Bishop's letter: Giving a voice to wonder

First published 28th July 2012

This month Bishop Lee reflects on the significance of awe and wonder in our relationship with God and resisting being conformed by left brain ways of attending to the world.

I am gradually working my way through what many regard as a seminal book entitled The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. Its subtitle is The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World and at its heart is the contention that we are increasingly dominated by left hemisphere ways of paying attention to the world.

People talk of creativity as right brain and analysis as left brain. McGilchrist makes clear that this is inaccurate and inadequate but he does draw attention to the difference.

The hemispheres may be able to do similar things but there is a fundamental distinction in how they pay attention to the world. Put crudely, the right brain takes in the whole whereas the left brain categorises and compartmentalises. The left hemisphere is well placed for mechanistic tasks and systems, but it is the right that handles paradox and reading emotions. The right lacks the capacity for speech.

McGilchrist argues persuasively that though both hemispheres are critical the right is properly the dominant partner in promoting a holistic relationship to the world. A key philosophical problem for McGilchrist is that the left hemisphere has increasingly been shaping our view of the world and is a cornerstone of Western industrialised societies. The hemisphere which is best placed to serve (the Emissary) has usurped its role and become the Master with a host of destructive consequences.

Inevitably our culture informs, influences and potentially infects our ways of being Church and what we value and prioritise. That is an incarnational reality and we must be alert to where it is conforming us to the pattern of this world, distorting or limiting our expressions of the gospel and discipleship.

A sense of wonder and awe is one of the classical sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. Preparing for a sermon I discovered that the set reading of the day was from Ezekiel. You may know Ezekiel was a man who had some bizarre visions and prophecies. This particular passage was virtually impossible to imagine or get my head around. Yet as I reflected on this it seemed to be the point. Ezekiel's vision was not primarily meant to be analysed and comprehended, instead it was to be received in wonder and awe. Ezekiel reminds us that though God has made himself known he is yet above and beyond us, reducing us to silence and astonishment.

In a recent conversation I was told how a visitor to church was converted during the sermon. After the service the visitor approached the preacher and described what had happened. As the minister was preaching about the Kingdom of God being close, the visitor went into a kind of trance, seeing a beautiful land, bathed in bright light. The visitor felt they were invited to step into this Kingdom but it seemed to invade them, leaving them feeling cleansed from top to bottom. When the preacher was asked what this meant they could only say, I think you have just become a Christian! It took quite an act of will from the minister to resist going through a more conventional approach to check the visitor really was converted.

The apostle Paul wrote that where the Spirit of God is there is freedom, echoing Jesus description of the Spirit blowing wherever he wills. Wonder and awe are to be intrinsic to what we expect and nurture, in our worship and in our discipleship. If our society is increasingly being shaped by one way of paying attention to the world let us ensure we do not lose a holistic approach. This will be both integrated and truly human, properly analytical yet open to the mystery and wonder of the Divine.

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