Right brain, left brain…are we missing something?

Last Monday I had a great day at the ‘Young Priest Theologians Network’ meeting at Lambeth Palace.  There is much fun to be had thinking how ‘Young’ in the CofE means anyone under 40 years old (!) and I did enjoy telling friends I was off to a meeting at Lambeth Palace….lovely!

Besides all that there were two very interesting talks that will inspire a few posts – here’s the first….

Iain McGilchrist is a retired psychiatrist who has also studied English Literature, Theology and Philosophy.  In his recent book The Master and His Emissary he explores the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  His thinking began by asking the question: why do works of art lose their potency when analysed in a critical manner?  He recognised that the issue is when something implicit is made explicit.  A poem may have technically poor grammar, banal content and odd phrasing when critically analysed….but when encountered in it’s entirety it can have a powerful effect on the reader.  The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As he explored psychiatry, McGilchrist began to see how so much of our communication occurs implicitly – picking up irony in someone’s tone, a subtle wink or facial expression.  People who lose the use of the right hemisphere of their brain lose the ability to pick up these signals and here is the clue to the difference in hemispheres.  They give us different attention.  The right hemisphere allows a broader view – it recognises the connection between all things – it picks up subtlety, irony, metaphor – has the big picture.  The left hemisphere attends to details, sees the distinction between things, enables us to use tools, mechanisms and see logical progression.

Think of the classic philosophical dilemma of how a person remains the same through time even though every cell in their body will change every 7 years.  We are no longer made of the same stuff, but we are still the same person.  The left hemisphere cannot understand that – it doesn’t make logical sense.  But the right hemisphere can understand ‘the flow of life’ – the truth in the metaphor that we are like a river: the water flowing through constantly changes, but the river remains.  The left hemisphere wants to give us ‘quick and dirty certainties’ so we can move on in life, whilst the right hemisphere constantly asks the question, “what if?”

Since the Enlightenment, McGilchrist argues, the right hemisphere thinking has been pushed to the side and left hemisphere dominates culturally.  We see this in the appeal of scientism – the idea that all truth must be scientifically verifiable, anything that can’t be seen or tested isn’t true; or in the trust of technology to eventually solve all problems; or the relegation of religion to ‘private lives’ whilst anything public must be a ‘solid fact’.  The unsettling doubt the right hemisphere brings is that not everything that’s ‘true’ can be known as a verifiable fact – often deep truths are found through metaphor and imagery.

Why am I talking about this?  Well, apart from it being fascinating in its own right, my right hemisphere latched on to a connection with something else I have been hearing a lot about lately: the need to reawaken the ministry of the apostle and the prophet in the Western Church.  Alan Hirsch, Mike Breen, Bill Johnson and a host of other theologians and church leaders are beginning to raise awareness that we have a debilitating hole in the ministry of the church today.  Reading Ephesians 4 as a constitution for the church we find Paul’s description of the government of the church involving five ministries, given by Jesus the head: apostles, prophets, teachers, pastors and evangelists.  The current church is arguably dominated by teachers and pastors, with prophets and apostles largely ignored and misunderstood.

What is the role of apostles and prophets?  According to Danny Silk’s Culture of Honour (a great book for any church leader), these two ministries have a particularly strong focus on the reality of heaven – on seeing heaven come to earth (as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer so often…).  They are both big picture ministries.  Apostles carrying the vision Jesus gave for the church and seeking to bring it into new ground, breaking through current assumptions of how things should be done and limitations.  Prophets having a passion for the ‘now’ word of God and constantly pointing people back to what He is saying – the annoying voice that won’t let us simply carry on with are current ‘quick and dirty certainties’.

If we agree that the contemporary western church is often preoccupied with strategies, tactics and busyness as we seek to work out what must be done and do it ourselves….rather than a deep sense and reliance on the presence and leading of God in our midst….then you may agree that this could be due to a lack of apostles and prophets.  If you agree with that, then I wonder whether we could even say the apostles and prophets are like the right hemisphere of the church’s brain…without them we’re stuck with the left….which is essential in making things practical and concrete, but also prone to missing the point and a false sense of optimism.  McGilchrist goes as far as to say a solely left hemisphere culture is ‘sleepwalking aimlessly toward the abyss’……Maybe it’s time to wake up?

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5 thoughts on “Right brain, left brain…are we missing something?

  1. Truth is stranger than fiction as psychology only deals in possibilities. Nothing is impossible with God as i have seen through the steadfastness of our son william, the beauty of so many people around us and so the truths of the individual with Jesus. Reason cannot be answered by a cure-all philosophy like psychology or fiction which hands over the power of suggestion to others. At the end of the day all you really have left is relationship with Jesus based on how you see the sheres of heaven and earth working for you in the “moment”. Grab on to life like a newborn, do not join the masquerade!

    • I love how poetically you think! It is amazing how quickly seemingly concrete assumptions and solid principles can be shaken by the arrival of new life. It’s often experiencing love that makes us realise how little we really know and how much we take for granted. Congratulations on the arrival of William!

  2. Good stuff Reverend! McGilchrist’s observation is so true; I can’t help but think that the church needs to once again be about doing more “right-brain” things like creating beauty and enjoying/cultivating creation in order to develop the skills of confronting people with the Gospel rather than trying to indoctrinate them with it. The Gospel is a hauntingly beautiful story and we need to become great storytellers again if we want to share it in a meaningful way. And heck yes to more apostles and prophets!!!

    Loved reading your posts and it’s cool to see my brother writing!

    • I agree mate. One of the things I’ve loved is how a couple of people at St Mary’s have started painting during our sung worship – expressing their worship creatively. The pictures that have come out are both beautiful and prophetic, in that they show something of God’s word for us as a particular community.

      Companies and other members of society seem to have recognised that creativity, images, music and media often communicate more effectively than words…hence advertising!

  3. Pingback: Selective Attention and the Alpha course « beingfaithful

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