions as a way of attaining this well-being. Reasonable reflection on an emotional experience will provide us clues as to what is constitutive to our thriving as human beings. What do you need to thrive as a child of God, or to put it another way, what is essential to your being renewed in the image of God?
Finally, how might the experience be reflected on theologically? Here are three questions to guide you: What does this experience say about God? What does this experience say about human beings? What does this say about the relationship between God and human beings?
Indeed, General Conference was an emotional experience for many people and will remain as a mountain range shaped by the “upheavals of thought.” Embrace it. Reflect on it. And allow it to be a part of who you are.