Tuesday, February 07, 2023

In the beginning


This coming Sunday we return to Genesis chapter 1, the opening and foundational chapter of the whole library we call the Bible. If this were merely a pre-scientific explanation for how the world came into being, then we would be right to consign it to history. But in fact, it is an inspired account of how the world is, and what it is to be a human within it, and it has much more in common with neuroscience than with nineteenth-century scientific enquiry.

The human brain has evolved, under God’s hand, to only be able to consciously focus on one or two things at the same time. The unconscious brain is doing many things, to keep you alive; but the conscious brain can focus on only one, or two, things at once. Add a third, or fourth, fifth, sixth thing, and it can’t handle it. You can, in the short-term, though at cost; and in the long-term, those costs have long-lasting impact on our capacity to retain and integrate information, to nurture wisdom. Some will laugh, and say, that may be true for a male brain, and a wealthy, white male brain at that; women can’t afford to focus on only two things at once; women multitask. But in fact, the human brain can only consciously focus on one or two things at the same time. (This is why the best way to dominate people is to push them into trying to consciously focus on multiple things at the same time, for an extended period.)

Genesis 1 invites us to focus on one, or two, things only. There is so much going on, and not being overwhelmed by detail demanding our attention, we can let our imagination roam, can make connections we might never have noticed before. The story tells us something simple, something of essence, that God did, in successive aeons of time; and, from time to time, that it was good.

The story asks us to take our time, reflecting on this. To consider, and to enter, the dance of light and dark, day and night. The way in which light ebbs and flows like a tide, with its seasonal high- and low- water mark. To welcome the gift of this, and how it affects our bodies, and not ride roughshod over ourselves. Did you know that as it starts to grow dark, our brains release a burst of alertness? This was useful when we were hunter-gatherers, a cue to return home to safety before nightfall. It is still useful, if you live in a warzone, or in one of the many refugee camps for displaced persons around the world. But if you live in the relative safety of your own home, in a modern city, sitting all evening in front of your television and turning it off to go to bed, the drop in light will prompt your brain to release a burst of vigilance just as you need to relax into sleep…

In careful succession, the story asks us to attend to what it means to be human in the world. We do this best in community, and at a slow pace.


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