Andy Stanley, a prominent US pastor, says Christians hardly do any of the “one anothers.” He’s right, but fixing this requires undoing 500 years of damage.
There are over 50 “one anothers” in the New Testament. Love one another. Submit to one another. They all present a unique challenge. Someone must first be other-oriented. They have to initiate with others. And the recipient must be other-oriented as well. They must reciprocate. The “one anothers” start with seeing others as more important than yourself (Phil. 2:3) but require that recipients reciprocate. It takes two to tango.
And therein lies the problem. The “one anothers” are not a solo act. They’re a never-ending virtuous cycle of initiate/reciprocate. I know folks who regularly initiate with others. They say most never reciprocate. That’s been our experience as well.
That’s been Andy Stanley’s experience in church. At a conference in 2013, the founder of North Point Community Church in Atlanta lamented how Christians hardly do any of the “one anothers.” “When everyone is sitting in rows…you can’t do any one anothers.” He’s right, but does Stanley know why straight lines are a hindrance?
It is a curious fact that no straight lines are to be found in the natural world. The ancients recognized this, depicting life in spheres or circles. It’s also a curious fact that the left hemisphere loves straight lines, not circles. It likes efficiency (the shortest distance between two points is a straight line). The right hemisphere likes effectiveness. By having everyone sit in rows, Stanley’s church is unknowingly left-brain.
This isn’t how the brain is designed to operate. The two hemispheres are supposed to enjoy a never ending circle of initiating and reciprocating. It starts in the right hemisphere, the only part of the brain that considers the other, the left hemisphere. When the right initiates, the left reciprocates, using its verbal and analytic skills to give voice to the right’s intuitive experiences. But in the absence of the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere doesn’t initiate. It is unconcerned about others and their feelings.
This is what has happened in the Western world. Some 500 years ago, Enlightenment thinkers began to disdain the inexactness of metaphor (a right hemisphere function) for the precision of language (a left hemisphere strength). Over time, this led to a large bias in the Western world for the left brain. Since 95 percent of behavior is non-conscious (some say 99), left-brain Westerners no longer do the “one anothers.”
But they claim to. Iain McGilchrist calls the right hemisphere “prophetic.” It plays “bullshit detector” but in its absence, the left hemisphere, when challenged, uses its verbal superiority to out-explain right-brain objections. Left-brain people accumulate evidence to support the claim that they are doing the “one anothers” (what’s called “confirmation bias”) when, in fact, we’re not. We’ve rewired our brain to kid ourselves.
The real loss is our witness. Jesus said if we love one another, everyone would know we are his disciples (John 13:35). McGilchrist, agnostic and religious “none,” isn’t convinced Westerners follow Jesus. Because it’s left-brained, loving straight lines and concepts, he says, “the Western Church has, in my view, been active in undermining itself.”
But McGilchrist is still fascinated by the brain’s initiate/reciprocate interplay. “It is the task of the right hemisphere to carry the left beyond, to something new, something ‘Other’ than itself.” He asks where this other-orientation might come from. Since the right “pays attention to the Other” (the other hemisphere, other people), there must exist “the Other”—some sort of God. Pretty crazy. McGilchrist sees something in operation of the brain that he doesn’t see in the body of Christ.
This calls for renewing our sense of an “otherness.” It’s what drew Peter Berger to the faith. The famed sociologist who died on June 27th attributed his own religious awakening to the discovery that there was an “otherness which lurks behind the fragile structures of everyday life.” In the reciprocating nature of our brain lurks God.
It took the Western church several centuries to become left-brain. It will take several years of practicing spiritual disciplines to rewire our brain so that the right hemisphere once again initiates. Silence. Contemplation. We’d be wise to rearrange our corporate worship seating. Sit in an arc or circle, rather than rows. We’ll see one anothers’ faces—a big deal in scripture. Who knows? We might remember how, like the tango, it takes two to do the “one anothers.” And we might actually start doing them. That’d be cool.
 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)