A Way Forward

I appreciate folks who can evolve in their thinking. So I find it fascinating that many who are evolving are recommending the same way forward.

In March of 2020 Chuck DeGroat wrote a confessional titled, It’s Always Been About Love. He felt he’d forgotten that. A great many evangelicals feel similarly, including James K. A. Smith, N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard. Here’s Wright’s evolution over the last 30 years.

In 1992 Wright wrote about a “spiral path” of knowing reality, where the only access we have to reality “lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known.”[1] Few Christians understood what he meant by that.

Maybe that’s why in 1999 Wright sounded rather pessimistic. “We live at a time of cultural crisis. At the moment I don’t hear anyone out there pointing a way forward.”[2] He felt some Christians “put up shutters” while others capitulate to the post-Christian world. “My brothers and sisters, we can do better than that.”

But Wright wondered aloud who in the faith community has a way forward? And, if believers aren’t pointing a way forward, who else might? By 2013, Wright had found a who else.

That year DeGroat joined a small group of believers meeting with Wright. They were exploring faith and formation. DeGroat asked Wright for his best recommendation for a resource that explores spiritual maturation at depth. Without hesitation, he recommended Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World as a way forward. Wright called it is a “magisterial” work.

I can imagine a few reasons why. McGilchrist says findings in neuroimaging reveal how knowing reality is a spiraling path, a reciprocating flow between the right and left hemisphere of the brain. It turns out Wright’s intuitions were right on.

McGilchrist says the right hemisphere is the intuitive mind. The left is the rational mind. Since 95 percent of the western world biases the left brain, and most of Wright’s readers are western Christians, most couldn’t intuit what he was saying. Small wonder Wright was pessimistic.

But there’s more. McGilchrist notes how only the right hemisphere has direct contact with the outside world, the cultures passing through our gills. The left doesn’t. Since 95 percent of the western world biases the left brain, and most of Wright’s readers are western Christians, most do not touch, feel, taste that we live at a time of cultural crisis.

But there’s more. According to McGilchrist, it is only in the right hemisphere that we make a paradigm shift. In most cultural crises, the way forward requires shifting some paradigms. I have a hunch Wright read that and thought, That’s why there’s so little spiritual maturation at depth. The deepest part of our being is not beliefs but paradigms, unconscious assumptions shaping beliefs. Western Christians don’t go deep enough into anthropology, human nature.

James K. A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin University, does. He notes how our anthropologies shape our theologies. He gets that from reading scripture as well as Iain McGilchrist. He cites McGilchrist’s work as a way forward for the church.

It’s no coincidence that DeGroat, Smith, and Wright are all now saying they missed the wider picture. Love. All three come from Reformed traditions formed by the Enlightenment, biasing word over image, language over metaphor. Language is the domain of the left hemisphere, which is narrowly focused. Most Reformed traditions embrace a narrow view of the cross, substitutionary atonement. Jesus died on the cross to satisfy God’s demands for justice. Law. DeGroat, Smith, and Wright are saying they missed love.

The good news has always been about love… and law. In other words, Jesus did die for our sins. But he did this for the joy set before him of “marrying” us, love, enduring the cross, despising the shame. On the cross, we were betrothed to Jesus as his bride.

It seems that Dallas Willard was moving in this direction in the last months of his life. Like Wright and Smith, he was despairing. Do people really change—even with all the available resources and practices and disciplines? With his good friend and neuro-theologian Jim Wilder, Willard was exploring how neuroscience is a way forward, developing a psychology of love.

I had a similar experience when I first read The Master and His Emissary. That was in 2010. It helped me see why so few Christians recognize our post-Christian age. McGilchrist helped me see why we don’t seem to have a way forward, and why so few ever make the necessary paradigm shifts. I didn’t feel quite so alone.

That same year I read Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray, a religious skeptic. Yet he’s hoping for a fourth awakening in America. The first three were led by religion. But Murray rightly notes that religion no longer has cultural capital in America. It can’t lead the way. Neuroscience can, so Murray writes…

“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.”[3]

Wow. Neuroscience is a way forward. It can validate, corroborate, older Christian traditions and their understanding of human nature. They can be a resource for shalom, satisfying lives, seeking the well-being of all.

So… if you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day gift for a loved one who wants to evolve in their thinking, and seek a way forward… I highly recommend Iain McGilchrist’s work.

There’s The Master and His Emissary.

There’s a shorter rendition: Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World.

And there’s McGilchrist’s new book: The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. I bought the Kindle version and am currently making my way through it. I’ll report on it later, but I feel it’s reinforcing what a heckuva of lot of evangelicals smarter than me see as our way forward.

 

[1] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, (Fortress Press, 1992), 35.

[2] N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity, 1999), 195.

[3] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Publishing Group, 2012), 300.

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