Monday, December 05, 2016

Learning, Re-learning, and Unlearning

How willing are you to learn new things?  How about being reminded of something you already know, but have allowed to grow dim in your memory?  Or, to realize that something you have known is more true or more important than you thought it was?  Would you be amenable to consider unlearning beliefs and behaviors that defined your existence for many years?

I have always considered myself to be a “life-long learner.”  I understand, accept, expect, and eagerly seek learning opportunities, which do, in fact, arise every day, as the long-lived saying goes.  Nevertheless, although I generally hold myself open to learn new things, I have encountered some internal resistance to many of the things I have seen, heard, and experienced on this journey of Hebrew exploration.  That is to say, I did not awake one day several years ago and discover that I had fully changed my mind about my faith and my understanding of Scripture.  I have slowly, carefully, and prayerfully considered each point along the way, and a lot of what I have finally accepted was the result of a fair amount of personal struggle.

In fact, if there was a way of accurately measuring what I know and profess regarding my faith, I would venture to estimate that something like 75-80% has remained unchanged.  Maybe more.  Sometimes even I myself feel like I have done a complete 180 – an ‘about-face,’ if you will – and have utterly turned my back on what I have spent decades believing, sharing, enjoying, teaching, and even preaching from the pulpit.  But my core beliefs remain strong and central.  Far from turning my back, if anything, I have come to face my faith more fully with all of my senses on full alert.

For example, taken point by point, I would probably agree with the basic statements of the various common liturgical Creeds proclaimed and confessed by most of Christendom.  Truthfully, I would be more likely to debate the advantages and potential pitfalls of relying on these types of summations of belief than to outright disagree with the content of them.  And that statement in itself may cause more rancor among the brethren than some of my esteemed readers might expect.

What are these categories in today’s title?  ‘Learning’ I am sure you all understand:  something you did not previously know, when it becomes known to you, you have learned something.  ‘Re-learning’ means simply that you already knew something, but have been reminded through fresh vision, context, and import.  ‘Unlearning’ is a term that does not rest comfortably in our heads. 
Philosophically, once we have learned something, it is our inclination to cling tenaciously to what we have learned.  It is one thing to forget or temporarily overlook things we have learned, like when we tell ourselves we knew better than to do such and such.  But to consciously examine something we have learned, then set it aside in favor of some new divergent lesson – that is not ‘normal’ for us.

I confess:  I have engaged in some significant unlearning over the past ten years or so.  Some of it seemed to arise in a moment, and I embraced it, voluntarily.  Other aspects of my “previous self” have held on tight and it has been a tug-of-war with myself to land on one side or the other.  Sometimes I have rejected the new idea, and landed solidly on the side on which I started.  Often, I have found certain parts of me to be so thoroughly entrenched they were in effect hidden from my own consciousness.  Some of that ‘baggage’ has been hard to face and almost impossible to overcome.  I do not cherish any illusions that I am done with the house-cleaning in that regard.  Decades of indoctrination* do not yield themselves easily to rearrangement.

One of the central components of the learning/unlearning pattern has been a new appreciation for the distinctions between Greek thought and Hebrew thought.  In some of my previous professional life, I was a student of Asian philosophies, cultures, history, and societies, so I learned long ago about the fundamental origins and differences between Eastern and Western worldviews.  I did not, however, think to apply this kind of sociocultural template to my biblical studies.   Studying the Bible is a spiritual endeavor, right?  And, since it is what “western” civilization is based on, the Bible is necessarily most properly studied from a “western” perspective.  Surely.  That only makes sense.  Yes?

Truly, though, the Bible emerged from an “eastern” sociocultural environment.  Because it was Hellenized (or Romanized, depending on your choice of nomenclature) early in the development of “the church,” western thinking has persisted in most of its interpretation and commentary for centuries.  At a basic level, western (Greek) thinkers tend to apply linear and compartmentalized patterns to textual analysis.  Eastern (Hebrew) thinkers apply a cyclical or circular pattern.  If we unpack Scripture with a Hebrew mindset, the results are almost always revelatory and often astonishing.

Others have treated this topic more thoroughly than I can in this blog, but the concept of approaching the study of Scripture through a Hebrew lens instead of through our accustomed Greek methods is crucial to our ability to strip away faulty translations and interpretations.  [The link above is just one example, albeit a very good one in my mind; but if you google ‘Hebrew vs. Greek’ you will find many treatments of this subject.]

If there is a bottom line to this blog entry, which is lifting up just one tiny corner of a multi-faceted philosophical comparison, it is that one must cultivate an ability and willingness to place long-established beliefs in stasis long enough to consider alternative perspectives.  The idea is not that you take everything you believe and throw the whole thing in the trash and start over from scratch.  What we are doing is building on what we already know.  Along the way, some of what we ‘know’ may turn out to need a fresh coat of paint, or it may need to be replaced completely.  It is okay (and recommended) that you hold on to what you have until you are sure it must be changed or eliminated.

Do not be hasty.  Seek the LORD.  Do your homework.  Study, pray, consider.  If there is anything you need to unlearn, you will know.

·        *  ‘Indoctrination’ has come to be equated with ‘brainwashing’; thus, it has accumulated a sheath of negative connotation.  All of us are indoctrinated one way or another.  We could not live our lives otherwise.  All of your habits and preferences are the result of indoctrination, whether imposed by family, society, or self.

Here is a solid bit of wisdom from a Greek philosopher:

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