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Iain McGilchrist - The Matter with Things - The Sense Of The Sacred - Summary 🔗

Below is my summary of the chapter ‘The Sense Of The Sacred’ from the book ‘The Matter with Things’ by Iain McGilchrist, mostly quoting and paraphrasing the content.

THE GROUND OF BEING 🔗

That which underwrites, timelessly and eternally, whatever is: in other words, the ground of Being.

For the surface-self, the limpet on the rock of the obvious, there is no mystery about Being: it is simply self-evident.

In what follows I have of course no final answers to any of the big questions. But I believe we must not, under any circumstances, cease to be mindful of these questions, even while we know there can be no definite answers. Having ready answers means you don’t understand; understanding here means never letting go of the questions. Unknowing will turn out to be a sign not of weakness, but of wisdom.

To many people speaking of a ground of Being is entirely pointless: after all, what grounds the ground of Being? And so on, ad infinitum. But that is to misunderstand. In speaking of the ground of Being, we do not provide an answer, but draw attention to a problem. The point is not to make a question go away – ‘well, that’s that sorted, then!’ – but rather to place it centre stage, and allow the light, in time, to dawn.

I am merely indicating that, whatever we choose to call it, there is almost certainly more here than we have words for, or can expect ever to understand using reason alone. Such an expectation would itself be irrational. The proper response to this realisation is not argument, but awe. To be human, in my view, is to feel a deep gravitational pull towards something ineffable, that, if we can just for once get beyond words and reasons, is a matter of experience, and to which we reach out, silently, though not without misgivings; something outside our conceptual grasp, but nonetheless present to us through intimations that come to us from a whole range of unfathomable experiences we call ‘spiritual’. This has been true of humanity the world over and throughout time, and is true now as much as ever; no advance in science can have anything to say about it one way or the other. To think that it could is to misunderstand science as much as spirituality.

Almost a defining characteristic of the left hemisphere is that it has no sense of the limits of its own understanding: it doesn’t know what it is it doesn’t know. It operates inside a framework, within which all questions are referred back, and all answers form part of a reassuringly familiar schema; if they don’t, they are simply pronounced nonsense. But it doesn’t see the bounds of its own world view; in order to do that, it would have to see there is something beyond the bounds – and that is something it cannot do.

The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is turned outwards, attentive to whatever comes to it, without attempting to make it conform to the familiar, or to the uses of everyday language. It alone therefore ‘purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being’. It has the capacity to express what it perceives, but this can be done only indirectly, through metaphor and myth.

‘Direct experience which is never adequately communicable in words is the only knowledge we ever fully have.’ (Bryan Magee)

Things that can be understood only by direct experience can be spoken of only indirectly: and conversely what is talked about directly is usually experienced only indirectly, because in the process of articulation it has inevitably become a re-presentation – something other than what we experience.

Deep intuitions can flourish only when there is enough space granted by not knowing, in the recognition that conventional ‘wisdom’ does not apply. What we take to be ob-vious may prove an ob-stacle; it may ob-trude on, ob-fuscate, ob-struct, ob-scure, and ultimately ob-literate the truth.

DENYING THE GROUND OF BEING 🔗

Since what cannot be expressed, and must always remain implicit, is antithetical to the left hemisphere’s way of being, the immediate reaction from those approaching the problem from a purely analytical perspective is to deny the topic of the ground of Being altogether: the question or questions are said to be non-questions, or to make no sense.

To repeat, my point is not that I can explain existence: I can’t. I merely question the claim that there is nothing here to explain.

TALKING ABOUT THE GROUND OF BEING 🔗

Being, then, is mysterious. The problem is that if we are to say anything about it, we still need some sort of placeholder, within language, for all those aspects of Being that defy direct expression, but which we sense are greater than the reality which language is apt to describe, almost certainly greater than whatever the human mind can comprehend. If we don’t have such a placeholder they will disappear from our awareness; yet what that placeholder signifies must not, above all at first, be tied down too tightly – if indeed it ever can be.

In this it is rather like learning a language from experience only, without a grammar book or dictionary: in such a process what a word means must be initially left open, and narrowed only with deeper and repeated acquaintance.

What we need, in fact, is a word unlike any other, not defined in terms of anything else: a sort of un-word. This is no doubt why in every great tradition of thought – and perhaps beyond that, in every language of every people – there is such an un-word. It holds the place for a power that underwrites the existence of everything – the ground of Being; but, as I shall suggest, it holds a place for more than that, otherwise some such phrase as ‘ground of Being’ would itself be enough. To Heraclitus it was the logos; to Lao Tzu the tao; to Confucius lǐ; in Hinduism Brahman, and to the Vedic tradition ṛta; in Zen ri; to Arabic peoples, since pre-Islamic times, Allah; to the Hebrews YHWH. And in the Western tradition it is known as God.

But what a host of troubles lies in that name … There is a very good reason why in most traditions there is a prohibition on use of the un-word. It is inevitably a mendacious re-presentation of ultimate truth – that is to say, an idol. And the word God is obfuscated and overlaid with so many unhelpful accretions in the West that it is not surprising that people recoil from this idol. It’s not just that, obviously, God is not some old man sitting on a cloud, but that very much else that is often believed, or at any rate assumed by atheists to be believed by theists, badly gets in the way of an understanding.

Here is the dilemma, and why I speak of an un-word: if we have no word, something at the core of existence disappears from our shared world of awareness; yet if we have a word, we will come to imagine that we have grasped the nature of the divine, pinned it down and delimited it, even though by the very nature of the divine this is something that can never be achieved.

In Buddhism, Hinduism and each of the monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, there is an ancient and powerful apophatic tradition, or via negativa, which holds that all positive assertions about God will be false: we must approach God by clearing away untruth, as we reveal the statue by discarding stone from the primal block.

God cannot be said to ‘exist’, a word which in its origins means to ‘stand forth’ (Latin, ex- out, + -sistere, reduplicative of stare, to stand) in the way that a thing stands forth for us against the ground of our already existing field of vision. God is that ground. God is above all not a thing alongside other things – even one equipped with ultra-special powers. God simply is – in a use of the verb that requires that we understand God both to have Being and to be the ground of Being at one and the same time.

Science is not just a technique, but, rightly conceived, the groundwork for illuminating something lying beyond itself. This is why philosophy needs science, and science needs philosophy.

WHY ‘GOD’? 🔗

It is perfectly true that invoking God does not explain anything. But, importantly, that is not its purpose. The recognition of God is not an answer to a question: it is to fully understand the question itself.

‘When we speak of God’, writes theologian Herbert McCabe, ‘we do not clear up a puzzle; we draw attention to a mystery’.

When the word disappears from our vocabulary, we don’t abolish that mystery; we just cease to recognise that it is there. We no longer know what it is we do not know. There is nothing shameful in not knowing: the human mind is inevitably characterised by its ignorance more than by its limited understanding. But the deeper ignorance is when we choose to put out of mind what it is we do not know, and pretend to know what we never can.

Being being a mystery, it is therefore better expressed as an object of awe than as an object of knowledge.

Knowing does not dispel awe, though ignorance can banish it.

So, providing we remain appropriately sceptical about language, we not only can use a term other than ground of Being, but, it seems to me, we must.

I believe that, in the necessary process of achieving a fit between our understanding and what there is to be known, our present materialist culture has contracted the scope of what we allow to exist to our limited understanding, rather than enlarging our understanding to meet the scope of what exists.

I want to emphasise that there is a distinction between something beyond our means of grasp and something beyond our means of knowing. To follow the via negativa is an intellectual process in which we recognise the inadequacy of our conceptions of God, but it is not at all the same as just giving up hope of knowing God. Though we may approach a subject of knowledge apophatically, not by asserting what is the case but by seeing what is not the case, there will nonetheless be intimations, affirmative signs within the field of our unknowing, or we would not even be able to see that there is something there beyond our current knowing to know. The knowing is a process that knows no end.

It is argued that our knowledge of science, too, has an apophatic structure – and it does: approximating truth by stripping away falsehoods. But in relation to the divine, unlike spacetime, there is also a realm of spiritual gnosis that does not apply to physics, since God is far more accessible to heart and soul than to intellect.

Take those ‘placeholder’ terms – logos, lǐ, tao, ṛta, and so on. The place they hold is not nearly filled by the mere idea of a ground of Being. They suggest much more: a response to the second question with which this chapter began – why does Being take the creative, complex, orderly, beautiful, intelligible – vital – form that it does? And, though arising in different cultures, what they suggest is remarkably consonant. They suggest a co-ordinating principle in the universe which is evidenced in order, harmony and fittingness; a principle that is not only true, but the ultimate source of truth. This principle applies to all ‘levels’ of existence and therefore wraps within itself the human soul. Speaking of ṛta, for instance, Raimon Panikkar writes that it can be seen as the order behind the manifest world, the harmony among all aspects of manifestation, ‘each of which obeys its own level’. Ṛta is in the nature of things: ‘Man being an aspect and expression of this order has within him a reflection thereof’.

The point is that we are engaged with it through the whole experience of being alive: through our way of meeting the world not just in the intellect but in the heart and mind. It engages us in the form of a question that is so much more than the kind inviting a merely analytic reply: the question ‘what does it mean to be alive?’

The consequence of speaking about God rather than merely about the ground of Being is not only that it keeps in our field of attention the ineffable mystery of existence, as McCabe points out – that to which Heidegger exhorts us to respond with radical astonishment; it also alerts us to the inadequacy of a response couched primarily in terms of propositions parried back and forth in the cut and thrust of argument. What the term ‘God’ requires of us is not a set of propositions about what cannot be known but a disposition towards what must be recognised as beyond human comprehension. The primary response, therefore, is not intellectual. It is awe and wonder – not mere curiosity, which motivates us to find out more information, more knowledge (valuable as that is), but wonder at the immensity of what we must recognise we can never know. Yet that very wonder is what increasingly we lack.

What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder. Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension.

A DISPOSITION TOWARDS THE DIVINE: SUSPENDING THE LEFT HEMISPHERE 🔗

‘Conventional notions’ and ‘mental clichés’ are exactly what are produced when the left hemisphere takes on the role of master and believes in the sufficiency of its re-presentations of reality, when it traps us in a hall of mirrors of its own creation, and tells us that’s all there is. Equally, ‘higher incomprehension’ is a grand way of speaking of the right hemisphere’s openness to what it doesn’t already know, which it can’t (in any conventional way) make sense of, but whose reality it intuits and does not deny. It will come as no surprise, then, that a disposition towards God is largely dependent on the right hemisphere, the hemisphere that we already know brings us closer to truth than the left.

But, before we look further at this disposition, it’s worth noting where we’ve got to and how we have got here. We’ve reached the point, in this discussion, where the left hemisphere can do no more for us – at least, not for the time being. We’re faced with the unavoidable fact of the existence of the ground of Being (whatever we may choose to call it) and of the fact that we cannot treat it as we treat manifestations of Being itself: that’s to say, manifestations of which the left hemisphere can make re-presentations so that we may control them. Going beyond mere acknowledgment of the ground of Being’s existence to see what is ‘there’, so to speak, is beyond the left hemisphere’s capacity.

But here’s the thing: note that it is the left hemisphere and its reasoning processes that have brought us to this point, the point at which its own limitations become evident. Put another way, the left hemisphere as servant has provided a vital role: drawing attention to the limits of its service. You have to be able to think clearly in order to see that there are limits on thinking. Here we may recall Pascal: ‘the ultimate achievement of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which surpass it. It is indeed feeble if it can’t get as far as understanding that.’ And although the left hemisphere cannot do more for us now, I shall argue that its service will be needed again once the right hemisphere has done its work of gleaning ‘an authentic awareness of that which is’ by means of a necessary ‘maladjustment to words and notions’ (in Heschel’s marvellous phrase). Thereafter the helpful left hemisphere will be useful again but it will need to keep to its place: as servant it will be invaluable, but as master it will be disastrous.

As far as humanity is concerned, the summit of knowing is knowing that you do not know. Such was the expressed conclusion of, to name only a few, the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, St Paul, Montaigne and the Indian saint, Swami Ramdas. Wisdom is so far from being knowledge in the usual sense, of knowing many ‘things’, that one of the only pieces of advice offered by wisdom traditions is to value not-knowing.

Not-knowing, however, is not the same as ignorance: it is what is left before us when ignorance is left behind. There is ignorance prior to knowledge, and there is not-knowing, once knowledge has been outlived. The essence is encapsulated in a remark attributed to ‘a Master’ by the poet Charles Wright: ‘for knowledge, add; for wisdom, take away’.

In an earlier chapter I alluded to the form of the spiral, as opposed to the circle: arriving where you started from, in one sense, and yet knowing it for the first time. As there is an un-knowing the other side of knowing, which is far superior to both knowing and ignorance, there is an innocence the other side of experience, which is superior both to experience and naivety; and a wisdom the other side of folly, which is superior both to folly and common sense. This insight lies behind the well-known Zen saying, sometimes attributed to Dōgen: ‘Before I sought enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers. While I sought enlightenment, the mountains were not mountains and the rivers were not rivers. After I attained enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.’

This allowing something to ‘presence’ is surprisingly hard for us. It involves eschewing knowledge about, in order to have knowledge of, something; the relinquishing of serial processes that claim to help us understand, in order that we can see the thing at once; the abjuring of the need to narrow down or fix one’s object.

In the Diamond Sutra, it is said that knowing is seeing, but seeing is not knowing. By this I understand that true knowing, understanding, is not a matter of accumulating facts, but a form of perception in which one at last sees into the depth of things as it were ‘at once’, and recognises them for what they are, no longer overlaid by our projections – something like the process described by Thoreau. At last we see them. At the same time seeing things in the normal sense, of resting our eyes on their surface, is not to know them at all.

The idea of unknowing may sound – well, negative. But it is the secret to the greatest creative power. ‘To know truth, one must get rid of knowledge’, said Lao Tzu: ‘nothing is more powerful and creative than emptiness, from which men shrink.’ This emptiness goes well beyond our normal understanding, because there is an emptiness, a ‘nothing’, a living ‘nothing’ very different from what we generally now think of as nothing (which is dead), a no thing on the other side of something. I have mentioned the Buddhist concept of emptiness, or śūnyatā: like a receptive womb there needs to be a place for the new understanding, the new wisdom to grow. Fullness is where there is no room for anything to grow. And since everything is a growing and becoming, and nothing that exists is not growing and becoming – when there is no room to grow there is, in that fullness, truly nothing.

When our assumptions flood in to the available space, they drive out the new before it has a chance to take root. We must first say ‘no’ to the ob-vious, that which stands in the way; we must get Underhill’s limpet off the rock. Saying ‘yes’ depends on something to say ‘yes’ to, but whatever it is has not yet come into being. We therefore say ‘no’ to what is already known. Thus, in creation, ‘no’ comes first.

At this point we must suspend the action of the left hemisphere, for it would at once try to see all this as a matter of propositional knowledge – and ultimately that is not to be dismissed, since the existence of a divine or sacred realm is not contrary to reason: it’s just that at this stage the left hemisphere is not up to doing the intuiting in the first place. The right hemisphere, however, is better capable of engaging with this whatever-it-is as something experienced and lived; as something relational, and reciprocal, in nature. It starts with the advantage that it ‘believes’, so to speak, that there is a ‘whatever-it-is’ out there with which to engage. ‘Belief’ is not a matter of coming to terms with arcane propositions, but nothing other than a disposition towards the world as if God exists, in order to open the possibility of an encounter with whatever the word ‘God’ designates. And it is only through the encounter that we can know – not through argument, or any amount of thinking in the abstract. One can sit on the brink for a lifetime waiting to learn how to swim, but without getting into the water one can never learn to swim at all. ‘Seek not to understand so that you may believe’, wrote St Augustine, ‘but to believe so that you may understand.’ Without having sincerely made that attempt, it is impossible for anyone to know what it is they are denying. To say ‘it’s obviously not true’ is to make a mistake at the very first step.

There are prima facie reasons to suppose that an understanding of the divine is sustained largely by the right hemisphere. In metaphysical terms, it requires being open to something ‘Other’, something not already familiar, not part of the self-consistent system in which one operates; not ignoring – or simply not seeing – whatever does not fit the accepted paradigm. As Wendell Berry writes, ‘the incompleteness of a system is rarely if ever perceptible to those who made it or to those who benefit from it’. The left hemisphere is effectively a closed system, dealing with the comfortably known and familiar, in which everything refers internally. Adopting this mindset makes it hard to ‘see’ what is meant by the divine.

This should immediately alert us to a problem, since by common consent no adequate language for God exists. Hence the conviction that religious thinking is delusional. ‘The habit of religion will always be derided by the atheist as an exercise in ever-increasing self-deception’, writes Jonathan Gaisman, in an essay called ‘The devout sceptic’, which I recommend. ‘Of course, precisely the same can be said about the habit of seeing the world in purely materialist terms. All mental habits lead – as is obvious – to habituation.’

The right hemisphere is better at accepting uncertainty and limits to knowledge.

An understanding of the divine

All of this (as only the reader who has accompanied me so far through the book will understand) in one way or another and to some degree suggests that the right hemisphere will play the key role. In this it is not different from other areas of life, since the proper relationship is always that of Master and emissary.

The ‘intellect’ (aka the left hemisphere here) is intrusive, overbearing, disrespectful, appropriative, insatiable, relentlessly striving and wilfully going about its business. And note the suggestions of curiosity rather than wonder: it peeps in, ransacks, seizes, forces its way in, is never satisfied, never resting … it treats the divine according to its own conceptions (‘sets him in its own ground’), and as a thing alongside other things, something commensurate with a stone or a tree. When it does see God, it doesn’t recognise the fact, but goes on with its rampaging.

In other words the darkness is not merely negative, but the active opening of a field of potential, what I have called active receptivity: the mode of the right hemisphere’s attention.

The personal accounts of Jill Bolte Taylor and Steve McKinnell, both of whom experienced a left hemisphere stroke, reveal that they felt an increase in spirituality, a new interest in meditation and an increased feeling of empathy following their stroke: according to Taylor, if she had to pick one word to describe the intent of her right hemisphere, she ‘would have to choose compassion.’

Looking more closely at religious practices, we see this pattern demonstrated vividly. Music is very largely right hemisphere-dependent. So, it seems is meditation, especially the kind known as mindfulness meditation. Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a Bhuddist monk who is an acknowledged master of meditation and mindfulness, writes in a classic text on mindfulness practice (I have italicised and numbered the more than 20 phrases that, with remarkable specificity in many cases, differentiate hemisphere styles of awareness):

The relation of this strong phenomenological account with, principally, the right hemisphere is borne out by a range of neuroimaging studies, an account of which can be found in Appendix 7. Spiritual practices such as meditation are designed purposely to transcend typical left hemisphere reactions to perceived events: in the tradition of such practices the fact that verbal, analytical thought is antithetical is often expressed in the form of a warning.

WHAT IS IT LIKE? 🔗

So many things that are very real cannot be conveyed by language; and if they can’t even be put into words, how can they possibly be argued about in a way that helps determine meaning? Ideas, the native currency of the left hemisphere, can be discussed at arm’s length; direct awareness, the native currency of the right, has no arm’s length about it: it is immediate in experience. It’s where we finally get into the water and learn to swim.

Communication of such direct awareness can only be an account of personal experience: in recognition of this, I shall do my best to provide some indication of my own. Though I am someone whose left hemisphere, as the reader may have noticed, is far from inactive, I can attest that certain kinds of direct experience, unmediated by reflection, have been for me the undoubted wellspring from which life draws its meaning. So here I will briefly suspend my usual mode of discourse so far in this book, and attempt to provide a brief account of such direct engagement with what, both then and now, seems to me of the utmost importance.

The celebration of eros, the force of life itself, is often a celebration of the sacred – Sappho’s lyrics and Petrarch’s sonnets, for example, come immediately to mind. Indeed erotic love may be the closest that many of us in our secular age get to experiencing the sense of something sacred. To compare the spiritual and the erotic is not to denigrate the soul, but to recognise what erotic love can be: while clearly distinct phenomena, they have common facets, not least of which being their capacity to induce awe, to transform one’s vision of the world, and to forge a sense of connexion to something much greater beyond both space and time. Some may be inclined to be cynical here, but I think those who have experienced what I mean will understand. Plato was right to conceive our longing for communion with whatever is real as an expression of the impulse of eros.

What underlies and unites all these aspects of experience for me is the conviction of a direct and reciprocal engagement with whatever-it-is that is the ground of Being, and which we call God.

In summary, my religious disposition, if that indeed is what it is, has resulted from a largely private lifelong exploration of the experience of being alive, guided by meditative reading of the spiritual texts of different cultures, experiencing holy places in different lands, encounters with human beings who seemed to me to be deeply spiritual people, sporadic attendance at rituals of great beauty, a lifelong celebration of art, and poetry, but of music above all; and love; and long communing with the astonishing beauty of the natural world. All this, coupled to an abiding sense – intensified in proportion as I came to understand more – of how very little we can possibly hope to understand of all that exists.

Over my lifetime, I have repeatedly and increasingly become aware of the way in which such direct experience is vulnerable to diminution and dismissal in the light of the limited vision of the left hemisphere.

For those who have hung on to the reality of direct experience, and not let it become overshadowed by a representation that has none of its living qualities, we should reclaim the word ‘expert’ – literally, one who has experienced. According to the accounts of such experts, this vision is transformative. It induces, their example tells us, a humility before the greatness of the cosmos, and how little we understand it; compassion for others and ourselves; and reverence towards the living world. It allows us to acknowledge that there is something way before, behind, above, and beyond our selves; that that something is not inert or remote, but ‘speaks’ to us and calls to us to respond, and that we feel the need to do so with seriousness, reverence and gratitude. And that is what gives meaning to life.

In short, creation and the mystery of what lies behind it become sacred; and the disposition that sees it thus is what is meant by a religious disposition. It is a disposition that perceives depth. Except where such a religious disposition becomes perverted, as all too often it does (as I shall explain shortly), it is the exact opposite of the disposition towards creation of the left hemisphere, which sees itself as master – detached, confident, domineering, wanting to have control over creation and either disregarding the mystery of Being or recruiting it to its own purposes. That, unhappily, is the disposition that dominates our world, now, and not only any longer in the West alone.

Our view, says Tillich, has become superficial, lacking in depth, all on one plane. In Chapter 2 we saw that this loss of depth in time, in space, in emotion, and in understanding is one consequence of right hemisphere suppression. Our take on the world has become, Tillich says, that of instrumentalism, of transforming everything into a tool: the main characteristic of the left hemisphere. And we end by instrumentalising ourselves, for a purpose unknown.

RELIGION 🔗

I may have given the impression that the sense of the sacred is something isolated within the person, if not within the mind, and at the same time that it is purely transcendent of time and place. Yet as well as personal, the sense of the sacred is inevitably shared and communal; as well as being an inner realisation, it is realised externally in the visible, tangible, world; as well as being transcendent, it is immanent, having to do with the thisness of things in time and place, not just with abstract generalities. That is why there is not just my disposition or your disposition, but such a thing as religion.

The principal way in which humanity has felt compelled both to express a sense of, and to make contact with, the divine is through music. And in this it seems to me that it has succeeded so immediately and so indubitably that language is scarcely needed. Both abstract and at the same time deeply, powerfully, wholly, embodied; both timeless and situated in time; both personal and universal; both particular and beyond all particularity; taking us into realms that declare themselves despite being utterly beyond language. Music unifies these apparent contraries. And it is also a feature of music in every known culture that it is used to communicate with whatever is by definition above, beyond, ‘Other than’, ourselves. It forms the bridge: that between human and divine, and that between human and fellow human, and is at the heart of religious worship everywhere. Music exists entirely in the betweenness of tones; and religion exists – or rightly understood exists – in the betweenness of human beings, out of which, as with musical notes, something far greater than the sum of its parts emerges.

Religion, at its best, is a cultural expression of that enquiring impulse; of an awareness of and openness to a God or gods; of a context that transforms our understanding of the world, and which enables this sense to be shared and celebrated with others; in other words, it involves community, in space, but also over time. Indeed, it helps to bind a community together: that is what religion means (from Latin religare, to bind). It makes tangible the betweenness, the relational nature of existence. And in this respect, if no other, it is hard to replace. What there is to be known is reciprocally bound up with the way that we attempt to know it, something science generally glosses over. The way we choose to attempt to know anything has moral implications, a point I have repeatedly emphasised. The myths of religions convey truths that are absent from everyday thought and language, and speak directly to us at the deepest level of our understanding of life itself.

Secular gatherings, by contrast, do not remind us of what our lives mean sub specie æternitatis, but merely confirm further our everyday views. This probably explains the enduring desire for religious ceremonies of birth, marriage and death among those who are not regular attenders at a place of worship. In fact one of the reasons for having religion is constantly to remind us of a broader context; a moral order; a network of obligations to other humans, to the earth, and to the Other that lies beyond. Extending beyond our lives, that is, in space and time, yet rooted firmly in places, spaces, practices, here and now. A religion forms the bridge between worlds, which is the purpose of metaphor – and the purpose of ritual, which is metaphor embodied. One of the beautiful things about many religions, especially perhaps Hinduism, but also certainly in some traditions within the monotheistic religions – those I know of include Eastern (so-called Orthodox) Christianity, and Judaism – is that there are brief prayers of only a sentence or so, gestures, beautiful small rituals, that sanctify the familiar routine actions of daily life, and set them within the perspective of the infinite, of which we so easily lose sight. And inculcate a habit of reverence and gratitude towards the world: of seeing the sacred in every part of what is given.

Trust depends on shared beliefs; religion is the manifestation of that trust, and the embedding of it into the fabric of daily life. Religion embodies awareness of God in the world through deeply resonant myths, narratives and symbols, enacted in rituals, conducted in holy places, that parallel the cyclical passage of time. In doing so it exists as a repository of the accumulated wisdom of good men and women, so that each living being does not have to ‘re-invent the wheel’ but can benefit from common insights. While religions differ, particularly in their more superficial representations, their insights are for the main part congruent across time and across the world, a sort of ‘perennial philosophy’. A religious life expresses, as I have suggested, a disposition towards the world that has consistently the same qualities: humility, compassion, reverence.

It is the opposite of cynicism or trivialisation. Out of a religious disposition, at its best, arises a harmony between deeds and words, manifest in a certain way of being. It is an allegiance to certain values; a synthesis of rational beliefs with valuable intuitions; of faith with doubt. Since it is the disposition that matters, it cannot – as neither can virtue ethics – be identified with words alone, or deeds alone, or beliefs alone, though all these form a part. It is not just the ‘what’ of the parts, but the ‘how’ of the whole, that matters.

Religion prefers wisdom to cleverness. Our contemporary culture is not obviously well disposed towards gravity, the cessation of chatter, thoughtfulness, acknowledgment of the depth of our unknowing. It prefers cleverness to wisdom.

The way in which one equips oneself to understand religious truths is not – fairly obviously, but I’m afraid it still needs saying – by the scientific method. God is not a force in physics that we have not yet discovered. Propositional beliefs are what science has to offer. Yet propositional belief, while indisputably valuable, is the least that religion has to offer. Indeed we are not dealing primarily with propositions at all, certainly not with a simple body of propositions the truth of which could in principle be determined in the same way that the date of the Big Bang, or the number of bonds in a carbon atom, can be determined. Religion offers deep, imaginative archetypal truths about the human condition that cannot easily be expressed in any other way, never mind in the sort of prose you might expect in a science text book. And such truths are primarily experiential, although they may have cognitive aspects. In order to understand, you not only may, but must, try for yourself. Knowledge is of many kinds. Science is a matter of wissen, knowing facts; religion a matter of kennen, knowing by experience. (I am coming to believe that the limited nature, and many of the confusions, of the Anglo-American tradition in philosophy is in part due to the fact that in English we have only one word for ‘know’.) Science is – at least purports to be – purely a matter of cognition. Religion is about the whole business of human being, human existence. Cognition alone will not do for that.

To quote Jonathan Rée, ‘if there are religious truths, they are more like truths of love than truths of science: they depend on facts that will not come to pass unless we go half way to meet them.’ On this point I cannot help thinking of a story told me by a Jewish friend. There was a very poor, but good, rabbi whose life would have been very much more comfortable if he had money; and so he prayed repeatedly to God: ‘Please just let me win the lottery’. And his prayer never seemed to be answered. One day he was at prayer as usual, when God said to him, ‘Look, Manny, meet me halfway: buy a ticket’. Understanding any spiritual truth depends on at least buying a ticket. Knowledge of this universe in which we live must be participatory. If you are not prepared to participate, or to take any risks, love will never be part of your life. Risk and vulnerability are of love’s essence. And love – as you will know if you have made the experiment and experienced it – opens aspects of reality that would otherwise be concealed from you.

Faith can never be certain: it follows that doubt is a necessary part of faith. Because of the prominence in news bulletins of religious fanaticism – something utterly different from what I’m talking about, and to which I’ll return – those who have never tried to find out more about religion imagine that doubt is the opposite of faith. It is rather its inalienable companion. Faith and doubt are a living dipole. Faith is neither certain nor blind, but a sense of allegiance born of experience.

There is nothing blind about faith, but there is nothing certain about it, either. It is like trusting the outstretched hand that helps you ford the stream: you see the stream, you see the hand; you do not blindly step, but step you must.

‘ONE MUST KNOW WHEN TO STOP’: RELIGION AND THE PROBLEM OF LANGUAGE 🔗

There are, of course, many religions. But one of the striking things about those religions with their different placeholder ‘un-words’ for the divine – logos, lǐ, tao, ṛta and so on – is that none of these ‘un-words’ suggests a thing, but always a process: a dynamic source of energy, often imaged as fire or water – or, at another level, as love and life. Though ṛta is the ultimate foundation of everything, ‘this is not to be understood in a static sense … It is the expression of the primordial dynamism that is inherent in everything.’ Like lǐ, like logos, and like the tao, it is creative energy, and it flows. God is a verb. That these ‘un-words’ for the divine should share a conception of it as a process of flow is further evidence that it is the right hemisphere which, so to speak, divines the divine.

The words ‘God’, the ‘divine’, the ‘holy’ and the ‘sacred’, both in their origin and in their usage, have never been wholly separable, nor should they be, since they refer to one coherent experience of the world and our response to it. They refer not to distinct entities, but to a relationship. And if one is willing to use the term sacred, or holy, one cannot do so without implying relationship with the divine.

This is not just another case of how thinking in terms of things leads us astray, but the ultimate case. The words designate not some unfamiliar thing to relate to, but a new relationship with the familiar, manifested throughout: an allegiance, which is what faith (from Latin, fides, as in ‘fidelity’) means.

If the divine is perceived as an unnameable, undivided flow, and if relationship to and within that flow marks the nature of the right hemisphere’s engagement with whatever-it-is that it perceives as divine, then it is to be expected that what religions primarily do in response should itself be consistent with the mode of the right hemisphere: they engage in acts of worship, ceremonies, rituals that celebrate the sacred. But human beings feel the need to speak about their experiences, and religions, being about collective, shared experience, feel the need to find a common language for that experience. So, despite the warning about ‘names’, religion cannot, unfortunately, escape the problem of language.

Attempts to deal with the divine, not in experience, but in language other than poetry, too easily lead to the substitution of a re-presentation for a living experience – and are doomed.

We must, then, have recourse to metaphor, as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur makes clear: we have no other option. To do so is not an evasion, as some atheists seem to believe, but the inevitable result of being aware of what one is dealing with. We have seen that, according to the philosopher Whitehead, philosophy is akin to poetry. And we have heard from Bohr that physics can be described only in language that has the nature of poetry: this does not render physics somehow unreal – rather the opposite. He was equally clear about the need for poetry in dealing with the divine. The fact that spiritual traditions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes, Bohr said, ‘means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality.’

What we are dealing with is not subject to being defined; it can be approached only tentatively through different analogical metaphors or myths, which should, if they are true, be various in nature, because a single, simple analogy can never be right. The point is, the difficulty lies not in finding the right words: the difficulty lies in there being no right words, and so when we use words carefully we must always be both saying and un-saying.

It is not that language and rational thought here are not valuable: they are. But they are there to be struggled with, and finally, having been found wanting, let go. The struggle was not wasted effort. Words have their place, but only up to the borders with God.

And, beyond language, what is to be understood by the idea of God passes through a familiar process, that of unlearning what we thought we knew.

As Meister Eckhart says, ‘Since it is God’s nature not to be like anyone, we have to come to the state of being nothing in order to enter into the same nature that God is’.

The space held open by words, in particular the un-word that is the divine name, must never be closed too tightly. Yet, paradoxically, without words we may, as a culture, if not as individuals, forget what everyday language obscures from our vision.

We must meet things on their own terms, not our preconceived ones, if we are to see them at all.

Kolakowski puts it well, speaking of the contradiction apparent in saying that ‘God is ineffable’:

“The adjective ‘concrete’ is abstract, the adjective ‘incommunicable’ is communicable, the adjective ‘unique’ is general, and to utter the word ‘intuition’ is not itself an act of intuition. We cannot get rid of the barriers of language when we try to convey to others something that language is intrinsically not designed to deal with; we can use it none the less to produce various hints, metaphors, or aesthetically powerful images, in order to awaken in other people the faculty of intuition which, even if dormant, is a part of the universally human endowment.”

BRING BACK THE LEFT HEMISPHERE: THEOLOGY 🔗

Once we have acknowledged the limitation of language we are able, paradoxically, to bring back that most language-dependent, articulate and clear-thinking of our capacities, the left hemisphere. And we need to do so, even if only to confirm its limitations. That is to say, if we are to try to think and speak at all systematically about what a religious disposition may have had disclosed to it – if we are, to take a most basic example, to grasp at an intellectual level the primacy of metaphor and myth in understanding – we need the clarity, the ordering, the trying-to-make-sense-of-things that are the left hemisphere’s forte. Within religion the left hemisphere helps us supplement ritual with theology. But the left hemisphere must remain the servant: what it ‘serves up’ must maintain respect for the provisionality, the ultimately incomprehensible mysteriousness of what the right hemisphere has had disclosed to it. Bringing back the left hemisphere here conforms to what I have consistently argued is the optimal mode of human understanding – reliance solely neither on the left hemisphere nor on the right, but rather on a process in which all that is to be known must initially ‘presence’ to the right hemisphere (we have no other access); then be transferred to the left hemisphere so as to gain expression through re-presentation; and that re-presentation returned to the right hemisphere where it is either recognised for its consonance with the initial presencing and subsumed into a new Gestalt, or rejected. It is no different with the presencing of the divine. It’s just that it is going to be more difficult, not least because it will once again present us with paradox.

In the rabbinic tradition, two kinds of teaching are distinguished, one literal and legalistic, the other metaphorical and imaginative. These are referred to as halakhah and aggadah, respectively. According to the Midrash, a body of early rabbinic commentary on scripture, when God promised his people corn and wine, the corn was halakhah, the wine aggadah.

Abraham Heschel has this to say of these concepts, in a passage I quote at length, because the correspondences with the phenomenology of the two hemispheres, as described in this book, are so many and so striking:

And Heschel draws interesting conclusions. They are both necessary, he emphasises: ‘Halakhah without aggadah is dead, aggadah without halakhah is wild … There is no halakhah without aggadah, and no aggadah without halakhah … Our task is to learn how to maintain a harmony between the demands of halakhah and the spirit of aggadah.’ Nonetheless, not only is one greater than the other, but, as with the Master and his emissary, the one that should be subservient has come to dominate:

“To reduce Judaism to law, to halakhah, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit. We have a legacy of aggadah together with a system of halakhah, and although, because of a variety of reasons, that legacy was frequently overlooked and aggadah became subservient to halakhah, halakhah is ultimately dependent upon aggadah. Halakhah, the rationalisation of living, is not only forced to employ elements that are themselves unreasoned, its ultimate authority depends upon aggadah …”

With varying degrees of success a healthy balance is maintained between these hemispheric forces, provided, as Heschel says, halakhah (the viewpoint of the left hemisphere) plays a supporting, not the lead, role. In this it is no different from the rest of life. That is how we come to have functioning religious traditions.

A THEOLOGICAL SPECULATION: PANENTHEISM 🔗

I have explored the paradox of the One and the Many in Chapter 21. It is central to an understanding of the divine, because the divine is widely held in many cultures to be transcendent (beyond the world) and undivided, yet at the same time immanent (in the world) and present in all things. As Lord Krishna says to Arjuna of the wise man: ‘When he sees me in all and he sees all in me, then I never leave him and he never leaves me’: those ‘with spiritual vision … worship me as One and as Many, because they see that all is in me.’

As always we need to resist choosing one truth only and ignoring the other; rather, we must see how the greater truth may hold both together.

Pantheism, the belief that all things are God, and God is all things. This, however, would be a God that was wholly immanent, as though the world could speak of nothing beyond itself. To me, that is a lack almost as unsatisfactory in its own way as its opposite pole, deism, whereby God is wholly transcendent – ‘a transcendent engineer on sabbatical leave’, as such a God has been described; remote and unknowable, like the God envisaged by James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, ‘invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails’.

Relationship seems to me the central element that is lost when things collapse into either pole in this way.

Panentheism, a belief that all things are in God, and God in all things.

For me, this answers, better than pantheism, to my sense of there being something flowing, life-giving, creative, responsive, awe-inspiring and sacred in ‘all that we behold from this green earth’ – note, not just ‘on this green earth’ – but which can never be reduced to what can be seen or fully known; something that both inspires from within the world (is immanent) and embraces it from without (is transcendent); that takes into itself and owns what is good, together with what we are minded to oppose or reject as evil, without thereby becoming equated with such good or evil, even in part; something indeed having no parts; and being both immediately knowable and completely unknowable at the same time – as if ‘hiding in plain sight’. Moreover, engaging us by love: ‘therefore am I still a lover…’ Of course language breaks down here: so either you will find this absurd, or its meaning so transparent that it hardly needs saying at all.

Panentheism is a theological category, a re-presentation by the left hemisphere of something intuited by the right. And although professional theologians might shudder at the idea, an intuitive form of panentheism is animism. As Tim Ingold points out, animism is not, as anthropologists used to suppose, a belief system (such as is panentheism): that would be to impose our left hemisphere mentality on it. It is not, he says, ‘a way of believing about the world but … a condition of being in it’.

This way of being in the world seems to me so much more sophisticated than the way we normally carry on our lives in the West nowadays that it is no surprise that most Westerners can’t begin to understand it. And what they fail to understand, they are, with the left hemisphere’s characteristic arrogance, inclined to treat dismissively – as something ‘primitive’ or ‘childish’, to be ‘outgrown’. It has nothing to do with propositional beliefs, but is a matter of direct perception: animists see a world full of spirits not because they are trying to explain it, and come up with theories, which science will later ‘correct’; but because they perceive immediately that the natural world is not separate from them and is charged with holiness – not something, then, that as it were happened to fall across their path, as if it were a puzzle to be fretted over and solved, but full of individual living entities that are experienced directly as part of the same living whole as ourselves; individuals, like us, within a differentiated, but never wholly divided, unity.

Panentheism sees everything as sacred, not just for our use.

PROCESSES AND EVENTS 🔗

I have referred to Goethe’s insight into the distinction between the two kinds of reason, Verstand (LH) and Vernunft (RH), before: ‘Vernunft is concerned with what is becoming, Verstand with what has already become … The former rejoices in whatever evolves; the latter wants to hold everything still, so that it can utilise it.’

I mentioned Jean Gebser’s idea – already there in ancient Zen writings – that the divine is the deepest of springs, yet also that which continually springs forth from it; God, then, as an eternal process. Process theology is, put very simply, the belief that the divine is misconceived as purely a static entity outside time (though that is an accepted aspect of divinity), and is, at least in some important aspects, better seen as a process within time, an eternal Becoming rather than merely an eternal Being – though it is that, too. We need Heraclitus’ insight that ‘by changing, it stays the same’. In the Introduction, I mentioned that flow continually creates newness, while remaining itself stable: changing and yet not changing.

Process theology is a natural counterpart or companion to panentheism, since it, too, implies that God is in everything without being reducible to the sum of everything: the spring and that which comes forth from the spring.

What the left hemisphere sees as finished, perfect, single, abstract, detached, motionless, beyond space and time, is virtual only; a reduced re-presentation at an instant outside time of what according to the right hemisphere is always evolving, ever both self-differentiating and self-unifying, and involved with the process of creation and what it creates.

Similarly the idea that relationships and processes are more fundamental than things and ‘states’ has been a main theme of this book, so I will deal with this only briefly here, emphasising, though, for the first time how it is expressed within the world’s great religious traditions, and in spiritual thinking to the present day.

In the Biblical story of Moses and the burning bush, God is said to have declared, in most English translations, ‘I am that I am’. Apparently the simplest and most direct translation of the Hebrew words, ehyeh asher ehyeh, is ‘I will be who (or, that which) I will be’. In the Zohar, a body of kabbalistic texts, the appellation ‘I will be’ (ehyeh) is applied to the highest of the emanations of the infinite by which the cosmos is constantly sustained and created, known as Keter. This indicates, according to Sanford Drob, ‘Keter’s limitless potential, and its wilful movement toward a future.’ Here I find a close parallel to the view of a God and cosmos that are purposeful, yet undetermined, and each in the process of becoming what they are.

In the account of the creation contained in the opening of the Book of Genesis, after each act of creation, it records that God looked and ‘saw that it was good’. To me this speaks of an encounter with something new, of something free and hitherto undetermined – of veritable creation; not just, as Bergson put it, the unfolding of a fan. What it suggests is that God did not know already that it was good (the Hebrew word can also be translated ‘beautiful’) without having to see it. It speaks of something free, and Other.

Turning to the tradition of Christianity, philosopher John Lucas points out, in a fascinating paper entitled ‘Begotten not made’, that the phrase used in St John’s Gospel to express the incarnation, the word ‘was made’ flesh, departs from the sense of the original Greek ἐγένετο, which is much better translated as ‘became’. ‘The word was made flesh’ suggests a single, discrete, wilful, act of ‘being done to’; by contrast, ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο (ho logos sarx egeneto) suggests ‘a natural inherent process’ of becoming. The intended meaning is that the logos, the universal origin, ground or reason, became embodied.

It is impossible not to recognise a right hemisphere-congruent way of conceiving reality – ‘becoming’, a process – contrasted with a left hemisphere-congruent way – ‘was made’, literally (factum), a deed or fact.

The idea that God is love, or even the ‘word’ (logos), suggests that ultimately what is primary is relationship: a word exists only in the betweenness of utterance and audition, which has the same structure as love. Love is an experience always in process, never a thing or anything like a thing.

All of this is more consonant with the right hemisphere’s take on the world than that of the left: it depends on process not stasis; it places the emphasis on relationship not on entities that must be related post factum; it embraces, rather than flees from, paradox.

By contrasting the works of Shakespeare with those of his lesser contemporaries, Coleridge is able to illuminate the relationship between a true creator (in this case Shakespeare) and his creation. He does this through a contrast between the nature of the ‘dead’, static, finished, concatenated products of a controlling, ever obvious, will – the God of deism; and, on the other hand, the ‘living’ creations of an animating, in some sense hidden and unknowable spirit, which are themselves unknown ahead of time, and come seamlessly into being, as if generating themselves within the flow – God as the tao.

The literary scholar AD Nuttall observed of Shakespeare that his works may be ‘likened to Ockham’s beard, golden, luxuriant, not yet subdued (happily) by the famous razor.’

Then, second: we have seen that, in living systems, it is by changing that things remain the same – permanence and impermanence, durance and process, are aspects of one and the same phenomenon. So Coleridge remarks that what Shakespeare gives us is a union of ‘the liveliest image of succession with the feeling of simultaneousness’. ‘In Shakespeare’, he writes elsewhere, ‘there is neither past nor future, but all is permanent in the very energy of nature.’ Process and durance together.

Thirdly, he sees that this process involves the all-important union of division with union; maximal individuation, that does not disrupt, but rather enriches, the whole. So, in Shakespeare, ‘the play is a syngenesia’, he writes, invoking an image from botany suggestive of individuation within a unified whole. Of Shakespeare’s characters he writes, ‘each has indeed a life of its own and is an individuum of itself, but yet an organ to the whole.’ The creative force is still entirely itself, even when it is expressed in the most individuated form: thus, ‘Shakespeare becomes all things, yet forever remaining himself;’ he is enabled ‘to become by power of Imagination another Thing – Proteus, the river, a lion, yet still the God felt to be there’. In this last phrase, the analogy between the very greatest of human creations and the divine creation of the cosmos is made explicit in Coleridge’s language. These expressions, if applied to the relation of God to his creation, rather than Shakespeare to his, are pure panentheism.

And finally, in an analogy with the hiddenness of God, who is both wholly revealed and wholly concealed in his Creation, Coleridge writes of Shakespeare’s work that it is ‘all Shakespere, & nothing Shakespere’. These thoughts were later to be echoed by T.S. Eliot: ‘The world of a great poetic dramatist is a world in which the creator is everywhere present, and everywhere hidden.’ He was, of course, thinking of Shakespeare.

Ultimately we have to reconcile the tendency to flux with a tendency to stasis, change with (some degree of) permanence. The worlds of the right hemisphere and the left have to be brought into fruitful conjunction.

Atonement is literally ‘at-one-ment’: reconciliation of apparent incompatibles.

For Schelling, and it is a position to which I subscribe, the imagination is not, as for Kant, a faculty that creates merely the best we can manage as a re-presentation of the world; nor is it making the world up from scratch. It is collaboratively allowing the world to presence, bringing the world into existence; and if it is the case that the soul is not separable from the God that is the ground of all that is, this is entirely in keeping with the imagination helping to constitute the world as it really is. This is remarkably similar to Eckhart’s deep insight that ‘the nature of God … is to give birth,’ and that the birth happens in the soul of each one of us.

Whitehead wrote that ‘the elucidation of meaning involved in the phrase “all things flow” is one chief task of metaphysics’. I follow him in seeing processes and relationships, not things themselves, as the fundamental realities.

Does this tell us something about the nature of God? Whitehead thought so. Moreover he saw God as the principle that made possible, and was expressed in, the newness of creation, the presence of order in complexity, and of purpose, within the cosmos. His view of God’s interaction with the cosmos is dialectical, in that God and the world fulfil each other and bring each other into being. The one and eternal becomes many and ceaselessly changing, just as the many and ceaselessly changing become one and eternal. In the words of Schelling once more: ‘Existence is the conjunction of a being as One, with itself as a Many.’ This is not, then, as Whitehead crucially recognised, two processes, but two facets of a single process.

God, truth, and infinity are all processes, not things; comings into being, not entities that are already fixed. All three seem to me, however, like rivers, to combine, stability with flux. ‘All things flow’; but ‘by changing, a thing remains the same’. Ultimately Being and Becoming are aspects of the same thing. It’s just that our culture emphasises Being to the exclusion of Becoming. However, as usual, there is an asymmetry: they are not equal. In the philosophy of Whitehead, the divine is Becoming, and Becoming is even more fundamental than Being.

In terms of the hemisphere hypothesis, we recognise the same process by which we come to understand anything whatsoever: what is at first implicate is taken up by the right hemisphere, then explicated by the left hemisphere, and then the products of that explication re-enfolded or reintegrated in its more complicated form by the right hemisphere’s vision of the whole once more. This is how the hemispheres, when they work well together, co-operate in giving us insights into the depths of reality.

POTENTIALITY AND ACTUALITY 🔗

According to Whitehead, the World converts potentiality into actuality; what the World makes actual, God takes back into a field of receptive potentiality, one so shaped as to draw what has been created onwards towards further fulfilment in actualisation. It is because of this reciprocal, yet opposite, motion, that God and the World ceaselessly bring something into being, the world drawing actuality out of possibility, and God responding to that actuality with further possibility.

Thomas Aquinas thought of God as an infinite potential, attracting things to their fulfilment. Yet in doing so God is not seen as determining, engineering or controlling, though neither is God merely passive. From this perspective, God is seen as the ultimate good who attracts all things to their flourishing, the possibility that is most fulfilling for them, but does not compel them to take that path: they have the freedom to respond for better or for worse. This is like a lover, who by virtue of love draws whatever emerges in the loving relationship towards a greater fulfilment in love, but cannot in any way enforce such an outcome.

The form or field of potential – God, Ein-sof in the Kabbalah, the collective unconscious to Jung – draws something out of the world to meet itself. This is Whitehead’s constant creative advance into the newness of being: Becoming.

Returning once more to Whitehead, he did not see the process as something remote, abstract and mathematical – as though the world and God had no part in the values that are embedded and embodied in the process – but one characterised by compassion (literally, ‘suffering with’): ‘What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world … In this sense, God is the great companion – the fellow-sufferer who understands.’ Christianity is, above all, the religion that speaks of vulnerability and love, in the image of a God that cared for creation in such a way as to be unable not to suffer in and alongside it. Whitehead nonetheless thought Christianity had erred by presenting God as a divine ruler, whose outstanding characteristic is power: he preferred what he called ‘the brief Galilean vision of humility’, characterised by love.

HOLARCHIES 🔗

All of reality is a network in which our attention artificially isolates different, but cognate, sets of immediate relations at each level with which it interacts.

This gives reality an essentially nested structure, in which what looks like a part at one level, is a whole at another. Thus the subatomic particle is to the atom, as the atom to the molecule, as the molecule to the compound – to the organelle, to the cell, to the tissue, to the organ, to the body, to the family, to the community – and so on up to the whole earth, and the cosmos beyond. As one moves the plane of focus, one Gestalt comes into being and another is relinquished.

THE HIDDEN AND THE MANIFEST 🔗

In some places, Cusanus images God’s relation to the world by using the metaphor of light. We cannot see light if there is nothing to reflect it (space looks dark, even though light constantly passes through it). When there is a reflection, we see not light, but the object that reflects it. Light itself we cannot see: yet in its absence we can see nothing. The created world is a direct reflection of God in creation: we do not ‘see’ God, but without God we would ‘see’ nothing. If we take this metaphor from the realm of the senses to that of the intellect and the soul, we are made to understand that there is no being without Being, yet we do not perceive Being itself: rather we perceive its reflection in the world, and everything we do perceive is perceived only because of that reflection. The light is in itself invisible, a darkness to our intellect. This may be, I suggest, part of what mystics mean when they say that God is everywhere visible and nowhere visible, and what Goethe meant by saying that nature is a ‘holy open secret’ (heilig öffentlich Geheimnis).

Cusanus suggests the need to enter into a darkness of unknowing which is also the door to Paradise – itself a coincidence of opposites – accessible only to whomever is able to abjure finally the attempt to apprehend God through reason (at least in as much as that is of the kind that precludes the possibility of ‘opposites’ being true). God is beyond the familiar domain where opposites hold sway: in God they are reconciled. Thus it is that the darkness is in reality a form of extreme brightness.

GOD AS COINCIDENTIA OPPOSITORUM 🔗

That the Creation is fulfilled in the process of differentiation and yet wholly at one with the God of creation is implicit in pantheism: ‘the more we understand individual things, the more we understand God’, wrote Spinoza. As Roger Scruton comments on Spinoza the pantheist: ‘the distinction between the creator and the created is not a distinction between two entities, but a distinction between two ways of conceiving a single reality’. Panentheism, however, permits something further: the possibility that God has a relationship not just with the divine self, but with something Other; and this, it seems to me, is the drive behind there being a creation at all. For me, this is further grounds for preferring panentheism to pantheism. We need immanence, yes, which pantheism offers; but we need the union of transcendence with immanence, which only some form of panentheism encompasses. Yet again, we need union, but we need that to be the union of division with union.

REPORTING BACK TO THE RIGHT HEMISPHERE 🔗

There was a lot of the left hemisphere’s struggling with reality in the last few pages, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, as we have seen, the occupational hazard of the left hemisphere is to believe that its necessarily narrower re-presentations constitute the reality. The danger applies here too: we are tempted to treat panentheism as a left hemisphere intellectual re-presentation, a source of argument, rather than something intuited by the right hemisphere as a source of wonder. We should resist the temptation to take it as gospel – which is why I talked about a ‘speculative’ theology of panentheism. There are no certainties here. In a well-known saying, attributed to Eugene Gendlin: ‘We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there is much else besides.’ But the attempt to use language is not irrational: the struggle, as I say, is not wasted effort. It is merely not enough.

It has been a consistent argument of this book that the left hemisphere is a fine servant but a disastrous master, and that its results need ‘returning’ to the right hemisphere for assessment of their validity, and reintegration into a now enriched vision of the world. It is their consistency with what the right hemisphere has intuited with greater richness, but less of an argumentative structure, that is required. The most we can hope for is some sense that an analytic theology might at least seem true to – faithful to – the intuited perceptions of the right hemisphere expressed, as they tend to be, in terms of metaphor and myth. How does panentheism fare?

This extraordinarily redolent mythos appears to intuit the way in which I believe everything comes into being – not just in the cosmos at large, but for us, phenomenologically, through the interaction of the hemispheres. The first ‘act’ is not the making of something happen, but the open receptive attentional field offered by the right hemisphere in which all new experience begins. It creates a space for something to be: tzimtzum. The attempt is then made to ‘pour’ whatever is received by the right hemisphere into the various categories, verbal or otherwise, that the left hemisphere brings to bear on it, but these prove inadequate to contain the meaning that was there in the first manifestation or ‘presencing’, and they break down. Analysis and language, in other words, reach their limits: shevirat ha-kelim. The meaning has to be returned to the right hemisphere to be ‘restored’ by understanding it as a whole again.

This synthesis engenders a new, richer, wholeness: tikkun. I have compared this with the process whereby we learn a piece of music: initial receptivity; fragmentation and analysis in the pursuit of technical proficiency; followed by a new synthesis in which the previous phase is entirely banished from mind. Yet, crucially, no phase of the process is dispensable: every phase, including fragmentation and analysis at one stage, the shattering of the inadequate vessels, played its part.

THE HEMISPHERES AND OMNIPOTENCE AND OMNISCIENCE 🔗

As conceived by the left hemisphere, a religion is likely to emphasise power and certainty above all. There is little room in its monolithic structures for the freshness of creation and the vulnerability that alone makes love possible. To me, this is a misunderstanding of the nature of religion.

To know, according to the left hemisphere, is already to have something fixed and represented in memory – pinned down. To have power, similarly, is to have the ability to interfere in the course of things and manipulate an intended outcome: that is, after all, the left hemisphere’s raison d’être. They are both aspects of the need to control: but if there is to be veritable creation, creation must be not wholly under the creator’s control. We are thinking in the wrong way, if we think like this about God.

God is not in a left hemisphere sense, but in a right hemisphere sense, all-knowing and all-powerful. Knowledge, as understood by the right hemisphere, is a process of openness and receptivity in which two entities progress ever closer to one another through experience. Kennen, not wissen. In this sense, God alone has knowledge of everything, whereas we have knowledge of only that limited part of reality that we can encounter. If God were to know everything, in the sense of ‘knowing the facts’, God would be importantly limited, because then Creation could no longer be truly free and with that the possibility for love – which depends on the free will of a true Other – would be lost.

And power? Power as understood by the right hemisphere is permissive: creative power, the power to allow things to come into being, precisely by underwriting the existence of a creative field, but not interfering and manipulating within it. Not making things happen according to fiat, but allowing things to grow. That is true creation. I am reminded of the story of the Tibetan Buddhist monk who carried on serenely praying as Chinese soldiers ordered his fellow monks out of the monastery at gun point. A soldier roughly prodded him with the butt of his rifle, and told him to get up and get out, shouting ‘Don’t you know that I have the power to kill you?’ The monk looked up and replied, ‘Don’t you know that I have the power to let you?’ Semantics, you may say. But I think it is much more.

There is an ambiguity to the account of the creation in Genesis. Each act of creation is initiated by God saying ‘let’ something come into being. This can be seen as a command, exercising controlling power, but as I have already suggested this is at odds with the idea of a free creation which God ‘saw’ for the first time as it came into being. I would suggest that it could also be seen as evocative – not even permitting, but actually calling something into being.

Jordan Peterson refers to a commentary on the Torah: ‘Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. What does such a being lack? The answer? Limitation.’ And he continues:

“If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being.”

And no Becoming. I would say that it is for this reason that God created – full stop. And if God has initiated a process that generates what is genuinely new, genuinely free – a process of truly creative evolution – why would God destroy it by omniscience and omnipotence? That the divine mind contains all possibilities, does not imply knowledge of which particular possibilities will be actualised.

In the Tao Te Ching, it is said that ‘being and non-being produce each other’. The Chinese is notoriously such that it cannot be pinned down to just one interpretation. In this word-form it seems peculiarly abstract. The insight behind this saying, it seems to me, is one that I have touched on repeatedly; that creation is the precipitation of something out of unlimited potential into limited actuality, which then inevitably interacts further with potential, in such a way that potentiality influences what is further actualised. In other words, there is a continuous reciprocity or calling-forth between the potential and the actual, the unbounded and the bounded, in Whitehead’s terms between God and the World, each helping to shape the other. This meaning is perhaps more apparent in another translation: ‘what is and what is not create each other’.

Yet another translation, which refers more obviously to hemispheric interplay, is ‘the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other’. Note, not just that the hidden gives rise to the manifest (since the left hemisphere draws on the right), but that the manifest at the same time gives rise to the hidden (the right hemisphere receives what the left hemisphere produces, taking it up again into an implicit whole).

It is the tension between what one is and what one has it in one to become that gives rise to purpose.

IS GOD UNKNOWABLE? 🔗

On the other side of the ‘step across’ from the everyday realm in which we are contained by left hemisphere thinking, whatever is encountered – not just God – can be expressed only in terms of what it is not. The language-defined left hemisphere sees the world as the opportunity to do, to manipulate. It can’t deal adequately with whatever refuses such manipulation. It can handle such elements only by expressing them as the negation of something it has already, to its satisfaction, established. It is as if life were referred to as undeath, giving in itself no idea of what life is like – except that it is not death. So we say the infinite, we call things indivisible, we refer to non-quanta – we simply have no positive terms in the realm of ‘beyond’: all is defined by what it is not. I find that in itself revealing.

All that matters most to us can be understood only by the indirect path: music, art, humour, poems, sex, love, metaphors, myths, and religious meaning, are all nullified by the attempt to make them explicit. This is the right hemisphere’s preferred territory; and, beyond that, the right hemisphere is more capable of holding together apparently conflicting positions (as the left hemisphere would see them); it’s more at ease with the idea that both of two viewpoints are necessary. Such ambiguities and ‘conflicts’ of meaning or reasoning lie at the core of the mystical religious tradition, which is notoriously reliant on paradox to convey truths that transcend our everyday understanding.

Mystery does not imply muddled thinking. On the other hand, thinking you could be clear about something which in its nature is essentially mysterious is muddled thinking. Nor does mystery betoken a lack of meaning – rather a superabundance of meaning in relation to our normal finite vision.

This transfers our attention from knowing in an intellectual, above all linguistic sense, to knowing in the sense of experience. Most people who believe in the divine would say that their belief is a matter of experience rather than ratiocination, and that the experience is hard indeed to communicate – like attempting to communicate the taste of pineapple to someone who has never tasted it – but nonetheless carries conviction for the one that experiences. To quote the Psalms: ‘O taste and see how gracious the Lord is’. If you want to know how pineapple tastes, you have to eat it: and obviously the deep analogy implied here is with the nature of love.

In Chapter 26, I suggested that love is not just a product of value, but might be considered itself a value; and that, like the other values I have discussed, such as truth, beauty, goodness, and purpose, it is foundational. By that I mean that it does not emerge from something else, but is an irreducible aspect of the cosmos, and in that sense an ‘ontological primitive’. Here we approach an area in which, it could be argued, we may find it more reasonable to speak of the divine than not. If we accept that, then such values become no longer separate individual primitives, substantive elements, but adjectival, qualities – but of what? Of the one ontological primitive, namely God. Rather oddly, it seems more acceptable among philosophers (and Iris Murdoch is a case in point) to speak of ‘the Good’ than of God, as though it were a matter of education, if not of good manners, to steer clear of any whiff of divinity.

While invoking God does not, as I say, answer our questions, it is part of a picture – a Gestalt – that makes more sense to me as a whole than a Gestalt that avoids the divine. But I readily accept that here we reach, as so often, a point at which language hinders rather than furthers understanding.

NEGATION AS CREATIVE 🔗

Such experience is the only positive knowledge we can have. But, like the tzimtzum of Ein-sof in creating the cosmos, there needs to be an emptying out, a receptive space so as to make a place for it to live: a primary act of negation.

The sefirot comprises ten powers or principles; and for the cosmos to be at all, both the principle of love (chesed), and the power of restraint (gevurah), are required. At one level they are opposites, but, at another, each is vitally needed for the fulfilment of the other. It is only with the restraint of gevurah, which is made evident in the phase of creation called tzimtzum (divine withdrawal), that finite creatures can subsist without being reabsorbed into Ein-Sof. Neither principle alone could sustain creation. It is only through their tension and complementarity, one dividing, the other uniting, that a world can come into being at all. Human flourishing, too, depends on remembering this wisdom. To be secure, children need boundaries and discipline as well as acceptance and unconditional love; for the mature adult, there needs to be a proper balance between self-acceptance and self-criticism, the taking of responsibility and self-forgiveness: permission and constraint.

The constant emphasis on the ungraspability of God may have left the impression that God is something remote, intellectual, and abstract. But everything is paradoxical here: because God is also the least of all these things.

The divine is not a realm transcending life, but an aspect of life itself.

Once again, it is a matter of seeing exactly where we are, but with different ‘eyes’ – or, in terms of the hemisphere hypothesis, from a point of view from which the right hemisphere is not excluded.

There is, furthermore, no conflict between reason and religion. Belief is not the antithesis, but the complement, of reason; not the opposite of knowledge, but its inevitable basis – and its outcome.

Though a belief in God or otherwise cannot be a matter of argument, there is nonetheless virtue in having a sort of scaffolding in place, even though it cannot reach heaven. The scaffolding won’t do the job, but it will be reassuring to those who are wont to arrive at truths by erecting scaffolding (or so they believe). People have to start from where they are at the time, and many can’t get past the first hurdle: that they believe the idea of God is an affront to the rational mind. But, though there are many paths that may lead to God, I can’t believe any of them does so in a coercive fashion – one that leads someone to say, ‘OK, I give in, there is a God’. That you must always be free to choose, and free to doubt, seems to me part of the deal. (If you believe we are not free, then beliefs, including that one, don’t matter, since they are merely predetermined.) What does love mean, to the lover or the one that is loved, if it is compelled?

I have throughout this book suggested that the cosmos is not an unfolding of something already present in its origins, but a free process of true and original creation, not foreknown, not even to a God, if there is one. And similarly there was no necessity for there to be a God.

If God is an eternal Becoming, fulfilled as God through the response of his creation, and we, for our part, constantly more fulfilled through our response to God; then we are literally partners in the creation of the universe, perhaps even in the becoming of God (who is himself Becoming as much as Being): in which case it is imperative that we try to reach and know and love that God. Not just for our own sakes, but because we bear some responsibility, however small, for the part we play in creation (and indeed how ‘big’ or ‘small’ we cannot know: the terms are derived from our limited experience of a finite world).

If the nature of reality is not already fixed, but, rather, evolving, participatory, reverberative, it is both rational and important to open your mind and heart to God, in order to bring whatever it is evermore into existence.

A hungering for certainty and the desire to over-clarify are allied to literalistic thinking. They can afflict believers and atheists alike. Too great a need for precision crystallises our thinking, fixes our path, too early – and thus leads us astray. ‘He who thinks greatly must err greatly,’ wrote Heidegger. The need to be right at every step often deceives and leads astray. Instead we need to be more alert and attentive, like a tracker or hunter. ‘Everything here is the path of a responding that examines as it listens’, he wrote. ‘Any path always risks going astray … Stay on the path, in genuine need, and learn the craft of thinking, unswerving, yet erring.’ Never to err is for the gods alone.

Reason is wholesome, and by no means leads necessarily to atheism. But it remains true that by focussing too much on reason we miss all the things that can’t be reasoned about, or precisely expressed – only alluded to. One might make a distinction between what is irrational (against reason) and what is ‘suprarational’ (beyond reason). Music might act as an everyday example of something very real, possessed of deep meaning, and not irrational, but suprarational.

LUCIFER REBELS: WHEN THE LEFT HEMISPHERE ASSUMES MASTERY 🔗

When the left hemisphere acts as servant its assistance is often invaluable. We have seen in this chapter its role in helping fashion coherent propositions out of an intuitive disposition, that of wonder at the mystery of Being. But in the end it is the right hemisphere that understands. As Heschel put it, halakhah and aggadah are both needed, but aggadah grounds halakhah.

In relation to understanding the divine, the left hemisphere usurps the role of the right in two apparently opposed, but remarkably similar ways. In one it appropriates the tentative speculations of uncertain theology, faith that is always imbued with doubt, and turns them into dogmas and unbending moral codes of ‘true’ or fundamentalist religions. In the other, it denies everything. It excludes from its hall of mirrors all that the right hemisphere intuits about the ground of Being and declares there is no God. Both are rejections of the critically important need to remain open. Both are forms of Lucifer’s rebellion.

Religious dogmatism 🔗

The first is a transformation of religion, whereby it becomes a matter of certainties, in the process, at the outset, losing what is arguably its central quality. Matters of great subtlety that defy language are replaced by linguistic doctrines of great complexity. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, for example, an ancient mystical concept with pre-Christian origins, became the ground – or perhaps more accurately the pretext – for disputes about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity that drove the Western and Eastern churches apart for over a thousand years. I do not mean to suggest that in such superficially superficial disputes there are not serious intellectual issues worthy of exploration and debate; but that an obsession with truth-as-correctness and a focus on detail – both characteristic of the left hemisphere’s approach – result in a loss of the more important vision enshrined in the Christian mythos of which the Trinity forms part.

The extraordinary power of the Christian mythos lies in its central idea of incarnation – the intimate relationship between consciousness and matter, and the core idea of panentheism. Yet focus on minutiae coupled with a need to be right (both left hemisphere tendencies) explains the fissiparous nature of religious groupings – and, for that matter, identity-conscious groups anywhere in politics.

When the left hemisphere predominates, the space of unknowing in which spiritual life flourishes comes to be replaced by dogma; openness by contention; tolerance by self-righteousness; forgiveness by stigma; orderliness by legalism. There emerge steep hierarchies. Fundamentalism insists that the truth lies in a written word, a holy book; whatever wisdom the book enshrines no longer seen as the work of variously inspired, yet fallible, humans, but of a divine hand; taken out of its historical setting and viewed as absolute; conferring on its adherents the possibility to be finally right, and those who doubt them unquestionably wrong. Truth indeed changes its nature, and becomes simplistic, literal, stateable and knowable, explicit and abstracted from context. The body becomes no longer the best image of the human soul, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, but the soul’s prison and antagonist.

Fascinatingly, since poetry, music and humour are all strongly right hemisphere-dependent – and, not incidentally, effective discouragements to dogmatism and self-righteousness – we find that the poetry of metaphor, along with music, dance and laughter are all abjured once fundamentalism rules.

This happens whenever fundamentalism raises itself up, because fundamentalism is itself an expression of left hemisphere thinking. It has nothing to do with religion in itself: the triumph of left hemisphere thinking is demonstrable in wholly secular contexts.

The Christian religion is unusual for its metaphysically complex creed, which unfortunately leads straight into the territory of the left hemisphere. No other religion seems to expect such a level of assent to what are cast superficially as improbable intellectual propositions. But that is because they have been translated by the left hemisphere-minded out of mythos and into logos, giving the impression that a religious disposition involves having to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Legalism is an unattractive element in all three of the monotheistic religions. I see it as the inevitable reaction of the left hemisphere to an essentially right hemisphere phenomenon, an attempt to make what are necessarily uncertain, but nonetheless profound, insights into the nature of Being, certain and declarative.

The need for certainty is a sign of mental imbalance, and nothing is a greater waste of time than debating with someone who doubts everything, on the grounds that only certainty is admissible. Similarly with the need always to be right.

Offering, if need be, yet more evidence of hemisphere imbalance, the left hemisphere tendency to black and white views is more common among the technically minded, which is why engineers are over-represented amongst religious fundamentalists and radicals.

The smaller the question, the clearer the answer. Expecting clear answers to big questions is to be thinking too small. Informed opinion and judgment are all each of us has to go on when dealing with any of the big questions about the world. And that’s no bad thing by any means; it’s much more intelligent than thinking everything is a matter of fact. An opinion is always a choice of some part of a whole, concealing some things, as any viewpoint must, as well as revealing others. Being sceptical is not a mindless matter of rejecting as wholly false something that cannot be proved, but which might contain truth; any more than it is to accept something indiscriminately because it is theoretically correct without testing it on the business of living. It is to run a course between uncritical rejection and uncritical acceptance. The word ‘sceptical’ ultimately comes from the Greek word skopos, a watchman: the verb skeptesthai means to keep a look out, to pay vigilant attention, so as to be in a position to know for yourself.

The approach to God requires imagination: but, as you know from Chapter 19, I take imagination to be our only means of approaching reality of any kind, a fortiori that of God. It is certainly not a guarantor of truth – there isn’t any; but its absence is a guarantor of failure – failure to properly understand truths of any kind, including those of science. Imagination is what enables us to forge the link between our individual experience and something beyond, that is, ultimately, the universal – and by that very process the universal becomes no longer beyond the confines of experience. Imagination is always extending from the dead realm of language into the living world that it alone can bring forth for us. But imagination is proscribed once religion is misunderstood by the left hemisphere.

Militant atheism 🔗

I mentioned a second form in which the left hemisphere, assuming mastery, treats the divine. When the unaided left hemisphere comes to confront something which it doesn’t understand and cannot imagine how to approach, it turns it into something it could understand – and then either accepts it or rejects it. We have seen accepting it: perverted religion. Now let’s look at rejecting it: atheism.

On the closeness of the phenomena Jonathan Rée is acute. Speaking of the militant atheist AC Grayling, ‘quite considerably a left-hemispheric creature’ by his own description, he writes:

“Militant atheism makes the strangest bedfellows. Grayling sees himself as a champion of the Enlightenment, but in the old battle over the interpretation of religious texts he is on the side of conservative literalist fundamentalists rather than progressive critical liberals. He believes that the scriptures must be taken at their word, rather than being allowed to flourish as many-layered parables, teeming with quarrels, follies, jokes, reversals and paradoxes. Resistance is, of course, futile. If you suggest that his vaunted ‘clarifications’ annihilate the poetry of religious experience or the nuance of theological reflection, he will mark you down for obstructive irrationalism. He is, after all, a professional philosopher, and his training tells him that what cannot be translated into plain words is nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

The distinction between believers and unbelievers may be far less important than Grayling and the New Atheists like to think. At any rate it cuts right across the rather interesting difference between the grim absolutists, such as Grayling and the religious fundamentalists, who think that knowledge must involve perfect communion with literal truth, and the sceptical ironists – both believers and unbelievers – who observe with a shrug that we are all liable to get things wrong, and the human intellect has a lot to be modest about. We live our lives in the midst of ambiguities we will never resolve. When we die our heads will still be filled with a few stupid certitudes mixed in with some more or less good ideas, and we are never going to know which are which. There is no certainty, we might say: so stop worrying about it.

In his Atheist Manifesto, Sam Harris, perhaps like Grayling, shows a similar preference for fundamentalists:

“Although it is easy enough for smart people to criticize religious fundamentalism, something called ‘religious moderation’ still enjoys immense prestige in our society, even in the ivory tower. This is ironic, as fundamentalists tend to make a more principled use of their brains than ‘moderates’ do.”

Atheism and religious fundamentalism have a common quality that would be puzzling if we could not see that both stem from the same place in that brain. ‘Religious beliefs’, continues Harris, ‘to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be as evidentiary in spirit as any other. For all their sins against reason, religious fundamentalists understand this; moderates – almost by definition – do not.’ What counts as ‘evidentiary’ is not discussed. Neither is the word ‘principled’: which principles? Those of the left hemisphere only, of course. Why? Because they are obviously right. I am reminded of the limpet stuck to the rock of the obvious: ‘Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.’ The thought crosses one’s mind that more philosophy might help here. ‘A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism’, wrote Bacon already in 1597; ‘but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.’

The significant divide is, as usual, not based on the ‘what’, but the ‘how’: not between atheism and belief at all, but between those who approach the world literally and dogmatically, and those who approach the world with a richer understanding of metaphor and a capacity to tolerate uncertainty, be they agnostics or believers in a divine cosmos.

To the left hemisphere’s mindset many things must seem obvious. Among them would be: that anything true can be expressed in everyday language; that all truths must agree with one another; that paradox is a sign of sloppy thinking; that what is not precise or certain just requires more thought to become precise or certain; that metaphor is a tool of obfuscation; that it makes no sense that not-knowing can sometimes lead one closer to truth than knowing, not-naming lead closer than naming; that everything can be understood if it can just be reduced systematically to its parts; that context can’t alter the nature of an entity, which is something it has in itself; that dealing with the representation of something is just as good as dealing with its presence, except quicker and more efficient; that the living is in reality just mechanical; that believing in a God is, to quote Bertrand Russell, like believing ‘that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun’. And so such people are not going to be able to get to first base when it comes to approaching the divine.

What is encountered spiritually can be conveyed best by poetry, drama, ritual, image, narrative, music – by means, in other words, that are implicit, embodied, and contextually rich. They are resonant rather than declarative.

As William James noted more than a century ago, ‘the more fervent opponents of Christian doctrine have often enough shown a temper which, psychologically considered, is indistinguishable from religious zeal’. Militant atheism is marked by the same left hemisphere characteristics of intolerance, self-righteousness and a refusal to accept that all positions, without exception, make assumptions that are open to question. It has, too, its own rituals, its denunciations, and its sacred texts.

One of the myths of atheists is that science and religion are incompatible. Belief in God cannot be in conflict with science, because such belief is not part of a competition between differing reasons or explanations. God is rather seen as the ground of there being such things as reasons or explanations at all. But that is not something of which the natural modus operandi of the left hemisphere can make sense, so one should expect confusion here.

In an earlier chapter I quoted Einstein to the effect that when it comes down to one’s grounding assumptions in physics ‘there leads no logical path, but only intuition, supported by being sympathetically in touch with experience.’ I commented that this is a beautiful expression of the purest Pragmatism. It might be noted that the approach to truth that I find most compelling, that of the Pragmatists, underlies not only the best way to deal with the everyday world, but both the best science and the best sacred traditions, much as practitioners in either of these fields might not welcome the insight into their relationship.

The literalism of the fundamentalist Christian is paralleled by the literalism of the fundamentalist atheist.

Throughout this book I have emphasised that there are often ‘incompatible’ truths, and that the intelligent thing to do is not to force an ‘either/or’ (the left hemisphere’s only gambit) but accept a ‘both/and’ (as the right hemisphere understands), since, importantly, they may be truths on different levels, truths of different kinds, or, since all truths can be partial only, may both be needed to see a fuller picture. And that leads to the question what we mean by true. For some that will be, naturally, ‘obvious’, but they might be better not to advertise the fact.

Why should we consider literal truth superior to, rather than just different from, metaphoric truth? We need both and they have different proper applications. They are not in conflict. It may be that, ultimately, literal truth is merely a special case, the limit case, of metaphorical truth, as actuality is a special case, the limit case, of potentiality; and that making the difference into a dichotomy is a product of modern Western ways of thinking. Mythos was considered anciently truer than logos, and not by simple people either, but by sophisticated people who had a different outlook on the world.

Faith, like true science, is not static and certain, but a process of exploration that always has in sight enough of what it seeks to keep the seeker journeying onward.

Here is Popper warning science – not religion – of the danger he saw:

“I am on the side of science and of rationality, but I am against those exaggerated claims for science that have sometimes been, rightly, denounced as ‘scientism’. I am on the side of the search for truth, of intellectual daring in the search for truth; but I am against intellectual arrogance, and especially against the misconceived claim that we have the truth in our pockets, or that we can approach certainty.”

All in all, the history of the supposed ‘conflict’ between science and religion makes fascinating reading. But it has done great harm to clear thinking. It has entrenched a false antithesis: an entirely material view of the world as the only alternative to ‘superstition’.

Things over which science has no jurisdiction are a threat, not to real scientists, only to adherents of scientism, whose motive is power.

Children naturally express themselves in spiritual terms, irrespective of their upbringing; and that religious belief in general is shaped by, but not originated by, culture.

The research shows that experiences of the divine are far from uncommon, and when they do occur, often do so in formerly non-believing subjects; have a benign and sometimes life-transforming impact; and are quite unlike hallucinations and delusions in quality, effect, and subsequent evaluation by the individuals who experienced them. While it has been argued that theism is a product of mental style and culture, it is just as arguable that atheism is a combination of personality type, mental style and culture – one that promotes atheism as smart and religion as naïve. And given the commonalities between right hemisphere deficit conditions and autistic spectrum disorders, it is relevant that autism-spectrum disorders make belief in God less likely (in a series of four studies, neurotypical (viz, ‘normal’) subjects were 10 times as likely as those on the spectrum strongly to endorse the idea of God).

Only the worst of religion is falsely certain, and only the best of science is honest in its doubt.

The genuinely exploratory process involved in an openness to the idea of God raises as many questions as it answers, just as does the genuinely exploratory process of a truly open science.

‘The atheist’s essential case that the only truths that we should accept are those for which there is an empirical or scientific basis’, writes Jonathan Gaisman, ‘does not itself have an empirical or scientific basis. The notion that the only things worthy of belief are those which are objectively verifiable is not itself an objectively verifiable belief.’

Science is convergent on a target, that becomes – theoretically, if not in practice – more certain as it is approached, and the point of the process lies in achieving that target; yet philosophy and religion are divergent, as the nature of the target becomes less certain as it is approached, and the point of the process lies in itself. For science knowledge is things; for philosophy and religion knowledge is a process of understanding what these things mean.

Just as naïve materialists do great damage to science by their over-reaching claims of access to ‘the truth’ – even to sole access to truth – on her behalf, so do misguided religious figureheads and their lay ‘supporters’ to religion, when they don’t know enough to see what it is they don’t know. Freed from such damaging accretions, however, science and religion have much in common: both being projects that, when carried out in a spirit of humility, are potentially beautiful and good. They are both, at their best, an honest, dignified reaching after truth, of different kinds, though never finally in possession of it. They should be able to honour one another, and work together towards the common goal of understanding the world better. If they can’t, something has gone badly wrong.

WHY IT MATTERS 🔗

Perspective alters what we see. The left hemisphere is rigid, but we need to think flexibly, so as not to get trapped into one world view and imagine it is everything.

A religious cast of mind sets the human being and human life in the widest context, reminding us of our duties to one another, and to the natural world that is our home; duties, however, that are founded in love, and link us to the whole of existence. The world becomes ensouled. And we have a place in it once more.

Religion takes seriously both the thisness of the individual, at one extreme of the scale, and the fate of the cosmos at the other, and shows them to be part of one whole. It is the absence of this integrative perspective that Dewey called the ‘deepest problem of modern life’.

This book has had a consistent message: that the right hemisphere is a more reliable guide to reality than the left hemisphere. In Part I, we saw that it has a greater range of attention; greater acuity of perception; makes more reliable judgments; and contributes more to both emotional and cognitive intelligence than the left. In Part II, we saw that the right hemisphere is responsible for, in every case, the more important part of our ability to come to an understanding of the world, whether that be via intuition and imagination, or, no less, via science and reason. In Part III, I have suggested that the right hemisphere’s capacity to deal with what we call ‘paradox’ is greater; that its understanding of space, motion, and time is deeper and more resonant with the findings of contemporary physics (and all philosophy other than the purely Anglo-American analytic tradition, itself a left hemisphere venture); and that it contributes more to important aspects of consciousness, including the appreciation of values such as goodness, beauty, and truth. So the least strong claim one might make is that the spiritual and divine will be misapprehended if one brings to bear on them only the process for which the left hemisphere is best equipped – analysis to parts, following of procedures, and the presentation of results in language: a process that prioritises the known, the certain, the fixed, the partial, the explicit, the abstract, the general, the quantifiable, the inanimate and whatever is ‘re-presented’, over the unknown, the uncertain, the flowing, the living and the implicit, the whole, the contextual, and whatever is of unique quality; and all that ‘presences’ to us, before it has been represented through rationalisations in language. A stronger claim is that, not just here, but in general, we should prefer, wherever possible, an approach that can be identified with the habits of mind of the right hemisphere – a claim which I think, on the evidence I have presented, entirely justified.

The reason that so much time, expense and skilled artistry was devoted to religion, from the most ancient, prehistoric epochs, when lives were shorter and resources scarcer, arose from the understanding that what we now know to be the ‘form of life’ of the left hemisphere, though obvious and easily expressible, belongs to the banality of everyday, and is far less important than the realm of what is comparatively hidden, but in which everything that matters to us and that gives meaning to life resides. If we should forget that, we would have forgotten how to be fully human. Without such instantiation in the fabric of a culture, it might easily be forgotten: that, then, was the role of religion.

The raison d’être of the left hemisphere is control and calculation. Importantly we are not exempt from being the objects of control and calculation in a culture in which all is controlled and calculated.

This drive is bigger than us, and it is driving us towards destruction.

Only the human soul is left to resist this process, being, unlike cognition, beyond ‘administrative control’; it is that part of us that intuits the divine, is in touch with unconscious knowledge and wisdom, and resists the banality of the desacralised, if not actually desecrated, world.

As such it is a threat to the administered world, which responds with an otherwise inexplicable wish to crush and exterminate it. Everything that is not explicit, and therefore not reducible to material terms that can be predicted and administered, is to be done away with.

There is, of course, good in curiosity, especially in the young, but it confines one to the smaller questions: no-one, as he points out, says ‘I am curious to know the nature of God’, or ‘I am curious about the meaning of life’. And in reality the lust here is appropriative, to know for myself, so as to have a better grasp; whereas in wonder there is an acknowledgment of what must forever lie beyond our grasp, an insight that comes with experience. The curious materialist, by contrast, assumes that, theoretically at least, everything can be definitively known: there are no things in heaven or earth that are not knowable in his philosophy.

Awe and wonder involve an encounter, and are other-directed emotions, in which the ego takes a back seat.

In an itself wonderful lecture entitled ‘The work of wonder’, Patrick Curry reminds us that ‘wonder, like the relationships it consists of, is wild; so the correct attitude to it is therefore unpossessive, respectful and indeed reverent. It follows that anything that is being mastered and managed must be something else’.

It would be, in short, the betrayal of the right hemisphere Master into the hands of the left hemisphere emissary.

The importance of humility in the face of the divine is because it is what is proper to divinity, not something demanded by a supposedly petulant God. That would be to misunderstand humility as abasement. And it may prove ultimately that the faithful person’s attitude of humility comes from the divine element in himself (otherwise known as the soul) and is aimed at the divine in himself, and is therefore the divinity properly attending to the divinity.

This has nothing whatever to do with a supposed master-slave relationship. Instead it is, like awe and wonder, not an abasement but an ecstasis (from Greek ek, out, + stasis, standing), a standing outside oneself while still being oneself. We are both united with something greater than ourselves, in which we share, and simultaneously aware of the separation, in which one feels one’s smallness: the union of division and union.

Lao Tzu said: ‘the un-wanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.’ Want requires fulfilment. On the other hand, wonder leads to longing of a spiritual kind, which is fulfilled in itself, ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’, in Lewis’s words.

It involves a sense of transcendence in which one is transported to somewhere where one is in touch with things beyond the everyday world, that is nonetheless familiar.

We see God through the beauty of this world, but we must not stop there. Hence the importance of that sense of the loss of something beloved and beyond.

Religion or spirituality: a matter of societal flourishing? 🔗

Religion can undoubtedly give rise to fanatical behaviour, oppression and cruelty. The evidence is undeniable. But in this it is not unique: so, alas, can any human structure conferring power, since humans are deeply flawed beings. Atheist regimes have been around for only a hundred years or so, compared with the millennia of religion: the evidence is that atheist regimes, such as those of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, have committed the most extensive atrocities in human history.

Religion has equal power to do great good, both through its charitable actions, and, even more, by its capacity to bring before the eyes of the mind another realm than the one that is so ‘obvious’ to our gaze – that is ‘too much with us’, as Wordsworth put it; to provide a common moral focus that is not merely pragmatic or politically motivated; to enrich life with beauty and pattern; to revitalise us, celebrate our being in the world for now, and transform what might otherwise seem like meaningless life for the better.

John Gray, in his Seven Types of Atheism, makes the point that the values that we hold to be ‘obviously’, even rationally, correct have not seemed so and do not still seem so to societies with other nonetheless coherent codes of behaviour. Jürgen Habermas sees Christianity playing a tacit role in modern society far beyond that of a mere precursor or a catalyst. He, like many others, views our contemporary allegiance to freedom of life, social solidarity, emancipation, individual morality of conscience, justice, and human rights as directly derived from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The fact that our civilisation has not yet completely fallen apart is a demonstration not that the tradition can be dispensed with, but that it continues, for a while, to be rooted in our psyche.

Under these circumstances is it enough to be ‘spiritual, but not religious’? That it is hard to know what such a thing means or entails may indeed represent one of its attractions, and I understand only too well why conventional religion is hard to accept for many people these days. I share many of those feelings. But the one feeling that I don’t share is the idea that I can’t learn anything from a tradition; that my limited rationalising on the basis of my limited experience in one time and place on the planet is enough. Indeed even such a belief is an outcome of a culture – just one that is in meltdown. Only I can take responsibility for what I believe, hence Habermas’s point that individual conscience is a key element in Christianity. But I cannot possibly penetrate to the core of the enigma of life by my own efforts. Nor can I wilfully invent myths or rituals without their being trivial and empty. This is why we have traditions of art, philosophy and, above all, religion.

Smith and Denton reporting on the spiritual lives of American teenagers found a common belief that, as they wryly put it, God was ‘something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist’, who was available on demand but undemanding. This has been popularly characterised as ‘benign whateverism’. Its core is that we should try to be nice, kind, respectful and responsible, and by doing so achieve a state of ‘feeling good, happy, secure, at peace.’ Worse things might certainly be believed; but this is not enough to support a civilisation, inspire great art, induce fidelity, inculcate sanctity, motivate self-sacrifice, or lead us to insights into the nature of existence.

Jonathan Gaisman, in his reticent fashion, addresses the issue of religion or spirituality. ‘It is open to anyone to retain a personalised and entirely individual faith’, he says, ‘but for the majority the natural course at this stage is to reach out to an established tradition, which is most likely to be that in which they were brought up’. This is for several reasons. First, like the followers of any other predilection, religious people typically form groups. Second, those groups provide a collective enhancement of the experience shared, as anyone who has been part of a theatre audience will attest. Third, all religions concern themselves with relations between human beings, and prescribe rules of conduct towards one’s fellows, so that it is natural for people of faith to reach out to others. Fourth, and perhaps most important, the profound human desire for sacred spaces and rituals is best served by religions whose lengthy past has brought such places and actions into being, polished and veneered by the observances of succeeding generations.

This great turning of our backs on the sacred began with the Enlightenment. Already in the eighteenth century Schiller prophetically lamented what Weber would later call, in a famous phrase, ‘the abolition of the sacred’. If the words sacred and holy still mean anything to you, then your world must contain the divine.

As we have seen, according to Goethe (and Plotinus before him), aspects of the world call forth in us, if we are open and attentive, the faculties that are needed to respond to them. The faculty to perceive the divine is no exception. Indeed that faculty is what we mean by soul. Soul does not exclude feeling or intellect or imagination, but it is not nearly exhausted by them. Though natural, it can be developed or stunted. Keats, who was wise beyond his years, called this world a ‘vale of Soul-making’. We grow a soul – or we can snuff it out. It is the most important purpose of a culture – any culture – to ensure that such faculties are aided to grow: the invocation of archetypal symbols, the practice of rituals, and the deployment of music and holy words in the approach to the divine have been universal across the world over time. It is only very recently that this universal practice has been abandoned. If you are convinced that in principle you know and can account for everything, you will see only what you think you know. You will never give yourself a chance to know what it is you might not know.

The business of life then becomes like a dance watched by a deaf person: puzzling, pointless and somewhat absurd. Death becomes just the meaningless end of a life itself without meaning. Goodness becomes mere utility, and suffering just frustration of utility. Eros becomes just lust; longing just want; sleep and dreams an inefficiency that we should do away with if we could; art a toy; the natural world a heap of resource; and wonder merely a measure of our failure, rather than, as I believe it to be, a measure of our insight.

When our society generally held with religion, we might indeed have committed many of the same wrongs; but power-seeking, selfishness, self-promotion, narcissism and entitlement, neglect of duty, dishonesty, ruthlessness, greed, and lust were never condoned or actively and openly encouraged – even admired – in the way they sometimes are now. In other words, we have lost all shame. And that can’t help but make a difference to how we behave.

Pride and arrogance, believing we know it all, are the opposite of the religious disposition of humility, reverence and compassion. And without them, neither we, nor the whole far greater, astonishing, living world, over which for better or worse we now have the power we so much craved, can thrive. It is pride that will destroy us, and quickly. With so much going for us, rising educational standards, better healthcare, public welfare and humane and stable government, what could be against us? We ourselves.

Let no-one think for a moment that I can exculpate myself from any of this. I find it all as hard as anyone; but sometimes one has to say what one sees, whether one feels a hypocrite or not.

In death no-one really knows what we face. But if we are not separate from the rest of creation, the gaining, or regaining, of insight into the whole, and our part in it, might well – it is not too hard to believe – give rise to suffering. The judgment feared comes, then, more from within the individuated soul than from without; the mercy sought comes more from the divine whole than from within. And according to the Christian mythos, mercy is ours if desired. The cry for God’s blessing or mercy is ancient, and does not at all depend on judgment in the sense of damnation – more on the sense of fallenness, somehow falling short of something we intuit we might be, and of which we are always aware. Which of us if honest does not feel this? Hence humility, hence reverence, hence compassion for self and others: hence the prayer.

Perhaps the clergy no longer know what to believe – I can understand that. But if, whatever that strange thing one calls one’s consciousness may be, it does not end at death – and nobody can be certain that it does – but persists in some form at which we can only guess, there is a real chance that an afterlife might be worse, not just better. I have experienced places in the universe that are real, but not reassuring. Faith is not simply comforting, but puts before one the full tremendousness of being, its meaning and its consequences. If one is a materialist, then there is no meaning in death, apart from the negation of life. Such people live in the comforting thought that life is meaningless, and has only personal consequences or none; then death, too, must be meaningless, and the quicker its acknowledgment is over, and the less grief there is, the better.

But if life has meaning, death has meaning, and if death has meaning, so does life. They interpenetrate one another, and to be anaesthetised to this is to be deceived. ‘The fact, and only the fact, that we are mortal, that our lives are finite, that our time is restricted and our possibilities are limited, this fact is what makes it meaningful to do something, to exploit a possibility and make it become a reality, to fulfil it’, wrote Viktor Frankl. And he continued:

“Death is a meaningful part of life, just like human suffering. Both do not rob the existence of human beings of meaning but make it meaningful in the first place. Thus, it is precisely the uniqueness of our existence in the world, the irretrievability of our lifetime, and the irrevocability of everything with which we fill it – or fail to fill it – that give significance to our existence.”

It may, actually, matter how one lives one’s life, because we may play a part in the coming into Being of whatever is, and we cannot separate ourselves from whatever is, perhaps for ever. Something depends on our way of being, and it is not just we ourselves. In a world where no-one can avoid the experience of suffering we know that it is a real part of consciousness: suffering is a central element, not just in Christianity, but in Buddhism, and no doubt in most, if not all, religions. So the how of life, not just the what – its mere existence or non-existence, huge as that is – matters: it has a value and price we cannot fully conceive.

Life requires death; death is the friend of life, not its foe.

I understand the Christian belief in the redemption of death through God’s own suffering to mean that death is not an end, but plays a part – like the intermediate phase of destruction, of fragmentation, of the shattering of the vessels – in the greater story of repair and restoration; a story that is both mine and not mine, taking place in the immensity of a living cosmos where the part and the whole are as one, yet without the loss of the meaning of the part that is each one of us.

EVIL 🔗

Ein-sof, the infinite God, is a ‘unity of opposites’, reconciling within itself even those aspects of the cosmos that are opposed to or contradict one another.

The idea of the eternal return, founded on an eternal cycle of life and death, creation and destruction, each requiring the other for its fulfilment, is imaged in the ancient Egyptian sacred image of the ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, which surrounded the cosmos and kept it alive.

If there is a force for good, there must be a force for evil. I don’t flinch from such a conclusion. I think I have seen forces both for good and evil at work during my lifetime, and I think, that seeing them as forces, having dynamism, initiative, and purpose, is to me more truthful than seeing them as inert abstractions of the mind – abstract nouns, as is our way, derived from adjectives we use to describe behaviour we happen to like and behaviour we happen not to like.

I experience both good and evil as real, and see them as necessary opposites; but while evil can, goodness knows, locally overwhelm good, it cannot subsume good into itself. The goodness of love can embrace its opposite; the evil of hate cannot. As we saw in Chapter 20, opposition has it in itself to become a union of opposites, but only by the forces of union, not by those of opposition.

‘According to Arendt a distinctive feature of radical evil is that it isn’t done for humanly understandable motives such as self-interest, but merely to reinforce totalitarian control and the idea that everything is possible.’ In other words, the self of the evil-doer, too, is destroyed, in the service of a power greater than itself, the ideal of which is simply – power. Power to do anything and everything possible. We have that lust within us.

For those who recognise a moral force for good, derived from God, the problem is different, and more acutely embarrassing. If God is omnipotent, why evil? The traditional Neoplatonic answer is that evil is mere privation of good. This seems to me an intellectual gambit only. Christians especially must take into account that Christ, according to the gospels, was tempted by Satan; and taught his followers to pray continually to be delivered from evil – not just to avoid not being quite good enough. If your belief in God stems from the refusal to deny an experienced reality, I suspect denying the reality of evil in experience is like putting the telescope to one’s blind eye. Moreover, intellectual gambit that it may be, it does not really work; since why, if God is omnipotent, is privation possible? To me it makes more sense to deny God’s omnipotence, of which I have no experience, than deny either God or evil, of both of which I do.

One way of thinking of this (it is hardly original) is that a divine principle of love needs something Other to love, since love is essentially directed outwards; that that Other must be free to respond, since a love that is compelled is not love; and that this necessarily means that the Other must be free to reject the love that is proffered. This seems to me necessarily true, if such a divine principle of love exists.

The drive to evil comes from somewhere – and I do think it is a drive. In the Kabbalah, mankind has both an innate tendency to good (yetzer hatov) and an innate tendency to evil (yetzer hara). Here the same logic applies, that humanity must be free to choose. But the tendencies are built into the way things are.

In Taoism, good follows from absolutely abjuring human will and following the spontaneous flow of Being: bad occurs only when humans strive against the tao. It is left unspoken, however, why humans alone, being themselves inevitably an expression of the tao like all other creatures, strive against the tao and exert an opposing will. But, though there is here no God as such, rather a creative force that grounds and orders the cosmos, this is not really different in its structure from the Christian mythos of evil – Milton’s Paradise Lost being perhaps the most psychologically sophisticated expression of it ever written, an account written after Milton had gone totally blind, and during the bloodiest civil war in England’s history: he probably understood his subject. His Satan was formerly Lucifer, the most beautiful of all angels, not an evil creation. What makes Satan evil is a disposition: pride, envy, resentment, anger and a delight in exercising power to assail the divine order. Satan seduces Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is said that the meaning of the Hebrew words translated as good and evil ‘mean precisely the useful and the useless, in other words, what is useful for survival and what is not’ – which happens to characterise the value structure of the left hemisphere (and of modern society): utility above all else. And, for us, utility has become the Good. It leads us onwards towards the abyss.

The Kabbalah is once again an invaluable resource. Luria held that the divine principle of the cosmos is both Ein-sof (that which is without end) and Ayin (absolute nothingness). He also held that creation is both an emanation and a contraction (tzimtzum); that Ein-sof is both the creator of the world and itself created and completed through the spiritual, ethical and ‘world-restoring’ acts of humanity (tikkun, repair); and, finally, that the Sefirot both are the originating elements of the cosmos and are only fully realised when the cosmos is displaced and shattered (shevirat ha-kelim, the breaking of the vessels). This is redemption: it is from the divine sparks within the shards of the vessels that this greater unity, this fulfilment of creation, this redemption, is achieved, so that ‘a world that is alienated from and then reunited with God is superior to one that had never been alienated or divided at all’: this return to the primal unity is all the more exalted for having passed through the dichotomies and multiplicities of a finite world; for such a restored unity is not simply a restoration of the original divine oneness, but is actually the completion and perfection of Ein-sof itself. According to the Kabbalists, it is incumbent upon humankind to recognize and even facilitate the distinctions within the finite world, while at the same time, through an appreciation of the coincidence of opposites, to comprehend the unity of all things.

Returning to the Iroquois myth with which I began Chapter 20, both brothers are sons of heaven. One, He Grasps the Sky With Both Hands, remembers his divine origins: the other, Flint, does not. He relies on language and tools to do as he wishes (‘I trust in the thing which my father gave me, a flint arrow, by which I have speech’). He Grasps the Sky With Both Hands can, on his own, create the panoply of life; Flint can create only monsters. His attempts to do so result in deformities, which his brother accepts and does his best to redeem. Flint’s creatures do not live, until He Grasps the Sky With Both Hands puts some of his own life force into them. Flint is proud, envious and delights in his own power; his brother realises that to constrain this power, he must keep his brother, who represents ‘evil in the form of … intentional forgetfulness of the higher identity’, close to him, so that as much good as possible can come from the work of both of them – but not too close, since Flint ultimately desires his brother’s destruction. There is, on the one hand, the real human being, made by He Grasps the Sky With Both Hands alone, perhaps like Adam and Eve before the fall, perhaps like the soul, in Cottingham’s phrase, pointing to ‘the better selves we are meant to be’; and, on the other, there is the hatchet maker, the bringer of strife – the human beings we are. He Grasps the Sky With Both Hands warns us that Flint’s anger has created a fire that ‘will burn eternally in that my brother even now desires to control all minds among human beings.’ We must struggle to avoid it. He Grasps the Sky With Both Hands will come to our aid – twice: but if a third time it comes to pass that you forget, then you will see what will come to pass. The things upon which you live will diminish so that finally nothing more will be able to grow … It will be my brother who will do all this, for he will be able to seduce the minds of all human beings and thus spoil all that I have completed. Now I leave the matter to you.

I have nothing to add.


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Updated on 2024 Apr 21.

DISCLAIMER: This is not professional advice. The ideas and opinions presented here are my own, not necessarily those of my employer.