Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Master and his Emissary. Ian McGilchrist

 The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist | Books | The Guardian

The linked Guardian review is pretty good if you want to go a bit deeper into the actual content vs my thoughts on it. 

The start of a new year gives me reflective thoughts. For many years I've been interested in the subject of "meaning", and long ago decided that without God, life has no meaning. 

Why? Because our lives are so short. and if the end of that short life is "nothing", then it really isn't worth the bother. Certainly "pleasure" in the life can be a good thing if it is moral .... family, children, friends, serving others, nature, beloved pets, ... the list is long. From my personal and observed experience, all such pleasures, while "good" are much more secure and "real" in the context of faith in Christ. 

I've done many posts on why Christianity vs other faiths. While the answers fill many pages, my boiled down reason is "what are (or were) the fruits of Christianity?" Looking at Western culture that was formerly Christian, know it by its fruits -- at least up to maybe "the moon landing", which is where I believe Western civilization peaked. 

If you follow the link, a few things have rebounded since that time ... we have returned to space, for good and ill, we have the Internet and cell phones, but the moral decay, and with it, the loss of meaning has accelerated. "It's all about me" ... and in a secular world, "me" is a fleeting hunk of meat with no fixed "identity" at all, not even male or female. 

There are hints some are seeing that human life is not about consuming, chasing after happiness, and as we realize the chase is futile, merely distracting ourselves, or dying in some form of despair, at younger and younger ages. Why seek to extend a meaningless life? 

I'm going to try hard to use this book as a stepstone to understand where and how Western civilization (and Christianity supporting it) went off the track. I won't get it done, and I encourage you to meditate on the issue of why we are in an age of disenchantment. 

Here is what McGilchrist believes his mission of the book to be:

My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognizably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.
It has been said that the world is divided into two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I am with the second group.

Why is the book titled "The Master and his Emissary? 

There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns.
And so, he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own – the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so, it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.

The right hemisphere of our brain is intended to be master; the left is to be the emissary.  

In general terms, then, the left hemisphere yields narrow, focused attention, mainly for the purpose of getting and feeding. The right hemisphere yields a broad, vigilant attention, the purpose of which appears to be awareness of signals from the surroundings, especially of other creatures, who are potential predators or potential mates, foes or friends; and it is involved in bonding in social animals.

As our civilization matured, we started to lean more and more to the left brain because it is "productive" with things ... it builds tools, it writes, it organizes ... it advances technology, and technology makes our lives "easier", although more pressured, and isolated from reality. 

... the relationship between the hemispheres does not appear to be symmetrical, in that the left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on, one might almost say parasitic on, the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact. Indeed, it is filled with an alarming self-confidence. The ensuing struggle is as uneven as the asymmetrical brain from which it takes its origin. My hope is that awareness of the situation may enable us to change course before it is too late.
An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualized world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.
As a Christian, and especially a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Christian that grew up Baptist, now comes the "brass tacks". 
The Reformation is the first great expression of the search for certainty in modern times. As Schleiermacher put it, the Reformation and the Enlightenment have this in common, that ‘everything mysterious and marvelous is proscribed. Imagination is not to be filled with [what are now thought of as] airy images.’ In their search for the one truth, both movements attempted to do away with the visual image, the vehicle par excellence of the right hemisphere, particularly in its mythical and metaphoric function, in favor of the word, the stronghold of the left hemisphere, in pursuit of unambiguous certainty.
What is so compelling here is that the motive force behind the Reformation was the urge to regain authenticity, with which one can only be profoundly sympathetic. The path it soon took was that of the destruction of all means whereby the authentic could have been recaptured.

So the Reformation (that is closely related to the Enlightenment, began the shift from a predominantly right brained "enchanted" world to a left brained DISenchanted world. 

Catholicism had a much better integration between the hemispheres, and the concept that God in three persons (the Trinity) a mystery to the left brain, being a right brained transcendent concept, was active in history. However, like all things that man is involved with, the Catholic Church started to lean over to being a fixed, hierarchical, bureaucratic, power-based entity, merged with the state. While Christ, being God is not subject to the limits of the flesh ... certainly not in his pre-humiliation, becoming fully man as well as God, and in his post resurrection state of exaltation. What it was like to be "fully human and fully God" during his brief sojourn on earth is beyond human understanding. I tend to think that God being 3 "persons" is eternally outside of time and human understanding.

Isaiah 55:8-9 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts."
I translate the "higher" in this text as "beyond", and in the context of the book, more right brain fullness as opposed to left brain text only. 

Luther perceived the Catholic Church as falling out of being the earthly representative of a fully integrated and perfectly balanced "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis" in Marxist/Hegelian terms, and attempted to draw it back to "the Word", meaning Christ. I've often wished he focused on "The Way, the Truth, and the Life", another trinity, rather than becoming increasingly textual in his battle with the Catholic Church hierarchy. 

Text is a poor substitute for metaphysical realities like "truth, wisdom, love, beauty, etc.", but it is the easiest way to mass communicate "something" (thus this highly imperfect written attempt). Even a gifted writer fails abysmally in describing the majesty of a mountain compared to being there. A poet, an artist, or a musician can come closer, but still far away from lived reality. Capturing God in even inspired text, shows the impossibility. Our knowledge of God is in spirit vs flesh, in this case, the right brain going beyond flesh. 

1 Corinthians 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
Luther did not want to start a new church, he wanted to REFORM the Catholic church, but because the Catholics and the secular government were largely one, his efforts became a "protest" against both the Church and the government. War, persecution, hatred, destruction, and basic mayhem ensued. 

The LCMS church isn't really "protestant", but rather "reformed Catholic". Baptists or many of the "evangelicals" are "in protest". My tongue in cheek summary of Baptist church theology is "If the Catholics do it, we don't". No ornate churches, no sacraments, no spiritual content to baptism (just a symbol), communion (just a remembrance), and even salvation is "your decision to accept Christ as your savior". 

After the Reformation and it's push for certainly, the word was made text ... no longer the living right brained transcendent Word that is Christ. 

The Reformers were keen to do away with the concrete instantiations of holiness in any one place or object. The invisible Church being the only church to have any reality, the Church existed literally everywhere, and actual churches became less significant: every place was as good as any other in which to hold a service.
Removing the places of holiness, and effectively dispensing with the dimension of the sacred, eroded the power of the princes of the Church, but it helped to buttress the power of the secular state.

Christianity (at least in the Protestant sense) became textual / literal / fundamentalist, or "wrong". This is less true in the LCMS, but the danger which the left brain sees by considering what the right brain sees is a great fear in the LCMS as well. 

As with anything in this world, there are ALWAYS at least two ditches. Much of the Evangelical protestants have gone fully left brain. No "mystery", just a literal pick and choose of "once saved always saved" and church becoming a social gathering/entertainment. They think/feel that by worshipping, we are "giving something to God" who is and has all that is. Much of non-sacramental Christianity is "do you FEEL saved"? 

On can always be MORE "fundamental", so the temptation becomes a competition on who is the MOST in agreement with the "proper" interpretation of the text, with very little attention to the right brained spiritual vs emotional connection to "The Word" (Christ) being infinitely more than text since mysteriously, "the Word" became flesh. Text doesn't do that. 

Colossians 1:15-17 "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

OTOH, since the left brain seeks "verified material correctness" above all, the move is to see if the Bible lines up with the latest "scientific" knowledge, which it at least on the surface does not. Freed from any consideration of the deeper meaning of the Bible, and certainly it's moral commands, "being smart/right" in materialist/historicist thought becomes doctrine. To not accept whatever materialist society declares to be "moral" (abortion, homosexuality, fornication, etc.) is "hate", and Christians are commanded to "love" not just the person, but the sins they proudly practice.

It is notable that when the left hemisphere takes a step forward it does so – in keeping with its competitive, confident, manner, and its belief in its unassailable rightness (the clarity of Truth) – in a manner which is absolute and intolerant, and sweeps opposition aside: the Reformation, the Cromwellian Revolution, the French Revolution, the rise of scientific materialism (where it met opposition, it did so as much as a consequence of the peculiarly aggressive tone of its proponents as of anything it claimed). The Industrial Revolution, slicing its way through the landscape and sweeping away cultural history, is no exception. The boldness of its move goes beyond even that, however.
The left, intolerant brain is fragile and dogmatic. It tends to believe that if you "give in" to the metaphorical, the artistic, the unifying, the reality beyond all left brain supposedly captured "material truth", you will lose your moorings and be "lost". The Pharisees are a great example of left brained dogmatists. Christ was much harder on them than those who realized the reality of their sin. When we believe that we have the "real truth", we are in grave danger. It is a tiny, almost a non-step from there to pride, the sin that brought down Satan and many since. 

My "review" has become a feeble attempt to point to a recovery of God in Spirit vs God in text. My study and prayers/meditation lead me to seeing the Word of God as Christ, not text. My fervent prayer is for a 2nd Reformation that re-integrates the left brain scientific/materialist view, with the right brain metaphorical, spiritual, transcendent view, yielding a synthesis that yields meaningful balance in our fleeting earthly sojourn on the path to eternity.

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