Iain McGilchrist these days is popping up on my personal notification network (Twitter). It is happening because he is releasing a two-volume magnum opus. Many people would want to know what he says just because of the interesting title of the book, let alone the subject, let alone the author. McGuilchrist has earned his reputation; he has already written a work widely considered at least very important if not crucial. (Magna opera?) If that earlier work turn out not to be a classic, it will take a while for the world to be disabused.

His name either is one of those that always sounds familiar or had come up in some connection previously. Do you know what I mean? It is either the kind of name that makes you feel you always knew it, or you have heard it so much in ways you no longer remember that it feels that way. When Jordan Peterson interviewed him, I was glad for some information on the person. They talked about the then-forthcoming book, and that was interesting enough that I got The Master and His Emissary.

This book reminds me of two smaller books. Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances and D. E. Harding’s The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth. Both of these are extraordinary. The first prepared me for the Copernican revolution that Platonism is against the Nominalist assumptions of modern perceptions. The second is another such Copernican revolution on the perspective of our sense of scale. Now what McGilchrist is doing in his book is bringing observations about the mind back around to neuroscience and trying to explain a Copernican revolution with regard to the brain. (I had no idea the brain is such a complicated organ. It is difficult to wade through the neuroscience, but now that I’m in the second half of the book, worth it.)

In his celebrated earlier tome, McGilchrist offers explanations, which are not intended to be exhaustive, but add another significant detail to the history of ideas. I offer you a tantalizing example:

“Our feelings are not ours, any more than, as Scheler said, our thoughts are ours. We locate them in our heads, in our selves, but they cross interpersonal boundaries as though such limits had no meaning for them: passing back and forth from one mind to another, across space and time, growing and breeding, but where we do not know [my emphasis]. What we feel arises out of what I feel for what you feel for what I feel about your feelings about me – and about many other things besides: it arises from the betweenness, and in this way feeling binds us together, and, more than that, actually unites us, since the feelings are shared.”

I’m at least looking forward to all the podcasts his new book will elicit.  

Between Phenomena

I have to compare, having read Out of the Ashes and having read about (note the preposition) The Benedict Option, now that the Jordan Peterson phenomenon is gaining momentum, these two phenomena. I am also watching the Yale course on late antiquity on youTube, and it prompts the comparison.

On the one hand you have Christians, Catholics, conservatives, Western civilized men who are concerned for our present condition, believe the situation is irremediable, and recommend in both instances a retreat in order to preserve what we have. If you think about it, it worked in the past. Western Civilization was born from the patient labor of monasteries, working among barbarians after the collapse of the civilization of late antiquity. The monastic reforms—endeavoring to retain the ideal which guided Benedictine monasticism—eventually reformed life, and as it flourished and became complex, it developed the institutions of Western civilization.

On the other hand you have Peterson, who is also a product of Western civilization, but not a Christian in any traditional sense. He believes the Bible to be a deep, mysterious book that speaks to the enigmas of the human condition, and puts us in touch with something transcendent which makes the difference between chaos and order. His interpretation is a modern one, because his frame of reference is entirely modern, affirming what Western civilization has before this last, catastrophic phase of it, has achieved. And even that is putting the thing as if he weren’t a man who is happy about the cutting edge of human inquiry in our present societies. And his message is very much this-wordly, and not other-wordly. He wants to deal with our present condition, with our present situation, and help us make what we can of the moment that is our earthly, temporal, and mortal life. He is advocating no retreat.

I’m sure Peterson has a point. What draws me to him is his courage, his smoldering but rationally directed fury, his possession of certainty, and the heroic combination of the whole. And I wish we were more given to fighting the monsters rather than nostalgically lamenting that we no longer live in a world without [fill in the blank]. I hear no elegies from Peterson. He stands up with the weapons that come to hand, with the resources that are available in the present hour, so to speak.

And yet, the elegiac mood is inescapable for a sense of otherworldliness. The rightness of the belief of those who have something other than this world is of course compelling. The children of this world will always correctly suspect that Christians are not invested, because our hearts are elsewhere. We have become pilgrims and sojourners in a real way, a way that Jordan Peterson would turn into a metaphor and harness for temporal ends. Our satisfaction will come when the wind is blowing over the grass growing on our graves, for then we will be absent from the body and present with the Lord. Our satisfaction will come in the resurrection, and that is an entirely different order from the present: it is the new creation, and we are still in the old.

I find at present that these two phenomena are in many ways irreconcilable, and I also find that this does not satisfy me. Is it one of the intractabilities that shapes the Christian life in overlapping ages? It is something to keep investigating.