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)
Mike, I sense that most of the spiritual disciplines are not one-another focused. In addition to those, we need to develop the spiritual discipline of intentionally serving one-another to help the other grow toward God’s intention in every area of their lives.
When we built our new church building a few years ago, we spent a lot of time studying the kind of architectural arrangement we would have in the sanctuary. We landed on a New England meeting house concept, with rows of pews down the center and then two side areas of pews as well. Not exactly getting rid of rows, but at the same time, almost every seat is facing at least some of the rest of the congregation. Took a bit of getting used to, but it is an old and time-tested approach to at least a little bit of moving away from straight rows.
Good point, Bob. There are spiritual disciplines that are practiced in the corporate worship. Hadn’t thought of them. They’d probably be even more productive in encouraging the “one anothers.” Thanks.
Celtic Christianity did the same thing – Celtic circles.
Celtic Christianity also gives the context of relating with the Trinity. Father in creation. Jesus through His Word and Body and the Holy Spirit through community. Sadly this is often reduced to mere words and action,s without a unforced rhythm of grace. People taught to be soldiers and athletes before they are spiritual gardeners. Spirit and Truth, not just Truth. Celebrating uniqueness in community. Each always in the company of three persons.
Thank you for these thoughts, Mike. . . . This really adds to some thoughts I’ve been carrying around for a while, having to do with community and relationship (and lamenting the paucity). Your description brought to mind a book I know I’ve mentioned to you in the past, H. Richard Niebuhr’s “The Responsible Self”. He speaks of responsibility in terms of a “continuing discourse or interaction among beings forming a continuing society.” [p. 65 of the Harper San Francisco 1978 ed.). Overall, he called for us to respond to all things is if to God, and to respond in such a way as to invite counter-response. That sounds like the tango to me!
There is still the question of how to respond to evil – but even there, we have Christ’s example, don’t we?
I’ll enjoy thinking through the ‘curve’ of things. . . . And lamenting how often I fail to return the shuttlecock of relationship batted my way . . .
Funny, because one of the things I hate most about the typical ‘church’ gathering is the formulaic command – generally right before the sermon – to ‘greet your neighbor’. It feels so fake and foolish. And somehow, knowing that we’ll be commanded to do so at some point in the “service” translates into not having to interact at any other point prior to or after it! As you said, sitting in straight lines makes it rather easy to avoid ‘seeing’ anyone let alone greeting them. Ah, but then we have the designated “greeters”, too, don’t we?! [sigh]
Much to think about!
Hi Marble: I very much appreciate your thoughts. All good. Perhaps you ought to write these columns rather than me!
If you think about it, we don’t line up in back-to-back-to-back rows at the dinner table. We sit around the table, in a circle. If the Eucharist, communion table, was the center of the corporate service, perhaps we’d be more prone to sit in circles, facing one another.
I agree with your point, but I think using a “right-brain/left-brain” argument in support is very problematic. As Christians we believe we are not ultimately a brain, but ultimately a soul. Our soul is that which will live on after the death of our bodies in the intermediate state. Our soul currently has (and uses) the body to obtain its ends. In the case of thoughts, the mind (a range of capacities of the soul) uses the brain in order to think. But the brain is only a “tool”—the mind is the active agent. So all right thoughts, as well as all wrong thoughts, are ultimately grounded in the mind, not in the brain (be it left or right hemisphere).
McGilchrist’s view seems to be grounded in Physicalism—the view that we are only physical things. Therefore everything, including all thoughts, but be explained by our physical dimension—the brain. On this view the brain is what has thoughts, not the mind. From this he draws the assumptions that two hemispheres have different or “approaches” that determine thoughts. I believe Scripture and philosophical reasoning prove Physicalism to be false and dualism (we are a mind and a body) to be true. I’ve addressed this in my blog “What Are We?” here.
Interestingly, in your last paragraph you indicate what I believe is the (biblically and philosophically) proper view of the mind and brain’s relationship when you say “It will take several years of practicing spiritual discipline [for us] to rewire our brain so that the right hemisphere once again initiates.” The [for us] that is implied is the key point—WE can rewire OUR brains. In other words, our souls are the active agent, and we can choose to rewire our brains to be more effective (we can sharpen the tools we use). This is similar to saying I used MY hands to type this response. It is not my hands that are the agents. They are only tools my mind uses. So it is with the mind and brain.
We must be careful not to confuse the role of the mind and the role of the brain, as McGilchrist does. To maintain and defend the existence and agency of the human soul is one of the great challenges of our age. I worry that your language focusing on left-brain and right-brain plays into the hands of the physicalists who want to have us believe there is no need of a mind (immaterial dimension), only a brain (a physical thing.) Rather we need to focus on having correct thoughts (the essential point of this and other posts on your blog) in our minds and living accordingly.
Thanks for your insightful posts, my friend!
(Link to my post on “What are We” arguing we are more than a body/brain didn’t post above. It is below.)
Stan: It is my impression, having read McGilchrist, that he too distinguishes between mind and brain, as you do.
Mike, good to hear! But the important thing is to see the mind and brain as two substances with their own causal powers. Otherwise he is espousing property dualism–granting both mind and brain exist, but ascribing all causal activity, e.g. choices, to the brain. Property dualism faces the same problems as naturalism both philosophically and theologically. So the question is whether he goes down the property dualism road, or grants the mind is the central component of who we are and what we do, rather than the brain.