The Revenge of the Right Brain

Back when I was first was getting into the emergent church conversation, I was trying to tell my spouse and colleagues what was involved. Of course, the modernity/postmodernity dichotomy was an easy explanation, but it doesnt’ fully capture what we have been talking about “It seems to me,” I went on, “that modernity was the triumph of the left brain, and in postmodernity we are emphasizing the right brain more.’

I was interested to see then the story in this month’s Wired titled “The Revenge of the Right Brain.” In this article, Daniel H. Pink suggests that the world has changed (funny, I think I’ve heard that before!).

He writes:

But a funny thing happened while we were pressing our noses to the grindstone: The world changed. The future no longer belongs to people who can reason with computer-like logic, speed, and precision. It belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind. Today – amid the uncertainties of an economy that has gone from boom to bust to blah – there’s a metaphor that explains what’s going on. And it’s right inside our heads.

Until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and deployed by CPAs. Today, those capabilities are still necessary. But they’re no longer sufficient. In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere – artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent.

Beneath the nervous clatter of our half-completed decade stirs a slow but seismic shift. The Information Age we all prepared for is ending. Rising in its place is what I call the Conceptual Age, an era in which mastery of abilities that we’ve often overlooked and undervalued marks the fault line between who gets ahead and who falls behind.

He then goes on to suggest three primary reasons for this move to revaluing right brained skills in the U.S. First, the type of work that required logical precision, mathametical accuracy, etc. is being outsourced, where it can be done more efficiently and cheaper. In a sense, the emphasis on efficiency and logic of the left brain has led us to find the most efficient means of getting these tasks done with little concern for larger communal philosophies and realities. Second, automation has transformed the world in such a way that repetitive tasks are increasingly done by technology. Rather than having specialists who put widgets together, what is needed in the new economy are those who can see the big picture and dream of the new widgets of the future. Finally, and I think this is the most interesting thing of all for our conversation, he suggests that our success and abundance have led to a “prosperity which in turn places a premium on less rational sensibilities — beauty, sprituality, emotion.” His ultimate thesis is to suggest that our educational frameworks which place emphasis on the development of specific tasks are not suited for this world. Rather, we need to be developing our “high concept” thinking.

Now, as one who more often than not is spitting out an idea a minute from the right side of the brain, it’s hard not to gloat. Yet, as many before me have suggested, the compentencies valued by the American church of modernity (I can’t speak to the worldwide church) were and are competencies of the left brain. They lift up efficiency and analysis, reducing the Holy to divine principles to be plugged into a system so as to be consumed. There is no doubt that these compentencies can process a huge mass of folks through the machinery of church. From the time of Charles Grandison Finney, who suggested that revival could be systematized (leading to such innovations as the altar call) the church has been involved in the commodification of the gospel, presenting God and Jesus as another product glowing on the screen of life. This arises from a belief that the values of the left brain are more significant than those of the right, that logic and science are superior to art and beauty.

What we discovered along the way was the limits of the left brain. Certainly the left brain compentencies make our factories more efficient and productive, but they also ignore such values as honor, honesty, relationship, trust, reducing humans to nothing more than resources to be used up and tossed aside. The left brain allows us to develop systems which connect large groups of persons together in large worship events, but they rarely value “wasted time,” beauty, song, and play.

However, as a right brainer, there are limits to our forms of thinking as well. We are rarely logical, more focused on nebulous feelings than demonstratable facts. We may see “the big picture,” but we often struggle with translating this vision into a process to actually achieve our goals. Frankly, we can be flakey, unpredictable, and not always dependable.

Perhaps those of us who claim faith in God should focus neither on left nor right brain compentencies, but seek after integration of both sides of the brain. This will include not only the left/right distinctions, but also the upper/lower distinctions which describe one’s ability to process information. In example, those of us who border on ADD (Dougie, you know who you are) who are processing lots of ideas in real time may not only need to engage in discipline as a means of engaging the left brain, we may also need to experience contemplative practices as a means of appreciating the slower process of listening to the divine. The goal should be an integrated whole, what we used to call self actualization, and may be called “balance.”

What we can’t forget is the ability to even have this conversation is a function of privilege. We have the luxury of having options, of being able to imagine using both sides of the brain. Many throughout the world don’t have that option in their attempts to eke out an existence. Our goal of being wholistic in thought must alway be in the service of the disinherited, who don’t have the opportunities available to us.

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