Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Hemisphere Short of a Brain.

In 1995 I sent a rather tedious article to the leaders of my church entitled “The Lie of the Land”: it related religious expressions to the left/right partitioning of the brain (Note to self: Don’t bother next time). The left/right brain split is a scientific icon that has entered popular culture and has become a rather distorted caricature of the actual situation. The true picture is a little more complicated than the icon suggests. However, the notion of a distinction between an analytical left brain and an intuitive right brain is an apt symbol and metaphor for a pervasive cultural and temperamental division, a division that I’ve tried to express in a thousand ways: e.g. knowledge verses feeling, interpretation vs. face value, head vs. heart, rationalism vs. fideism, Morlocks vs. Eloi.. etc. In my article I related this partitioning to the split in Evangelical Christianity between charismatic and non-charismatic. A mildly charismatic ethos now actually pervades mainstream evangelicalism; the traditional strict and particular evangelical remnant having gone their own way. The latter have a tendency to gather themselves into small puritanical enclaves who dignify their self marginalization with thoughts of being the protestant heroic last stand against the Roman antichrist conspiracy of the end times.

Since 1995 I hadn’t seen anyone else relate left/right brain structure to the contemporary Christian scene until I read the Book “Saving Christianity” by Hilary Wakemen. Wakemen is a liberal Christian who believes the traditional Christian doctrines that place a premium on a belief in the miraculous should be raided only for their symbolic meaning rather than any assumed literal meaning, a meaning that for many fundamentalist Christians has become a Shibboleth. Wakeman is what I call a ‘constitutional’ believer: Just as a literal monarch no longer exists in the UK and has been replaced with a symbolic constitutional monarch, likewise many of the literal Christian doctrines have been replaced by symbolic meanings in the minds of liberal Christians.

Liberal Christians are usually more self aware than EPC (Evangelical/Charismatic/Pentecostal) Christians. (EPC Christians often make a virtue out of an unquestioning non-reflexive gullibility and equate criticism with cynicism. In fact recently an EPC leader stated that he much prefers gullibility to ‘cynicism’). So I wasn’t surprised to see that Wakemen was aware of the left/right brain metaphor. Neither was I surprised by the ironic way she applied this metaphor: For her EPC, with it doctrinal shibboleths, is too left brain oriented! This didn’t surprise me because Liberal Christian Don Cupitt made a similar ironic plea against the traditional ‘propositional faith’ way back in the early 80s in his 1984 book “The Sea of Faith”. In fact Cupitt is so ‘constitutional’ in his faith that he is arguably an atheist! But why are Wakeman and Cupitt being ironic here? : because EPC, with its very ‘right brain’ swoon for Jesus worship has had a tendency to accuse the intellectual liberal Christians and their careful scholarship of precisely the same over emphasis on ‘head knowledge’ - that’s their term for left brain stuff! (sorry I can’t cite anyone here, but it’s something I have become aware of).

But there is more irony to come. The post evangelical, post charismatic emerging churches are also very wary of a ‘left brain’ Christianity, and are inclined to indulge in the same irony of accusing EPC Christians of being too left brained! See this thread on the Network Norwich web site where I had a brief encounter with what I guess to be an emerging church Christian. This Christian took issue with Network Norwich columnist James Knight (a Christian who attends the very Charismatic Proclaimers church) for portraying a faith that is too taken up with competing truth claims and propositions. Emerging church, with their touchy-feely postmodern communal neo-ritualism, are seeking to connect with the Divine with their ‘right brains’ rather than their ‘left brains’. And yet to compound the irony James Knight, in a later article, considers an authentic faith in the Divine to be over and above a mere propositional apprehension of God!

So everyone is accusing everyone else of being too left brained, too intellectual in their faith and blaming the poor old enlightenment for our religious angst and of “emptying the haunted air and gnomed mine” (Keats). The ironies here are exquisite, but all in all it’s hardly surprise, surprise. Religious leaders, especially EPC leaders, are hard put to it to interpret the meaning of contemporary science. Ostensibly science paints a mechanical picture of the world, or at least a world reducible to mathematical patterns of elementals: a seemingly a mindless dehumanized cosmic weltanschauung in which the mystique traditionally accorded to humanity looks to a spurious anomaly. Many religious and mystically minded people instinctually feel that there is something missing from this worldview and their knee jerk response is to retreat into the non-analytical, the holistic and the apparently irreducible world of the intuitive; In short the ‘right brain’.

For myself I have always been in favour of a) Understanding the conflict between ‘left and right brain’ expressions b) Looking for some kind of synthesis rather placing a premium on one over and above the other. However, I have always had a soft spot for a ‘nuts and bolts’ mechanical view of the cosmos (comes from too much play with Meccano as a child), and yet I believe the Philosopher John Searle to have a very compelling point when he suggests that the cosmos has present in it an irreducibly first person ontology.

As far as unraveling these tricky issues is concerned I don’t think EPC is going to be much help as long as it continues to glory in an uncritical unselfconsciousness. Although one doesn’t have to be stupid to be an evangelical, sometimes it helps. The largely post-charismatic, post, evangelical Emerging church are still on their honey moon with a youthful postmodernism and are not likely to be of much help at the moment. The best bet probably lies with the liberals: They seem to be self aware enough and to have no guilt complex or shame connected with intellectualism. However, the constitutional God of Don Cupitt is too extreme for me and looks to be cop-out, and a road to nowhere.

In some ways the overall picture daunts me in other ways it excites me. It daunts me because the enigma of the relationships between mechanism and personality, and between noumena, cognita and dreams seem to present insurmountable problems. And yet the whole scene is exciting because of the sheer mystery of it all. Mystery, like food, is for devouring; but like food there must be an endless supply of it and it looks to me as if there is enough mystery here to last for an eternity. “Man doesn’t live by bread alone...”

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