When I was a girl, I trained for equestrian eventing. This is comprised of a dressage test, a cross-country jumping course, and a stadium jumping course. The training hours were long and intense, as my horse and I learned to move and act as one entity. More important, though, than contact with my legs or my seat or my hands was the contact that I made with my eyes. My horse, of course (of course!), had his eyes on either side of his head, which limited his field of vision so that there was a blind spot in the three to four feet directly in front of him – which is something you don’t want to contemplate too closely when you’re cantering toward a three-foot jump! I had no problem seeing what was directly in my path, but it was not enough simply to focus on what was in front of me. “Soft eyes! Soft eyes!” my trainer would yell from the arena railing, meaning that I was concentrating too hard on what was straight ahead. “Soft eyes” was a reminder that I needed to pull back the focus and see in the panorama. If you are too narrowed in on what is immediately before you when riding, you do not see what your horse sees, and he knows it. His knowing it makes him nervous and less likely to trust you. And trust is the key to a successful horse-rider relationship. His sight is fractured, and he needs yours to be whole.
I remembered this when I recently read a book that changed my life. It is called The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. I had never thought of my brain before in terms of the right-left hemisphere divide, but the author of the book, Iain McGilchrist, makes a compelling case for what this divide means, why it matters, and how a tilt culturally and intellectually toward what he sees as the usurpation of the left hemisphere into the realm of responsibilities that ought to be given to the right has diminished and impoverished us. It is not a religious book; but, I wholeheartedly agree with G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that “if Christianity should happen to be true – then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.” The book is a masterpiece of scientific and philosophic scholarship, and its scope is too wide for my purpose here; however, I want to share the central idea that Mr. McGilchrist posits, and how it has made for me a bit more translucent that glass through which we now see so darkly.
The primary idea is found in the relationship of the hemispheres. Both halves can receive information. The right brain, though, receives information in a holistic, contextual way rife with empathy, implicit meaning, and a sense of seeing things “as they are.” The left brain receives information in a more abstract or impersonal way, being analytic and reading explicit meanings. The left brain wants to classify and categorize and tends to take an outside, invariant view of information. Mr. McGilchrist contends that the human brain was originally designed to be right-hemisphere dominant. Ideally, our right brains would receive information, send it over to the left brain to organize, which would send it back to the right brain to internalize and act upon it. The title of his book, though, refers to a story Nietzsche told about a wise and loving master whose extensive realm was run to ruin and collapse when an ambitious and clever emissary, entrusted to rule on the master’s behalf with the same fairness, honesty, and kindness, wrested the power unto himself and brought tyranny instead. In such a way, McGilchrist sees the left hemisphere, made to serve the right, now in ascension over it.
All the left brain can offer without the right is a fragmented, impersonal vision of the world. And does that not ring true in our world today? Where people have 400 Facebook friends, but no one with whom to share a cup of coffee? Where families are ripped apart because the individuals rebelled against the whole? Where we run in circles, splintering our time between projects that never seem to reach completion? The right brain, with its emphasis on looking outward, seeing the Other, is our key to comprehending something very important about God and our relationship with Him. Without its point of view, we see in the shards of a mirror, reflecting only ourselves; with our right brains, God gives us a window.
We fall into a trap whenever we try to “explain God” on the left hemisphere’s terms. Isn’t that Satan’s original ploy? He fractures and makes incomplete our perceptions of the Most High. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Then, he narrows our focus, encouraging us to “judge” God in human terms. And even today: How can you believe in a God that would let a child die? How can you believe in a God that would let an earthquake swallow up a town? How can you believe in a God that would . . .? The Bible may not make sense when taken in pieces. But, the Story was never meant to be told in fragments. It is a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts. It is gestalt. Just as you cannot begin to understand the sacrifice of Jesus without an understanding of the helplessness of your own sinful state, you cannot really get a grasp on the utter depravity of the human will until you hold it up to the light of the holiness of Christ.
Things that stand as roadblocks to our relationship with God usually have to do with traits that are typical of left-brain dominance. One thing our left brains cannot stand is any sort of paradox – the apparent co-existence of two irreconcilable ideas or entities. Fully God and fully man? A kingdom that always was and is to come? The wisdom of fools? Losing life to find it? If we ponder these truths too closely, we start to lose the beauty of them; we begin to believe that we must justify them in human terms. If, though, we just let them wash over us, they make perfect sense. Mr. McGilchrist writes that, perhaps, the things that our left brains tell us are paradoxes, our right brains intrinsically understand.
As I walk into my nineteenth year of faith this autumn, I think of those days long ago, training with my beloved Thoroughbred. Today, I am not preparing for a blue ribbon in an event, but for a far more glorious prize. I am trying to retrain my eyes again to be soft, to see more than I think I can see, to behold the whole picture and not just a narrow focus. I want to see the Story – from Genesis 1:1 all the way through Revelation 22:21 – as the narrative, not only of ancient peoples, but of my life. Now, though, it is my vision that is fractured; I need to trust Jesus, day by day, to make my sight whole.