God, the Brain & Paradox: Reflecting on the 2016 Laing Lectures
Ben Nelson moved from Kansas to Vancouver to pursue his MA at Regent College. He served as the student host to Dr. Iain McGilchrist, the 2016 Laing Lecturer, during Dr. McGilchrist's time in Vancouver. Learn more about Dr. Iain McGilchrist and the 2016 Laing Lectures here.
"We just want you to host him," she said to me.
It was the Monday before the 2016 Laing Lectures and Lynne Smith was giving me the low-down on speaker Iain McGilchrist's schedule and my duties over the next week. I didn't know quite what she was asking me to do, but I was too nervous thinking about meeting Dr. McGilchrist to ask for clarification. Over the next week, my titles would be many and varied: PA, TA, escort, valet, bodyguard, and (Dr. McGilchrist's preferred title for me) "minder."
From Dr. McGilchrist’s arrival through to his departure, the week flew by in a wild blur. While I was certainly kept busy "minding" him, the role also allowed me a unique vantage point from which I could take in all the hubbub of the week while also getting to know the man at the centre of that hubbub.
Regent had been buzzing with anticipation long before Dr. McGilchrist’s arrival. Students and professors alike eagerly awaited this year's Laing Lectures with an anticipation I've rarely seen in my four years at the College. Many of us remember a now-legendary lecture by Loren Wilkinson three years ago: having just finished Dr. McGilchrist’sThe Master and His Emissary, Loren reworked his entire lecture overnight to reflect the new insight he had gained from Dr. McGilchrist’s work. Since that time, readings from The Master and His Emissary have been regularly assigned in Regent’s Christian Thought and Culture class, stimulating fruitful discussion and creating an environment well-cultivated for Dr. McGilchrist’s arrival.
While the enthusiasm of Loren and other McGilchristian converts helps account for the anticipation within Regent itself, the mass of interest in this year’s Laing lectures extended well beyond that community. Dr. McGilchrist’s reputation evidently preceded him, as crowds of eager attendees, some visiting Regent for the first time, formed a pre-lecture queue that wrapped all the way around the inside of the College. From the very first lecture, both the Regent College Chapel and the overflow area were packed, and the crowd seemed only to get larger over the course of the lecture series.
The theme of this year’s Laing Lectures – God, the Brain & Paradox – provided plenty for that enthusiastic audience to ponder. Wednesday night saw Dr. McGilchrist launch into an enlivened discussion of the relationship between science and faith and their roles in understanding truth, arguing along the way that truth is less propositional and more dispositional and relational. In Thursday's lunchtime lecture, we were granted a tour through the two hemispheres of the brain and their different but complementary roles in attending to the world outside our heads. Finally, Dr. McGilchrist ended his time with a discourse on the paradoxical qualities of reality, focusing on the necessity of negation for creation and the need for a stance of active passivity in gaining wisdom.
Like all the best that Regent has to offer, the lectures were marked by vigorous delivery, joyful reception, and (courtesy of respondents Loren Wilkinson and Cherith Fee-Nordling) intelligent responses. The buzz around Regent continued not only throughout the evening following the final lecture, but also in the days after.
After the lecture series, Dr. McGilchrist took some well-earned rest on Galiano Island with Loren and Mary-Ruth Wilkinson. Back at Regent, however, lively conversations continued in his wake. As I’ve entered into those conversations, it has become evident that the ideas sparked by Dr. McGilchrist’s lectures will continue to bear fruit within the Regent community for some time.
Personally, while I was grateful for the lectures, I was even more grateful for the opportunity to get to know the brilliant and gracious man himself. When picking him up, dropping him off, and taking him to breakfast, our conversations roamed wildly, from the personal to the intellectual; from the hilarious shallows of Tim Horton's menu options to the literal depths of the ocean and even Hell itself. Over the course of his brief visit here, I realized that Dr. McGilchrist’s commitment to the pursuit of truth through relationship and openness is not just a theory: he lives it out. His humility, relationality, and openness to others and to the world give a weight to his work that simple propositional logic never could. Having “minded” him for a week, I know that I will be reminded both of his ideas and to the way that he lives out those ideas for many years to come.
Hear the 2016 Laing Lectures for yourself! Iain McGilchrist's three-part series on God, the Brain & Paradox is available from Regent Audio here.