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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