Is it primarily, or perhaps exclusively, the church on which we have to rely in order for western ‘men’ to re-acquaint themselves, and their sons, nephews, grandsons, and fathers and grandfathers, with their right brain?
In her most recent book, The Lost Art of Scripture, Karen Armstrong writes these words about the right hemisphere of the brain:
…(T)he right hemisphere of the brain is essential to the creation of poetry, music and religion. It is involved with the formation of our sense of self and has a broader, less focused mode of attention then the left hemisphere, which is more pragmatic and selective. Above all, it sees itself as connected to the outside world, whereas the left hemisphere holds aloof from it. Specializing in language, analysis and problem-solving, the left side of our brain supresses information that it cannot grasp conceptually. The right hemisphere, however, whose functions tended in the past to be overlooked by scientists, has a holistic rather than analytical vision; it sees each thing in relation to the whole and perceives the interconnectedness of reality. It is, therefore, at home with metaphor, in which disparate entities become one, while the left hemisphere tends to be literal and to wrest things from their context so that it can categorize and make use of them. News reaches the right hemisphere first, where it appears as part of an interlocking unity; it then passes to the left hemisphere, where it is defined, analysed and its use assessed. But the left can produce only a reductive version of complex reality, and once processed, this information is passed back to the right hemisphere, where we see it-insofar as we can-in the context of the whole.
Our modern focus on the empirical and objective insights provided by the left hemisphere has unquestionably been of immense benefit to humanity. It has expanded our mental and physical horizons, dramatically enhanced our understanding of the world, greatly reduced human suffering, and enabled more people than ever before to experience physical and emotional well-being. Hence, modern education tends increasingly to privilege the scientific endeavour and marginalise what we call the humanities. This, however, is regrettable because it means that we are in danger of cultivating only half of our mental capacities fully. Just as it would be insane to ignore the logic analysis and rationality produced by the left hemisphere, psychologists and neurologists tell us that to function creatively and safely in the world, its activities must be integrated with those of the right.
The left brain is by nature competitive; largely ignorant of the work of the right, it tends to be overconfident. The right hemisphere, however, has a more comprehensive vision of reality which, as we have seen, we can never grasp fully. It is more at home with embodiment and the physical than the left. The left brain is essential to our survival and enables us to investigate and master our environment, but it can offer us only an abstract representation of the complex information it receives from the right. Because the right hemisphere is less self-centred, it is more realistic than the left hemisphere. Its wide-ranging vision enables it to hold different views of reality simultaneously and, unlike the left, it does not form certainties based on abstraction. Profoundly attuned to the Other—to everything that is not ourselves—the right hemisphere is alert to relationships. IT is the seat of empathy, pathos and our sense of justice. Because it can see an-other point of view, it inhibits our natural selfishness. (Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture, Rescuing the Sacred Texts, Alfred Knopf, New York Toronto, 2019, p. 5-6)
Traditionally, the sacred was experienced as a presence hat permeates the whole of reality—humans, animals, plants, stars, wind and rain. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) carefully referred to it as ‘something’ because it was indefinable and, therefore, transcended propositional thought. He had experienced
a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky and in the mind of man (From “Tintern Abbey,” 1798)
He has, he says, ‘learned’ to acquire this insight. We might say he achieved it by deliberately cultivating a right-hemispheric awareness by-for a limited time- suppressing the analytical activities of the left. When people tried to access then ‘ultimate,’ therefore, they were not submitting to an alien, omnipotent and distant ‘being’ but were attempting to achieve a more authentic mode of existence. WE shall see that right up to the early modern period, sages, poets, and theologians insisted that what we call ‘God,’ ‘Brahman,’ of ‘Dao’ was ineffable, indescribable and unknowable—and yet was within them: a constant source of life, energy and inspiration. Religion—and scripture—were, therefore, art forms that helped them to live in relation to this transcendent reality and somehow embody it. (Op. Cit. p. 9)
The notion of embodying the transcendent reality seems to have suffered a fatal blow at the hands of our ‘left-brain-shifted-and-now-fossilized’ culture. And the church, too, has fallen into the trap of its narrowness. It is not merely the pre-eminence of the parish treasurer, the guardian, law enforcement officer and custodian of whatever few pennies (or millions of trust funds) that contributes to this chop-block. It is the literal, weaponizing of the words, concepts and themes of scripture that ensnares so much of contemporary religion.
“In the early modern West, people began to read the narratives of the Bible as thought they we logoi, factual accounts of what happened. But…scriptural narratives never claimed to be accurate descriptions of the creation of the world or the evolution of species….Because it does not conform to modern scientific and historical norms, many people dismiss scripture as incredible and patently ‘untrue,’ but they do not apply the same criteria to a novel, which yields profound and valuable insight by means of fiction. Nor do they dismiss the poetic genius of Milton’s Paradise Lost because its account of the creation of Adam does not accord with the evolutionary hypothesis. A work of art, be it a novel, a poem or a scripture, must be read according to the laws of its genre and like any artwork scripture requires the disciplined cultivation of an appropriate mode of consciousness.” (Op. cit. p. 12-13)
The capacity and the willingness of the leaders of mainline churches to accommodate a version of scripture that comports with the left brain’s logic, analysis, and stability, at the expense of the right brain’s capacity, willingness and delight in poetry, creativity imagination and attunement to the Other. Naturally, laity are raised and enculturated in the principles, precepts and denotations of the left brain….that is the basis on which their households are organized, their corporations and their philanthropics are operated, and their personal lives are assessed.
And because of the literal and metaphoric deference to the logos, the rational, the empirical and the judgemental, including the psychological default into what Hillman notes is the categorizing of aberrant behaviour, attitudes and perceptions into either “sickness” or “evil” that has resulted in the imprisonment, not only of men but of women and children to a lesser extent.
It says here, admittedly somewhat tentatively, that men are more dependent on the left brain and its benefits, and are more comfortable in passing by, ignoring, and perhaps even denying (defying) the right brain’s capacity and benefits of relationship, wholeness, ambiguity and compassion. And this convergence of management theory, executive responsibility, personnel assessment and their combined capacity to “write” the curriculum vitae of each individual leader, further compacts the vision and the imagination and the capacity to explore the more ineffable, the more ultimate and the more unknown and unknowable, the sine quo non of religion, faith, scripture and the disciplined spiritual life.
How often has a church leader expressed contempt for the things of the right brain while upholding the categories and the capacities of the left brain as sacred by itself? How often has a bishop disdained the vagaries of the spirit, in favour of the political correctness of the current cultural debate, for example, to include the gay community as members, and later as clergy, or to permit the church to engage in gay marriages? How often has a bishop fawned over the desperate plight of a well-endowed church donor, while ignoring the plight of the dispossessed? How often has a bishop intervened in an ecclesial tragedy, in the form of a military general, in order to smooth over the dramatically frayed nerves and sensibilities of a disoriented, betrayed and mourning congregation?
And, these questions to male faith community leaders are just the tip of the iceberg that haunts the streets, the banks, the real estate offices, the doctors’ officers and the legal and accounting offices on the North American continent at least. In the barricading of the right brain, along with our innate capacity to envision, even if incompletely, another perception of ourselves and especially of the Other, we risk losing not only our own profound and rich and compassionate humanity, but also are complicit in a conversation and a culture that perceives the other as enemy.
“Enemies everywhere,” even if those enemies are considered to be playing ‘by the rules’ of whatever game is being played, is a mind-set that can only infantilize the individual participant, as well as the other. It is only through opening to and embracing and celebrating the right brain, including being conscious of its own limits, that men especially, might re-gain the 20-20 vision that a bifocal (right and left hemisphere) perception offers.
Only if and when we men are interested in and committed to the reality of the intimate relationship between what we call humanity and nature, rather than its defiant and permanent separation, that we can and will open the door to embracing thought processes, perceptions and attitudes that welcome both the sacred and the secular not as enemies but as complimentary energies that give life to each of our moments.
Striving for a mytho-poetic bifocal vision, perception and the attitudes that naturally flow from such a rich embrace of the whole of reality can and will also open our discussions of the most pressing, and problematic and seemingly untangled personal and political knots of complexity, to far more creative, compassionate and ultimately effective options.
Our current debates about body cameras, and banning choke-holds, and defunding law enforcement while shifting funds to social services, all of which warrant consideration, however, need to be seen as bricks on a foundation of a very different metaphysic, and a very much more complex intellectual and belief framework based on a balanced inclusion of both right and left hemispheres of our brains.
There is a growing cadre of outstanding female leaders facing both cameras and public scrutiny while discharging public responsibility for both law enforcement and the long-overdue racial equality. It is no accident, nor mere fluke, nor a one-off that these women command the public respect. They, by their nature, and by their formation have been aware of their deep and profound and undeniable “relationship” to the universe, to nature and to the divine. They are at one with their right and their left brains.
And rather than reduce any of their various and specific policy proposals to whether or not the budget will accommodate it, the men sitting at the same tables would do well to listen, not only with their left brains, but with their right brains as well, to the wholeness of the perceptions, including the long-term visions and compassion and empathy embodied in those proposals. This inflection point in history around the globe should not pass as just another policy fight between the political right-wing ideologues and the left-wing ideologues, nor between the law-and-order ideologues and the more liberal proponents.
Civilization, including all of our churches, and their impoverished and curtailed leadership, have access to the divinity within, as one of, if not the most potent and creative and compassionate and ineffable sources of love and empathy, if only they can and will open the eyes of their own poet, artist and creative genius. The human ethos, given the dire threats we all face as one, demands of our leaders of all political and religious stripes, an authentic grasp of their own ineffable divinity and the richness of the depth and breadth of the right brain. And in their reading, and their reflecting, their prayer time and in their public utterances, the gifts of such personal discipline can and will open the hearts and minds of those to whom they are charged with serving and protecting.
And the Other will be as important as the “self” in all of their deliberations…
And there will not be a wimp among them, of either gender!