Selective Attention and the Alpha course

This is the second post inspired by the Young Priest Theologians network meeting.  Again I want to explore McGilchrist’s thought on the brain, but before we go any further, if you’ve never seen the selective attention test with people throwing a ball, then take a look at this…

Did you see it?  To be honest, I don’t know if it actually works since I heard about the test with it being explained to me – kind of spoils it! McGilchrist used the phenomenon of selective attention to exemplify the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  As I said in the last post, the fundamental difference is one of attention.  Through our right hemisphere we gain broad attention – see the big picture; whilst through the left hemisphere we focus on detail and specifics.  The right hemisphere provides the context in which the left views and understands details – a context that is often assumed and unnoticed.  This is why, when focussing on details like the players in white throwing a ball, we can miss the bigger picture – because our left hemisphere perspective dominates the right.

McGilchrist went on to say that we always have a ‘take’ on everything before we see it, no matter how objective we may try to be.  The way we view the world is always shaped by some concept of the big picture every detail fits into – like wearing glasses that shape the way we see.  Our language, culture and community, for example, all shape the context in which we see and understand the details of life.

It can be difficult to accept that all our thinking is affected by an assumed context or perspective we may not have tested out.  Since Descartes the idea has been that you work out what is true by ignoring everything you assumed you knew and finding one small certainty (“I think, therefore I am”), then build up the big picture one piece at a time adding one verifiable fact to another until we’ve constructed the whole.  But the whole is never simply the sum of it’s parts – this is why, as I mentioned previously, poetry is more than the sum of words and grammar, music is more that the sum of notes and pauses – there is a whole that is greater than the detail put together.

So what’s the point?  This vastly affects the way we find out what is true.  First, it takes away the possibility of ‘proving’ anything 100% – every certainty is certain because of an assumed context.  But this doesn’t mean every viewpoint is equally valid – it means we find truth by questioning the big picture, by paying attention to our right hemisphere attention, to the context we easily assume.  We start to ask what assumptions we carry and challenge them by what we’re experiencing, by other people’s explanations, by encountering other ways of thinking that challenge our own.  McGilchrist points to Michelangelo’s ‘unfinished scultpure’ to say how creativity comes, not from a putting together, but a clearing away.  I would stretch the analogy to truth – we find what is true, not by adding details, but clearing away assumptions and finding what emerges.

Too abstract?  Well, take Alpha for example, a course where we look at a different aspect of Christian faith each week over 10-weeks. If people came as blank sheets then maybe we would be trying to establish one certainty after another from week one – who is Jesus…then why did Jesus die…etc.  But everyone comes with a ready made view of the world, a view we’ve been using to live by for years…but we may never have paid it much attention.  Alpha becomes about paying attention to that big picture and allowing evidence, experience and questions to challenge the way we see things….to keep asking, if this assumption changed, how would the detail look then?  What difference does it make if faith is not a blind leap, but a step based on evidence?  What difference if science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive? What difference if Christianity is not about what we should do for God, but what God has already done for us? What difference if Jesus, when we pay attention to what he actually said about himself, cannot be simply a good teacher, but must be mad, bad, or God?

Any of these differences could shift the way we see the details of God, the world and ourselves.  Any of these differences might help us see the gorilla in our midst.

Right brain, left brain…are we missing something?

Last Monday I had a great day at the ‘Young Priest Theologians Network’ meeting at Lambeth Palace.  There is much fun to be had thinking how ‘Young’ in the CofE means anyone under 40 years old (!) and I did enjoy telling friends I was off to a meeting at Lambeth Palace….lovely!

Besides all that there were two very interesting talks that will inspire a few posts – here’s the first….

Iain McGilchrist is a retired psychiatrist who has also studied English Literature, Theology and Philosophy.  In his recent book The Master and His Emissary he explores the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  His thinking began by asking the question: why do works of art lose their potency when analysed in a critical manner?  He recognised that the issue is when something implicit is made explicit.  A poem may have technically poor grammar, banal content and odd phrasing when critically analysed….but when encountered in it’s entirety it can have a powerful effect on the reader.  The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

As he explored psychiatry, McGilchrist began to see how so much of our communication occurs implicitly – picking up irony in someone’s tone, a subtle wink or facial expression.  People who lose the use of the right hemisphere of their brain lose the ability to pick up these signals and here is the clue to the difference in hemispheres.  They give us different attention.  The right hemisphere allows a broader view – it recognises the connection between all things – it picks up subtlety, irony, metaphor – has the big picture.  The left hemisphere attends to details, sees the distinction between things, enables us to use tools, mechanisms and see logical progression.

Think of the classic philosophical dilemma of how a person remains the same through time even though every cell in their body will change every 7 years.  We are no longer made of the same stuff, but we are still the same person.  The left hemisphere cannot understand that – it doesn’t make logical sense.  But the right hemisphere can understand ‘the flow of life’ – the truth in the metaphor that we are like a river: the water flowing through constantly changes, but the river remains.  The left hemisphere wants to give us ‘quick and dirty certainties’ so we can move on in life, whilst the right hemisphere constantly asks the question, “what if?”

Since the Enlightenment, McGilchrist argues, the right hemisphere thinking has been pushed to the side and left hemisphere dominates culturally.  We see this in the appeal of scientism – the idea that all truth must be scientifically verifiable, anything that can’t be seen or tested isn’t true; or in the trust of technology to eventually solve all problems; or the relegation of religion to ‘private lives’ whilst anything public must be a ‘solid fact’.  The unsettling doubt the right hemisphere brings is that not everything that’s ‘true’ can be known as a verifiable fact – often deep truths are found through metaphor and imagery.

Why am I talking about this?  Well, apart from it being fascinating in its own right, my right hemisphere latched on to a connection with something else I have been hearing a lot about lately: the need to reawaken the ministry of the apostle and the prophet in the Western Church.  Alan Hirsch, Mike Breen, Bill Johnson and a host of other theologians and church leaders are beginning to raise awareness that we have a debilitating hole in the ministry of the church today.  Reading Ephesians 4 as a constitution for the church we find Paul’s description of the government of the church involving five ministries, given by Jesus the head: apostles, prophets, teachers, pastors and evangelists.  The current church is arguably dominated by teachers and pastors, with prophets and apostles largely ignored and misunderstood.

What is the role of apostles and prophets?  According to Danny Silk’s Culture of Honour (a great book for any church leader), these two ministries have a particularly strong focus on the reality of heaven – on seeing heaven come to earth (as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer so often…).  They are both big picture ministries.  Apostles carrying the vision Jesus gave for the church and seeking to bring it into new ground, breaking through current assumptions of how things should be done and limitations.  Prophets having a passion for the ‘now’ word of God and constantly pointing people back to what He is saying – the annoying voice that won’t let us simply carry on with are current ‘quick and dirty certainties’.

If we agree that the contemporary western church is often preoccupied with strategies, tactics and busyness as we seek to work out what must be done and do it ourselves….rather than a deep sense and reliance on the presence and leading of God in our midst….then you may agree that this could be due to a lack of apostles and prophets.  If you agree with that, then I wonder whether we could even say the apostles and prophets are like the right hemisphere of the church’s brain…without them we’re stuck with the left….which is essential in making things practical and concrete, but also prone to missing the point and a false sense of optimism.  McGilchrist goes as far as to say a solely left hemisphere culture is ‘sleepwalking aimlessly toward the abyss’……Maybe it’s time to wake up?

Can I be faithful without running away?

We’re reading Shane Clairbourne’s Jesus for President.

The main thrust of the book is that belief in God is highly political.  First with the Israelites in the Old Testament, and now with the church since the New Testament, God has been forming a people who will live as a different kind of community because they live with him.  The 10 commandments, with rules about not working on the sabbath for example, were meant to make Israel a distinctive nation that didn’t work because they trusted God rather than their own effort.  For the church, the sermon on the mount is a manifesto for the kind of community Jesus wants the church to be…it’s distinctive because it “seeks first the kingdom of God” trusting that everything else it needs…money, clothes, food….will be added to it.

Great!  But then we hit a snag – does this mean that anyone who wants to be a faithful Christian has to withdraw from regular society into a Christian ghetto?  Is the example of the Amish the way all Christians should go?

Let’s not delude ourselves…we’re not that far off at times with our Christian music, Christian clothes, Christian food products, Christian festivals, and enough church meetings to give every person a 24/7 Christian diary.  But what does this mean for people, like Anna (and the vast majority of Christians), working in a community that doesn’t live by a Christian world-view…that doesn’t even acknowledge belief in God, let alone shapes itself around such belief.

Are we stuck with a choice between compromise or withdrawal?

This made me think of a paper I wrote comparing the views of 2 modern theologians – Stanley Hauerwas and Lesslie Newbigin.  Both call for Christians to be distinctive. The title of this blog comes from Hauerwas’ conviction that Christians are called to be ‘faithful’ rather than ‘effective’ – we live with integrity before God trusting that he will do what he wants to do through us. What is interesting is that Hauerwas is often accused of demanding that the church withdraw from the world, whilst Newbigin is known for actively encouraging Christians to find places of influence within it.  He even formed ‘Frontier Groups’ where lawyers, businessmen, scientists and other influential members of society could meet to thrash out what it means to be a Christian in their sphere of work.  The difference, I concluded, was not that one calls for withdrawal and the other doesn’t, but that Hauerwas simply doesn’t think that someone who is truly faithful to Christ – who will put integrity before him above the priorities of their employer – will find themselves in a place of influence for long; Newbigin thinks we should try to help them do it!

I’m going to disappoint you now by saying we don’t have a solution to the issue, but we do have a couple of thoughts on it:

  1. The issue is not about withdrawal or not – like Hauerwas says, we can’t withdraw, we’re surrounded! The issue is whether we recognise that there are times that our jobs and roles will call for us to compromise our faith.  Sometimes this is just the workplace culture – lying, not taking responsibility for mistakes because it reflects on the whole team, gossiping or going behind people’s backs.  Sometimes it is actually the values of the organisation itself – for Anna, are there areas of scientific research that she would not want to see funded by the Trust she works for as a Christian?
  2. There are no set rules or general principles that will guide us through every issue.  The big thing we need to be able to do is to identify compromise when it approaches us – can we recognise the line?  This means we need to train ourselves in the skill of integrity – an understanding of Jesus and his character that helps us recognise when something contradicts it.  There are two key aspects to this:
  • Be with Jesus everyday! Spend time with him, love him, get to know him through prayer, reading the bible, and resting with him.
  • Be with people who know Jesus and know you! Newbigin was on to something – we need help!  We need to regularly share our lives with other people who know us and know Jesus – people who will help us see what is compromise and what is not.

Claibourne is right – as the church we are called to be distinctive.  It is too easy to hear this as a big picture principle for everyone to run away from non-Christian society….but that’s not the point – there’s no big principle to guide us either way.  What we have is a need for relationship – for ongoing, daily, walking with Jesus, recognising that we are surrounded by a society that don’t know him, but we’re not and never on our own.