Thursday, December 11, 2014

Unlearning

One of my favorite things about going on retreat at the monastery of St. John the Evangelist is that most days one is read to at lunch. This is a wonderful thing that has, over the years, given me many tips on books - even over the course of forty-minutes or so somewhere in the middle of the narrative there is often enough of a "hook" for me to go chase down the book and read it.

Today one of the brothers was reading from A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. I don't yet know if I'll read the book or not but the context for what I heard today was in the wilderness of Alaska, about a Presbyterian missionary, and the comment that struck me was that as he entered that context he "knew he had a lot to learn, and even more to unlearn."

As I return from a brief Advent retreat, I bring these words with me. I have always considered myself a life-long learner, but I realize somewhere deep in my brain is a bias toward learning as "cumulative." That is to say, everything I learn (regardless of whether I can remember it or not!) gets filed away into some category in my brain. We keep learning because there is so much more to learn.

But unlearning seems counter-intuitive. I think in context the point being made here is that what this missionary thought he knew about faith, people, culture not only needed "more" but needed "less" - some things needed to be unlearned to be open to the new experience. And I think this is right, but I also think it's much harder than learning.

How do we know what we don't know and how do we know when what we know is no longer relevant? How can we unlearn those things that need to be unlearned, in order to open ourselves up to a new thing that God may be doing in our lives?

It's be easy to say that this is limited to the bad habits we've picked up along the way - we need to unlearn racism and nationalism, for sure. But I wonder if it isn't deeper than that. The book I am reading right now is called Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People. I may have more to say about that in days to come, but it fits here in this sense: sometimes we may learn the wrong lesson from an experience and then turn it into a "universal truth" that blocks us from learning anything that runs counter to that "experience." But what if we had the experience and missed the meaning? How does our "meaning" get unlearned - even when the experience cannot be undone?

Deep thoughts for a cold and rainy New England day, but thoughts that I think have big implications for the work I'm engaged in these days. What unlearning do congregations and clergy and dioceses and bishops need to do, in order to be open to new learning that draws us in the Spirit's tether?