God Does Not Dwell in Religion’s Quarters.


Ross Douthat’s column, “A Guide to Finding Faith” in the NYTimes today (8/15/2021) is basically a plea to find and hold onto faith in a transcendent God. I found the column difficult and very confusing to read and take in. And I believe that there is a very good reason for that. Douthat, like most others, mistakes faith in God for the experience of transcendence, which belongs in a different category and arises from a different side of the brain. In this post, I will argue that faith in God is a form of institutional practice, primarily involving the left-brain hemisphere, whereas the experience of God or any other encounter with transcendence is an individual phenomenon, primarily entailing the right-brain hemisphere. Further, I believe that religious institutions are poorly suited to support and may, indeed, inhibit the ability of individuals to have such transcendent experiences.

What follows is based on the divided brain model of Iain McGilcrist, as is most of my work now. As a reference point, here is a collection of definitions of religion, I gleaned from a web search:

1. [Religion is] the belief in Spiritual Beings.”(Edward B Tylor, Primitive Culture)
2. By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. (James George Frazer, The Golden Bough)
3. [Religion is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine. (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)
4. A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (b) [Religion is] “the self-validation of a society by means of myth and ritual. (Émile Durkeim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life)
5. [Religion is] the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary, and a concern that in itself provides the answer to the question of the meaning of our existence. (Paul Tillich)
6. A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. (Meriam-Webster Dictionary)
7. Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal…To be spiritual is to be amazed. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

This list can be roughly divided into two categories. The first focuses on institutional aspects, including beliefs, practices, means, symbols, etc. (#1. 2, 4, 5, 6; the second on personal experiences (#3, 7). None of these mention “faith,” but any that did would fit into the first category, as faith is nothing more than a belief that cannot be grounded with verifiable evidence. Not surprisingly, these two categories correspond to the way the two hemispheres work. Further, these two categories line up with the two aspects of flourishing as I define it: the first with social coherence and the second with personal wholeness. I will return to this, but first, an argument that there is nothing special about religion and religious institutions. It/they are no different from any other set of beliefs and the institutions built on them.

We connect to the world outside through the right-brain hemisphere. The actual processes by which this happen are not well understood, but I will paint a picture, using familiar metaphors. It gathers “information” from the totality of sensory inputs and creates a “picture” of what it “sees” in as much detail as it captures. Only after it tries to make sense of what is there does anything happen. Such sense making is a process that turns to the left-brain and asks it to name what it sees. The right then, according to McGilchrist, can either not-say-no, thereby accepting the judgment of the left as to what is out there or it can say no, leaving the scene undefined as to its content. Another way of putting this, the brain can recognize only what is already known.

But what happens when there is no content of the left to not-say-no to. The experience shows up as a felt response in the body, that, on reflection is acknowledged, but cannot be “put into words.” Such experiences belong to the domain of the transcendent, the name given to experiences that cannot be named or connected to anything that is already known, reduced to some set of linguistic elements, and stored in the left-brain. Whatever meaning the experience carries is implicit and is connected to the whole of the world that was captured by the right. The right has shut the left brain out by, in essence, saying no to every possible clue the left has to offer up. The conscious bodily experience, however, will continue for some time in the memory. The right may, subsequently, try to construct meaning via the use of metaphor, using familiar language to get a sense of the unfamiliar. The following quote comes from his book, The Master and His Emissary.)

Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.

Now, do a thought experiment and imagine primitive humans, possessing only a limited range of linguistic distinctions, having a transcendent experience, like, perhaps, viewing an eclipse or observing a birth or death. Such instances would have been more prevalent, given that they would not have had many words to express what they were experiencing. Whatever meaning these events produced had to remain implicit.

The experience, itself, could be the end, but could lead to the creation of some explanatory story by the right brain, using the power of metaphor to transform the experience into words or symbols. Any such creation would necessarily involve the invention of some object with the power to have caused the experience. Over time as the size of the set of words and symbols grew, these explanatory stories would add details, eventually becoming mythic in character.

I have taken some liberties with the divided-brain model to get this far, but I do believe that this discussion is true enough to move to the next level, the development of institutions based on these explanatory stories. Every story that attempts to explain some event must include some causal element that has the power to produce whatever was encountered. Two kind of facts/beliefs are involved: brute and institutional, in the taxonomy of John Searle. Brute facts correspond to the actual objects involved in transcendent and mundane experiences. They exist prior to having words attached to them. Institutional facts are the entities created in the explanatory stories that possess the power to cause them. They differ from brute facts by having some sort of deontic power (rights, duties, etc. ) attributed to them. They exist only by virtue of having been spoken or presented symbolically by someone.

If the transcendent experience was a singular event, the memory will probably fade away over time, but if it was repeated or experienced by others, the story will likely be repeated until it is abstracted and passes over to the left-brain. When that happens, its elements will take on the same ontological status as brute facts and becomes accepted as a chink of reality. Over time, the story may become embellished with rituals and practices aimed at reproducing the original experience. Thus, an institution is born. The menu has replaced the meal. In the process, the implicit power of the transcendent experience to produce whatever feelings make it so remarkable in the first place become part of some routine institutional practice, powerless to generate such bodily responses.

I love the last quote in the above list from Rabbi Herschel because it so directly points to transcendental, not institutional, experiences. All institutions, including any that call themselves religious or spiritual, are the result of the left-brain at work, and have already reduced whatever implicit qualities served to spawn them to explicit facts and practices. Once the institutional spiritual or religious practices have been become routine, the left-brain will take control of this domain, and provide what now will be called religious experiences. Given that we now have words to describe just about every possible encounter with the world, transcendent experiences, which rely on the right-hemisphere staying in control, are bound to be rare. The process I have described closely fits Weber’s famous observation about modernity, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’” Calls to have faith in God are little more than the left-brain and the institutions it serves exercising their inherent ‘will to power,” and desire to be in control. Orthodoxies are, perhaps, the worst offenders because they so completely prescribe the only paths to discover the ultimate power. Even admitting to one’s transcendental experience may be grounds to be deemed a heretic and, in much earlier times, be martyred.

Circling back to the opening paragraph, to have faith in God is to accept as true the words of other human beings who have over time reduced the wholistic, transcendent experiences of some to the institutional structures of religions. But that structure of belief and power is nothing more than the result of converting, through metaphor, the miraculous experiences of human beings into whatever language was available at the time, and further embellished to consolidate the authority necessary to maintain control. True transcendent experiences are simply felt. They occur when the right brain is fully engaged in taking in the world and is saying no to everything the left is trying to impose. There is nothing but feelings of wonder and awe. God comes only later, after the left brain kicks in, and, unfortunately, spoils the party.

I will finish simply by adding some quotes dealing with metaphor from McGilchrist’s book. There are some gems buried in them.

Language functions like money. It is only an intermediary. But like money it takes on some of the life of the things it represents. It begins in the world of experience and returns to the world of experience—and it does so via metaphor, which is a function of the right hemisphere, and is rooted in the body. To use a metaphor, language is the money of thought.

Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphor. That might not sound too important—like it could be a nice thing if one were going to do a bit of lit crit. But that is just a sign of the degree to which our world of discourse is dominated by left-hemisphere habits of mind. Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.

Speaking metaphorically, one might say that language is open to carry us across to the experiential world at the ‘top’ and at the ‘bottom’ . . At the ‘top’ end, I am talking about any context . . . in which words are used so as to activate a broad net of connotations, which though present to us, remains implicit, so that the meanings are appreciated as a whole, at once, to the whole of our being, conscious and unconscious, rather than being subject to the isolating effects of sequential, narrow-beam attention. As long as they remain implicit, they cannot be hijacked by the conscious mind and turned into just another series of words, a paraphrase. If this should happen, the power is lost, much like a joke that has to be explained (humour is a right-hemisphere faculty).

At the ‘bottom’ end, I am talking about the fact that every word, in and of itself, eventually has to lead us out of the web of language, to the lived world, ultimately to something that can only be pointed to, something that relates to our embodied existence. . . Everything has to be expressed in terms of something else, and those something elses eventually have to come back to the body.

Let me emphasise that the gap across which the metaphor carries us is one that language itself creates. Metaphor is language’s cure for the ills entailed on us by language . . . If the separation exists at the level of language, it does not at the level of experience. At that level the two parts of a metaphor are not similar; they are the same. . . Originally, when man was still at one with the world, this two-dimensional trope did not yet exist; one did not compare that which showed no resemblance, but one proclaimed identities: metaphors were, as with children, necessary synonyms for body and mind.

Metaphor embodies thought and places it in a living context. . . Once again it is the right hemisphere, in its concern for the immediacy of experience, that is more densely interconnected with and involved in the body, the ground of that experience. Where the right hemisphere can see that metaphor is the only way to preserve the link between language and the world it refers to, the left hemisphere sees it either as a lie (Locke, expressing Enlightenment disdain, called metaphors ‘perfect cheats’) or as a distracting ornament; and connotation as a limitation, since in the interests of certainty the left hemisphere prefers single meanings.

For the left hemisphere, consequently, language can come to seem cut off from the world, to be itself the reality; and reality, for its part, comes to seem made up of bits strung together, as the words are strung together by syntax. The left hemisphere is bound to see language like this because it understands things by starting from the observation of ‘pieces’ and builds them up to make something, and this is the only route it has to understanding both the world and language itself, the medium with which it does its understanding, including its understanding of language.

(Image: Stonehenge)

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