N.T. Wright’s theology fits with McGilchrist’s analysis of brain functioning

N.T. Wright is a remarkably insightful man and his theology is like a breath of fresh air. His ability to see past apparent contradictions is especially laudable. There is an excellent discussion going on now on his Gifford Lectures which I strongly recommend.

Listening to the first one sent me searching to see if he has ever cited Iain McGilchrist or held a public discussion with him. Alas not that I could discover. However I did find this very interesting article by someone aware of both their work which I am finding interesting as some of you would no doubt expect. With the other thread in high gear I will simply park this here and make no great effort elicit discussion until the other thread’s discussion concludes, which I will continue to follow.

As far as I am aware, Wright’s most detailed discussion of right and left brain thinking is found in his inaugural lecture at St Mary’s College in St Andrews: ‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’. Here is an extended quotation:

One final element of our modern world which has militated against imagining the kingdom in our reading of the gospels, and much else besides, is the triumph of left-brain thinking over right-brain thinking.… [T]he apparently left-brain activities of analysing, calculating and organising have steadily taken charge of our world, squeezing out the apparently right-brain activities of imagination, story-telling, and intuitive thinking, I find it uncannily accurate as a description of our world in general and of biblical scholarship in particular.…

McGilchrist does not refer to the world of biblical scholarship, but the following paragraph jumped out at me as a pretty accurate summary of how the discipline has often gone:

‘We could expect’ (he writes) ‘that there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focussed, restricted, but detailed, view of the world, making it perhaps difficult to maintain a coherent overview . . . This in turn would promote the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience . . . One would expect the left hemisphere to keep doing refining experiments on detail, at which it is exceedingly proficient, but to be correspondingly blind to what is not clear or certain, or cannot be brought into focus right in the middle of the visual field. In fact one would expect a sort of dismissive attitude to anything outside of its limited focus, because the right hemisphere’s take on the whole picture would simply not be available to it.’ (428f.)

…All too often the microscopic analysis of details, vital though it is in its place, has been made to seem an end in itself. ‘Objective facts’ are all the rage, and whether you’re a left-wing hunter of objectivity, determined to disprove the gospels, or a right-wing hunter of objectivity, determined to show that they are after all ‘factual’, you may still be missing the point and losing the plot. Facts are left-brain business; vital in their place, but only part of the whole…. Only when the detailed left-brain analysis can be relocated as the emissary to the right-wing intuition, with its rich world of metaphor, narrative and above all imagination, can the discipline become healthy again.

Wright revisits this theme in Chapter 15 of his immense Paul and the Faithfulness of God, claiming that right-brain thinking has been resurgent in recent years in New Testament theology, especially through the work of Richard Hays. He contends that such right-brain thinking is more alert to the narrative big picture, more attuned to ‘echoes’ within the text, and less inclined to the ‘proof-texting’ readings that are most clearly exemplified by such documents as the Westminster Confession of Faith.


It seems to me too that Wright may very much be in his ‘right’ mind!

Thanks for sharing this. It does seem to fit so well what we see … my left brain tells me!


Your left brain is surely a faithful servant. So all is well.

  • Don’t get your hopes up too high.

I wouldn’t wish Wright to be agnostic, pantheistic or anything but what works for him.

I’m not saddled with the fear anyone I can’t convert is damned. My form of universalism is about many roads leading to God, with none being mindlessly guaranteed by speaking the special words or hopelessly ruled out no matter their beliefs or the life they lead. I just say good luck to everyone wish them well on their road.

Oops. Double post.

  • I’m not here to argue, just to caution you: Don’t get your hopes up too high.
  • Archbishop Ramsey Hits ‘God Is Dead’
    • “…the call of Christian belief is not just that Jesus is Divine and we worship Him; it is also that God is Christ-like.”
    • Or, as N.T. Wright said: “You can’t go back behind Jesus’ back and say: “Let’s find out who God really is, with Jesus as a sort of footnote now. It’s got to be .–(as Archbishop Michael Ramsey said)–God is Christ-like and in Him is no un-Christ-likeness at all. Amen!”

Actually it becomes clear toward the end of the article that the author doesn’t understand the subtleties of brain lateralization and the ways each is characterized. He feels compelled to warn against oversimplification when only those who haven’t read carefully enough would be tempted. Of course neither side is a homunculi or half a person. It is just that we have separation for the sake of creating two centers of attention, each specialized toward either global understanding of a gestalt nature of life as it presences for us and the other geared toward narrowly focussing on the details of that life in a represented manner offline from new experience. But none of this can be simply summarized without distortion because the dominant culture is so skewed toward seeing the world in the latter manner. Intuition and imagination are key for building the big picture but are distrusted when we focus in a tightly analytic manner.

I like the idea that “God is Christ-like,” but does that mean that the OT God was a different God?

There are many stories in which he is very much un-Christ-like.

Having read the original article from 2014, 7 years before the Matter with Things, the author may be forgiven for not knowing the broader wealth of what Iain MacGilchrist’s intention was, but reading on, I did get the impression that this was some academic dispute that missed the point that NT Wright was making. He also quoted an article from the Guardian from 2014 that completely misses the point - as newspaper articles often do.

Whenever we speak to people about the RH and LH problematic, it is too quickly brushed aside, which I think is down to the fact that critics suspect that they are themselves caught up in a LH restriction, and lack the broader perspective. I was always fascinated that people who didn’t like my literary cricism seemed oblivious to the empowerment that texts gave me, despite my obvious enthusiasm. It was just the fact that I saw many OT stories as mythological or legendary that made them critical. I once held a sermon on Elijah facing God on the mountain that some said was so powerful, and although I am quite certain that the story is mythological, the dramaturgical effect pushes home the whisper at the end in a way that is quite amazing.

1 Like

Avoiding the Marcionite error (thinking the OT God an entirely different one), I tend to think instead of a progressive revelation in which what writers attribute to God gets more and more to work from (in terms of available revelation, and also just in terms of possible receptivity of that set of cultures from that period of history) as prophets of old - and then ultimately Christ - keep working on the people’s impression of just who God is. It isn’t that God changed. But we did. A psalmist today is not as likely to praise God for destroying all the Psalmist’s enemies. Not after what Christ revealed to us. But Psalmists back then did, and for them it was an expression of praise - their acknowledgement that even their standings among their enemies was in God’s hands, and they didn’t hesitate to let God know what they wanted - and God accepted it as such. While a psalmist back then may rejoice to see his enemy’s infants dashed to pieces against the rocks, hopefully most Christians today would be apalled to pray that way now, given what Christ has shown us that the Psalmist could not yet see. We may sometimes want such things - and maybe our honest prayers to God are often dark like that; but we now (rightly) sense that we shouldn’t keep wanting that, and our higher Christ-fed spirit strives to not leave us in those places as we pray it out.

[And it isn’t that we today are ‘brighter bulbs’ than all those ‘primitives’ back then. The OT gives bright glimpses of highest moral caliber that anticipates Christ, and we today have our correspondingly darker examples when we lapse back into vengeful ‘gonna drive them all into the sea’ attitudes that don’t even live up to Moses, much less Christ. The only difference, I would say, is that, given Christ, we now have much less excuse than they did. “I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom! …” So in too many ways and times, we probably look worse today than our predecessors did morally.]


In some things I can accept that, but what about this:
“When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.”

I of course think there is room for God to change too. Perhaps it is reciprocal with God changing by virtue of experiencing our reactions and our changing by virtue of the possibilities which God’s changes open up for us?

If God is the relational being we are told He is and if he has the capacity to grow through the interaction, why wouldn’t He want to? To think of Him as a finished perfect intelligence un phased by anything and incapable of being surprised makes Him seem more like some mega AI.

You’ve heard Pete Enns referred to around here a lot. But I don’t keep track of who all has heard of him or listened to his stuff. Have you? I find his answers to stuff like that to be pretty plausible.

In a nutshell - (and I don’t put this forward as representing how Enns would answer this - I’m just shooting from the hip here, having been exposed to Enns’ stuff) - we tell tales (and co-opt true stories) and moralize all the time. “See all that bad stuff that happened to that guy because he refused to wear his seatbelt? Buckle up so that the same thing doesn’t happen to you!” Grimm’s fairy tales gave the most gruesome sorts of examples of what might happen to wayward kids. Put the same sorts of concerns into an overtly religious culture that isn’t afraid to attribute absolutely everything to God - and stories like this are expected. Did God kill 42 kids? Well - the author isn’t afraid to let us think so. And 42 kids would be the tip of the ice-berg since, if I’m not mistaken, the death toll for everyone from 3000 years ago is now 100%.

1 Like

Well, yes, I suppose getting mauled by a bear isn’t any worse than dying in your bed of old age, or of an illness. How silly of me!

1 Like

Yeah - I don’t think dying of old age was a common thing back then. It’s also hard to imagine a bear mauling 42 lively kids. Maybe they patiently waited in line. Strange things do happen, but something tells me that probably didn’t happen as some might imagine - details being a bit sparse and all. Or then again, maybe its just us failing to recognize what’s going on in the literature. That’s often a possibility too.

As I have just written to Mark, “I tend to look at the point of telling a story rather than assume that all of the words carry literal truth, especially with parables. It has to do with my conviction that we have a literary exercise before us when we read the Bible - or a finger pointing to the moon - and we can dispute our understanding of the finger or look where it is pointing.”

This was my point in commenting on what Mitchell had written in the universalism thread.

1 Like

Rob, reading the comments to this point, it’s interesting that the comments compare God to Christ, but not Christ to God. Hmm. When almost every apologist, or anti-apologist (atheist), Christian evolutionist or YECer, reads scripture, their comments seem infused with 20th and 21st century impact (advancements in science, empirical evidence, left vs right brain (?)) rather than the context, intent of the author, and target audience.

All that to state that, if we read the scripture more carefully, we may get a glimpse of God as purely love, of God’s plans and purposes (John Walton), and of his continuous return to several aspects of covenant with the OT Israelites. Even in the book of Judges, in the midst of the Israelite’s rebellion and apostasy, God is credited with “raising up” leaders and helping the Israelites overcome their invaders.

If I’m to believe, I believe God is God, and God is love.

You may be surprised, but I agree with you. However, it is understandable that we are children of our age and culture, and the Bible in our hands is from thousands of years ago, translated from a different language and culture. We struggle to feel what people back then felt or believed or understand their intentions and can only read the stories as we would read literature and immerse ourselves into the stories as they present themselves in our language.

Being presented with the figure of Christ in the tragedy of Mark, in the criticism of Matthew, in the context of Luke, and as the cosmic figure of John, hearing the words attributed to him, and being touched by the self-emptying figure in Paul’s letters, the words, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise,” come alive. The retributive God of the OT contrasts vividly, and we fail to see the broken and contrite heart of God.

If God is love, then he feels, and the literary portrayal of a retributive God is all too human. The anthropomorphic portrayal seems to intend to show the excruciating suffering that God feels in his disappointment with humanity, but more so with his chosen people, his estranged children, and his deceitful wife, and is a projection aimed at the hearts of a defeated nation. The pathos seems to go over the heads of modern readers, but it kept the idea of a remnant, a glimmering wick, a single flame in the night, alive in his people. The NT interprets the kindling glimmer as the flame that shone in Christ but spread like wildfire when all hope seemed lost.

Only if we are receptive to this pathos and allow it to kindle in our hearts, allow the child to be born in us, follow the grown man to Golgotha, and rise with him at easter, can we read the OT and see the light in the shadows. It is the faith of mystics and is no mean task for a generation addicted to trivial stories, which raise their spirits with superficial pleasures and are far removed from such drama. We let the lights burn bright to dispel the shadows, and we fear the night. I must acknowledge that it is a hope projected into a dim and uncertain future that sadly only seems to gain actuality when it grows dark.

@dale, please do not invoke my name in something I have no part in. I have no interest in your disagreement with Rob or anyone else.