“The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open.”
When James Watson first saw X-ray diffraction pictures of DNA, he sensed he was on to something big. When Iain McGilchrist observes how the human brain’s two hemispheres operate, he feels the same way. What does he see?
In his fascinating book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist writes how the human brain’s two hemispheres operate in a back and forth collaborative relationship. It begins in the right hemisphere where we come in direct contact with reality. The right hemisphere frames our experiences, creating what McGilchrist calls “self-awareness” or perception.1
The process then moves over to the left hemisphere. The left responds to the right by putting words to experiences and returning the process to the right for refinement. McGilchrist calls this process “reverberative.” It’s easier to imagine it as a reverberating relationship – the right leading, perceiving, giving to the left, the left crafting something, giving back to the right, and creating something new.
Tragically, the Enlightenment shifted the starting point. Enlightenment thinkers had a particular affinity for language and so does the left hemisphere. They were also suspicious of images. The West became a lead-with-the-left, word-based, image-deprived culture. This presents a problem. When the left hemisphere starts the thinking process, McGilchrist says it operates as though it is “bringing things about” entirely on its own. The left ultimately says to the right: who needs you?
Acting snooty is bad but there’s a bigger problem. Acting on its own, the left hemisphere becomes self-enclosed and unaware. Cut off from the right hemisphere and fresh experiences, the left essentially learns nothing new. It is limited to recycling old stuff. “The left-hemisphere process consistently seems to run up against the limits of its own method and needs to transcend them.” According to McGilchrist, transcending requires the right lifting “the left beyond, to something new, something ‘Other’ than itself.” As McGilchrist writes these words, he senses he’s on to something big.
If the right hemisphere “pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves,” McGilchrist concludes that “something Other” must exist. The right hemisphere can’t conjure something out of nothing. It’s a remarkable conclusion since McGilchrist is an agnostic. What might this “Other” be?
McGilchrist suggests “the 2,000-year old tradition, that of Christianity,” might be a way “to approach a spiritual Other.”2 That’s intriguing, as the Christian faith holds that God exists as three Persons – Father, Son, and Spirit – sharing one nature. They share a reverberating relationship – receiving, giving, and creating. Human beings are made in God’s image. We are sub-creators. We share a reverberating relationship with God and others – receiving, giving of ourselves, and creating. This seems to account for the human brain’s wiring. A reverberating relationship between hemispheres is the only way we learn new things and create. When Iain McGilchrist sees the hemispheres operating in this back and forth manner, he “sees through” – straight to Christianity.
Because everyone is made in the image of God, everyone has the capacity to “see through” all sorts of stuff. An agnostic like McGilchrist can observe how hemispheres operate and see through this dynamic to deeper truths. A Christian like C. S. Lewis could write, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”3 And the mystic William Blake could warn of believing lies when we don’t see through the eye.
This Life’s dim Windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro’, the Eye.
Since God gave everyone the capacity to “see through,” faith ought to be “see through.” A “see-through” faith can, for instance, see a grand opportunity in Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart. Murray is also an agnostic. He notes how the four founding virtues, including religiosity, are in steep decline in America. Murray doesn’t envision a revival of religiosity but instead believes “the more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated. The institutions surrounding marriage, vocation, community, and faith will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives.”4 What an opportunity for the church.
Churches holding to a “see-through” faith will see how neuroscience validates the age-old Christian understanding of human nature. In living this faith, others also might “see through” these facts to the Christian faith. Like James Watson, a few mouths might fall open. That would mean their right hemisphere is lifting the left to something new and beyond. These folks might even begin to see the church as a critical resource through which human beings lead satisfying lives. That would be an eye-opener.
1 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), location 1545.
2 McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, location 11478.
3 C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1980), p. 140.
4 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 300.