In-and-Out, Back-and-Forth

Michael Metzger

There’s a pathway in the Bible as well as our brain. Taking it keeps us from being delusional.

Last week I wrote about delusions. I closed by noting there’s a pathway out. It’s in the Bible. It’s in our brain. It’s in Jesus’ familiar parable about a path shepherds take to keep their sheep kept safe in the pen. But it’s also a path for finding pasture where sheep mature.

We are the sheep of God’s pasture. Our shepherds are supposed to take us on a pathway where we’re saved (in the pen) but also grow into the fullness of salvation (in the pasture). If we’re only saved, we can be delusional. In the fullness of salvation there are no delusions.

So let’s talk about this. But before we get underway, a reality check. Einstein said everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler. I’ll do my darndest to make Jesus’ parable—and the neuroscience aligning with it—as simple as possible. But it’ll take a few weeks of column to get there.

And a confession: I didn’t recognize until recently how Jesus’ parable includes his four offices: redeemer, priest, prophet, king. One office in particular is critical for staying on the pathway to the fullness of salvation. Neuroimaging reveals it’s an office that’s shrinking.

So, if we’re good to go, here we go. In Jesus’ day, multiple herds of sheep would enter a single pen through a single gate. Stone walls enclosed the pen. Jesus says he’s the gate, redeemer, his first office. All who enter through the gate have been saved. They’re safe.

But sheep don’t fully mature by merely living in a pen. Same goes for us. We don’t come into the fullness of salvation solely because we have been saved. Jesus says we must follow an in-and-out, back-and-forth pathway, where shepherds find suitable pasture for us in the wider world. This pathway is how we come to enjoy “life in full,” the fullness of salvation.

Fullness? Yes. Scripture describes salvation in three tenses; past, present, future. Have been saved (Eph.2:8,9), are being saved (I Cor.2:8, II Cor.2:15), and will be saved (Rom.5:9). In following an in-and-out, back-and-forth path, we’re being saved, determining how we will be saved (more on this in coming weeks).

The path begins with a shepherd, or priest (second office of Jesus) entering by the gate, taking their sheep in-and-out, back-and-forth through the single gate to find suitable pasture. Jesus calls them legitimate shepherds. But who ensures priests and the paths they take are legit?

A gatekeeper, or prophet (third office of Jesus). Prophets are critical as there was often no physical gate across the sheep pen opening. Illegitimate shepherds could come and go, taking paths that felt right in their own eyes. Prophets know they can’t control shepherds, but they can warn against illegitimate paths. They can inhibit Illegitimate shepherds.

This often proved difficult. The prophet Jeremiah tried to inhibit the paths that Judah’s illegitimate priests took. He warned them that the easiest person to ‘con’ was themselves, especially in how they imagined the path toward the fullness of salvation. They ignored him.

I was like these priests for many years. I led collegiates (and later parishioners) down paths formed more by the Enlightenment than scripture. I assumed if we got enough Bible in Christians’ brains, they’d be transformed. Then I ran into a prophet at the sheep gate, Lesslie Newbigin. He was the first of many who upended my Enlightenment assumptions.

Which brings us to Jesus’ fourth office. Where is King in this parable? Depends on we define kingdom. “Whatever we genuinely have the say over is in our kingdom.”[1] Jesus genuinely has the say over paths leading to the fullness of salvation. He’s embodying the office of King. So we see all four offices of Jesus in his parable: redeemer, priest, prophet, king.

All four guide us into the fullness of salvation by following an in-and-out, back-and-forth pathway, finding suitable pasture in the wider world. Legitimate religious leaders (pastors, priests, ministers) lead us on these pathways. Prophets ensure priest and path are legit.

Now we see science catching up to scripture. Iain McGilchrist writes how the brain’s hemispheres reciprocate with each other by in-and-out, back-and-forth neural pathways. Sound familiar? Facilitating this exchange is the corpus callosum, the wide bundle of neural fibers between the two hemispheres. McGilchrist says the role of the corpus callosum is to inhibit both hemispheres, keeping them in their legitimate roles.

Sound like the prophet’s role?

But here’s something striking: Neuroimaging reveals the corpus callosum is shrinking. This raises a boatload of questions. Does this indicate the influence of prophets is shrinking in Western Christianity? Is this why McGlchrist writes, “Western Christianity is active in undermining itself.” Is this why N. T. Wright sees the work of McGilchrist as a way forward?

We’ll take up these questions next week.


[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 21.


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