Learning to Unlearn

Learning is a process.  But it’s not all progress.  Sometimes we need regress.  Trailblazing often begins with backtracking.

What do I mean?

Unlearning is as important as learning.  We enter this world as instant learners.  Before we can even feed ourselves, we’re digesting everything around us.  We are innate, insatiable, incessant learners.

But there’s a problem with our learning, a problem which is no less dangerous for its necessity.  The problem is that by definition we have to start somewhere, even though that somewhere is often far from the final destination.

So we learn the what before we learn the why, and we learn the simple why before we learn the complex why.  We learn the when, but not the if upon which the when depends and the unless that conditions it.  We learn the do, but not the how, and certainly not the difficulties that attend the doing.  Or we learn the how but not the do, and certainly not the vanity of an intricate how without a rugged do.

We imbibe our political views from our families and our surroundings without facing the need or sensing the desire to learn about “the other side,” the far-away “them.”   We learn that Goliath was a giant and David was a boy and that the latter killed the former in grand Sunday School fashion, but we don’t learn what it means, why it was important, and why it still is.  We learn not to run with scissors before we can comprehend the value of an eye, not to touch the stove before we’ve grasped the material reaction of heat on skin, not to talk to strangers before we know the monstrosity that lurks within every human soul.

So we learn, and we learn, and we learn — good things, healthy things, even life-saving things.  But things that are incomplete at best and misleading at worst.  And we learn these things young — if not in years, at least in maturity — with the result that we build and build and build upon these unripe learnings, whether they were worthy foundations or not.

These intricate buildings make unlearning difficult, and not only because unlearning involves the deconstruction of firmly established frameworks and the excavation of deep-lying layers of learning.  Unlearning is also difficult because learning is a social thing, and most of what we’ve learned we’ve learned from people.  So we must learn to unlearn with respect and perspective and without resentment or reaction.

Because no, your politically one-sided father didn’t lead you hopelessly astray because you were rarely exposed to the best opposing views.  No, your Sunday School teacher wasn’t a shallow Christian and a ruthless prooftexter just because she didn’t explain much in Daniel besides the lions’ den.  And no, our parents weren’t unmissional because they instilled in us the potential danger of strangers.  Often each of them were just starting where they knew we needed to start, even if they never got to finish the job.

That being said, we still need to move from bombastic political pundits to reasoned consideration, from flannelgraph theology to robust study of the sacred Word, from uncomfortability around strangers to a sincere love for all upon whom God has stamped His image.  We must continue to learn, and continue to unlearn.

A man who refuses to unlearn has not yet learned one of life’s most basic and evident realities — we are often wrong.  No garden can thrive without regular uprooting, and no finite and fallen human being can learn well and wisely without a regular pattern of unlearning.  It will be difficult, but the gathering of the harvest is worth the breaking of the ground.

So learn on, but for the sake of wisdom, never be afraid to unlearn.  Sometimes regress is actually progress, and unlearning becomes the mother of learning.


3 thoughts on “Learning to Unlearn

  1. God led me to this page when I did a search for the lyrics to “Come to Jesus.” What a treasure I found in addition!!! Thank you for this post and your eloquent writing. I am trying daily to unlearn (and forget) the images of sinful choices in my life, and I have been a Christian since my girlhood. You are so right Professor Gundersen. I love your metaphor of gardening, that uprooting is necessary for a healthy garden. What a beautiful picture!!! Now I must read everything you have written on your blog and pray for you, Man of God. God bless you for putting this out for a dying, thirsting world!!! Kathy Frankenfield, M.S. M.A.

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