One of the main aspects of the deconstruction (a word that means many things to many people) of my faith has been unlearning.
I started that journey long before I, or anyone I knew, was using the word deconstruction. It’s something we all do at various points in our lives when we learn new information that over-writes or replaces old information that we previously had in our “this is true” pile.
You are singing a song out loud and with a group of people or with a really good friend and they do a quick fact check on your lyrics, “Did you just sing, ‘These ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind?’” And you unlearn some lyrics and replace them with the actual lyrics of the song. It’s the Reformer’s cry of “semper reformanda!” We are always reforming and refining what we “know” and a big part of that practice is unlearning – replacing old data with new. It’s setting aside my previous understanding for a new perspective, shifting my view based on any number of things that provoke me to doubt or disregard what I have “known” to be true in favor of a new view that aligns my thoughts with new information.
In my Bible College days, I was doing a lot of unlearning while I learned. The things I thought I “knew” about the Bible and God and Jesus and the Church were unraveling as new questions and new answers pulled on all the loose threads in my mind. After Bible College my unlearning continued as more reading and more learning and bigger conversations and new relationships led to unlearning things I had been taught in Bible College that I could “know” were for sure. The longer I’ve been following Jesus and learning about God the one thing that’s become clearest is that there’s so much I do not know and may never know and my whole perspective on what I can “know” about my faith has changed from certainty to trust.
At 25 I “knew” everything about God, Jesus, the Church and being a Christian. Today, on the eve of turning 58, I’ve unlearned more than I “know”, and I completely expect that no matter what amount of time I still have in front of me, it will be spent unlearning a lot more just so I can come to “know” a little more.
Unlearning is, as a friend recently said, the act of formation as we deconstruct. It’s the kenosis that leads to new possibilities and new insights. Not “new” in the sense that no one has had them before but “new” in the sense that we’ve not had them before – in part because some bit of “knowledge” was occupying a space that prevented us from making room for any new idea or point of view.
Some of the unlearning is easy, even if embarrassing, like the right lyrics to a song. Other unlearning has been hard because people I trusted told me a story or gave me “facts” or simply told me a certain thing was thus and so and then I came to “know” that it was not, in fact, thus and so. This kind of unlearning has been hard and at times painful because it feels so personal. I find it hurtful when I discover that people I trusted weren’t teaching me, they were propagandizing me. They told me something they “knew” as a part of some group-think but not because they had verified the truth for themselves. Or they just straight up lied to me for reasons of their own or because of the institution of which they were a part.
But the hardest thing of all is coming into the awareness that I am them. I have taught people things, told people things and written things that others have had to unlearn to be able to grow up and move on.
So let me offer this to everyone who has ever heard me preach or teach or read something I wrote or even shared a conversation with me…
There’s a proverb that says, “It is God’s privilege to conceal things and the king’s privilege to discover them.” Be a king. Or a queen. Or whatever. Just question everything and everyone. Search things out. Discover things for yourself. Don’t take my word for it.
Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that people can’t be trusted or no one knows anything or don’t get the vaccine or education is pointless. I’m saying that wisdom is learning to hold onto the things you “know” loosely and always be reforming, unlearning and replacing, repenting of your what you “know” in favor of what you discover.
I’m saying that sometimes Kool-aid isn’t Kool-aid.
Some of my favorite parts of who I am today and how I see the world today are things my 25 year old self would have called heretical or at least “wrong.”
How about you? What are you unlearning? What has been your biggest unlearning so far?
About 3 decades ago I was corresponding with an older saint from the same group of churches I was a part of at that time. He’d written an article for a weekly magazine our movement published. I wrote to him, directly, questioning some of his conclusions and the certainty he had about those conclusions. He assured me, I still have the letter, that he hadn’t changed his mind about anything related to God in over 40 years. For the sake of transparency, here’s a list of a few things I’ve unlearned some time over the last 35 years of following Jesus:
Women are not allowed to preach, teach, lead or pastor men/the church.
Charismatic gifts are not for today.
God stopped talking to us when he finished his best-seller.
Prayers have to end with “in Jesus’ name” or they don’t count.
LGBTQ people can’t be followers of Jesus.
Racism ended in the early 70s.
Catholic people are heretics/papists and follow the whore of Babylon.
The Bible has all the answers we need for everything that matters.
Women ask to be objectified by the way they dress.
Denominations are inherently evil.
Rock music is from the devil.
Drinking alcohol is a sin.
Smoking cigarettes is a sin.
The death penalty is biblical and fits in with following Jesus.
Christians will always vote for Republican candidates.
War can be just.
Knowing what’s right automatically leads to doing what’s right.
Violence can solve problems.
There is no good reason for divorce other than an affair.
Hell will involve people being burned alive forever and they deserve this for telling a lie.
God loves you if you try harder.
Bad things happen to you when you do bad things.
Believing the right things is more important than doing the right things.
I am in control.
What’s on your top 10 list of things you’ve unlearned in the last 10 years?