Tag Archives: left brain

Assert right-brain solutions to left-brain problems — like Jesus

Life caught in the clutches of the left-brain world

Several of my psychotherapy clients this year have, again, taught me to take the Bible seriously. I keep pondering this verse when they are talking to me: “Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:58 NET)

This assertion scandalizes the people with whom Jesus is arguing. The theory-bound, principle-following, control-oriented Jewish leaders of the time, who, in their own way, reflect the power-mad, bureaucratic Roman Empire which dominates them, are flabbergasted by this no-account Rabbi. He has powers beyond their imagination, he reframes their history in a way they can’t see and, most of all, he lives at home in love with a sense of his endless uniqueness over which they have no sway. Their arguments still seem comical and sad in the face of the Lord’s “I am.”

My clients, my comrades in the church and everyone, really, are caught up in a similar drama. The pharisees of our day are winning. The sense and assertion of our own endless, unique “I am” is very hard to hold onto, even when it feels “right there” and ready to grasp.

Left brain ascendancy

I wrote about Jesus teaching us to have our own sense of “I am” last year: I matter; The terrible, wonderful I AM. But lately I have so much more evidence to support my intuition since I became an Iain McGilchrist fanboy!

I have just been schooled by McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World [Summary in The Atlantic]. In that book he makes a fascinating case for why the world works like it does these days, dominated by the limitations of the “left brain.” As a result, the church, in general, and my clients, in particular, are struggling against significant odds to come to a sense of their true selves. We’re having a hard time having a whole-brain experience of life in the here and now. We seem to have lost our appreciation for our intuition about life beyond our present understanding. I applied some of my new insights a couple of weeks ago in my post Is there anything that does not meet the “eye” of the left brain?

McGilchrist is having similar troubles. He “admitted in private that his text is heavily religious in inspiration. Yet if this were highlighted, he warned, many scholars would not bother to read it” (First Things). We are all under significant left-brain/scientific/
bureaucratic/legalistic/materialistic pressure all the time. We often try to find ourselves within a left-brain view of self and that world that is not big enough for what we experience and intuit.

In the conclusion of his book, McGilchrist summarizes how the “master,” the right brain, has been betrayed by her partner, the left. Here is a taste:

The right hemisphere, the one that believes, but does not know, has to depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows, but doesn’t believe. It is as though a power that has an infinite, and therefore intrinsically uncertain, potential Being needs nonetheless to submit to be delimited – needs stasis, certainty, fixity – in order to Be. The greater purpose demands the submission. The Master needs to trust, to believe in, his emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are invincible; but if it is abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the emissary owes his existence to the Master. [Lecture on Youtube]

He has a lot of science and history to back up his conclusion. I offer a snippet to note how similar his argument sounds to the one Jesus is having with his detractors in John 8. Jesus is God delimited, submitted, and risking trust. The quote also sounds like an argument many of us are having in our minds and hearts about how to be incarnate as a being with endlessness built into all we experience.

Approach the left-brain world as I AM

Two experiences this week pointed out some common challenges we are all facing as we bump up against the domination of left-brain thinking.

I watched members of the Floyd family last week and marveled at their adaptation to the crazy world of law and media into which they decided to enter. How they became spokespeople for the worldwide movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd has been painful, if inspiring, to see.

As they spoke at the sentencing hearing for Derek Chauvin, talk about justice by the court and media was reduced to minutia about sentencing guidelines and chances for further justice when the case goes to another territory of the bureaucracy about which no normal person really knows. The judge made a point to say that emotion was not going to be part of his judgment, as if to say the outrage and grief of the world did not finally put a murderous policemen in jail. He pointedly diminished the courageous vulnerability of the family as they faced a worldwide audience and an abusive legal system into which racism is deeply baked.

I think many of us who care about eradicating racism face similar problems with the left-brain problems that need right-brain solutions.  The consultants guiding our church’s leadership team through a process of racial awareness has spawned a host of conversations about how this new way to monetize equality has invaded almost every setting we inhabit, at least those who work in a bureaucracy that can be ignorantly racist. Analysis and principle-driven reorientation offers a left-brain solution to a left-brain problem — as if a bureaucracy could gain some self-awareness and a better abstraction would right its evil ship. Jesus was using the circumstance in which he found himself with his characteristic sense of being “I am.” He was present. He refused to relate on their terms.

I had several conversations with clients and acquaintances who do not intend to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and its variants. I realized my condo tower, mostly inhabited by Black people, is not lifting the requirement for masks because many people are not vaccinated and don’t intend to be. Twenty-three states have vaccinated less than half the eligible population. In the Congo there is no vaccine to be had at all, I heard last week from MCC workers.

Talk about health is reduced to suspicion about the genetic tinkering of the vaccine.  I am amazed at the research people have done! I continue to find a mistrust of science I have not seen, first-hand, until recently. I mistrust science because it trusts itself so completely. But many people mistrust it because they know it does not love them. Black families in Tuskegee were used as experimental animals and many people feel they dare not forget that. I heard, “What’s to prevent them from using the whole population as an experiment with an untried methodology?” My clients show some breathtaking logic as they are constantly make arguments which make them more and more anxious, trapped in their immanent frame.

When churches, not just ours, are considering how to “reopen” now that restrictions are lifted, they are often thrust into a left-brain argument about justice and equality in yet another way. What about the people who are not vaccinated? Can you really insist that someone get get the shot to be accepted? These endless arguments we have are often subject to the limitations of the left brain. Wisdom is not respected. Community is not an instinct. Love seems unreasonable, since the left brain is only about rationality. Jesus faced some thorny questions all the time, it seems. He usually answered them by being someone acting in grace as he was speaking. He was never a theory.

Isle of Skye

Asserting I AM

Jesus keeps teaching us about how to be ourselves in the grace of God in the face of a world in which the powers mostly believe in themselves. I think the pendulum might swing back, as it has in the past, toward right-brain awareness. And I hope the church, presented by us and millions around the world, will push that pendulum hard by being ourselves in truth and love. Iain McGilchrist seems like a good person with whom to team up in that cause.

He lives on the Isle of Skye off the western coast of Scotland — very trendy, but also still off the beaten path. I imagine him as a tweedy philosopher lighting his pipe with a twig from the fire.  I think his sensibilities reflect Robert Louis Stevenson’s lyrics to the Skye Boat Song:

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Like I think McGilchrist does, my clients often have an old, unnamable tune emanating from their right brain that gives them a feeling that something has been lost. They are on the boat to someplace unknown looking for their lost selves when they come to therapy. They soon recall how their soul imagines sailing over the horizon to someplace better. They can’t help it.

As soon as they let their imagination sail, their left brain often kicks in with innumerable obstacles to why they can’t embark. These days it is all about the “economy” (a left-brain invention assumed to form the parameters of possibility). Then it is all about their own incapacity (often scientifically verified on the internet). Then it might be their situation (racial or education challenged) and their unbelief. The last one is probably primary.

Like the Pharisees degrading the uniqueness of the Son of God, so many dear people I know degrade their own uniqueness as a child of God. Unlike Jesus, they do not matter-of-factly assert it and confront all the other challenges from that basis. Their brain is out of balance with their out-of-balance society. But they know that something more is possible; they can feel it, and they press on.

Is there anything that does not meet the “eye” of the left brain?

Western Culture has slowly been taken over by the ascendant features of our left brains. The left hemisphere is the powerful home of language and so analytic thought and so science. The sometimes-maligned “right brain” is the brain’s home for the “big picture” as well as the “right now;” it is also, apparently, where our music, empathy and religion are generated.

The Culture War we are in has a lot of wacky features, often personified by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. But  the “red” side may have more substance to it, all over the world, than it is usually credited in my “bluer” territory. Science is great, but people feel pushed around by science. Language is the essence of human connection, but when it is forced into the service of making boundaries and punishing people for saying (or thinking) the wrong thing, it does the opposite of connecting. My clients who don’t want to be vaccinated because they don’t trust science or any of the authorities trying to talk them into it (like their therapist!) are often characterized as ignorant fools. I think they may be throwing out their health baby with their rebellious bathwater, but there is a lot of dirty bathwater to consider. They have a feeling that more is behind what is going on than meets the eye.

Is there more going on than meets they eye?

The book I am slowly reading, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is doing a great job of convincing me that my own unease with the way my betters have presented knowledge and have made laws in service to only half our brains. [Click pic for summary]. There is, indeed, more going on than the left brain can see, when it is left alone to dominate.

I want to engage the other half of my brain, the fundamental right half, which has generally been sublimated for the sake of human, materialist achievement. My clients of color and all those lovely, impoverished people I have visited all over the world, even the ones who made it clear I represented “The Great Satan” of the United States (which I did not!), operate in a much less one-side-of-the-brain fashion. They rarely make superb weapons, but they are more in touch with what it means to be human and, as a result, more accessible to God. Do you also feel that you are having endless arguments with people instead of relating? Are you tired of pastors telling you to “Get out of your head and into your heart” even as they make a careful analysis of scripture?

Albert Einstein said there is more than meets the eye of science — and rationality, in general:

“The supreme task of the physicist is the discovery of the most general elementary laws from which the world-picture can be deduced logically. But there is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance, and this Einfühling [literally, empathy or ‘feeling one’s way in’] is developed by experience.” *

Einstein accepted his left-brain task of logical deduction and discovered things scientists are still unpacking. He never told anyone how to make an atomic bomb, but his famous equation E=mc2 explained how the energy could be released in one. Sure enough, an atom bomb became the logical extension of his brilliance in our left-brain-boundaried world. This happened even though the revered Einstein led people to see beyond the limits of science and to feel their way back into the  intuition and other wonders that mainly reside in the right-hemisphere of each of our brains.

The Bible had this argument before we needed to argue about it again

Ian Gilchrist, the author of The Master and His Emissary, spends a lot of time piling up the science that demonstrates how a system enclosed within the structure of the left brain might get trapped into thinking it was complete in itself. Try on this quote:

“The existence of a system of thought dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning. In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates – except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry; just as in its own terms rationality cannot break out of rationality, to an awareness of the necessity of something else, something other than itself, to underwrite its existence – except by following Gödel’s logic to its conclusion. ** Language in itself (to this extent the post-modern position is correct) can only refer to itself, and reason can only elaborate, “unpack” the premises it starts with. But there can be no evidence within reason that yields the premises from which reason must begin, or that validates the process of reasoning itself – those premises, and the leap of faith in favour of reason, have to come from behind and beyond, from intuition or experience.“

Political “progressives,” like those with whom I travel, are often just making a left-brain argument in honor of Jesus. They are just moral agents within the domination system of rationality.

But their justice-loving Bible clearly says:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe (1 Cor 1:20-21)….”What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, [is] what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:9-10).

That is a splendidly intuitive, right-brain piece of poetry debunking the wisdom systems of the world (like modern science) whenever they masquerade as ends in themselves.

You can hear Paul undermining the primacy of language, as well, whenever it creates a closed system. As he says above, his “foolish” message about God’s work in Jesus can hardly find a place to rest in known lexicons! Later on, in Chapter 14, he teaches about speaking in tongues, the language that is “out of the left brain’s mind,” a right brain expression in direct connection with God which short circuits the left-brain control system and logic making.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also (1 Cor 14:14-15).

When my “conservative” brothers and sisters want to stick to the letter of the Bible, they are really just surrendering to the worldly project of Europeans who got caught up in themselves and decided they were the central feature of the world, armed with their arguments (and weaponry) to subdue the earth according to their godless logic, describing everything in black and white, including people.

I just wanted to give you a taste of the education Gilchrist is giving me.  I suspect as you read his book you would also feel like your gut feelings were being verified. After all, you studied the Bible, experienced things unseen by human wisdom and may have spoken in tongues! The church is all about music, art, poetry and experiencing all the wonders the right brain is organized to facilitate.

Life in Christ is being squeezed from within the church and without. When Hildegard of Bingen was doing her science, art and philosophy in about 1133 — and leading as a brilliant woman, it was a right-brain outburst that almost got her thrown out of the patriarchal church, which was just starting to get a rationalistic ball rolling. That ball barreled right through the pious Rene Descartes who concluded “I think, therefore I am,” and it rolled right down to the very religious Joe Biden who quickly hung a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the Oval Office when he got there to signal that science would guide him. I think a lot of people, many of whom are Jesus followers, feel they’ve been run over quite a few times, themselves.

If any of you resonated with any of this, what do you think and feel? This might not be the best place for a dialogue, but we certainly need one.

______

* Planck, M. Where is Science Going? (with a preface by Albert Einstein), trans. J. Murphy, Allen & Unwin, London, 1933.

** Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that are concerned with the limits of provability in formal axiomatic theories. These results, published by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics. Wikipedia