Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Baptism of Christ 2023
We, the Church, have been entrusted with a message to rebalance our brains, and save our souls.
The Reverend Mark Birch Precentor
Sunday, 8th January 2023 at 11.15 AM
Before Christmas we were treated to yet another raft of statistics that told us what we already know—that religion in this country, most especially allegiance to the Church of England, continues on its inexorable decline. Fewer than 50% of people in this country would now describe themselves as Christian. Secularists crow, and Bishops sit a little less comfortably on the green benches.
Those committed to the Church up and down the land continue to throw everything they have at the problem. Rip out the choir stalls and put in a Band. Come on a course and change your life. Make it Messy and they will come. The effort is huge and sincere, and might help stem the tide a bit. But there are bigger forces at work here.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ—we heard the account:
When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
What option does a modern, educated, western mind have, when faced with something like this?
We know about ‘epiphanies’—moments of revelation and insight—we can get those on mountains, perhaps when skiing; or on a mindfulness retreat. Jesus was clearly having one of those epiphanic moments.
But the claim here is bigger—he’s not just having an epiphany, he is the epiphany—this is my Son, the beloved; the Son of God revealed by the voice of the Father, and the descent of the Spirit. In technical terms, this is a theophany; a revealing of Jesus as the Christ, and God as Trinity—it is a supreme moment of revelation.
Now this feels like the kind of truth-claim against which a liberal education, the methods of science, and an enlightened world-view should thoroughly immunise us—should set our sceptic antibodies racing to our defence. Moments of psychological break-through are all very well, but the mythic language puts this firmly in the category of subjective experience—‘It is whatever it means to you, Jesus. That’s what really matters’. This can add nothing to an objective, rational, scientific understanding of the world—it just gets slotted alongside all the other ‘irrational’ religious stuff that goes on—a bit of cultural colour, beauty even, but nothing more.
Now some, poor benighted souls, (you and me) might persist in this religious stuff, in the way that some children hang on to the promise of Santa Claus, but the direction of travel is clear, and no amount of fresh expression can mask the underlying decay.
And the decay is not really the Church’s fault; rather the decay of the Church is a symptom of something much deeper, and more worrying, if scientists and commentators like Iain McGilchrist are to be believed (and if I have understood him rightly).
Dr McGilchrist’s work, as some of you will know, is wide-ranging and sophisticated—I have to confess that I have only picked it up through podcasts, and some carefully-selected chunks from his vast and daunting published works. As a doctor, psychiatrist and philosopher, ranging across fields of neuroscience, epistemology and metaphysics, he is the foremost exponent of the ‘divided-brain hypothesis’—which, at the risk of being rather bold, diagnoses the decay to which I have been alluding.
To explain the theory in brief—with apologies to those who have a more sophisticated understanding - anatomically, the human brain comes in two halves, with only a very narrow band of connection between them. Functionally, the left half of the brain is concerned with how the world may be broken down and manipulated; the right half of the brain is concerned with the bigger picture, the whole picture, and how everything fits together. The left half pulls everything apart into tiny details; the right half connects everything together. McGilchrist’s diagnosis (put very crudely) is that the western human mind has systematically favoured the left half of the brain—the part that breaks apart and manipulates; that analyses and uses whatever it finds. The triumphs of western science owe much to this favouring of the left brain, but so does the systematic destruction of the ecosystem (from over-fishing to the over-use of fossil fuels, and resulting climate change). The left brain is not good at seeing the bigger picture, the consequences of its clever but rapacious manipulation of the world; an appreciation of which might keep it in check; might be important for our survival.
Alongside this favouring of the left half of the brain is the systematic lack of attention or importance given to the right half. This, it will not surprise you to learn, is the place where thoughts of God might emerge—the idea of the universe as something unified and intended and meaningful. The decay, then, is not so much in the Church, it is in the training of our minds, and it has been going on for centuries.
What has this to do with the Baptism of Christ?
One of the conceits of the left brain is that there is no meaning, or rather meaning doesn’t matter—there is just stuff to be manipulated and used—useful if you are trying to survive in a scarce environment, but dangerous if you end up depleting all the resources around you.
The right brain, on the other hand, is alert to synthesis, purpose, meaning—what things may point to—seeing the world as full of signs.
So when it comes to what we generally consider to be the most significant thing about human beings, the phenomenon of consciousness, mind, intelligence, the left brain perceives this as no more than a complicated algorithm, a fundamentally mechanical process that could, ultimately, be broken down into a series of binary commands. In fact, the left brain is much happier limiting it’s focus on the brain itself, treating it as a particularly sophisticated computer made of neurons and synapses, made themselves of fundamental elements; building blocks, little bits, that make up everything and ultimately define them.
By this way of thinking, intelligence, mind, consciousness, is a phenomenon of no intrinsic significance or interest, except how it might be manipulated or copied. If any-thing it is an epiphenomena, a frothy, insubstantial thing thrown up by the blind processes of evolution. Mind doesn’t mean anything; it doesn’t suggest anything of fundamental importance to the cosmos—it is not necessary to it.
This is the way most of us are trained and accustomed to think. No wonder those of us who take the Church, its scriptures and its practices seriously, find ourselves plagued with the nagging anxiety that it might all be nonsense. No wonder we feel so lonely in the universe; aliens in a vast ocean of meaningless matter; aliens even from one another in our irreducible subjectivity; unable to stop caring that for something to mean something to us, it really does need to mean something to someone else.
Even as it decays, like a lifebuoy abandoned in the ocean, flashing out a diminishing signal, the Church cannot help but offer the corrective to all this; the challenge that can bring us, and our brains, back into balance.
And the challenge, McGilchrist suggests, is that mind is not something that simply emerges out of physical processes, and is reducible to them. What might be fundamental in the universe is not matter, after all, but mind; mind forging matter into shape, form, life; mind inhabiting them, organising them, lifting them out of chaos and nothingness. Mind that flowers into sentience, into intelligence; in creatures (us, for example) that act, as McGilchrist says, like antennae for consciousness; channelling and transmitting it, mind to mind.
And so, to the man baptised today in the river Jordan. For any who will receive it, he is both the evidence and the guarantee of a fully-minded creation. He is the purest expression, transmission, of mind; the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. This mind, this Word, communicates with us; and is revealed as the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Mind that is generative, receptive, unitive.
He stands in the waters, symbolic of chaos and disorder, of a disintegrated creation, and he rises out of them, pre-figuring his rising out of death; for he is the Word that cannot be silenced; the mind that is endlessly at work to redeem, to heal, to restore all things—a Mind set on love and life.
Our left-brain world is supremely deaf to such ideas—has little time or use for them—which, as I have hinted, and McGilchrist laments loudly, is supremely bad news not just for a decaying Church, not just for a decaying world, but for our species and its survival.
If there is to be an Extinction Rebellion, Sisters and Brothers, it should begin here. The environmental crisis, the climate crisis, the mental health crisis, all are, at root a crisis in how human beings perceive themselves and the world—truly, a spiritual crisis. We, the Church, have been entrusted with a message, a transmission, an Epiphany, to rebalance our brains, and save our souls.