My Right Brain

Many people may be familiar with the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It’s sort of popular around my house, almost as a shorthand for a complete understanding of how we see the world around us. The author, Betty Edwards, demonstrates through art exercises what science has known for quite some time – that the brain is differentiated for various tasks. The verbal part of our life, including reasoning, is largely a left brain activity, while art and a number of other things are processed by the right brain.

Of course, my writing here is generally about theology and not neurobiology, but this left brain/right brain distinction has become for me a way of thinking about my own journey as a Christian. I have sought in the past number of years to become more open to a “right brain” approach to God, not ignoring the rest of me – such as refusing the use of reason and the like – but realizing that there is another way of seeing and understanding that I’ve too long neglected.

The 7th Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.) made an amazing statement as part of its official Tomos, or Proclamation: “Icons do with color, what Scripture does with words.” It is not simply an interesting insight into how icons signify, but an even greater insight into the unity of our knowledge of God.

Someone asked me yesterday, “How do people come to believe in God?” They had in mind someone in particular who had grown up in a loving Christian home and yet had no faith in God.

My answer was to acknowledge the mystery of our relationship with God. C.S. Lewis, a great champion of logic all his life, recalls that as a young Oxford don, he got on a bus one day in Oxford as an atheist, and got off the bus as a believer in God (at least some sort of God). Where and how it happened along the way remained a mystery to him. Why that bus? Why that day?

My own earliest encounters with God were through pictures (indeed I’m not sure I could as yet read). In a pre-school Sunday School room (I can still smell it), in a country Baptist Church, we had pictures of Jesus hanging on the walls. One was Jesus the Good Shepherd; another was Jesus and the Little Children.  Those pictures of Jesus were the revelation of God to me rather than the violent, fiery anger that we heard weekly in sermons.

In a similar manner, a small bible given to me at birth by the Women’s Sunday School Class in that same Church, had a frontispiece that was one of Raphael’s Madonnas. The beauty and radiant love of her face are among my earliest religious memories. I think I have always loved the Mother of God. (It is quite interesting to me that a copy of the same Madonna hung above Fyodor Dostoevsky’s writing desk.)

For too long Christianity in our culture has allowed half its brain to be ignored with a resulting imbalance in its perception of God. One of the great joys of Orthodoxy is getting half my brain back.

Icons do with color what Scripture does with words. Perhaps God means to save the whole of us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





17 responses to “My Right Brain”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The picture again is perhaps worth clicking on. It is of myself and my son outside the Eagle and the Child(affectionately known as the “Bird and Baby”), a pub in Oxford frequented by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein and friends. We ate supper with good friends there this summer, and toasted “the Professor.”

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I have come to understand that it is not just half of my brain that I’ve gotten back since being received by the Church, but half of my being. In other forms of Christianity and even the eastern religions one is forced to choose half of oneself as either dominant or the part that is exclusively “spiritual” It was such a relief for me to realize, first in theory gradually in reality, that when the Church proclaims Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man, she means fully man. Jesus took on our full nature just a part of us. By doing so He destroyed all the false dicotomies that the west is so enamored with and that each of us grew up with. There are very few real choices left: God or Satan, love or sin, salvation or damnation. He told us to love Him with all of our being as completely as we are able and to share that love with each other. When we truncate who we are, we cut ourselves off from communion with Him who is the source of all life.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed, I agree. The left brain right brain thing is just one of many ways that we are restored to wholeness in Christ. I am only beginning to see some of them. Just learning to see things together as a whole rather than breaking everything into discreet analyzable units is itself a wonderful revelation.

  4. undegaussable Avatar

    Father, could you expound upon the phrase “learning to see things together as a whole rather than breaking everything into discreet analyzable units”? Could you provide specific examples of this in action in your life and journey to Orthodoxy? I am afraid I don’t understand what you mean, but I am intrigued.

  5. Roland Avatar

    Yes, the Lord demands of us and redeems the right brain as well as the left – and, indeed, the body as well as the mind.

  6. Dean Arnold Avatar

    Ah, so many thoughts.

    Firstly, I get a better idea now of why Rush Limbaugh offers to fight with half his brain tied behind his back. He’s not using the right side.

    Your story of Lewis makes me enjoy the rich fact that his book about Heaven and Hell, “The Great Divorce,” involves a bus ride to both places. He made his journey on a bus, too.

    By the way, Lewis first read “The Great Divorce” to his Inklings friends including Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, a critic of The Lord of Rings who sometimes called for something else to be read instead. Lewis originally entitled his book about hell as “Who Goes Home?” Tolkien dubbed it “Hugo’s home.”

    Speaking of right brain enrichment, what a great picture of you and James at the Bird. Now, seriously, if someone had told me twenty years ago that these two oddly dressed and oddly whiskered birds under that Bird would be one of my better earthly reflections of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I would have laughed heartily. How fun is this journey we are on?

  7. Jonathan Avatar

    Really, Father Stephen. You need to stop doing this. This is two posts in a row where you touched on something that’s been o0n my mind recently. Again…amazing. lol

    Last night and earlier today, as I listened to some of the contemporary Christian music which once made up 99% of the music heard blasting from my radio, I was thinking about the compartmentalization you make mention of. Specifically, I was thinking about Christ’s life and crucifixion, and how often those two seem separate from each other in the Protestant world. I mean, yes, they’re obviously linked. Yet, they seem to be two totally separate events.

    So much focus is given to Christ’s death and suffering in modern hymnography and Christian rock. Which, is fine, I’m not knocking it per se. Indeed, it is Christ’s death that sets us free. But, it seems kind of odd, now that I’m on the outside looking in, as it were.

    I began thinking about how it has a different feel and thought process in Orthodoxy. At least, in my mind. We have His life which leads to His crucifixion; not just His life, and His crucifixion. It seems rare that you hear the crucifixion spoken of in Orthodoxy and do not hear about His life as more than simply a passing remark.

    I don’t know…it’s kind of difficult for me to work out in simple words, because the perspective is sometimes still so knew and fresh. I’m probably even talking in circles. Anyway, you’re far better at explaining it than am I.

    Anyhow, I think of it this way:

    Theology as an Evangelical Christian is like a patchwork quilt. It has its different large patches that are all stitched together to make the whole. Yet, the patches are all still distinct.

    Theology as an Orthodox Christian is more like a tapestry, where you have tiny individual threads that intersect one another countless times, working in concert to form the whole. The threads don’t seem to be so outwardly individual. Yet, without a single thread, the tapestry would be incomplete.

    Thank you so much for keeping this blog, Father. It’s so wonderful to be able to check in and see what’s on your mind and heart when I’m so far away. I agree with one of the parishioners here at St. Nicholas who said your blog is “an island of calm on the Internet.” I think that sums it up quite nicely. And, that’s not to mention how your posts challenge me and help me keep my focus where it should be.

  8. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Good question. Examples. For one, not compartmentalizing my life. I had my life as an Episcopal priest and the job that went with it. My prayer and study life seemed over in some other department because so much of my interest in Orthodoxy was not shareable. I think I tended to live on at least 2 levels – with the faith level being stunted and often neglected (the Churchly level was so filled with debate and division that it was a hard place to pray).

    Slowly, in becoming Orthodox, I have begun to see myself come back together into one piece. I preach, pray and live one thing. My love of icons is not an “interest” but the very faith of the Church.

    That has been one large personal aspect of what I’m talking about.

    On a larger cultural context, the fragmentation of Christian culture, where music, art, poetry, prayer, worship, theology, have become themselves fragmented to a great extent. It’s hard to know how to think about much modern Christian music, for instance. Much may have almost no theological content, and even very little heart content. The very, very poor art produced in our culture and by the Churches of our culture. I use only those few examples. Getting healed, pulling it all back together, should result not only in a wholeness within me, but a wholeness within the Church as well. I find this in the Orthodox faith, though the struggles of our century are no stranger to the Orthodox.

  9. Douglas Ian Avatar

    I appreciate this post, Fr Stephen. A couple interesting connections we share: 1) I have had more than a few pints at the Eagle and Child; 2) When I was a kid I took drawing and painting lessons from an older woman in our town for about 9 years. She loved Betty Edwards, and we worked our way through ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ together when I was about ten. That book had a real impact on my life.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. Stephen, I was reading The Sacred in Life and Art by Philip Sherrard recently. He makes the point that art cannot be worthwhile without knowledge of the sacred. My journey to Orthodoxy led me to believe that no modern expression of Christianity has much sense of the sacred any more at least not in a living, reachable sense. If the sacred is considered at all, it is “out there” somewhere after we die.

    Living in the Church is an effort to be sacred in all that we do (which actually seems to be the underlying theme of several of your posts lately). The seen and the unseen are integrated in love. Yet we live in a culture that is more and more fragmented. When everything becomes realative and material there is no inter-relationship with any other thing or any other being. We seek only our own wants and needs at best in parallel alliances that can come and go as interests and needs change. Everything is mechanized, dicotomized, digitized and atomized. Pixels and quarks that change as soon as they are viewed no certainty, no foundation, no meaning.

    Only the God’s breaking through into His creation allows the degradation into nothingness to be stop and reversed. Only through Him can we live in wholeness and holiness together.

  11. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Michael, I wholeheartedly agree.

    I like to be generous. Some of our readers are Orthodox, others simply share some points of common interests, and perhaps more as time goes on. I don’t wish to take apart other forms of Christianity lest I give the false impression that there is nothing of value there, and this is not true, nor that in Orthodoxy there is nothing but value and no problems, and this also is untrue.

    What there is, is a profound effort in many places, to live out the fullness of Orthodoxy in a way that is rare in many other places, and simply not possible at all in most places (if any) outside of Orthodoxy itself.

  12. Alyssa Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    So how many times can we thank you for your posts!??

    I confess. I am a serious left brain addict. I am an American afterall. And a former RC & Protestant. I really don’t think I realize just how right-brain deficient I truly am. Only through coming to Orthodoxy, having some of my reasoning and arguments shut down by wiser friends, as well as being introduced to a new way of seeing the world–icons included–am I starting to get a glimpse.

    The weird thing about it is that when I find myself having right-brained thoughts, instead of feeling free, I instead feel the need to justify and rationalize them 🙁

    When I have a wonderfully integrated experience in the church, my mind naturally starts processing it…and I envision trying to tell my non-Orthodox friends about what I am experiencing…then I feel a great need to justify my experience, to explain it rationally, to clarify what I mean AND what I don’t mean (btw, these little conversations only happen in my head. apparently I don’t even need to have a real conversation with another live human being to get myself all worked up!)

    Eventually I’m deflated. I’m worried that my non-Orthodox friends will think that I’m not rational, logical or smart enough…that I’m just experiencing something very subjective. Then I imagine my Orthodox friends getting on me about being too left brained in their subtle and not so subtle ways. Then I find myself defensive about the strength of my left brain–afterall–God did give us both halves!

    I swear I’m not mentally ill. But it sometimes feels that I am.

    All this is to say, that like so many other aspects of my Christian life as I know it, I feel like I’m in detox. A re-education program. The equivilent of AA for Left Brain Thinkers. It is not easy. And sometimes its even painful. But more and more frequently it feels right.


  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s good that it feels more and more right. And it’s also true that we don’t have to explain to them or ourselves exactly all that is going on. Enjoy all your brain. It’s a joy.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Alyssa, your experience sounds very familiar. Be patient and it does get easier. The pain is real and necessary to break the adhesions and rebuild atrophied spiritual, mental, and emotional muscle and when going through Holy Week, physical muscle.

    Without the value I received from other Christians, I would have come to the Church even worse off than I did. There were many non-Orthodox who unknowingly witnessed to me the value and the life of Jesus Christ, I treasure them still. I do not mean to demean anyone else’s faith. All Chrisitans face the same forces at work on us to turn aside into worldly thinking and worldly ways. I need all the help I can get to persist on the road to the Kingdom. The Church provides everything I need, even when I don’t want it sometimes.

  15. dilys Avatar

    It occurred to me last night that the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan “embody” the two great commandments. Loving sincerely and particularly with all of oneself, as the Father does and as the prodigal stumbles toward; and becoming the Neighbor by serving the neighbor in love and equality.

    Somehow, to translate and even transfer those Propositions of Law to the stories, vague and precise, gentle and unavoidable, almost straight from the neurology of Jesus, was a completing and holistic inner transaction, pointing me toward his full humanity. The fullness of Orthodox worship is a brilliant cartography of that route.

    Though formerly addicted to precision and comprehensiveness, I grow weary and disheartened at the many venues where clanging Skirmishes of Sophisticated Propositions, in which clouds of unarticulated rules of engagement implied by embedded temperamental, emotional, and presuppositional poison pills overdetermine the logical arcs of argument and discourse. Yet false doctrine, too, “tastes” terrible. I take refuge from both in the heart of Orthodoxy.

  16. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Well said. Amen.

  17. […] Peter John Cameron, O.P., in the May 2017 issue of Magnificat and how it played so nicely with an old post by Father Stephen Freeman at Glory to God for All Things that I turned to right after the […]

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