Loving The Lord With Your Whole Brain: Reflections on Theology, Church History, Neuroscience and Media Ecology

by Michael Giobbe

Abstract: We are told in Matthew’s Gospel that the two greatest commandments are these: “You shall love the Lord with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Marshall McLuhan details in his Cambridge dissertation, and in The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Global Village and The Medium And The Light, a shift from grammatical to dialectical religious thought, from acoustic space to visual space brought about by Gutenberg technology, and thus from a right hemisphere- to a left hemisphere-way of knowing. Iain McGilchrist, in The Master And His Emissary, shows us that the left hemisphere is entirely non-relational and cannot love, neither God nor others. And so it is that today, under electronic conditions, we must now clean up after 500 (and perhaps 2000) years of non-relational Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Genesis 3:6, NIV)

Eve was right: The fruit was good for gaining wisdom—but there was a lot more about it that she didn’t know. What she didn’t know—what the Lord had sought to protect them from—was that the fruit, on its own terms, was also problematic, imperious, and capable of destroying every relationship.

Tales of disastrous, forbidden knowledge are a staple of Western literature, from Adam and Eve, Prometheus and Pandora, to Faust, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In these stories, and many more, is the question, the moral challenge: Shall we seek understanding in concert with the gods and powers, or in defiance of them? I will consider two of these stories: The Fall, in Genesis 3, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Consider Genesis, chapter 3: Adam has already named the animals, and governs the Garden well. In his unfallen state, he was not the “rustic and parochial” soul that he is so often assumed to be. Indeed, Francis Bacon and the grammarians before him believed that Adam was the possessor of metaphysical wisdom never again equalled except perhaps by Solomon (McLuhan, 2006, 16). With this wisdom, he ruled over the creation for an unspecified span of time. (We are not told, after all, that the Fall occurred early the following week.)

Then Adam is tempted to disobey God–and tempted by what? Not simply by knowledge per se, but by a new and powerful means of knowledge—a way of gaining further wisdom—“the knowledge of good and evil.” It is a different kind of knowledge entirely: It is abstract and non-relational. Prompted by his wife Eve, who saw the fruit’s potential, and utterly passive in the face of temptation, Adam eats of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Because of this, the ground is cursed; suffering, disease and death are introduced to the world, there is strife between Adam and Eve, both are alienated from God, from the creation, from each other and from themselves. 

Yes, it is a tale of humanity’s origins, and doubtless originally an oral tale. But we often forget that it comes to us as a written story, from the time of the origins of alphabetic writing. At minimum, it is also a cautionary tale of a different way of knowing that looks desirable, but which in the end distorts, dissolves and destroys all relationships. Adam’s temptation is toward a new and non-relational approach to knowledge, which proves to be far more problematic than it first appears.

Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula tells of the damage wrought by a brilliant and powerful nobleman who suffered the same temptation, and thus sought learning at too great a cost: “the Draculas were,” Dr. Van Helsing explains, “a great and noble race, though now and again were scions who were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One. They learned his secrets in the Scholomance, among the mountains over Lake Hermanstadt, where the devil claims the tenth scholar as his due” (Stoker, 246). Count Voivode Dracula was the most brilliant and strong-willed of the clan, patriarch of the house of Dracula, and as Van Helsing recounts, “He was in life a most wonderful man. Soldier, statesman, and alchemist—which latter was the highest development of the science-knowledge of his time. He had a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse. He dared even to attend the Scholomance, and there was no branch of knowledge of his time that he did not essay” (Stoker, 307-8). Then he went off to grad school one more time, and lost his soul: The curse wrought upon him at the Scholomance rendered him incapable of relationship or community, no longer able to live nor to contribute to life, but only to prey upon it, in never-ending night.

Do these stories serve a purpose—that is, do they point to something fundamental to human life? Apparently they do, because each of us has a brain. And as we know, in all but the rarest of cases, our brains are lateralized into their right and left hemispheres. These hemispheres in turn have very different functions, habits and perspectives. In his book, The Master And His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist warns us of the perils of leading with the left hemisphere: Doing so eventually shatters all relationships, destroys community, and leads us not to care for but to exploit the created world. (The comparison to the curse of the Fall in Genesis 3 is both evident and suggestive.)

The two hemispheres of the brain have different neural chemistry, different outlooks and different strengths. To speak of different “outlooks” may seem to anthropomorphize the brain and its hemispheres, but McGilchrist (98-99) writes of the strengths of doing so rather than limiting the description of the brain to its cognitive functions. The first makes the human brain seem human (which it is), whereas the second reduces it to a machine. 

In describing the two hemispheres, McGilchrist is careful to note that he is not describing a case of part A vs. part B: Both hemispheres are implicated in all brain activity. As such, “There are no bits, only networks” (McGilchrist, 34). Let me therefore reiterate: Both hemispheres are implicated in all brain activity. Both are involved. But one usually dominates over the other, both in individuals and in cultures. And over time, the characteristics of the dominant hemisphere become the overarching characteristics of the individual or culture.

Note here the similarity to one of the central insights of media ecology, namely that each successive medium of communication favours a particular definition of knowledge, one which corresponds most closely with its own physical characteristics and conditions of use. This, in turn, transforms the culture. Each new medium, when it becomes the dominant one, reformats the entire culture in a particular way: The physical characteristics of the dominant medium of communication, or DMC, then become the social, intellectual and spiritual characteristics of the culture that is formed by it. (See Postman, Chapter 2, “Media As Epistemology.”) This media shift takes place environmentally—in the information “operating system,” as it were—rather than in the content conveyed through the DMC. As such it is, in itself, nearly invisible. 

What is highly visible, though, are the many ripple effects that such a shift produces in the culture itself: The DMC shifts, and so the information environment shifts—favouring the style of communication that the new DMC does best. The brain, ever adaptable, adopts the “habits” of its new information environment—by subtly shifting the hemispheric balance involved. And the entire culture shifts with it. (The values of the previous media paradigm then become the obsolesced software which the new operating system no longer supports.)

Here we must consider this in light of McGilchrist’s observation concerning one of the key differences between the two hemispheres: “The hemispheres have different answers to the fundamental question ‘what is knowledge?’…And hence different ‘truths’ about the world” (McGilchrist, p. 135). Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman and Walter Ong were clear about this: No medium of communication is neutral. Each one has its own bias, and its own best use. (And thus, McLuhan later said, its own pattern of brain lateralization.)

McGilchrist describes the two hemispheres of the brain in this manner: “The left hemisphere operates an abstract visual-form system, storing information that remains relatively invariant across specific instances, producing abstracted types or classes of things: whereas the right hemisphere is aware of and remembers what it is that distinguishes specific instances of a type, one from another. The right hemisphere deals preferentially with actually existing things, as they are encountered in the real world. Because its language roots things in the context of the real world, it is concerned with the relations between things” (McGilchrist, 50).

This sounds a lot like Marshall McLuhan’s descriptive glosses on the differences between grammatica and dialectica as ways of knowing: “The grammarian is concerned with connections; the dialectician with divisions… Grammarians distrusted abstraction; dialecticians distrusted concrete modes of language” (McLuhan, 2006, 168). Thus, we see that the structure of the classical trivium corresponds closely to the architecture of our brains. (No wonder, then, that it should be the reigning educational paradigm in the West for over 2000 years, from Plato to Ramus and to Des Cartes, and in altered form well past the Industrial Revolution.) Naturally, then, in the 1970s McLuhan recognized early on the correspondence between the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience and his own earlier work concerning the classical trivium (McLuhan and Powers, 49-56).

McGilchrist describes the many differences between the two cerebral hemispheres: the right hemisphere deals with the world as it is. The left hemisphere makes abstractions, and then reasons not from the actual world, but from the abstract representations which it has made (McGilchrist, 31). In the process, the left hemisphere “renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless” but gives us objective knowledge, leading to power (McGilchrist, 31). Indeed, the left hemisphere tends strongly toward the drive to power (McGilchrist, 209).

Previous neuroscience orthodoxy held that the left hemisphere was said to be “dominant” and the right hemisphere “silent.” However, further inquiry demonstrates that this is mostly a Western tendency. Nor is the right hemisphere silent—rather it is resonant. (In one sense, the right hemisphere is the hemisphere which hears and listens. The left hemisphere is the hemisphere that speaks and asserts.)

More critically, the left hemisphere’s view is partial—at several levels. It doesn’t know what the right hemisphere knows, nor can it do all that the right hemisphere does. The right hemisphere however DOES know what the left hemisphere knows, and can do all of what the left hemisphere does (McGilchrist, 41).

The right hemisphere is capable of flexible thought and “synthesis-on-the-fly.” It is not hampered by new situations, whereas the left hemisphere functions well only in familiar settings with familiar rules. As such, it always tries to conform new situations to old rules. Understandably, then, the right hemisphere’s affinity is with the living, whereas the left hemisphere’s affinity is with the mechanical (McGilchrist, 55).

Interestingly, the capabilities for which the computer is celebrated, those which so exceed and outstrip human capabilities, are nearly exclusively those of the human left hemisphere (Kurzweil, 4-5). At these functions (any form of sorting and calculating which can be represented as a simple or complex algorithm), it is absolutely true that the computer is, or soon will be, superior to the human brain. For the right hemisphere’s abilities however, which also include both navigating the ambiguities of social situations and interpreting the multiple layers of meaning which contribute, for example, to humour, the computer shows no great ability at all—and is not likely to develop these any time soon.

The right hemisphere is holistic and relational. It is capable of compassion, and of love. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, sees the world in terms of facticity and power. It appears to live in a jealous tension with the right hemisphere, and as McGilchrist demonstrates throughout his book, the left hemisphere is capable of astonishing feats of self-deception. These would be comical, if it were not for the left hemisphere’s drive to dominate, both individually and culturally.

Simply put, the left hemisphere wants to control (McGilchrist, 80). It doesn’t have access to the right hemisphere’s knowledge base, is incapable of understanding life environmentally as a complex of interdependent relationships, and has no concept of compassion, which leads to some BAD, blind and uninformed choices at the individual, cultural, national and international levels (McGilchrist, 81). Leading with the left hemisphere is fatal, as McGilchrist demonstrates: The left hemisphere thinks it is the whole show. Moreover, that show is about power and control, not about relationship (much less love).

McGilchrist explains that this hemispheric infighting and separation is not as it should be. Furthermore, it is one-sided: The right hemisphere is not trying to stage a coup to supplant the left. What we are meant to engage in is whole-brain learning: A right hemisphere-to-left hemisphere-to-right hemisphere pattern (174): Action followed by contemplation and reflection, followed again by re-integrating the understanding gained into lived life. If the pattern sounds familiar, so it should: It is both that of the “Values Clarification” model, and of the monastic practice of action and contemplation (Rohr, 6-7). Apparently it is the one most native to us. However, it is predicated on the left hemisphere yielding to the right hemisphere, which often does not happen.

What Eve saw, then, namely that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was good for gaining wisdom, was accurate as far as it goes. Let us accept for the moment that this fruit is a powerful metaphor for the abstract reasoning which the left hemisphere favors and which the technology of alphabetic writing promotes. It is true that this posture of detached reflection is useful for learning and growth—but only if the insights thus gained are then reintegrated into life as it is actually lived with others. This entails having the left hemisphere graciously surrender control once again to the right hemisphere. However, this is the very thing that the left hemisphere does not want to do—and often refuses to do. Which then makes love, community, and proper stewardship of the created world deeply problematic.

My central point, then, is this: The left hemisphere is non-relational. It does not love. It lacks any capacity for compassion. If the first commandment is that we are to love the Lord with our whole hearts, whole minds, whole strengths and whole souls—and the second is like it, that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves—then we cannot afford to lead from the left hemisphere, nor subsume the judgments of the right hemisphere to those of the left. Doing so makes obeying these two commandments nearly impossible.

Richard Rohr writes about what he calls “The White Male System,” based on the work of Anne Wilson Schaef. It is precisely the habits of the left hemisphere writ large upon the canvas of our culture. Not exclusive to white males, it describes instead the five unstated principles of Western culture, which both Rohr and Schaef identify as a culture of addiction. The first four are these:

  1. The White Male System is the only thing that exists. (Those who are enmeshed in this system know no other way of looking at reality. It is all about power, wealth and status.) (Rohr, 21)
  2. The White Male System is innately superior. (Those who order their lives differently are simply wrong. And they should be made to see this.) (Rohr, 21)
  3. The White Male System knows and understands everything. There is nothing that falls outside its purview, or if it does, it is unimportant. (Rohr, 21)
  4. It is possible to be totally logical, rational and objective. Everything that is worth knowing is objectifiable and quantifiable…If there is something that cannot be known through the technology of the system, it is irrelevant and can be disregarded. Feelings, values, hopes, ideals, rights and other intangibles only count when they can be quantified and measured. (Rohr, 21-22)
  5. Therefore (on the basis of these four preceding beliefs), it is possible for one to be God. Ultimate reality, innate superiority, omniscience, and omniscient objectivity are all attributes of divinity. Western man claims for himself the rights of God. (Rohr, 22) Far from being only a children’s Bible story, the story of the Fall weaves itself throughout Western culture, and echoes another, earlier fall, one which “led astray a third of the host of heaven.” 

What Rohr and Schaeff are calling “The White Male System,” the media ecology tradition recognizes as life in “visual space,” under the spell of Gutenberg. McLuhan and Ong tell us further that these are the extreme characteristics of dialectica, and of Method, under the pervasive influence of Peter Ramus, and later of Rene Des Cartes. (Two generations ago, writing from a psychoanalytic perspective, Karl Stern termed these same attributes The Flight from Woman.) However we call it, and from whatever perspective, we can see clearly with the benefit of 500 years of hindsight that it has not served to make all people glad and wise, but rather the opposite.

The effect of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, driven as they both were by the printing press, was to shift our religious life from a grammatical basis to a dialectic one, and thus from a right hemisphere epistemology to that of the left hemisphere. And therefore from acoustic space to visual space, regardless of one’s Christian practice, Catholic or Protestant. All well and good, but for one detail: Left-hemisphere/visual space entails spiritual deafness (Ong, 73). God became inaccessible, and relationship and community became more problematic.

The left hemisphere apparently has a long-practiced habit of justifying its distorted views. Jesus himself named the two greatest commandments those of loving God and loving one’s neighbor. The left hemisphere, however, is not capable of love. Love, then, cannot be the main focus (or any focus at all) of religious practice as processed through the left hemisphere. Something else, therefore, must be substituted.

Naturally, then, left-hemisphere religious thought focuses upon correct belief—which then justifies protracted conflict concerning right belief. We might understand this as a McLuhanesque tetradic flip-into-its-opposite: According to McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media, any human creation enhances some function or purpose in the present, retrieves something from the past, obsolesces something previous (which it then replaces), and when it is then overheated or overused, it flips into its opposite. That is, it then has the opposite effect from the one intended. So it would be easy to assume that the church’s history of conflict over right belief might be the effect of an overheated medium, or a series of overheated mediums. And yes, at such times the tenor and variety of these conflicts have typically been at their peak.

But this very distortion we are discussing—protracted and many-sided arguments about correct Christian belief—has been a persistent feature for most of the last 2000 years. Only rarely has the Christian church at large ever been rid of it. Why?

— Because alphabetic writing has a natural bias toward the left hemisphere, and typography even more so. These means of transmitting the faith from one generation to the next carry with them the tendency to distort that faith greatly, unless counterbalanced by a strong, firsthand engagement both with God and with authentic Christian community. And this has not been most people’s experience.

Over time, the people of modern Western culture became most heartily sick of this tendency toward religious conflict. This disaffection took a different form in North America than in Europe. On both continents, however, it resulted in both the privatization of religion and the supplanting of family, community and spiritual life by consumerism and consumption as the major source of satisfaction (Gregory, 236-9). Since these are inherently unsatisfactory substitutes, and because our dissatisfaction itself has left us open to further emotional manipulation via advertising, ours has become a culture that fosters material addiction (and many other addictions) as a substitute for spiritual maturity (May, 38-41).

It is a commonplace in sociology and religious studies that faith in God is inversely proportional to level of education (Gregory, 27). It is also a commonplace that the Western world displays levels of consumer consumption which are many times that of the non-Western world. Far from being unrelated, these two facts are the two sides of the same thing. This becomes easier to grasp if we understand most education in the West to be secular: Greater degrees of secular training lead to greater degrees of secularism, fostering in turn greater degrees of addiction. This becomes clearer if we consider that all addiction is a substitute for God (May, 13).

Therefore, which brain hemisphere we lead with and live out of is NOT a neutral matter (contra McLuhan, 1999, 53). It is at the heart of our present ecological, economic and social crises: Our dangerous levels of consumption and debt, in North America and much of the rest of the Western world, owes directly to these prior issues. Our economically and environmentally precarious situation comes about because we have replaced communion with consumption (Gregory, 17-18). And we continue to do so even when we know that material wealth does not significantly contribute to happiness (McGilchrist, 434). What it does instead is to afford us the ability, as has often been said, to buy “the form of misery we prefer.” (If we understand this as the form of addiction we prefer, the insight is a sound one.)

McGilchrist voices the fear that it may already be too late: The “emissary,” the left hemisphere, may have already usurped the position of the master, the right hemisphere, made permanent his new authority, and ushered in that “unending night” that Stoker wrote about. Judging by the last 200 years or more, he has a point. But our situation may not be as bleak as McGilchrist suggests. In fact, we have already begun to reverse our course. Whether we have understood the nature and cause of these changes, however, remains an open question.

What we need to ensure, then, is not that we shift from left hemisphere to right hemisphere modes of perception—that is already underway, via electronic media—but, paradoxically, to see that in doing so, we retain what we have learned in our left hemisphere sojourn. We must be intentional about this, otherwise we run afoul of McLuhan’s observation that “When the sense ratios alter in any culture, what had appeared lucid before may suddenly be opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent” (McLuhan 1962, 41). In other words, what had always made perfect sense to us in the past no longer makes any sense at all. Likewise, we need to ensure that we engage the right hemisphere process deeply, not superficially, since secondary (and now tertiary) orality fostered by electronic media are nowhere near as all-encompassing a form of acoustic space as primary orality was. And while digital communication fosters “awareness,” that awareness tends to be superficial and self-centered. It lacks a bias toward maturity.

What we need, then, is a way of training and integrating the left and right hemispheres to play well together. Toward this end, McLuhan had a valuable suggestion: He said that the time was ripe once again for the teaching of grammatica, and he is right (McLuhan, 1987, 184). In this way, we can engage in the right-to-left-to-right-hemisphere process which McGilchrist commends to us. In this way we can advance in wisdom, and not just in information.

In this transition, the Roman Catholic Church also stands to play a central role—if likely not the central role it imagines. Here the Church needs to lead with its riches, not with its rules: It remains the repository of the right-hemisphere wisdom tradition of the West, and of the acoustic-space practices of Western Christianity. While various non-Catholic Christian traditions are attempting to rediscover life in acoustic space, the spiritual practices of the Catholic and Orthodox religious orders and monasteries remain the gold standard here (Luhrmann, 167-175). Furthermore, it is possible as a Catholic to be sacramental, scholarly, contemplative, charismatic, and evangelical. To be arts-, humanities-, AND social justice-oriented, all fairly seamlessly. Whereas in most Protestant circles (at least until very recently), this same set of commitments might easily lead to numerous conflicts. 

Admittedly, the Catholicism I have just described is not the experience of most Catholics at the parish level. But it is part of the Catholic tradition (particularly among the contemplative religious orders and monasteries). And it is the very thing that many Charismatics and Evangelicals now realize that they are looking for. Scot McKnight, for instance, once defined the Emerging Church movement as “Catholicism for post-Catholics.” (McKnight) They are NOT, however, looking for the Catholic hierarchy to come with it. (The role of the left hemisphere in the formation of the Catholic hierarchy would itself make an interesting study.)

Most Catholic parishes are ill-equipped to address such earnest inquiry from non-Catholics concerning, say, contemplative prayer or the Ignatian Exercises. However, most monasteries and houses of spiritual formation are well prepared—and it is a pilgrimage that many non-Catholic believers are already making (Luhrmann, 183-4). And although generations of Catholics even beyond Vatican II learned a “circle-the-wagons” attitude toward other Christians, this posture has not been very fruitful as the “separated brethren” come to learn the Catholic ways of prayer—which the average parish Catholic does not know much about.

As such, the cause of “ecumenism of orthodoxy”—similar to the “generous orthodoxy” Brian McLaren speaks of—might be best served if Catholics themselves learned the Catholic spiritual practices—any of the many ways which the various religious communities learned to listen to God. Better still, more than one. (It would give us something useful to do after Confirmation, which might not then be seen as a ceremony of graduation from church attendance). This would in turn help to heal the Catholic Church from its own sins and misadventures. After all, the “aggiornamento” of Vatican II—bringing the Catholic Church into the modern age—surely seemed the right thing to do at the time. By itself, however, it may not have been the best idea, just as that modern age—the age of the culture of Gutenberg—was ending. Yet there is an entire post-modern world out there that, while it may have no affection at all for either Catholicism or for Christians in general, dearly wants what the Church-at-large has been entrusted with: Intimacy and community with God and with others, and a whole and satisfying way out of the unending night. To borrow a familiar McLuhanism, this is not “light on,” but “light through.” It is not the Church talking to itself, about itself, but giving the world fresh access to God.

 

References: 

Gregory, Brad S. 2012. The Unintended Reformation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Kurzweil, Ray. 1999. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Penguin Books.

Luhrmann, T.M. 2012. When God Talks Back. New York: Knopf.

May, Gerald. 1988. Addiction and Grace. San Francisco: Harper And Row.

McGilchrist, Iain. 2009. The Master and his Emissary. New Haven: Yale University Press.

McKnight, Scot. Interview with Kim Lawton, July 8, 2005, Religion And Ethics Newsweekly, Episode no. 845. Retrieved December 23, 2005 from www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week845/interview3.html.

McLuhan, M. 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

________ 1987. Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

________ and Powers, Bruce. 1989. The Global Village. New York: Oxford University Press.

________ 1999. The Medium and the Light (E. McLuhan & J. Sklarek, Eds.). Toronto: Stoddart.

________ 2003. Understanding Me (S. McLuhan & D. Staines, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

________ 2006 The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time. (T. Gordon, Ed.) Corte Madiera, CA: Ginko Press.

Ong, Walter. 1967. The Presence Of The Word. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Postman, Neil. 1987. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin.

Rohr, Richard and Martos, Joseph. 1996. The Wild Man’s Journey. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press.

Stern, Karl. 1985. The Flight From Woman. New York: Paragon House.

Stoker, Bram. 1965. Dracula. New York: Signet.

 

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Comments

  1. howard wetzel says:

    Very insightful article. Some thoughts: we need another label ‘White Male System’. I don’t disagree with its description. But why not ‘the print dialectic system’ which encapsulates the formal media cause the sexist bias stands on? And ‘secondary orality’ is oil emerging as analogous effects as literacy declines as evidenced in shorter written structures (tweeting), symbolic communication (emojis), and the all-surrounding environment of social media.

  2. howard wetzel says:

    Oops. . . finally, Pope francis is actively trying to rebalance the Catholic experience of faith against the dialecticians like Cardinal Burke.

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