I've recently experienced a rather diverse coalescence of thought. A number of questions and answers have come, seemingly from unrelated sources, and welded into a single multifaceted idea. What connection could Jill Bolte Taylor, Adolf Hitler, Isaac Asimov's Robots and Empire, the tower of Babel, and large groups church dynamics possibly have? Strange grouping, no? But it's been a mental process affected by all of the above.
Let's get old Adolf out of the way first. I find it distasteful still to even mention his name, but a friend of mine raised a question recently, that stuck in my mind and demanded some pondering. The question is as follows: "How could the Germans, a people known for their cold hard-headed realism, a culture generally intolerant of hysteria, a nation not known for being motivated by emotion at all, have so abandoned all that they were and fanatically followed Hitler?" The whole episode is bizarre when you look at it that way, isn't it? I leave the question there.
Recently I watched to the now popular video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor describing the life changing episode of going through a stroke and living in a 'nirvana' experience of functioning solely in the right hemisphere of her brain. She describes the sensation of losing a sense of definition of the typical boundary that is around all of us, that of her skin; the sensation of being huge, of being one with the life force of the universe, merely by dint of being cut off from her left hemisphere and having to experience everything in her right brain. The experience has changed her life. Her main focus, as I understand it from her talk, up to that time was to understand the brain so that she could understand and help her brother, who suffers from schizophrenia. Post crisis, what is most on her heart is to help the rest of the world experience what she did, without the stroke, obviously, because she now believes that if we could all get in touch with the peace, glory and sheer awesomeness of perception of living in the right side of the brain sometimes, the world would be a much better place.
Moving on to an episode from Robots and Empire. Giskard is a robot with telepathic abilities. In the service of his owner, Gladia, he has, at times, tentatively and cautiously, always within the bounds of the First Law of Robotics, made adjustments to the emotions of people around Gladia, to improve her chances of gaining their approval, to pave the way for her, and further her aims. He often finds this difficult, because, being constrained by the First Law, he can't simply run roughshod over peoples brains and leave them irreparably damaged, as would happen if he simply overrode their central intentions. And then one day for the first time, he is with Gladia as she addresses a large group of people altogether. He finds to his surprise that it's far easier to sway the group than ever it was to sway an individual. All he has to do is find one person who approves of what Gladia is saying, and strengthen that approval and suddenly the emotion spills over onto her neighbour, who joins in that approval, and the whole thing cascades throughout the group and reaches Gladia, who feeds back with greater and more inspired oratory... Well, you might wonder why I used a picture like this to depict what all successful orators, stage actors and performers already know about a crowd: if they are with you, and they stay with you, there's nothing you can't do. Well, I don't know why. It's a catalyst for what I came up with, and where I'm taking this post. It's a pretty good parable, all told.
For a moment let's go back to Dr. Jill and her experience of being far beyond the boundaries of her own skin. Now imagine that several hundreds of people around her were also having the same sensation, doesn't it make sense that their large selves would start to merge, and they would find themselves deeply connected with each other. Theorize further that some factor in the large group they are in is what facilitated the unconscious movement into right hemisphere awareness; something that caused a cascade into a blissful shared experience. It could be that the speaker or performer was a master at crowd dynamics. It could be something else. At any rate, let's look again at Dr. Jill after her experience. Even though her experience was in her right hemisphere, she is now driven by an extremely left hemisphere proposition -- she must share the experience because hopefully it will bring peace to many. Coming out of the experience, she, working through the left brain, framed it for herself and now she has been imprinted with a mission.
But think about the implications of this for people who have been unconsciously swept up into what I will now call communal exaltation, for whom the experience has been framed along pernicious lines like "you are the master race, you must rise up and rule the world, and rid it of Jews" and you might have an answer to the Hitler conundrum. Thousands of German youth, swept up in the promises and oratory, experience a bliss of unity and corporate identity, which are both, I put to you, right hemisphere perceptions, perceptions they've maybe never known before being from a very left-brained culture, or maybe never known at that level of intensity, and they will naturally credit it to the one who gave it to them. And he in turn leads them into his private insanity and imprints with his mission. "Hitler youth, you are MY youth!" (I shudder.)
But the result of the process doesn't have to be bad. What I'm describing is an amazing, built-in human capacity, not a failing from which to be warned away. You see, I've experienced this communal exaltation and imprinting before. I'm talking about wholehearted corporate worship of God in the company of fellow Christians in the presence of God's Spirit (the 'something else' I alluded to earlier,) which lifts all into if not Dr. Jill's nirvana, something akin to it, followed by inspired teaching, which frames the experience and imparts a sense of mission. I'm starting to believe that it's the answer to the question that recurs when things in church seem to lack vitality, "why gather at all?" We gather to worship corporately and connect with God at a deeper and higher level than we could on our own, and to be imprinted with his mission in a deeper way than we could have received it on our own.
And oh, what we couldn't do, the more of a deep, unified, corporate identity we achieved. Look at the Tower of Babel incident. God removing the very thing I'm talking about from a people because their 'mission' was not going to benefit them at all. It's like a parent locking the gun cabinet. We were just not ready for any such thing. But think of it. "Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." If we had that kind of unity in our churches... But there is another thing about the story that needs to be said. God shut the whole thing down through changing a left-hemisphere factor. Language. I didn't matter how much fellow feeling one family had for another. If they couldn't understand each other, they couldn't stay together. In the same way churches that have poor fundamentals, poor structure, even though they may provide a wonderful experience, will eventually lose people over left-brain concerns. Hey, we can't always blame the structure. Over-focus on the niceties of doctrine will also lock us into our left hemispheres and we'll never experience the oneness with each other that comes from oneness with God.
But the implications of viewing gathering in this way for those in the leader/facilitator role in the church are worth a look. First of all, we can recognize that it doesn't take much to sway a large group. God surely sees our spirits, our emotions, etc. in greater detail than the telepathic robot in the story. If he can find a few in the group to give themselves wholeheartedly to him, then a cascade can happen. Secondly, information by itself is not a sufficient goal for the preacher. Some of us have been in church all our lives and have a pretty good handle on the truth. But our imprinting with God's mission can diminish over time. That's the direction our teaching/preaching has to go. Thirdly, for those for whom crowd dynamics come easy, those who intuitively know how to cause the cascade every time, the caution is to avoid demagoguery. Personality cults have come and gone and left wreckage in their wake. It's a heady thing to receive the approval of many. Try desperately to frame the experience so that you are not what the people look to. You are not to be the focus of the imprinting. Lastly, this is just a blog post, an expression of a current thought process in my head. Maybe it will spark a such a process in your head too...