Brain, Mind and God

by James B. Ashbrook

James B. Ashbrook is professor of religion and personality at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 19-26, 1986, p. 295. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A cross-disciplinary understanding that brings together a consideration of the brain-mind relationship and the symbol-images of Byzantine and medieval architecture. Buildings give us architectures of the mind, outward and visible images of inward and spiritual mind-sets.

Aldous Huxley once observed that there ought to be a way to talk about mystical experience in terms of biochemistry, psychology and theology. Even more, we ought to be able to talk about all human experience in such a cross-disciplinary way. What might a conversation about the brain, mind and God be like? In what follows I suggest how knowledge of brain processes and patterns of belief might converge, and then how that constellation might enhance an understanding of Byzantine and medieval architecture as tangible expressions of those beliefs.

Controversy has characterized the history of understanding the brain-mind relationship. One position reduces mind to biochemistry, holding that mind is nothing but the brain. Accordingly, all activity can he explained by lower processes. Another position claims that mind is independent of brain, hence lower processes are irrelevant to higher purposes. Between these extremes lies a more supportable position: there is no mine without brain, but brain does not determine the meaning of mind.

Instead of being determined solely by its biological base, mind is an emerging phenomenon. It shapes its features in accord with the universe of influences in which it participates. This is an interactional position. While not an independent entity, mind reflects and transforms the emerging realities of human experience. In other words, mind is the human meaning of the brain.

Just as mind is the human meaning of the brain, so God is the theological meaning of mind. That is, all that people have meant by the term "God" -- experientially, conceptually, institutionally -- constitutes the criterion that determines what matters most to human beings. My argument, then, involves two assumptive leaps: (1) from brain to mind -- that is, from physical processes to human significance; and (2) from mind to God -- that is, from historically derived values to transcendent values. God represents that for which we have been created and that which we seek in our longing to be and become who we truly are.

In the loose interface between physical data and vivid personal experience -- that "space" identified as mind (Gordon Rattrey Taylor, The Natural History of the Mind [Dutton, 19791) -- we find clues to the human meaning of human presence. Mind points downward into the organized regularities of the brain and outward toward the emergent qualities of human purposes. To focus on that interface, then, is a new form of empirical natural theology. It is empirical in that it draws on behavioral evidence. It is natural in that it identifies cognitive structuring. Because of this Januslike feature, brain focuses the meaning of mind even as mind enlarges the significance of brain.

In this cross-disciplinary conversation I turn first to what is known about the brain, then to what we understand about belief, and finally, on the basis of that convergence of ideas, to an examination of the cultural symbol-images of Byzantine and medieval architecture, which express both cognitive and cosmic ways of understanding human life.

Both halves are extensions of subcortical, sensory relay centers; the neocortex or new brain is an outgrowth of the old brain. Higher functions have lower connections, though only modest correspondence exists between cognitive activity and specific brain locations. These connections are so intricate that all complex activity draws on every part of the brain. Quite simply, mind is more than brain.

This development of differentiated activity in the neocortex gives evidence of the interaction between people and the emerging universes of influence (e.g., family, society, value commitments) of which they are a part. The mind-set or the world as perceived and conceived by the double brain influences everything that happens. With each hemisphere taking the lead over the other in different ways of processing information -- as Marcel Kinsbourne points out ("Hemisphere Specialization and the Growth of Human Understanding," American Psychologist, April 1982, pp. 411-420) -- an active organism interacts with an active environment.

The brain’s left half proceeds item-by-item and step-by-step. This narrow logical style, says Kinsbourne, admits only "a few members to any one category" and attends "to detail in small differences." It observes, organizes and explains things systematically. It is always "on alert," constantly vigilant, isolating and mastering what needs to be taken into account in accomplishing conscious purposes. In short, it explains what it observes in a rational way.

In contrast, the right half of the brain functions all-at-once and by leaps of imagination. This broad integrative style groups "a wide variety of similar objects or concepts together, paying little attention to detail or difference" (Kinsbourne) It creates a web of connected-ness which blurs differences and emphasizes similarities. It constantly interacts with the environment, responding without labeling. In short, it expresses the felt meaning of what is happening.

In summary, the left mind engages in rational-explanatory processing. The right mind discloses relational-experiential processing. This makes the left vigilant and the right responsive. Neither functions alone. Each depends on what the other contributes. Together they make for unified consciousness and integrated behavior.

But mind points us to features that transcend mind itself. As Augustine put it, "I do not myself grasp all that I am. Thus the mind is too narrow to contain itself. But where can that part be which it does not contain?" Mind is neither its own origin nor its own destiny. There are social, cultural and cosmic contextualizations or universes of influence in which mind participates and which mind shapes. The semiautonomous mind transforms the brain’s regularities into patternings of what is real and right. The way we are made reflects and suggests the way we are meant to become.

Proclamation interprets what has been experienced in historical events, such as Exodus and Easter, in ways that make explicit the significance of human life. This reflects the rational-vigilant strategy of the left mind. To make right what is real requires deliberate intentional processing. Proclamation is word-oriented in that people hear the truth and are to act on the basis of it. "Hear, O Israel. . ." and "You have heard it said . . but I say unto you . . ." This is a redemption-oriented theology with instructions and imperatives. People are to be obedient to what is urgently right.

Manifestation, in contrast, expresses the rhythmic processes of the natural order, eliciting wonder and participation apart from formal language. This suggests the relational-responsiveness of right-mind strategy. People experience the wholeness of God in immediate ways -- that is, without mediation of language. Manifestation is object-oriented, and thereby incapable of being articulated, and more experienced than expressed. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth God’s handiwork" (Ps. 19:1) Here is a creation-oriented theology with numinosity and natural symbolism. The world of appearances is celebrated by affirming God’s presence everywhere and in everything. People trust that which is ultimately real.

By analogy, the ways mind works suggest ways in which people have perceived God working: step-by-step in making right the way life is to be and all-at-once in showing forth what is real. The pattern of proclamation -- theologies of redemption -- makes explicit what is right, articulated and explained, whereas the pattern of manifestation -- theologies of creation -- keeps vivid what is real, immediately and experientially.

Here is the interpretive leap. The reality of mind connects the brain and the realm of transcendent meaning. The brain does not -- and cannot -- contain the cosmos. No physiological process adequately accounts for human purposing. Belief patterns, however, do articulate a cosmos; they do order and organize what matters in and to human life. Together, cognitive processes and belief patterns provide a convergence of salient features with which to understand human activity.

How might this convergence of vigilant-rational proclamation and responsive-relational manifestation help us understand the faith and practice of different historical periods, particularly the Byzantine and medieval?

Two forms represent the mind-sets of all-at-once responsiveness and step-by-step vigilance: the imaginative dome of the basilica of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the thrusting spires of the cathedral at Chartres in France. These physical images reveal spiritual perceptions. They re-present where God is and how to get to God. Beyond their historical significance each offer a glimpse of universal meaning. In that sense they are archetypal patterns of what matters in human experience.

Hagia Sophia’s rough exterior belies its exquisite interior. The great dome hovers over the landscape like a vehicle from outer space. Inside, space seems to expand and embrace simultaneously. This symbol-image of the dome presents a unifying vision of reality, including all, affirming all, lifting all up into the light of God.

The vision is simple: one citizenry obeying one law, on the basis of everyone’s believing one creed. Everything emanated from the triumphant Christ, the Pantocrator, the Ruler of the Universe. One dome expressed one reality. The earthly and heavenly realms mirrored each other. The Christian universe and the Greco-Roman world shared common boundaries.

People entered Holy Wisdom basilica through multiple entrances. The many ways reflected their belief in the open quality of human nature and societal roles. Life was process, an ascending to God and a communing with God. People were encouraged to enter in, to be part of the reality which the building represented.

Since everything belonged together, the locus of the holy was "tantalizingly always ambiguous," as scholar Peter Brown put it. God could be manifested in a physician in Alexandria as likely as in a St. Anthony in the desert or a farmer in a rural village. Whether in the natural order, the communal order or the cosmic order, the really real disclosed itself in varied and surprising ways.

Just as no line sharply divides the piers, columns and stoa of the building, so no boundary sharply divided person from person or group from group. The throne stood open regardless of one’s rank, fortune or ancestry. Open space meant open rules. Anyone could play a big part in the divine drama. All flowed together, creating one magnificent mosaic. The wondrous and diffuse light of the basilica radiated a sense of the pervasive presence of Holy Wisdom.

In contrast, in the West, precision came to full articulation. Chartres Cathedral epitomizes Gothic splendor. For Latin Christianity, the locus of the holy was known. God came down and met humanity in Christ’s sacrifice on the altar.

The cathedral’s two towers reflected two powers: papal and imperial. Both powers derived their authority from God. However, despite the empire’s insistence that papal and imperial power were parallel, the papacy claimed a hierarchical order. Thus the towers of Chartres are unequal, one stretching 27 feet higher than the other. With its closer connection to God the papacy insisted on imperial obedience.

In his book On the Trinity, Augustine had contemplated the mystery of the redeeming mind of God. In pondering the correspondence between Christ’s one death for humanity’s twofold death of body and of soul, through sin, it dawned on him that the musical experience of harmony most properly described that reconciliation. For Augustine, the consonance of the octave -- i.e., the musical expression of the ratio of 1:2 -- conveys to human ears the meaning of the mystery) of redemption. Musical harmony, for aim, echoed theological truth. That harmony eventually found expression in Gothic proportion -- its visual equivalent. As exemplified by Chartres Cathedral, medieval architecture, like Latin Christendom’s belief structure, disclosed the clarity of three-in-one: two towers, one main entrance; two aisles, one nave; nave, chancel, apse; pier arch, triforium, clerestory; triple windows -- all were variations of the trinitarian motif. Three articles of faith proved the existence of God. Accordingly, people could enter the cathedral through three façades. Each has three entrances; each entrance has three rising bands of figures surrounding a central tympanum of recessed space. The trinitarian conceptualization of reality, the place where God could be found, fixed every form in a precise way.

The building presents a clear order harmonizing sharp contrasts. Flying buttresses hold together the thrust of the upward and outward directions. These complex opposing forces re-presented the ambiguity of finitude: time versus eternity, matter versus spirit, expanding curiosity versus centered faith. Two powers: one eternal, spiritual and true; the other temporal, material and limited.

Architecturally, then, Chartres shows us one rationale, two powers and clear order. The outside anticipates the inside. The world was set, the forces definite, the way known. The cathedral made visible the invisible mind of God. The locus of the holy was fixed.

Inside the building we are dazzled by its majesty. The 130 feet of receding nave pull our eyes away from the 122 feet of soaring vault. Unlike the impressionistic mosaic of Hagia Sophia’s dome, the two towers and flying buttresses articulate the trajectories of upward and forward. Every part contributes to a breathtaking crescendo of exalted space with clear direction. We are drawn toward the altar with a sense of confidence, harmony and peace.

There are no surprises. Once we see the towers we know the plan. The inside re-presents the outside. Since the nave is more than twice as high as it is wide, and taut by virtue of its being twice the size of the aisles, we are led irresistibly forward. The intensified atmosphere defined the one "right" way to the holy.

What had originated in Augustinian experience now ended in scholastic explanation. Method had mastered mystery -- spatially and symbolically. The Yes and No of inquiry paralleled the thrust and counterthrust of the building: the Anselmian "I believe in order to understand" and the Abelardian "I understand in order to believe." The rational balance of asymmetrical forces determined the direction and destination of methodical faith. It resolved the opposition of spirit and matter: theologically in doctrine, politically in papal supremacy, architecturally in the Gothic cathedral.

Few questioned whether the method corresponded to reality. The method was the reality: three-into-one concentrated and controlled space. The dialectics of experience solidified into a dominating explanation. The spirelike mind identified what was urgently right in the only way and the only place in which it could be known.

The Byzantine mind-set had lived in a world of its own mystical imagination, seldom modified by empirical observation or rational critique. Constantinople was plated with gold because it was the New Jerusalem. Realistic and rational processes failed to crystallize. It lived with myopic optimism. In terms of what we know of damage in the brain’s right hemisphere, this can be called "polishing" (Arnold J. Mandell, "Toward a Psychobiology of Transcendence: God in the Brain," in Psychobiology of Consciousness [Plenum, 1980], 417) Things are seen as better than they are. Difficulties and disturbances are minimized.

Optimistic euphoria was basic to Byzantium. It lived with a sense of the triumphant Christ and little sense of sin, fallenness or a redeeming God. Because no procedure guided the transfer of political power, violence marked every transition. Even when Constantinople fell in 1453, the political reality of Byzantium became the universal state of Orthodoxy. "True" reality continued in the Orthodox Church of Eastern Christianity. From what is known about how the mind works, I infer that Byzantium was deficient in the vigilance of left-mind processing.

In contrast, the medieval mind-set exhibited patterns characteristic of damage in the brain’s left hemisphere -- specifically. "tarnishing." With tarnishing, people view life pessimistically. Things are worse than they appear to others. And the medieval world suffered from an oppressive pessimism. Christ as the terrible judge confronted humanity with its finitude and fallenness. This disturbed processing, embedded as it became in the dialectical method of inquiry (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) , generated polarized and competing forces: rival powers (such as popes versus emperors) , competing orders (such as the simple Franciscans versus the sophisticated Dominicans) , competing pieties (such as natural realism versus Gothic symbolism) , and competing inquiries (such as nominalism’s empiricism versus realism’s idealism) The dialectic between spirit and matter was pressed beyond its limits, resulting in both collapse and rigidification.

Despite these limitations, each mind-set exhibited its own grandeur. The dome hovered in brilliance for a thousand years. And the domelike quality of God manifesting God unpredictably still quickens the imaginative eye of faith. It reminds us of the expansiveness of relational process. It inspires us by its all-at-once responsiveness. Similarly, the spire pointed to the altar as the locus of the holy for a thousand years. And the spirelike quality of God intentionally redeeming humanity still calls to the faithful. It directs us to the intensity of rational articulation. It informs us by its step-by-step vigilance.

The relational strategy of the domelike makes for diversity and the affirmation of everything that is, which means belief in an indicative mode of what already is -- or manifestation. The rational strategy of the spirelike contributes to clarity and the insistence on what ought to be, which means belief in an imperative mode of what is yet to be -- or proclamation. Whether we enter the realm of reality, the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, through the gate of the rational-explanatory process or the gate of the relational-experiential process, once there we need all that we are in order to be who we are.

The regularities of the brain and the emergent features of human purposes enable us to connect brain, mind and God in an understandable and fruitful way. Even though brain and belief will never finally converge -- in principle -- we can discern suggestive constellations such as the one I have sketched. Mind represents the human significance of the brain as well as the theological concepts used to speak about and be faithful to the God who is God of all.

Critics have questioned these sweeping generalizations. While acknowledging these central tendencies, they insist that exceptions are the rule. Because of the ambiguity of the evidence, they rightly urge caution.

A close analysis of patterns of belief does disclose variations. Both theologies of proclamation and of manifestation present diversity within their critical tendencies. So too empirical evidence about the brain is more complex than the simple distinction about left and right processing (Sally P. Springer and Georg Deutsch, Left Brain, Right Brain [W. H. Freeman, 1981]) Take, as a prime example, the location of speech dominance in the left hemisphere. That appears in 95 per cent of right-handers suffering from damage in that area, but it appears in only about 61 per cent of left-handers. When gender is added to the qualification that handedness requires, the generalization about left and right brain-mind becomes less certain. As a rule, verbal and spatial processing are more sharply divided between the two halves for men, whereas verbal and visual processing tend to be distributed more equally in female brains. Even though we cannot speak of gender-specific differences, we still can identify gender-related differences. Such caution in generalizing about both the brain and belief makes cross-disciplinary talk more valuable as suggestive speculations about loose associations than as firmly established causal connections.

The correlates of brain and belief are too varied for summary. Lists of left- and right-mind processes make the data more orderly than they are. Descriptions of proclamation and manifestation can portray God as a split-mind deity. The dialectic between created world (nature and history) and redeeming power (transcending purposes and God) comes together in the human mind. As William James insisted: "Where you have purpose, there you have mind." And where we have mind, there we have meaning -- a continuing calling forth and calling to that which is genuinely human.