Heraclitus is my patron Greek philosopher. One of his teachings was that the cosmos is a river in which the twin currents of love and strife roil in ceaseless change. If he is correct – that the essential nature of the universe is change – that implies that changelessness, permanence, and stability are functions of the mind (useful though they may be). The function of the mind to pull out unchanging forms and bodies from the background flux of sensory experience is mostly the contribution of our brains’ left hemisphere. This part of our brain/mind carves mental sculptures out of the lava flow of sense and perception.
This ability is extremely practical as it allows us to interact with our environments in effective and predictable ways. Under optimal conditions, our mental sculptures remain only as long as needed and then melt back into the flow whenever they outlive their usefulness. New sensations, perceptions, and experiences challenge the viability of our mental models in what is a natural cycle of trial, error, correction, and re-trial. This is learning, and learning is a dynamic process of deploying our knowledge in the world, getting positive and negative feedback, and adjusting as necessary. Learning is continually carving mental sculptures, letting them melt away, and then carving new, hopefully better ones.
A big problem arises when this learning process breaks down. When, for whatever reason, the mental sculpting done by the left brain gets cut off from the mental lava flow mediated through the right brain, there is a subsequent loss of mental integrity. We need the right brain lava flow to continually refresh our garden of sculptures because the external world we live in is also in constant flux. But we also need the sculptures of the left brain to give shape to the otherwise chaotic and overwhelming volcanic deluge of sensory input.
When the interrelationship between the two brain hemispheres is interrupted, two things happen: 1) deprived of psychic flow, the left brain contracts and solidifies its conceptual system and becomes obsessed with protecting and preserving it; and 2) deprived of psychic boundaries, the right brain sublimates the avalanche of emotions and sensations and relegates them to the unconscious. The result is a mind in which the left brain rules like a mad tyrant on the surface, while the rest of the brain simmers in the subterranean depths.
I have come to believe that two features of our western society have contributed to our collective mind’s tendency to dis-integrate: 1) hyperliteracy and the valuing of left-brain modes of communication (e.g. written texts) over those of the right brain (e.g. imagery), and 2) what we may call bibliolatry or the over-valuation of authoritative texts. As it happens, these two features coalesce in an especially pernicious way in fundamentalist groups, whether ethnic, religious, political, scientific, etc. Any group of people that bases their shared identity on an authoritative creed or text risks the destabilizing of the mind described above. An unchanging text with an unchanging message plays right into the hands of the tyrannical left brain’s tendency to absolutize its contents and dissociate them from the flux of experience. When the sacred text in question is imputed with unassailable authority, the mental contents it expresses are insulated from the negative and positive feedback loops supplied by a relationship with an ever-changing context.
A corollary to the absolute authority and permanence of the sacred text’s contents is the avowed correctness and invincibility of the left-brain contents of the text’s adherents. Any challenge to an adherent’s mental contents is deferred to their authoritative base: the Sacred Text. Any challenge to the contents of the Sacred Texts is defended against by its adherents as one would defend one’s life. For a threat to the Sacred Text is a threat to the mental life of the adherent, and a threat to the mental life of the adherent is perceived by the adherent as a threat their ego, which is often equated to their very existence.
In my journey of the last dozen years, many honest questions and innocent doubts about my group’s sacred text (the Bible) and our left-brain mental contents derived from it (biblical theology) have been repeatedly met with urgent defense and counter-attack. Eager to shore up their own sense of security, members of my community and family have tended to swiftly dismiss or condemn my persistent inquiries. This invalidation of my scientific or philosophical approach to knowledge amounts to an invalidation of my spiritual being. I am here to learn, live, and love…and learn more to live more and love more. How can I have spiritual communion with people and institutions for whom this way of being is an existential threat? I cannot. The message I received over and over was that education is dangerous, learning threatening, and curiosity unwelcome. This I reject.
A trio of journal entries from early 2009 give a glimpse into the kinds of interactions I had with family members when I tried to express what I was thinking about. Rigidity in worldview cannot tolerate the threat of doubts, questions, and endless learnings.
February 20: X responded to an email of mine with a doomsday, apocalyptic tone, asking me if I’m being a hypocrite and insinuating that I am an ‘unbeliever’…
February 21: X wrote me an aggravating email that is the culmination of why we shouldn’t be emailing: he exegeted my original email, putting so much weight on every word and turn of phrase. When I had vulnerably opened up and explained myself…he pounced on the opportunity to give me a sermon of cliches…
February 22: Amber and I talked about why X hinges so much on my short emails and specific wordings…I’m not hurt, just disappointed [probably hurt, too] that he has so little faith in my heart, even when the output of my head is at odds with his. He says all we do flows from what we believe. I can hardly deny the truth in that statement, but there is believing with the heart and believing with the mind. I don’t really know what I believe in the mind right now, but in my heart I believe God is goodness and love, light and life, and having been engulfed in God, I want people and creation around me to be likewise engulfed. Whether the Bible is the Word of God, or whether Jesus rose from the dead and rose into the clouds…
I just can’t stand on that right now.