Left and Right

Finally they came to a place called the place of the skull. There all three were crucified-Jesus in the center and the two criminals on his right and left.

Luk 23:33

As some of you know, I wrote a book. The unfiltered thoughts of a pastor in exile. The subtitle is Tools for Successfully Deconstructing the Faith Without Abandoning It.

I have one more tool that I have not yet processed in the book. It is the insight Iain McGilchrist gained in studying the interestingly non-symmetrical hemispheres of the brain.

It’s not just our brain, but every single brain that we know of in which the right brain hemisphere differs from the left brain hemisphere purely in terms of shape.

But also the question is interesting, why do we have two brain hemispheres at all. We gain an insight into this by observing birds.

In birds, the left hemisphere is responsible for the right eye, and the right hemisphere for the left eye. This is no longer the case with us, even though in general the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa.

So we can observe something in pure form in birds that we are denied in humans.

Birds use the right eye for foraging. The left hemisphere of the brain thus allows them to make specific pattern recognition in detail, in close focus.

The left eye, and thus the right brain, has a completely different task. It observes the environment to detect friends or foes.

One side focuses on the expected, and sought after, the other on the unexpected.

Studies with people who have deficits in one of the two hemispheres of the brain due to illness or accident showed something similar for humans.

It seems that two different forms of consciousness live within us.

The left hemisphere of the brain creates a map of reality and orientates itself to it. This allows us to manipulate the environment, from simple actions like taking a book off the shelf, to figurative manipulation. This hemisphere of the brain also has the expressive means of spoken language at its disposal.

The right brain does not think in language, in details, does not want to divide and rule, but focuses on the bigger picture. Here we find intuition, imagination, and holistic thinking.

For the sake of completeness, many brain functions are naturally distributed over both halves.

Now, for deep understanding, both halves must work together. The right brain perceives, the left brain classifies in the known and recognizes, and the right brain understands the larger meaning so that the left can in turn act.

Often in our analytical society, we skip the third step: the left refuses to involve the right again and acts immediately.

With this basic understanding, I would now like to return to this scene on Golgotha, the place of the skull.

Why the place of the skull at all? Could it be that the death of Jesus is also about our thinking, our conception of the world?

For me, the two thieves on the left and the right are metaphors for our two hemispheres of the brain.

The one sees the worldly, detailed reality and mocks Jesus, as do most of those around him. Even on the cross, he still can’t break away from his integrated, petty worldview that depends on others.

The other recognizes the bigger picture and perceives holistically. He recognizes what he himself is, who Jesus is, and acts accordingly.

And Jesus picks him up where the thief is at: in his worldview, paradise is the next destination.

The thief has a vision and recognizes the whole picture, but he does not have the language for it because his worldview has not yet developed. And so the following dialogue takes place in the worldview of which the thief is capable.

The left half of the brain has now decided to create a map from all that:

After death comes paradise, and that happens immediately, because “this very day you will be with me in paradise.”

This paradise is often associated with the womb of Abraham because Jesus did not go to heaven that day, but to the grave, to the underworld.

Is paradise a place of transition, a sleep of the soul, or is it heaven after all?

These detailed questions become important for the left hemisphere of the brain, and it must decide on a variant, or refuse and point out that we do not know. Often the variant chosen is then defended, but also used to explain theological principles.

We remain in the left brain and confuse the map with reality.

We make fundamental errors in thinking, like the thief to Jesus’ left:

Jesus is crucified. This must mean that he has done something bad. Jesus claims to be the Son of God but now seems to be powerless. So he must have lied or been a megalomaniac and therefore deserves ridicule.

The two thoughts come from a misunderstanding of good and evil, an inability to recognize and endure paradoxes, and an unwillingness to see the bigger picture.

Not everyone to whom something bad happens is guilty.

And not everyone who seems powerless is.

Because we rely on our left brain, many such thinking errors happen to us.

But the worst one is that we hold on to our map. “It’s written,” “everyone thinks that way,” “we’ve always done it that way,” “who are you to think you know better”. Think about what statements along these lines you have already made in the past.

Back to the thief on Jesus’ right.

It’s not enough to analyze the situation only with the left side of your brain and say, “If I only believe what the Bible says, I’ll go to paradise.”

Rather, it’s about seeing the bigger picture in all situations, even the worst ones, recognizing the unexpected, and intuitively recognizing the deeper truth.

Paul tells us that truth is not found in the Bible, because what is written kills. Jesus tells us that we can search the Bible, even read it daily, and still not recognize that it speaks of Him. It is the Spirit that shows us this. It is the right brain that expects the unexpected, that perceives that.

But I’ll go even further:

What does it help me to realize that the whole Bible speaks of Jesus? That only gives me a map again, to which I then orient myself almost slavishly. To be like Jesus. WWJD.

The whole Bible is talking about me. Jesus recognized that. I may recognize the same: it is talking about me!

At first, this will help me to know myself, Jesus, and God better. But then I will do what Jesus did.

Jesus did not say, “I do only what is written.” He said, “I do what I see the Father in heaven doing.”

Jesus broke away from the Scriptures and lived a relationship. He detached from the expected and also expected the unexpected.

When focusing on the expected, as the left brain does, we also find only the known and expected. There is no growth, there is only survival.

In questioning, searching, and knocking, on the other hand, in expecting the unexpected, there is growth, and yes, there is paradise.