Learning and Unlearning: A Baptismal Reckoning

By Edward Lee, reprinted from Living God’s Mission.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. 

Alvin Toffler

There is something self-evident in learning, unlearning, then relearning and unlearning again as we grow in body, mind, and spirit. It is both innately and intentionally developmental. For example, at what age did we un-learn that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were NOT the sources of gifts and chocolate eggs. And in what grade in school did we finally master, after much difficult effort, how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

The 19th century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel elevated learning and unlearning in his famous dialectic that seeks a higher level of truth with the proposition of a thesis, vigorously tested by an antithesis, resulting in a new and stronger synthesis. Learning, unlearning, and learning again. Mundanely summarized it’s called life and living.

So is Christian life and living. It’s seeking and believing, doubting, and searching, trusting, and daring, suffering and enduring, radically loving and sacrificially serving. Liturgically it’s Lent through Easter. Theologically it’s death and resurrection. Prophetically it’s profound compassion and enduring justice. Sacramentally it’s the Church community’s affirmation, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” (BCP, p. 308)

Christian scripture contains many accounts of this learn-unlearn-relearn dynamic but probably none more dramatic than the apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. In one blinding moment he is confronted and flipped from being the ardent persecutor of persons in the Jesus movement (there was no church as such at the time) to starting on his faith journey of becoming a believer, disciple, proclaimer, and missionary of the Gospel. And then there is the episode of Zaccheus, a hated tax collector, who Jesus summons and instructs to prepare a meal for him in what can only be understood as an act of an all-embracing, inclusive hospitality, a sign of what God’s kingdom on earth ought to be about. Again, learn-unlearn-relearn.

Another way of understanding this pattern and process of life and living especially in these contemporary times of social conflict, political unrest, and debilitating division is the word “reckoning.” Our nation, our local communities, our social institutions including our churches are being called into account, a reckoning, for a radical unlearning and relearning of their histories, their active roles, and complicities in what for centuries have been entrenched systems of injustice, cruelty, and genocide – most often through the distorted prism of white people’s sense of privilege, superiority, and power. Radical, disturbing, and uncomfortable reckonings must be made for many collective behaviors: slavery and racism, including against indigenous persons; misogyny and targeting sexual orientation and gender identity; anti-semitism; reliance on guns and the resulting killing fields of America; and willful blindness to poverty and the poor.

To be sure this reckoning has started. But for the people who have been “marked as Christ’s own for ever” it is a constant faith imperative.

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