Out of Our Minds

The other perspective

Iain McGilchrist - The Matter With Things

Reading Iain McGilchrist’s section on the Sacred in his book The Matter With Things has been an important lesson for me, and a sort of relief, because, although I wasn’t able to perform academically well enough to follow my inclinations, his account made it clear to me that I was onto something that has a deep cultural importance to our civilisation, and not just a boy with attention deficit. It has only been later in life that I was able to “catch up” as it were, via a series of diversions, taking the long way around, you might say.

The whole two volumes of The Matter With Things, as well as his numerous other books, have been a delight to read, connecting with my relatively short medical career in nursing with the humanities that had interested me at school, but due to two school changes was not able to pursue. His hypothesis about the hemispheres has definitely confirmed my own experience and provided an explanation that assists understanding the undulations of history, and the behaviour of human beings since the beginning of civilisation. It also aligned with the various symptoms of brain lesions, depending on their location, which I experienced in nursing, and which in his studies showed how each hemisphere works.

The point that came across in the aforementioned section on the Sacred is that in the present, as in various periods of history, humankind has habitually restricted its abilities to pay attention. Indeed, paying attention was another area in which I had delved when taking a course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which was another confirmation that the way we pay attention is indeed reliant upon our habits. I also learned to appreciate the source of this meditation, which comes from the Buddhist Vipassana meditation, but which is also practiced and taught by non-Buddhists, as in my case. Becoming aware of the endless monologue in our minds, learning to let it pass and instead attending to vigilance, gives a new perspective on life.

In my experience, religion is seldom connected with paying attention, and, as McGilchrist says of himself, conventional religion need not be the initial spark that awakens the awareness of the Other. He found it in music, in nature, and in poetry, which laid the foundation for finally finding how personalities in religion had discovered the Sacred in a similar way. Indeed, as an Oxford Don, he initially studied and taught the humanities, before moving on to become a psychiatrist. As can be imagined, this career has given him a broad perspective on our culture which I find curiously lacking elsewhere, but which has always been a point of interest for me.

Discovering that the hemispheres had varying focal points, which he demonstrated in the first video that brought my attention to him, he realised that every living creature with a brain needs to do two things concurrently, namely, to look for food and watch out that it doesn’t become food for another species. This means that we have the investigative focus and the wider vigilance, which is on the lookout. On further inquiry, it occurred to him that our general perception is also twofold, with a concentration on facts, and alternatively, an experience of an ambiguous but at times overwhelming encounter with what is often called a majestic natural world.

This is, quite obviously, the experience of our ancestors, not yet living in a cluttered environment, that is full of buildings, lights, sounds and media. The night sky was, according to what records people have left behind, seen with a great deal of accuracy, impossible for city dwellers to see. The natural environment, with its diversity of plants and animals, was full of life, and humankind’s struggle for existence was understood as a participation in a great drama. Our capacity for stepping back to enquire intensely, as well as that of introspection seems to have come at a later stage, perhaps when the immediacy of danger was overcome and the security of having physiological needs met was available.

The lack of attention is often criticised today, whether in schools, or in apprenticeships or university. We generally know many people who seem to live superficial lives, with no consideration of what they are doing, who drift through life as the “on automatic,” hardly participating. This may be down to the fact that we have prioritised the “spotlight vision,” which is definitely an aspect of our lives, but permanently focussing on detail is extremely tiring for some people, and they avoid it. If it had less of a stigma, and was less regarded as pointless, because it can’t be used in employment, such people might be interested in some area of humanities, but just as in my experience, when I began dancing about as a teenager, and even spoke about becoming a dancer, it raised eyebrows, it seems to be the experience of many.

Sir Ken Robinson, a British author, speaker and international advisor on education in the arts to government, non-profits, education and arts bodies, raised this issue in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, and later The Element: how finding your passion changes everything. John Cleese, the famous comedian of Monty Python, said of his books: "Ken Robinson writes brilliantly about the different ways in which creativity is undervalued and ignored in Western culture and especially in our educational systems.” These people have raised points that Iain McGilchrist has raised in his books coming from a different perspective, namely that our habitual neglect of right-hemispheric perceptions, robs us of our creative abilities.

It has implications in many aspects of life: The complications of decision making are often reduced to “either…or” alternatives, rather than developing a methodology that reacts to different circumstances. I experienced this when teaching my staff to plan care for our multimorbid patients. But other professions complain of the same restrictions in ability and seems to have to do with lack of imagination. Considering that we see that the entertainment industry is churning out remakes and numeric titles, indicating that the same story is being told with a slightly different twist, it may be no surprise. Equally, the deeming of classical literature as “problematic” or “disturbing” for students unwilling to encounter different philosophies and worldviews, and the rewriting of established literature deemed not politically correct, or not inclusive enough, is a sign of an inability to cope with examples of imagination unfamiliar to them.

In religion we see the literalist interpretation preferred by adherents and critics alike, and an inability to work with ambiguity, metaphor, allegory, and fable incorporated into a literature that is pointing to the ineffable – a concept that seems in itself impossible for a modern frame of mind. The assumption that language can describe every experience known to mankind suggests that first of all people fail to see the limitations of language, and secondly suggests that the experiences are limited in themselves, perhaps due to sheltered lives. My continual confrontation with death in nursing showed me how limited my experiences had been up until then.

Iain McGilchrist, not being a conventionally religious person and having no affiliation to a certain tradition, looks at the religiosity of humankind with a broad perspective, incorporating the shared aspects of religious experience of many traditions. He discovers how people like Meister Eckhard, the famous Christian mystic, describes the human mind in much the same way as he has discovered the workings of the brain. Such discoveries suggest that his enquiry has delved into areas that religious figures have discovered long before the scientific era.

This seems to illustrate the point quite well.


Here I am up early after a good night’s sleep after falling asleep before reading any of The Matter With Things. Yet I’d only arrived at the final chapter the night before. So this teaser is very welcome and I’m eager to finally see how all the work up to now will go to ground in the sacred. But I also have an interesting email to answer this morning before the day places other demands on my attention. After that I may take a hiatus from correspondence while I savor the end of a very interesting journey.

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I’m not sure this topic qualifies, especially since it promotes doubting the legitimacy of Christian beliefs and advancing a secular/panentheist perspective not really based on science. @moderators?

I think of panentheism as one of the ways to conceive of God.

Panentheism is also a feature of some Christian philosophical theologies and resonates strongly within the theological tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church .

Panentheism - Wikipedia.

I wonder if you can affirm what it says here in regard to the Eastern Orthodox Church,

Panentheism - Wikipedia.: Christianity:

This section needs additional citations for verification .

I doubt if it denies the existence of the supernatural, as do some panentheists.

I’ve always doubted the need for a word like supernatural. I would have said that just underestimates the scope of nature. Currently I’m thinking there is use for a word that precedes nature as we know it. Prenatural might be appropriate.

This is an argument typical of the left hemisphere, it is disconcerting that you don’t see that scripture is pointing beyond itself, to the ineffable, which is God, who is so very much different to our imaginations that amount to idolatry if you take them seriously.

The mystical tradition has often suffered oppression by people who couldn’t grasp the necessary ambiguity of the I AM, present within all living creatures, forming a sacred unity.

Christian beliefs are wrapped up metaphor and allegory, like all linguistic attempts to approach the ineffable. How else? Nobody can see God, feel him, and to engage with him, Jesus tells us to go in our chamber in secret. The realm of God is in your midst.

More reality: Factual evidence for Christians to rejoice in, remember and recount, and for true seekers to ponder

Christian beliefs are wrapped up in a person, and a specific set of events involving that person.

Are you familiar with the New Testament writings of John?

My understanding is that God sustains the creation (the energies of God) but He is distinct from the created - thus panentheism is not Orthodox doctrine. The doctrine of the energies has been debated and the major point is to distinguish a separation between the Creator (the essence of God), and the created. Orthodoxy also teaches we develop a relationship with God, and thus we talk of His presence and acting within us to become Crist-like.


Yes, I am familiar with the Gospel of John, are you?

The Gospel of John differs from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in several significant ways. These differences are both in terms of content and theological emphasis. The authorship of the Gospel of John is traditionally attributed to the apostle John, whereas the Synoptic Gospels are not directly associated with specific apostles. The Gospel of John is generally considered to be the latest of the four Gospels, likely written in the late first century, while the Synoptic Gospels are believed to have been written earlier.

The Gospel of John has a more profound theological and philosophical tone compared to the more straightforward narrative style of the Synoptic Gospels. John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus Christ more explicitly, often portraying Him as the eternal Word (Logos) who was with God from the beginning (John 1:1). The Gospel also includes unique stories and miracles not found in the Synoptic Gospels, such as the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44).

John’s Gospel contains extended discourses and dialogues attributed to Jesus, often exploring deeper theological concepts. Examples include the “I am” statements (e.g., “I am the way, the truth, and the life” - John 14:6) and the Farewell Discourse (John 14-17).

The Gospel of John arranges events and teachings differently from the Synoptics. For example, the timing of the crucifixion in John places it on a different day, and the Last Supper is not described as a Passover meal in John as it is in the Synoptics. He employs symbolism more extensively, such as referring to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) and using light and darkness as metaphors for spiritual truth and ignorance.

The Gospel of John uses a different vocabulary and style compared to the Synoptic Gospels. It contains unique Greek words and phrases and is known for its distinctive literary qualities.

John’s Gospel focuses more on events in and around Jerusalem, while the Synoptic Gospels cover a wider geographical area, including Galilee.

In summary, the Gospel of John stands out from the Synoptic Gospels due to its unique theological emphasis, distinctive content, and literary style. While all four Gospels convey the life and teachings of Jesus, they each have their own perspective and theological themes.

This is a scientist writing about the sacred, and quoting Christian mystics. It might not be your flavour of Christianity, but it is mine. The simplistic message that your evangelists have made out of the wisdom of Christ ignores the deeper consequences of his words, and the good news within. The realm of God is all about you, and to enter the covenant, follow Jesus.

There are biblical passages that some interpret in ways that align with panentheistic ideas, emphasizing God’s immanence within creation. Keep in mind that interpretations of these passages can vary, and not all theologians or denominations accept a panentheistic interpretation. Here are a few examples:

  1. Acts 17:28 (NIV): "For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’"This verse, spoken by the Apostle Paul in Athens, suggests a close connection between humanity and God, emphasizing our existence within God.
  2. Colossians 1:17 (NIV): "He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together."This verse can be interpreted to imply that God is not only the creator of all things but also actively sustains and holds all things together.
  3. Romans 8:38-39 (NIV): "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."This passage can be seen as emphasizing the inseparable connection between God’s love and all of creation.
  4. Ephesians 4:6 (NIV): "one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."This verse underscores the idea that God is not just “over” all but also “in” and “through” all, suggesting God’s pervasive presence.

These passages, among others, can be interpreted in ways that highlight God’s immanence and involvement with creation, aligning with panentheistic ideas. Of course, there are various theological traditions and scholars may offer alternative interpretations that emphasize other aspects of these verses. The interpretation of these passages can be influenced by one’s theological background and perspective, but to say they are not orthodox only means that it is not how your church reads them.

Panentheism is a belief that suggests that God is both transcendent (beyond the world) and immanent (present within the world). While panentheistic interpretations may find some resonance with certain biblical passages, I accept that there are also passages that appear to emphasize a more traditional, transcendent understanding of God.

As I understand it, panentheism posits god’s essence is found in and throughout the creation, perhaps negating the difference between the Creator and the creation. This has been rejected (I think) by all denominations that accept the Patristic teachings. Of course, we should not take this to means that God is far away (Deity); the doctrine that I am somewhat familiar with, and attributed to Palamas, talks of God’s energies and dynamics, interpreted from the Greek (the epistles provide many examples) that may be also understood as acts, or working, within us. Deification is also included in this doctrine; it may be that some use the term ‘panentheistic’ in this sense. However, the sense that I understand this removes the distinction between God and the creation, although still accepting that God is greater and perhaps transcends.

Your statement contains a mix of accurate and somewhat inaccurate descriptions of panentheism and related theological concepts.

Panentheism is a theological belief that suggests that God is both immanent (present in and throughout creation) and transcendent (beyond and greater than creation). It doesn’t necessarily negate the difference between the Creator and creation but emphasizes the divine presence within the created world.

This is not entirely accurate. Panentheistic ideas have been present in some Christian mystical traditions, and they have not been universally rejected by all Christian denominations. It’s true that some denominations may have reservations about panentheism, but it’s not accurate to say that it has been rejected by all denominations that accept Patristic teachings.

You seem to be referring to the teachings of Gregory Palamas, a 14th-century Eastern Orthodox Christian theologian. Palamas’s teachings are often associated with the distinction between God’s essence and energies. These teachings emphasize the idea that while God’s essence is transcendent and unknowable, His energies are immanent and can be experienced by humans. This concept is not panentheism, but it does emphasize a mystical understanding of God’s presence and activity within creation.

Deification, often referred to as “theosis” in Eastern Orthodox theology, is indeed a concept closely associated with Palamas’s teachings. Theosis involves the idea that humans can participate in the divine nature and become one with God’s energies while maintaining a distinction from God’s essence. However, this is not the same as panentheism, which posits a different relationship between God and creation.

This part reflects a common misunderstanding of panentheism. Panentheism does not necessarily remove the distinction between God and creation; rather, it suggests that God is both immanent in creation and transcendent beyond it. It maintains a distinction between the two while emphasizing their interconnectedness.

So, while your statement provides some accurate descriptions of theological concepts like panentheism, theosis, and Palamite teachings, there are some inaccuracies and misconceptions, particularly in the way these concepts are linked or characterized. The relationship between God and creation is a complex theological topic with variations in interpretation among different Christian traditions.

This was a helpful 10 minute video on panentheism. It makes a good case for weak panentheism :grin: and somewhere in the middle between weak dualism and weak panentheism, the two shall meet. The last part was my personal takeaway in seeing the diagrams… Seriously a good video and Palamas was mentioned numerous times.

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Just curious…but did you write this alone, or with a little assistance from A.I.?

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I can confirm that Rob Brewer writes just like this in our correspondence, drawing from many sources and erring on side of verbosity rather than being vague to avoid being overly thorough. He was the friend who shared the excerpt I quoted in Pithy Quotes here: Pithy quotes from our current reading which give us pause to reflect - #2104 by MarkD

Thank you for the feedback.

As a non Christian not steeped in scripture I have nonetheless become more comfortable with the idea of God conceived of in the panentheist way. As I see things now, I think if you ask how did existence come to be I’m pretty sure science will never have an answer beyond “prior causes all the way down”. That is still true but glib and merely skirts the question: why is there anything at all if a materialist account of the universe is completely adequate? Under panentheism I believe there are and have always been energies and dynamics akin to consciousness at work that can be characterized as mental, psychic or divine. We may never have a unified field theory which sorts it all out but in my naive perspective I think that to make sense of the many ways God is conceived of it may help to think of God as separate from creation in being the source of its becoming. But God never merely exists, never assumes the identity of just another of the 10,000 things which the One brings into existence. Every thing comes from the One, but the One is not a thing. So it is partially true to say God does not exist so long as you understand that that doesn’t mean He is unimportant. Rather God is more compellingly important for anyone wishing to understand who we are and what is our place in the world. But we must accept that we will never know God as a set of discreet facts or by way of any schema; that would be beyond our powers.

@Rob_Brewer if you see it differently from this can you point to where you think I’ve gone off the rails?

Ah…thanks! Other people’s writing skills certainly put my own to shame :wink:

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