The Sense of the Sacred. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

[Indra’s Net]

The penultimate talk given by Iain McGilchrist at the 2021 Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, was ‘The Sense of the Sacred’. This is also the title of the final chapter (Chapter 28, which Ian has called his ‘God’ chapter) of his new book The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, due to be published on November 9th.

The purpose of the new book is to try and answer Plotinus’ question, ‘Who are We?’  What is the world and what are we to make of the cosmos and our place in it? The whole book and even, I would say, the Master and His Emissary describes a journey taken in quest of answering this question ‘Who are We?’ and ultimately ends up with the conviction (but not the only one) that we and our world lack a sense of the sacred.

A friend, who also attended the Field&Field conference, commented that he was impressed by how Iain developed his argument through the series of talks that we listened to, and Iain himself said that he had attempted to unfold the argument.  The titles of these talks, each lasting an hour, were:

  1. Introduction to the hemispheres/The Matter with Things
  2. Brain disorders of the hemispheres
  3. What is language for?
  4. The value and limits of science
  5. The value and limits of reason
  6. The value and limits of intuition
  7. The value and limits of imagination
  8. The coincidence of opposites
  9. The one and the many
  10. The nature of time
  11. Matter and consciousness
  12. What are values
  13. The sense of the sacred
  14. Closing thoughts

This would suggest that I should start with the first talk and work through them in making these posts, as I have done in the past (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/the-divided-brain/). But I also anticipate that one difference between this new book, The Matter with Things (TMWT), and the Master and His Emissary (TMAHE), is that it will be easier to dip into the new book, reading chapters independently of each other. So, I am starting with the final talk, which was completely new to me. I am already familiar with some of the content of most of the others, but I also hope to write about some of the other talks if time allows. Some (those that have links) I have already written about in the past, but I may expand on them.

At this point I should say that anything written here is my interpretation of what Iain said and should not be taken as evidence of what he actually said. We each hear things differently according to our own contexts, on top of which, as I get older my ability to make accurate notes at speed has significantly deteriorated!

In giving this talk Iain used no slides, making the point that the sacred cannot be represented. He acknowledged that it is paradoxical to write and talk about something that cannot be expressed in words, something that we do not know or understand. He explained that what he means by a sense of the sacred is the gravitational pull towards the ineffable, a wordless reaching out, the spiritual aspect of being human. To be human is to feel this deep gravitational pull to something ineffable. If we can just get beyond words and reasons, we can reach out wordlessly to something outside our conceptual grasp but nonetheless present to us, to a whole range of unfathomable experiences which we call spiritual.

The thrust of Iain’s argument is that in our modern world we are fast losing any sense of the sacred, and that this is detrimental to understanding who we are and our place in the cosmos. Iain’s understanding of this comes through his work on brain lateralisation, which has led him to suggest that we now live in a world dominated by the narrowly focussed, grabbing, and getting left hemisphere, which doesn’t understand the sacred. The left hemisphere analyses things, takes them apart and expresses everything reductively in language. It doesn’t see wholes. It sees things in categories wanting to compare one thing with another, but there is nothing with which the sacred, the divine, can be compared. The sense of the sacred cannot be expressed in language. We should not speak the name of God. God is not understandable, not a thing.  God can only be recognised by the right hemisphere, the hemisphere that sees the whole and tolerates ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox. The left hemisphere is a very good servant (Emissary), but it should never be the Master, which is the role of the right hemisphere. (For the scientific evidence that supports this argument, see the first part of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World).

What can we call this profound experience for which we have no words? Whatever we call it is going to be potentially misleading. Different cultures call it something different. We in the West call it God, the name for something that gives rise to everything in the Universe. But as soon as we have the name, we think we have understood it. We have to hang on to the realisation that we have not understood it. The name of God is the unnameable name, or as St. Augustine said, if you understand it, then it’s not God you have understood.

There are also problems with understanding what belief is. In the modern world after several years of analytical philosophy, belief has been taken to mean assent to various propositions, but belief is not propositional, it is dispositional. How we are disposed to the world determines what we find in the world. Attention is the way you dispose consciousness. Just because belief is dispositional it’s not baseless or irrational. It’s transitional. Belief relates to love as a disposition towards the world. Belief is a relationship, not a thing but a betweenness, but it is not in the space between, it’s in the whole. Religions speak in images, parables, and paradoxes because there is no other way of grasping the reality to which they refer, but it is still a genuine reality.

So, what does a belief in God entail? What disposition would we have to adopt? We cannot approach it with the left hemisphere. Instead, it requires

  • Being open to something Other, active receptivity and being the devil’s advocate
  • Listening and attending
  • Accepting uncertainty, the new and unexpected, and tolerating ambiguity
  • Seeing limits to knowledge
  • Knowing in terms of Kennen rather than Wissen
  • Recognising the power of unknowing and not doing
  • Being open and receptive to paradox
  • Being able to apprehend betweenness, not just an assemblage of entities but a web of relationships
  • Relying on indirect metaphorical expression
  • Accepting that both contradictory elements might be true
  • Seeing continuous processes rather than a succession of things or isolated events
  • Appreciating the gestalt, the cohesive whole
  • Entering into I-Thou relation, not just I-It
  • Valuing empathy and vulnerability
  • Sustaining attention and stilling the inner voice
  • Accepting that relations are prior to relata. As with Indra’s net, the net begins with connections and only becomes a net after lots of connections have been made. You can’t start with things and then say how they are related because the way things are related tells you what they are
  • Seeing that spirit and body are not distinct or opposed, but different aspects of the same being. This is necessary for sustaining emotional depth

The right hemisphere is much better at all these things, at mindfulness and stilling the monkey mind to appreciate the reality we experience. The left hemisphere’s understanding of God is that belief needs organisation, hierarchies, laws etc. as is seen in militant atheism and religious fundamentalism, which both these see black and white categories, and believe the ‘Word’ to be infallible, reflecting the left hemisphere’s approach to the world and its focus on analysis and argument. The left hemisphere wants everything to be cut and dried, to be certain, to be structured and expressed in written language. This leads to theological disputation. Militant atheism and religious fundamentalism are mirror images of one another. The great divide is not between believers and agnostics, but between militant atheists and militant believers. Both express the left hemisphere’s view of certainty. More and more we see their narcissistic self-righteousness, accompanied, as reformations always were, by destruction of paintings, images, art and beauty, and the banishment of humour. We saw this in the 17th century Puritans and we are seeing it again today in our own lifetime.

The power of unknowing and not doing is a very important idea in Chinese philosophy, but also in the neglected Western tradition of medieval mysticism. Meister Eckhart writes of this unknowing as the fruitful darkness in which we dwell. He called this darkness a loving and open receptiveness which however in no way lacks being. It is a receptive potential by means of which all is accomplished. It is in the darkness that one finds the light.

In ethical terms the right hemisphere places huge emphasis on empathy and vulnerability. The left hemisphere is not good at this. The right hemisphere recognises the dark side to human consciousness and doesn’t try to deny or repress it. It is capable of understanding that good may emerge from suffering which is not necessarily negative (as Viktor Frankl recognised), but obviously we try to avoid suffering.

Iain describes himself as a Panentheist, not a Pantheist who believes that all things are God and God is all things; a Panentheist believes that all things are in God, and that God is in all things, which suggests a process. Panentheism is very much a processual vision of the world in which the world comes into being within the overarching veil of whatever it is we cannot name that is above it. Wordsworth talks about this in his poem Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth was a Panentheist.  Iain acknowledges that Rowan Williams and others are not enamoured of processual theology, but Iain himself sees it everywhere. In the Old Testament God appears to Moses in the burning bush and says, ‘I am that I am’, which in Hebrew translates as ‘I will be what I will be’. In the story of Creation, God looked and saw that it was good, i.e., not previously determined, not yet decided, but genuinely coming into being, genuinely being created.  Similar is the Christian idea that the Word was made flesh. In Greek this translates as the Word became flesh, rather than was made, which in turn is similar to the familiar Christian words, ‘Begotten not made’, i.e., not put together. Meister Eckhart writes of a constant emanating presence. The becoming is a constant longing and its fulfilment. David Bohm in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order writes about things unfolding their potential. This is how Iain sees the creation, as the world constantly unfolding into an infinite number of possible instantiations. David Bohm believes that it is then re-enfolded. There is a constant process of folding, unfolding and then re-enfolding. God and creation are enfolded together (implicatio), unfolded (explicatio) and then re-enfolded (complicatio). A.N Whitehead has written that the world and God bring each other into existence. The Jewish creation myth in the Kabbalah describes this process.

[Kintsugi: The Japanese art of repairing broken porcelain to make it something greater and more beautiful than before. In the Kabbalah myth humanity plays an important part, because little sparks of the divine are in all the broken pieces, and our role is to put these parts together, so we have a positive role to play in creation.]

The three phases of the Kabbalah creation myth relate to the way the world comes into being through the interaction of the hemispheres.

One of the reasons for having religions is constantly to remind us of a broader context of another order which is a moral order, not just a rational one; a network of obligations to other humans, to the earth and to the Other that lies beyond, extending beyond our lives in space and time, but rooted firmly in spaces, places, practices and the here and now. This is the sense of the sacred. Without it this sense of the sacred risks being dissipated. Trust depends on shared beliefs. Religion is the manifestation of that trust and the embedding of it into the fabric of daily life. It embodies an awareness of God in the world through myths, narratives, symbols, rituals, and holy places. The world cannot afford to lose this stream of wisdom. Both hemispheres are important for this but the left hemisphere must serve the right.

There are many myths and fables in many languages, like the story of the Master and his Emissary, about a force that gets above itself (in this case the left hemisphere). Recently, Iain has spoken a number of times of the 9th century Chinese text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, in this context. (I managed to find the whole text online – https://terebess.hu/keletkultinfo/Cleary-Thomas-Secret-of-the-Golden-Flower.pdf – and this short article helps to introduce the text – The ancient secret of the Golden Flower is a simple way to improve your whole life). Iain quotes from the text to illustrate another example of where a servant (in this case the general) usurps authority, not knowing what it is doing.

The conscious mind is like a violent general of a strong fiefdom controlling things from a distance, until the sword is turned around. (The Secret of the Golden Flower, Chapter 2, p.14)

The left hemisphere grabs but doesn’t understand. Understanding is from the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere has driven out a lot of what we need to understand the world. It’s view of the world is abstracted, disembodied, fixed, certain, general, represented, explicit and inanimate. For the left hemisphere the world is represented as a map. The left hemisphere is a bureaucrat’s dream. The right hemisphere sees the world being mapped as a whole, flowing, uncertain, implicit, unique, animate, and embodied. The right hemisphere is a bureaucrat’s nightmare.

But the world is paradoxical. The right hemisphere understands this and that opposites might both be true. Paradox is the conflict between what the right and left hemispheres see, but trust depends on shared beliefs, and religion is a manifestation of trust. Both hemispheres are important.

Interestingly I have heard Iain say a number of times that he does not follow a particular religion, although he draws a lot from Christianity and Daoism. So, I don’t think he is advocating a particular religion as a way of addressing the ills of the world. My understanding is that he has looked at a number of religions to find the common teachings that might help us understand who we are and our place in the cosmos and has concluded that a sense of the scared is essential to this.

References

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Iain McGilchrist (2021). The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World. Perspectiva Press

Iain McGilchrist (2021). Hemispheric Asymmetry and the Approach to the Divine. Iain Ramsey Centre. https://youtu.be/qtArjSgM2I8

Source of image: Indra’s net –  https://focuspocusnow.com/2014/11/23/indras-net/

Source of Image: Kintsugi – https://asiatrend.org/arts/kintsugi-the-japanese-art-of-fixing-broken-pottery/

8 thoughts on “The Sense of the Sacred. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

  1. Rudolf Boukal January 17, 2022 / 9:34 am

    Beautifully written article, with a fairly honorable representation of McGilchrist’s ideas. As I was reading, I kept wondering if at some point you had considered using the word “faith” instead of “belief.” The american language is fundamentally horrible, limited and often misused. Consider studying these two words – if you wish, let me know your thoughts on that reflection. Thank you again.

  2. jennymackness January 17, 2022 / 8:59 pm

    Hello Rudolf. Thank you for your interesting comment and question.

    In this post I tried to stick as closely as I could to what I heard Iain McGilchrist talk about. I am away from home, on holiday, at the moment, and don’t have access to my original notes, but I can only assume that if I haven’t used the word ‘faith’ it is because McGilchrist didn’t.

    Also, I have not brought Volume 2 of his new book, The Matter with Things, with me, so I can’t check the index to see whether he makes a point of referencing faith, as well as belief, in the new book, or even to check Chapter 28 – The Sense of the Sacred – the final chapter in the book.

    But in the notes to Chapter 4 of The Master and His Emissary, this is what McGilchrist writes about faith and belief:

    “Note 151. Belief, like faith and truth, etymologically implies a relation of loyalty, and has the same root as love (and as the German words Glauben and Liebe).”

    And browsing through The Master and His Emissary, I see that McGilchrist writes more than once about the necessity of taking a leap of faith, and he also writes about faith in relation to uncertainty.

    I know from often hearing him speak that McGilchrist does not choose his words lightly, so if he talks about belief rather than faith, there will be a reason for this. It would be interesting to ask him what he considers the difference to be.

    Are you a member of Channel McGilchrist – https://channelmcgilchrist.com/ – If you are then you submit this question in the ‘Ask Iain’ section of the website – https://channelmcgilchrist.com/ask/

    For myself, this is not something I have considered before, and I would need to spend some time thinking about it.

  3. Rudolf Boukal January 17, 2022 / 9:27 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to respond – it matters to me, since I am also journeying (I assume) the same path of understanding – it can be quite demanding when done in earnest. You are so thorough and honest!! Wow. I will take your advice and post a question on Iain site (yes, I am a member). Once again, you are a brilliant writer and thinker – wonderful clarity in how you express yourself and your understanding. I will stay in touch.

  4. jarwillis February 25, 2022 / 8:01 am

    I have just read this, led to it from some related Google search, having completed my careful and slow reading of The Matter with Things about a month ago now.
    Just to thank you for adding so much to my understanding of Iain’s culminating chapter, whose vast significance I am still groping to comprehend.

  5. jennymackness February 25, 2022 / 7:30 pm

    And thank you James for taking the time to comment here. I am of course glad that you have found this post helpful, but you are way ahead of me in reading The Matter with Things. I am still reading the odd chapter here and there as time allows and the need arises. I think it may take years for me to read and get an understanding of the whole book. That was my experience of The Master and His Emissary 🙂

  6. Jonathan Still May 16, 2022 / 8:35 am

    Dear Jenny,
    I am reading The Master and his Emissary and being taken back 40 years to my tutorials with Rowan Williams on the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as the definitive understanding of the wholeness of God. Through meditation, contemplation and intuition the Early Church Fathers developed an understanding of the Source (Father), the Logos (Son) and the Communicative (Spirit). As I read Iain I see not a duality (divided brain) but a corresponding Trinity of Right, Left and Corpus Callossum- which is not a passive communication link but an active mediator of communication between the two.
    Christianity says that we are made i’In the Image of God’. Is the most important insight there that when we are balanced whole human beings we too are not monist individuals but playful trinitarian communal beings of right and left and corpus singing and being in a harmonious whole? Would that not have implications as a concept for how we live well with our environment, with each other and with ultimate reality?

  7. jennymackness May 16, 2022 / 6:33 pm

    Jonathan – thank you for reading this post and taking the time to comment and add your perspective. I am not a Christian, but I recognise that it must have been wonderful to have tutorials with Rowan Williams, who I always enjoy listening to. Do you know if Rowan Williams interprets Iain McGilchrist’s work on the divided brain in terms of the Trinity as you do? I know that McGilchrist does not align himself with any particular religion, but is drawn towards Christianity, as well as other Eastern religions, so presumably he would understand your perspective but also have alternative perspectives. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Jenny

  8. Jonathan May 17, 2022 / 10:28 am

    Dear Jenny,
    I am on my own as far as I know but my interest is that the Church Mothers and Fathers of the 1st to 4th C were exploring Ultimate Reality with their minds, not having magnetic resonance or CT scans. The definition they came up with that it is not a simple unity but a trinity in unity seems to me extraordinary, as if they were able to discern the structure and interrelationships between the two hemispheres of the brain and the corpus Callossum from within their minds, and should associate them with the Source, which begets the logos (word and organisation), and from both proceeds the communicative spirit, but the three one entity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s