In July of 2019, Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and the person largely credited with advancing the “purity culture” movement, shocked the evangelical Christian world when he announced on Instagram, “I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
Just a few weeks later, Marty Sampson, worship leader and songwriter for Hillsong, sent a second shockwave as he likewise proclaimed, “Time for some real talk… I’m genuinely losing my faith… and it doesn’t bother me… like, what bothers me now is nothing… I am so happy now, so at peace with the world… it’s crazy.”
Then in May of 2020, Jon Steingard, lead singer of the popular Christian band Hawk Nelson, posted “After growing up in a Christian home, being a pastor’s kid, playing and singing in a Christian band, and having the word ‘Christian’ in front of most of the things in my life – I am now finding that I no longer believe in God.”
Hidden behind this wave of well-known individuals is a growing number of men and women who have quietly slipped away from the church, many simply finding new ways to practice their faith and others leaving behind faith entirely. A significant number of them had spent most of their lives in the church, some of them serving as leaders and pastors, before realizing that they could no longer reconcile their actions with what they truly believed.
In revealing words, Marty Sampson went on to say, “I want genuine truth. Not the ‘I just believe it’ kind of truth. Science keeps piercing the truth of every religion. Lots of things help people change their lives, not just one version of God. Got so much more to say, but for me, I keeping it real.”
Real. A word often cited by those struggling with faith.
In Part 1 of this series I noted what I consider to be the underlying thread behind people leaving their faith communities: people have a need to believe in something that is real and they’re simply not finding it in the church.
Also in Part 1, I explained some of the neuroscience, combined with harmful theology, that I believe has contributed to this, particularly in Western society. I highly encourage you to read it before proceeding, as it will make a lot more sense of what I have to say in the upcoming sections. For those who have already read it, here is a shortened summary:
- Split brain surgeries and experimentation demonstrated that the left and right hemispheres of the brain can express two different wills, including attitudes toward belief in God.
- The left hemisphere, which handles the particulars, is the primary source for language as well as for utility, analysis, systemization, clarity, rationalism, certainty, and literalness. Caught up in the details, it is disposed to not seeing outside itself and, therefore, has an inclination toward either/or thinking, division and control.
- The right, on the other hand, sees the individual parts in relationship to each other and to the whole. It, therefore, is the side for context, metaphor, emotional understanding, empathy, love, art, music, intuition, and being able to see that which is “Other” (including the divine). In contrast to the left hemisphere, it tends to accept ambiguity and paradox.
- Both the left and right hemispheres are meant to operate together and are necessary in order to perceive that which is ultimately real.
- In the West, however (particularly since the age of Enlightenment), we have tended to live with a split-brain, left-hemisphere dominated, view of the world.
- Left-brain thinking, without the counterbalancing check of the right, can become “ultimately lifeless” (McGilchrist 174), “mechanical,” “utilitarian in ethic” and “over-confident of its own take on reality” (McGilchrist 209).
- A split-brain view of the world can also result in two separate realities – the secular and the sacred. N.T. Wright labels this as “Epicureanism” – the view that God is distant from the normal operations of the world and only occasionally steps in to do “miracles.”
- In contrast, the more historic understanding of God as “Being” or “Ground of Being” (the “I Am”) sees God as the ever present active source behind all natural laws (the “Am” as seen in the sciences) AND all relational laws (the “I” as seen in love, empathy, beauty, the arts, etc.). Both sets of laws work simultaneously together.
- The either/or tendency of split-brain, left-dominated thinking makes it difficult to see the paradox of God and has resulted in the creation of a false line separating the “natural” from the “supernatural.” God resides in both.
- Because both hemispheres of the brain are necessary for knowing what is real, split-brain thinking is not sustainable for those attempting to remain true to their faith and the reality they experience. It creates a cognitive dissonance that generates a quiet discomfort for some in the church and causes others to walk away entirely.
To show that such split-brain thinking is beyond theoretical, in the rest of this article I will share ways I believe it has played out practically in the church, significantly impacting people’s faith.
As a note before I proceed, however, I realized midway through writing this that I had left the word “church” defined too broadly. While my thesis is that split-brain thinking has infected the entire Western church, there is simply not the time or space to address the symptoms within all its various streams.
The liberal or Mainline church, for example, was specifically born out of Enlightenment and rationalism, the substance of which psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist insists comes from left-brain dominated thinking; but it is already widely recognized that Mainline church attendance has long been in decline.
On the other hand, the conservative Evangelical church enjoyed a surge in attendance over recent decades. But even that has started to decline as Western society increasingly moves toward becoming “post-Christian.” While there is overlap and you will find occasional references to other streams, most examples I present will be geared toward split-brain thinking in the movement I have been a part of over the last 30 years – the Evangelical church.
Faith verses Science
For many years throughout the history of the Christian church, science and faith were seen to work in harmony. In fact, the church was often the impetus behind scientific advancements. A key teaching was that God revealed himself through not just one but two books: God’s Word (scripture) and God’s World (the natural universe he created). It was by engaging with and observing both that one could have a complete picture of the Creator.
However, ever since the infamous battle between Galileo and the Catholic church in the 1600s, further spurned by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in the 1800s, faith and science have been seen as largely at odds. Fueled by the either/or certainty of Enlightenment’s left hemisphere dominance, each began to compete for becoming the true vision of reality.
One of the primary reasons is the false supernatural line. As science began to advance at a rapid pace, natural explanations began to replace what was previously thought “supernatural.” Thus, as the sciences increased, God’s role decreased. Concerned about the spiritual world’s diminishing role (and also driven by a left-brain literal interpretation of the Bible – something I will cover later), those of faith started seeing certain scientific findings not only as counter to God’s involvement but as a threat to the divine’s very existence.
On the other end of the spectrum, many in the science community, propelled by empiricism, saw the right-brained “otherness” of divinity as a threat to the forward advancements of scientific achievement. Only through the controlled, systematized left-brain activity of the scientific method could one attain true objective reality, as opposed to trying to find it through the metaphorical “fantasy” world of the supernatural.
Commenting about the extreme ends of such debate, theologian N.T. Wright lamented,
“Just as Maggie Thatcher declared that the Socialist Workers’ Party on the one hand and the National Front on the other were actually ‘the left and right boots of fascism’, so the ranting atheists and the ranting six-day creationists are the left and right boots of a fundamentalism which is, ironically, more about the subjective quest for certainty in a confusing world than about any actual objective truth.” (Wright, “Wouldn’t You Love to Know?”)
Of course, the debate has extended beyond that of just the number of days of creation to topics such as evolution, environmental care, climate change, vaccines, anti-depressants, and now even the use of masks to prevent the spread of disease.
Presented with the certainty of two different versions of reality, people of faith (especially those entering college) often find themselves conflicted. Posed with an either/or choice, rather than finding comfort in the possibility of a two books theology, they either end up digging in their heels toward religion while rejecting scientific findings or they end up turning away from faith in order to rest in scientific consensus.
This is on top of the problem of mental illness. Confronted with a theology that says, “We don’t have a spirit of fear,” so we just need to have “faith” in order to find peace, joy and a “sound mind,” many suffering from mental illness do not receive the type of professional medical help essential for restoring their bodies.
On the other end, pushed by a society that often places too much reliance on science and medication alone, many don’t receive the type of spiritual help that is equally needed. The result is a growing number of people left suffering without a balanced approach to their well-being (body, mind and soul) and the church not seen as a viable part of the solution.
Because theology deals with that which is “other,” it’s tempting to think of church as primarily a right-brained activity. But that is far from the case, particularly in the West. One has only to look at the church’s push for orthodoxy and the development of disciplines such as “systematic theology” which originate out the left-hemisphere’s proclivity toward systematizing, categorizing and certainty.
This is not necessarily a bad thing as, remember, both hemispheres are essential for gaining a proper perspective of reality. The Christian church from its earliest start had to deal with people going “off the deep end,” so to speak, with individuals introducing wild teachings that did not accurately reflect that of Christ himself.
But issues arise when the left sided thinking dominates. From there it begins to develop a system of “sin management” as it categorizes what is sin and what is not, consequently creating a system of legalism that Christ sought to defeat. Lacking the empathy of the right hemisphere, it proclaims cold theological statements in the name of truth that often leave whole demographics of people feeling disenfranchised and trampled in shame.
Locked into certainties, it misses out on the mystery and paradoxes of God. Dominated by the need for control, it establishes positions of power for certain individuals and leaves others afraid to ask questions for fear they will be outed. And with a propensity for division, it creates denominations and causes church splits that are far from the unified church that Christ prayed for.
In his neuroscientific survey on the impact of split-brain, left-dominated thinking on the philosophical ages throughout history, McGilchrist wrote:
“…the Christian world was ‘positively overflowing with intellectual and rational argument’. It’s just that they deployed it on a legalistic framework for divinity…. What was lacking was any concern with the world in which we live…. Christianity, which is in one sense the most powerful mythos in advocacy of the incarnate world, and of the value of the individual, that the world has ever known, also ended up a force for conformity, abstraction, and the suppression of independent thought.” (McGilchrist 295)
In a recent example of the damage of left-brained theology, Wayne Grudem, seminary professor and author of one of the more widely read Systematic Theology books, stated in 2019 that he had changed his mind on the biblical grounds for divorce. Up to that point he had held to “the major Protestant view since the Reformation… that divorce is justified only in cases of adultery or in cases of desertion by an unbelieving spouse” (Lee).
However, after 43 years of teaching students one way, he heard several personal stories of “some very horrible cases of ongoing physical abuse that had persisted over decades, where the wife, who was a graduate of a Christian college and had met her husband at a Christian college, thought it was her Christian duty to remain silent about the abuse and remain in the marriage, and she endured longstanding suffering” (Lee). This caused Grudem to reevaluate the Greek words in scripture and resolve that the Bible could also allow for divorce in the case of abuse.
Now kudos to Grudem for tapping into his right-brained mode of empathy and admitting he was previously wrong, but it still means that for at least 43 years he and many other Protestant leaders (going back for centuries) had taught a systematized interpretation of scripture that caused devastating abuse to thousands of women.
In the past couple decades, the church has likewise been coming to terms with its treatment of racial minorities, sexual abuse victims, women in ministry, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It has had shifting views over the years on topics such as alcohol consumption, music, dancing, tattoos, gambling, psychotherapy, and medication. All of these, of course, have been justified at various times by what people have determined were definitive interpretations of scripture.
Joshua Harris’s renouncement of his Christian beliefs was precipitated by his coming to terms with the damage that purity culture had on so many people’s lives.
This opens up the question: just how many other theological certainties do we have in place that result in shame or human suffering – ones that we may someday simply, at the flip of a theological switch, decide were wrong?
What other systems have we put in place that create positions of abusive power within the body of Christ, all in the name of “correctness” and “accuracy?” What other characteristics do we attribute to the ways of God that fail to accurately portray the “I” part of God that is loving, compassionate and gracious and, thus, fall short of showing the God who is real?
This is not an argument against coming to rational conclusions based on careful study of scripture, but rather against the certainties with which we often hold them and the failure to embrace empathy and love as equally important parts of the equation.
It is not just Christian leaders who are to blame for perpetuating a picture of God dominated by the left hemisphere. Living in fear and seeking certainties, the laity equally demand bullet point answers to all of life’s problems. From their places in the pews to their buying habits at Christian booksellers, they eagerly become mass consumers of topics like: 10 Steps to Living Your Best Life Yet, 7 Keys to Finding Your Purpose, and How to Receive Financial Blessing by Being a Blessing to Others.
While such resources can provide encouragement and a certain “therapy for the soul,” by acquiring these step by step formulas, many individuals, in hopes of jumping ahead to the final solution for obtaining peace and joy, masterfully avoid having to live out the messiness of real relationship with an often mysterious and paradoxical God.
And when God doesn’t end up meshing with their boxed-in formulas and life doesn’t turn out as hoped, their faith begins to wane over versions of God that were never real in the first place.
“Context” is a function of the brain’s right hemisphere. Most of us already recognize, of course, the common problem of taking Bible verses “out of context.”
From being told you “can do all things through Christ” only to find out you cannot, in fact, do “all things,” to being instructed to “raise up a child in the way they should go,” only to have your child depart from that way, to promises that “the prayer of faith will save the sick,” only to have a loved one never get well, Bible verses have been pulled out in all kinds of messy ways that leave people disillusioned, shamed, and angry at God.
And, of course, verses have been used out of context in all sorts of cases to justify horrors such as slavery, genocide, and other forms of suppression and abuse.
Much is discussed about how verses need to be read in relation to the passages surrounding them as well as within the historical context of what was happening.
Perhaps less obvious is deciphering the specific mindset of the people as they recorded the various writings that became part of the collection known as the Bible.
If left-hemisphere dominated thinking is mainly a problem with modern Western society, we need to consider the possibility that the authors and subjects of the scriptures did not have the same split-brain views. In other words, not only did they speak and write in different languages but, with greater right-brain participation, they also likely had a different language of the mind.
Thus, good translation involves more than just Hebrew or Greek to English but interpreting the way people thought – or better yet, finding a way to get outside of our left-brain thinking into the more whole-brain thinking of the testament writers.
Legitimate criticism is made of liberal theology that often re-interprets scripture through the lens of modern rationalism. Over-confident in its own take on reality, as McGilchrist would put it (209), this left-brain outlook sees the testament writers (as well as early theologians) as primitive in their thinking and seeks to bring a more “enlightened” point of view to the text. Human society advances and, while we can learn from the past, progress is best made when we interpret these ancient texts through our now clearer understanding of the world.
But conservative theology, which in theory attempts to interpret through the lens of the author’s original intent, equally brings a modern point of view to the text.
One common problem is concordism, in which one reads modern science into the ancient writings; thus, the Bible becomes not just a theological explanation but a science book as well. For example, some read Noah’s flood as not just the account of God’s deliverance of a faithful servant, but as the scientific explanation for how dinosaurs became extinct (regardless of the fact that modern scientific consensus places dinosaurs and humans in different eras).
Closely related is the left-hemisphere’s tendency toward literalism. This “literal language” is the basis of modern historical studies, in which we seek to give an accurate and certain account of things that happened in the past – a positive development for sure. But this stands in stark contrast to the mindset of the early culture of the Bible writers who often used what I refer to as “myth language.”
What I mean by “myth” is not the modern sense of the word in which it is thought of as a false history or fictional fairy tale, but rather a style or genre of storytelling common to the ancient culture in which it was written.
People told mythologies as a right-brained way of making sense of the reality they experienced. Lacking the scientific knowledge we have today, they shared stories of various “gods” and their interactions with the world as a means of explaining, and bringing “truth” and moral clarity to, the often-confusing world around them.
As anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski stated regarding myth:
“These stories live not by idle interest…not as fictitious or even as true narratives; but are to the natives a statement of a primeval, greater, and more relevant reality… the knowledge of which supplies man with the motive for ritual and moral actions….” (McGilchrist 288)
While not meeting the standards demanded of today’s historic narratives, this doesn’t mean that mythology was completely false. But rather, as philologist Carl Kerényi explained, “In the domain of myth is to be found not ordinary truth but a higher truth” (McGilchrist 289).
Thus, authors of the Bible naturally borrowed from the culture’s right-brained use of metaphor, anthropomorphisms, imagery and storytelling in order to describe and reflect higher truth about that which was “other” – the one divine being that ruled above all others.
This also doesn’t mean the testaments consist of non-historic figures. Rather the writings were often what scholars, such as Christian apologist William Lane Craig, describe as “mytho-history” – where historic accounts are “clothed with the garb of the figurative and metaphorical language of myth” (Craig).
However, as Western society has become left-brain dominated with its tendency toward literalism, we have naturally categorized literature with the either/or choice of “non-fiction” or “fiction.”
As McGilchrist notes:
“The left hemisphere relies on… the literal aspects of language to make explicit; by contrast, metaphor and narrative are often required to convey the implicit meanings available to the right hemisphere, and in a left-hemisphere-dominated culture, metaphors and narratives are disregarded as myths and fables or, at worst, downright lies.” (McGilchrist xxiii – *note that McGilchrist is using the word “myths” in this instance in the modern sense of the word)
Combined with concordism, one of the more obvious places this plays out in scripture is in the first few chapters of Genesis. Faced against a scientific consensus that says the earth is four and a half billion years old, fundamentalist theology insists on a literal six days of creation and a young earth that is only 6000 to 10,000 years old. Scientific conclusions, they insist, can only be found in light of the certain “truths” of scripture.
Even those who accept a less literal definition of “day” (“one day is like a thousand years”) remain wary of any further metaphorical understanding of the text because once you accept any part of scripture as “fictional” then, under either/or thinking, the whole of scripture falls apart.
Further reading in Genesis then requires a literal garden of Eden, a literal “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” a talking snake, and a God who physically walks through the garden. (note: I am not arguing against a literal garden here so much as against the fear of accepting a reading beyond that – one that conforms to the narrative language of ancient culture).
Lost in these left-brain dominated interpretations are the potential symbolic richness of the text intended by its original authors (See John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One as an alternative interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis as a temple text, for example).
Of course, there are multiple genres throughout scripture, from poems and songs to wisdom literature, prophesies, letters and actual historic accounts such as the gospels. But even the gospels contain various contradictions that literalists will bend themselves in knots trying to make work rather than accept the idea that the authors had more interest in sharing a theological truth than in meeting the standards of today’s left-brained historic narratives.
Very few Christians today actually believe every word of scripture should be taken literally. They recognize, after all, that Jesus himself told metaphoric parables. The problem is that we often selectively choose which passages to read literally and which symbolically in order to conform them to the certainty of our ways, rather than embrace the writings as an ancient dialogue over thousands of years by people with different language mindsets concerning an often incomprehensible God.
In biblical interpretation, a careful balance needs to be maintained so as not to re-interpret scripture through our own mindsets, with the modern rationalism of liberal theology on one hand and the literalist thinking of conservative theology on the other.
The irony of either of these left-brained interpretations is that, in their attempt to seek truth, they ignore the mindset language of the Bible’s authors who wrote using both hemispheres of the brain. The interpreters, thus, end up with a different understanding of God and struggle with cognitive dissonance when the “God of the Bible” does not match up to the reality we live in.
Politics and the Culture War
As noted in Part 1, N.T. Wright argues that modern Western society, beginning with European and American Enlightenment, is largely influenced by the philosophy of “Epicureanism,” which he defines as “the worldview in which God, or the gods, may perhaps exist, but if they do, they are far away and remain uninvolved with the world…. God lives at the top of the building, and we live at the bottom; the stairs have been destroyed, and the elevators stopped working a long time ago.” (Wright, Surprised by Scripture).
This results in a natural/supernatural split world view – the secular and the sacred – something that has even infiltrated and continues on through the contemporary Christian church.
Nowhere has the combination of split-brain thinking and Epicureanism’s influence on the Evangelical church better been illustrated than in the oft-quoted phrase preceding the 2016 election, “We’re voting for a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief.” Relying on the utilitarianism of the left-hemisphere, 81% of evangelicals chose pragmatism over empathy as they decided it was more important to have the qualities of a businessman who “tells it like it is” than to have someone who reflects the right-hemisphere qualities associated with pastoral care. There was a place for the church and there was a place for the real world, and this was definitely a case for the latter.
Relying on spiritual intervention or on leaders that projected the fruits of the spirit had failed in the past, and it was simply time to get real. Of course, everything was still couched in terms of praying for our nation and God’s miraculous intervention but, faced with an either/or choice of good versus evil, of greatness for our nation or total destruction, there wasn’t a place to consider the possibility that God could work through the “other” candidate or even miraculously deliver a third party candidate. It was time to take control through practical means.
Of course, those on the other side of the “political divide” also became subject to either/or thinking. The choice was likewise between good and evil, between freedom and fascism, and we must at all costs maintain separation of church and state.
Gone was nuanced discussion that relies on empathy or trying to see the other side’s point of view. For both sides it had become about power – whether that meant sheer political power or power over speech by out-mocking, out-shouting, or even completely canceling whoever disagreed. Relationships were destroyed and, like the divided brain, America became a divided nation.
McGilchrist, who had written his book on the divided brain several years prior to the 2016 election, essentially predicted this as he listed out what a left hemisphere’s world would look like, including:
“Morality would come to be judged at best on the basis of utilitarian calculation, at worst on the basis of enlightened self-interest”
“Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, and between such groups, and would be the stance of government toward its people.”
“Family relationships, or skilled roles within society, such as those of priests, teachers and doctors, which transcend what can be quantified or regulated, and in fact depend on a degree of altruism, would become the object of suspicion.”
“There would be a rise in intolerance and inflexibility, an unwillingness to change track or change one’s mind.” (McGilchrist 431-432)
Are there better words to describe what has happened since 2016, or even particularly in the year 2020?
On one extreme end of the “culture wars” is pure capitalism and the other Marxism – both of which McGilchrist places as left-brain thinking, stating “Socialism and capitalism are both essentially materialist, just different ways of approaching the lifeless world of matter and deciding how to share the spoils” (McGilchrist 401).
Many Christians, of course, have cited politics and the culture wars as the reason for leaving the evangelical church. Disillusioned with what they see as the hypocrisy of choosing cold utility over character, of choosing a man to represent them who displays few of the empathetic and relational qualities of Christ, and of emphasizing capitalism over concern for the poor and needy, they have decided that they could simply no longer be a part of a movement that became more associated with secular politics than sacred compassion.
While appearing more compassionate, the mainline, or liberal, church is not without its own form of left-hemisphere thinking. With its emphasis on the social gospel and naturalism, it tends to focus on the utility of following Jesus’s human example of how to behave as opposed to one on one personal relationship with the divine Jesus himself. Liberation theology, with roots in Marxist influenced critical theory, systematizes as it focuses on power structures and systemic oppression instead of personal salvation.
At the root of all of this is Western society’s idolization of the Enlightenment. According to N.T. Wright, while the ultimate climax of history for the Christian should be the death and resurrection of Christ, in the West we have made it something different:
“And the whole point of the Enlightenment was that history reached its climax and turning-point in – the Enlightenment itself. There cannot be two decisive moments. What we today perceive as the science/religion split, or the faith-and-public-life split, is the long outworking of the Enlightenment’s self-serving and elitist claim that world history had turned its decisive corner, that humankind had come of age, when Europe and America suddenly opened their eyes.” (Wright, “Wouldn’t You Love to Know?”)
In America, this consequently has become the church’s passionate priority and pursuit. For the conservative Evangelical this means a return to the past – when Enlightenment had its greatest moment in America’s founding. For the progressive Christian, this means standing on Enlightenment’s shedding of the primitive past and materially building toward a more “enlightened” utopian future.
As McGilchrist laments:
“The Western Church has, in my view, been active in undermining itself. It no longer has the confidence to stick to its values, but instead joins the chorus of voices attributing material answers to spiritual problems.” (McGilchrist 441)
Thus, the culture wars are not a battle of sacred verses secular or of church verses state but rather a battle of left-hemisphered religion, masked in “right-brained” sounding spiritual words such as “Christian nation” and “What would Jesus do?”.
This runs counter, of course, to scripture’s own directive that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12 NKJV). The West is very much in a battle against its own flesh and blood, creating its own divided darkness.
As a reminder, the thinking of the left-hemisphere is not bad in and of itself and actually forms a very important role. Enlightenment has overall had a positive influence on the world. It’s just that it needs to be counter-balanced with the right-hemisphere in order to flourish and have a full grasp of reality.
The faithful often get caught in the battle ground of the culture wars. On one side, Christians become afraid to advocate for the social gospel’s justice for the poor and oppressed out of fear of being called Marxist or unpatriotic. On the other side, Christians fear expressing the priority role that the Bible and relationship with Christ plays in their lives due to the concern of being called closed-minded or bigoted.
Unable to reconcile a faith that calls for both, they become disillusioned with their faith and with the church.
The right is the hemisphere that connects with that which is “Other” and consequently the divine. It is also the side for intuition – something that cannot easily be expressed in words. The left, in contrast, has a proclivity for the explicitness of language. This often results in a battle between the two and has a direct effect on our prayer lives.
According to McGilchrist, “It is hard for the right hemisphere to be heard at all: what it knows is too complex, hasn’t the advantage of having been carved up into pieces that can be neatly strung together, and it hasn’t got a voice anyway.” Unfortunately, any thought system dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in words (McGilchrist 229).
The Western church, dominated by the left hemisphere, is no exception to this problem. We see this often, particularly in fundamentalism, where the emphasis is placed largely on God’s Word (in this case meaning specifically the written word, AKA the Bible) as the only means by which we can legitimately hear God. Any other means is perceived as going “outside His Word” and leads to heresy.
This is largely, of course, motivated by the desires of some individuals in leadership to make sure that no one strays from the correct systemized doctrines. As McGilchrist points out:
“The power-hungry will always aim to substitute explicit for intuitive understanding. Intuitive understanding is not under control, and therefore cannot be trusted by those who wish to manipulate and dominate the way we think.” (McGilchrist 319)
The emphasis on language also spills over into the audible. Many of us, when we read scripture, automatically assume that the great patriarchs and heroes of the Bible regularly heard God audibly. Yet, as I point out in the book Rethinking God, that is not necessarily the case. There are only two definitive instances in the entire Bible where God audibly spoke in the language of all the recipients.
In the very few other instances that God made an audible sound, only a single recipient was able to discern what the voice said, while others around them, for example, heard it as thunder (Baldwin 185-186).
Analysis of other passages shows that in cases where God spoke (to Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc.), the Hebrew and Greek translations do not specifically indicate an audible sound. Even in instances where God may have spoken in a “still small voice,” it is an assumption to believe he did it through the use of language (thus reaching them through the left hemisphere) as opposed to intuition (reaching them through the right).
In my chapter titled “Real in the Testaments,” I asked:
“Could it be…that the I Am’s speaking to Abraham and Moses was something closer to an inner conviction than an audible sound? Could it be that God’s speaking to Moses from a burning bush was closer to the way a painting or piece of art might ‘speak’ to someone as opposed to how one’s neighbor might shout out, ‘Hello!’ as you step out the front door?” (Baldwin 106)
Why is this important? Because too many in Western culture assume that hearing from God is limited to either reading the Bible or hearing God audibly like the Bible “greats,” or at minimum through language, as opposed to trusting the intuitive sense of the right hemisphere.
Relying on language as the basis of prayer misses out on the deeper senses of truth with which the otherness of God can speak – things that are “too complex” to even put into words. Often these truths can even handle the paradoxes of God which are difficult to express through language alone. A former pastor of mine used to describe this type of intuitive prayer as “knowing in your knower.”
Furthermore, there are other right-brained ways in which you can “hear” God such as through nature and the arts. As I elaborate in Rethinking God, creation itself is God’s speech and is always telling stories through which we can learn (Baldwin 180-185). Unfortunately, through religion’s separation from the sciences, the church misses out on important opportunities to hear God in this way.
McGilchrist emphasizes that art plays an invaluable role in conveying spiritual meaning but points out, “The left hemisphere having mechanized the body, and ironized the soul…has here set about neutralizing or neutering the power of art” (442). While recognizing the important role the Reformation played in addressing problematic issues, McGilchrist critically notes that the reformers also “cut away the basis of religious worship, in metaphors, rituals, music and works of art, and replaced them with ideas, theories, and statements” (444).
This is not to say that language and the Bible do not play important roles in our hearing from God – especially as a way of balancing out potentially off the wall thoughts that come into people’s heads. But one of the reasons often cited by those who give up on faith is that they never heard from God and, unfortunately, the church’s left-brained dominance has neutered the multiple other ways God may already be speaking.
Likewise, our split-brain separation of the natural and supernatural has affected how we speak to God. Rather than seeing God as “Being” and, therefore, always present with us, we hold an Epicurean view that God is somewhere “out there” in another realm. Consequently, our prayers are shouted out toward the heavens, hoping God might hear us from a distance and begging him to come down, join us and perform a miracle.
We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as a plea to coax God off his throne so that he’ll leave his spiritual home, enter our material world and start making a difference. What we miss out on, though, is that Jesus’s prayer was more about how we position ourselves toward God, who is already presently active with us in the reality of our existing world.
The kingdom of heaven is not a separate place but a metaphor for the I Am’s authoritative rule over everything that happens in the universe and on the earth. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is thus not a plea but an act of willing relationship and submission.
This doesn’t mean that we are unable to ask things of God, nor does it mean that God cannot do things that appear “miraculous.” What it does mean is that relationship with the divine is completely natural – as natural as the material world we live in.
It is not something we go to do one day a week or in specialized buildings. It is not something reserved for certain trades such as the clergy or for people who are extra “religious.” It’s not scheduled for certain times of day, such as before dinner or when you go to bed. It’s not a mode we switch in and out of, between acting secular and being spiritual.
It is something we live out of with the wholeness of our being at all times, with the left-hemisphere (connected to the material) working in constant companionship with the right (connected with the divine) so that our prayer life becomes grounded in true reality.
Unfortunately, it is precisely because the Western church participates in, and even encourages, a split-brain view which separates out two types of “realities,” that people are left confused, unable to see or hear God and with prayers left unanswered.
It is only when we embrace the two parts together as one reality that we begin to see God’s constant spiritual and miraculous presence in the everyday natural world around us.
At the beginning of this I shared how Marty Sampson claimed he was “so happy now, so at peace with the world” as he was losing his faith. I understand this because I experienced moments like that as I went through my own deconstruction. For me it was because I began shedding the cognitive dissonance of a split-brain view of God and the world (though I was unaware of the neuroscience behind it at the time).
Since then I’ve been on a continual process of both deconstruction and reconstruction and I’ve come out so far with what I consider a stronger faith – but only because it’s become something more real.
In Part 3, I will explore how split-brain thinking has roots that go back further than the Enlightenment but will also try to offer hope by looking at where the church can go from here.
I welcome any honest feedback in the comments section below.
Split Brain image credit: pyramis at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mindmob/51951632/in/album-1124041/
Baldwin, Steve L. Rethinking God: Because God Is Bigger, Closer, and More Real Than You Think. In Excelsis Deo Press, 2018.
Craig, William Lane. “What Is Mytho-History?” 22 Nov. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIQIRLQTrH0.
Lee, Morgan. “Wayne Grudem Tells Us Why He Changed His Divorce Position.” ChristianityToday.com, Christianity Today, 4 Dec. 2019, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/wayne-grudem-divorce-abuse-complementarianism.html.
McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press, 2019.
Wright, N.T. Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. Reprint ed., Kindle ed., HarperOne, 2014.
Wright, N.T. “Wouldn’t You Love to Know? Towards a Christian View of Reality.” Grasping the Nettle Dinner, Grasping the Nettle. 1 September 2016, Glasgow, Keynote Address. https://www.graspingthenettle.org/watch/n_t_wright_2016.