Propositional truth is not the whole truth.

In his later years, long after he had achieved his scientific feats, Charles Darwin wrote an autobiography for the edification of his children. In it, he reveals a good deal about the formation and operation of his intellect. The following passage sounds perhaps the single note of regret about his past:

“I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds … gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare.… I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music.… I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”

If Darwin were alive today, brain psychologists could assure him that his diagnosis of his case was surprisingly accurate. A part of his brain had indeed atrophied by lack of use, and he was, quite literally, mentally unbalanced because of it. The human cerebrum, the largest part of the human brain, is composed of two equal hemispheres, each capable of operating so independently of the other as to give new meaning to the old expression “being of two minds” about a matter.

Of Two Minds

Human beings are indeed creatures of two minds, the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. And it was the right hemisphere of his brain that Darwin had allowed to atrophy. We have his own testimony that as a child the right brain operated quite efficiently. But between his younger years and his mature reflection, something terrible happened. Half his brain, half his being, had died.

Darwin’s was not a rare case. The atrophy of the right hemisphere of the brain is in fact pandemic in Western civilization. The malaise was well established by the eighteenth century, and its roots reach back at least as far as the sixteenth. And it affected not only scientists, but theologians as well; not just Darwin, but also the divines of his and previous generations.

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What is this strange malady we are just now learning to describe as something more than a vague dissatisfaction and feeling of dis-ease? First of all, it afflicts, as we have said, the right hemisphere of the brain, that portion of the mind that understands the data fed to it by the senses comprehensively instead of analytically. The left side of the brain, on the other hand, understands in just the opposite mode. The two hemispheres do not work on different material. They both perceive the same world. But their modes of perceiving are different. The left brain breaks pictures up into component parts and understands by analysis. It categorizes, pigeonholes, and files away information under headings. It abstracts information from the flood of stimuli assaulting our senses at each moment. For its more efficient operation, it gives generic names to things—book, tree, car—so that each sensory stimulus coming into the brain can be filed away quickly and efficiently. Words and other kinds of symbols are its primary mode of operation. It dismisses details as soon as it has enough sensory information to sort stimuli into their proper categories. It likes to work quickly. Speed is its fundamental virtue.

Now the right side of the brain, on the other hand, has no abstractions to work with. It is in immediate contact with the senses. It is interested in whatever it sees or hears for the sake of the thing itself and not for what it stands for. To the right side of the brain, each tree is a unique experience, and unrepeatable. Reducing experience to abstractions is not its business. Stuffing trees into categories makes, literally, no sense to it—which is why it doesn’t use words as abstractions. Each individual tree would have to be designated by a different word, one that could apply only to it, so that words—as symbols—would be useless. It likes to observe things as they are, in their wholeness and totality, and therefore loves to linger over details. It works slowly; it likes to mull things over. Whereas the left hemisphere separates the world, breaks it down into parts and analyzes it in order to understand, the right hemisphere yearns to put it all together, to unify, to make meaning by making connections.

The right hemisphere, for example, takes the individual notes of music and understands them to be a complete thing, a melody. Without the right brain we wouldn’t be able to “hear” music as music at all. It takes the individual words of poetry and translates them back into images and visions. If is the lack of this ability that Darwin felt so acutely. The atrophy of the right side of his brain had progressed to the point where the effort to listen to music or to read Shakespeare was so intolerable it actually made him sick to his stomach.

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How Faith Is Harmed

Now lamentable as this may be on a personal level, the implications for the culture Darwin represents are even more disastrous. It seems too bad that the aesthetic sensibilities of scientists should be shriveled, but what has that to do with what we think of as the more serious aspects of life? Isn’t the impact of godless science on people’s faith what we really ought to be concerned about? Aren’t the moral and religious crises brought on by a transference of a faith in God to a faith in science of more consequence than whether or not the right side of Darwin’s brain was functioned well enough for him to read poetry?

Once again, it is just such compartmentalizing of life into the arbitrary categories of morality, science, religion, and art that is the base of the problem. But we have not learned such in Christ. Either all of life has the potentiality for being sanctified or none of it does. Either all things hold together in Christ, or nothing does. All properly human enterprises—morals, science, religion, and art—must spring from one entire, integrated vision of reality.

Let me quote now, but from an artist, Marc Chagall: “An exceptionally sharp eye might see that a genuine color or texture automatically comprises … a moral and philosophical content. Any moral crisis is a crisis of color, texture, blood, and the elements, of speech, vibration, et cetera—the materials with which art, like life, is constructed.”

Chagall, a right-minded person, understands that morality, until it is incarnated, until it is actually lived out by flesh and blood in this world of time and change, is nothing more than abstract principles. And abstract principles only have the most tenuous kind of existence. They are thoughts, and as such, only exist while they are consciously present in the mind. There is no thought apart from a thinker. Just because we can give a certain kind of cerebral activity a name and call it “thought” does not mean that it then has a life of its own and continues to exist disconnected from ourselves. Human thoughts do not have a nonphysical existence. It is only a trick of the mind that deceives us into thinking that abstractions have a life independent of the mind that does the abstracting.

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The Incarnation Of Morality

Morality, then, like art and science, can never be a disembodied concept. It must always be somehow incarnated. That is the only reality in the world of time. As C. S. Lewis has said, there may be some realm of pure intelligences where knowledge comes without mediation of matter. But that is not the realm proper to human beings. Therefore, any moral crisis is indeed a crisis of color, texture, taste, scent, vibrations—all those sensory ways by which we know the world. Morality is as much a matter of right-brained understanding as it is left-brained, despite the fact that we have almost totally relegated it to the province of analysis and pigeonholes.

Now this dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain over Western culture reaches back at least as far as the sixteenth century and the beginnings of what we call “modern science.” Indeed, before that century there was nothing that could properly be called science at all, using the word in the way we do today. It was in that century of Copernicus, Galileo, and Bacon that the mechanical operation of the mind began what Darwin describes as “grinding general laws out of large collections of fact”—in other words, the inductive, analytical method to which modern science owes its existence.

Cultures do not change in one area without corresponding alterations occurring in other areas. If science was reconceptualized in the sixteenth century, so were politics, art, and religion. All Western civilization, so far as it was able, moved into the left hemisphere of its collective brain.

How do we see this manifested in particular in the history of our religion? One very simple illustration shows the way in which any visual element became immediately suspect in the Reformation. The Gothic churches, with their sculpture, glass, paintings, and textiles were veritable sensory encyclopedias of theology, history, botany and zoology, education, morality, and even the trades and crafts, were rejected and even vandalized. These storehouses of the previous age’s wisdom had made the unmistakable statement that all of life was essentially religious. But the new Protestant churches prided themselves on the austerity of their surroundings and on the deprivation, not the stimulation, of the senses. All visual elements, so far as was possible, were removed from the context of worship. Sacraments were demoted. The Word, in a greatly reduced sense—certainly not the sense of John’s prologue where it became flesh and blood and dwelt among us—became central. Religion began to drown in a sea of abstractions and to starve for images. The left side of the brain grew fat and tyrannous while the right side shriveled and atrophied, and has ever since been left for dead.

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After Iconoclasm

Nor will it be revivified overnight. We may have gotten over the first flush of iconoclastic fervor. We may now build crystal cathedrals and finance passion plays. But we are still paying the price for denying half of ourselves to the Lord. The creativity of the Christian church today is practically nil. The architecture of our churches must borrow from designs of savings and loan buildings. Contemporary musical compositions are for the most part rehashes of popular tunes, themselves not exactly fresh or inspiring. In painting, there have been many experiments both in realism and symbolism, but none has yielded any discernible tradition. The best we can come up with is a decal for the back window of the car.

But these examples are the ones most easily seen. Let us look further at what Darwin and the divines have in common. Consider how enslaved we still are to left-brained understandings, how the church itself is seen as a “machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” We still see our religion in terms of principles, not in Chagall’s color and texture, which are considered at best extraneous, an afterthought or decoration for a principle, and at worst, suspect for their sensuality. Out of the very Incarnation itself we extract with our theological tweezers what we discern as principles.

Words are the only things we trust—and the more abstract the better: words in confessions; words in catechisms; words in debate. Not words in poetry certainly, which in any case we are scarcely able to create anymore anyway; not words in drama or story. While Darwin might not have agreed with the Westminster Confession, for example, it wouldn’t have made him sick to his stomach to read it, for it was his kind of language. It deals with logical propositions in a rational, analytic way, in the same mode of mind that he used for his Origin of Species.

But if we would love God with all our mind, we cannot be half-witted about it. If I stop at syllogisms about God, then I am only half-a-mind to love him. When we bring ourselves before the one who made us, we had better bring everything, including the right side of our brain.

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Propositions Plus

Our understanding of truth is not just propositional. The entire truth of my, or anyone else’s, life cannot be reduced to a syllogism. It cannot be contained within four, or any other number, of spiritual laws. We must acknowledge that each life is particular and unrepeatable in history, in the same way the right brain perceives each tree to be only itself. Propositions and principles do not take into account the colors and textures, the vibrations and smells of which our world is made. Truth mediated through matter must somewhere enter into our understanding, worship, and praise of God. We cannot be content with only a truth abstracted from matter and cast into principles, no matter how lofty. To do less is to fail in our destiny.

Here is one more quotation, this time from Dorothy Sayers. She said that “faith is imagination actualized by the will.” Over the past few centuries we have tended to emphasize the will in this formula for faith and neglected the imagination. “Without a vision the people perish,” said the prophet. It is no good developing the will if there is no vision to actualize. The cultivation of the imagination, the right-brained activity of imaging, should be the concern of Christ’s people just as much as the controversy over confessional statements. Otherwise we are all headed, whatever our degree of orthodoxy, for Darwinism, that crippling atrophy of our other self.

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