Monday, 3 September 2012

Split-brain Anglicanism

Is there a link between the two sides of the human brain and the division which runs down the centre of modern Christianity?

I need to read Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and the Emissary. It’s author says it ‘argues that the division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence, making possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values’. I’ve just been filing a recent discussion of the book by Mark Vernon in The Tablet ( which make it clear that this isn’t an idea that the left brain is rational and the right brain emotional.

Rather what Gilchrist appears to think is going on is a left brain whose ‘personality’ seeks precision and certainty, putting in an order the knowable it has encountered; without this we would be unable to navigate our way around anything. Meanwhile the right brain has a ‘personality’ which is simply more open, making new connections, exhibiting ‘negative capability’; without this we would be imprisoned by the inevitably partial maps with which we operate.

The suggestion is that we need both kinds of attention to survive: the narrow conceptualising focus of the left brain and the open engagement of the right brain; the ability to stand back and to continue to be a participant at the same time; a definite distant view but not from a final undetached position.

What struck me about this is the way it parallels the ‘metaphors about the extreme danger those of us in the Church of England have been in from the beginning when we engage in the theological enterprise’, to quote a letter of mine published in Theology in 2000. Examples I used included ‘a tightrope with infallibility on one side and apostasy on the other’ (Paul Avis 1986) and ‘between the Scylla of free-floating spirituality and the Charybdis of over-reactive fundamentalism’ (Advisory Board of Ministry 1996).

It is something I traced in Doctrine Commission reports: ‘if we apply words to God in their ordinary literal or univocal sense, then we all too easily make God in our own image and fall into idolatory; if we use them in an entirely different or equivocal sense, then we have no reason for using one word rather than another, and we are lost in agnosticism’ (1976) and there being ‘no satisfactory way of avoiding [problems] by the sectarian or by the latitudinarian route’ (1981).

So I wrote about ‘the dangers for conservatives of falling into idolatry, infallibility, over-reactive fundamentalism and sectarianism’ and ‘the dangers faced by liberals of falling into agnosticism, apostasy, free-floating spirituality and latitudinarianism’ while ‘I continue to long for pieces of internal Anglican polemic which actually take the two dangers equally seriously’.

Now, might McGilchrist’s analysis help? Do these tensions in Anglicanism simply reflect tensions in all integrated thinking and living? Is it only isolated left brain working which is stuck with the formulations on which we depend to know? Is it only isolated right brain working which gets lost in the endless possibilities it isn’t safe to ignore? Is it only (normal!) whole brain living which is essential if we are to navigate round all this?

Of course, those who have engaged in theories of language have already been on to much of this, so I ought to go back to those next. What I have begun to read is Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope and Poetry. I keep getting distracted by following up the individual poems to which he pays attention. But (part from his treatment of language, symbol, faith and imagination) I’ve already spotted at the very beginning that what he identifies as the Enlightenment dilemma matches step for step my Theology quotations:

... the Christian faith , which was forced to choose sides in this divide, either to be relegated to something subjective, not there, essentially made up, or to become a pseudo-science, reducing the great mysteries embedded in the ancient story-telling of scripture to quantifiable exactitudes, patient only of a literal interpretation. Theology felt itself forced to choose between increasingly vague and amorphous liberalism, happy to keep reinventing the faith, and increasingly strident fundamentalism, which tries to treat the vast subtle poem of scripture as a single scientific treatice whose every word is literally and only literally true...

The picture of the Judgement of Solomon comes from our visit to the Burrell Collection.


stan said...

Hello Peter. We enjoyed your talk at St Nicolas today. We found it very interesting. Best wishes ..... Stan

Peter Mullins said...

Thanks, Stan. I enjoyed doing it. I've just posted two pictures from the tour we did at St George's a couple of hours earlier.