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Faith needs right-brain thinking  

by
14 April 2023

Iain McGilchrist’s thesis can be applied fruitfully to religious beliefs, says Hugh Dickinson

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I SUSPECT that it is not very often that someone in their tenth decade reads a book that entirely changes the way in which they see the world, and their understanding of human history.

I have to stand up and say that this recently happened to me. The book(s) in question are by Iain McGilchrist: The Master and his Emissary (Yale, second edition, 2012); and, more recently, The Matter With Things (Perspectiva, 2021). The latter is in two volumes, each about 1300 pages, with copious notes and references. They have sold in the hundreds of thousands all around the world.

Dr McGilchrist has spent 25 years analysing the respective tasks of the two halves of the brain (Comment, 18 January 2013). In summary, the right hemisphere (RH) is wide-ranging, imaginative, creative, poetic, fascinated by the arts; it is prepared to take risks and to go with the flow. The left hemisphere (LH) is meticulous about detail, grammar, spelling, and conventional rules; it loves tools, machines, spreadsheets, and orthodoxy. To summarise: LH loves maps; RH loves exploring the world.

Dr McGilchrist’s diagnosis of the malaise of the modern world is that LH has taken over and tried to eviscerate all RH activity. LH knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

LH thinks that the purpose of education is to train people to be useful workers and, through vigorous competition, to obtain well-paid jobs. RH thinks that education’s purpose is to make fine, happy, creative, mature, morally courageous, emotionally intelligent, co-operative human beings. Margaret Thatcher’s announcement that “There is no such thing as society” is an LH broadside to sink the RH ship called social conscience.

 

WHAT has all this to offer readers of the Church Times? Let me offer one example which reveals a potential theological concern.

A recent pope announced that, without certainty, our faith has no foundation. The absurdity of that claim is that, if we have certainty, what is the point of faith? Faith is a willingness to trust the river of God’s grace to carry us into a possibly risky future, but one in which we can live as citizens of God’s Kingdom and agents of his love.

The pope might have meant “faith in the Roman Catholic Church”. But, sadly, history has proved that the Church cannot be infallibly trustworthy — in fact, it has often deprived people of their freedom by trying to stop lay people thinking for themselves, or taking any risks. Jesus told the Jewish people that he had come to set them free. They said that they did not need his gift. Trouble comes when the LH domain takes command and tries to banish RH humanity.

An issue much closer to home, and much more contentious, is the nature of biblical inspiration. Some Christian people argue that, if the Bible is an inspired text, it must be literally true in every word and letter. That is a fundamental dogma among some strict Evangelicals. They define themselves as “biblical Christians”, for whom the word “fundamentalist” has been coined.

The problem with that belief is that it distorts the normal meaning of “inspired” in everyday usage. “Inspired” and “inspiring” are meanings joined at the hip. Music and art can be inspiring; landscapes can be awe-inspiring; heroism and self sacrifice, a film or production of King Lear, a teacher or a cellist, and a performance of Swan Lake are inspiring; a mathematical equation, or a pietà, or great architecture is inspiring. But in no case are they said to be infallibly true. In fact, the great physicist Paul Dirac once said that it more important that a mathematical equation should be beautiful than that it should be true. If is beautiful, it will turn out later to be true.

The fundamentalist position is a typically LH stratagem to avoid abandoning old dogmas when faced with challenging new circumstances. Uncertainty is unbearable. And I want to reclaim my own right to the title “biblical Christian”. I have read the Bible closely for 70 years, and have memorised by heart many of its truly inspiring texts.

 

THERE are more dangerous clouds on the horizon than biblical fundamentalism, however. Human liberty is under threat. Truth is up for grabs. Dictators such as President Xi of China decide what is true; his regime is called “totalitarian” because he wants to have total control of the thoughts and minds of all peoples. The horrors inflicted on the Uyghur and other, mostly Muslim, minority groups, in north-west China, are just coming to light. They reveal the true nature of a totalitarian LH regime, which should make everyone living in the “free world” sit up and take notice.

The only place where truth is necessarily sacrosanct is surely in the physicist’s laboratory; but the Communist Party puts scientists in prison if their results do not follow the party line.

What can we do? I suspect that Dr McGilchrist would say, “Go on making the case for RH living, RH celebrations, RH education, RH spirituality, RH defence, and celebration of the Natural World. Show David Attenborough’s wonderful films. Call out all LH bigotry, LH legalism, LH ideology, LH capitalist avarice.”

Whether that will make much difference we do not know. But, like Iain McGilchrist, I believe magna est veritas et praevalebit. As a Christian, I believe that God has the final Word.

 

The Very Revd Hugh Dickinson is a former Dean of Salisbury.

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