Unlearning our Lessons
What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve ever learned? It might be hard to come up with that; after all, the lessons that are really the most important become so important that we can’t really separate them from the way we see the world.
But I wonder what you would say it is, if you could describe it. I’m not talking about things like don’t touch the top of the stove, especially if it’s red; or don’t talk about religion or politics at a party, at least not one you’d like to stay at.
I mean the kinds of lessons that taught you how you should navigate your path through life, that shaped your sense of possibility or taught you the limits you might bump up against. The kind of lessons that taught you whom to trust and whom to not to trust, how to make sense of success and failure.
These lessons come to us from a lot of places. They come from our parents, from our friends, from our mentors, from our bosses. They come from the people we look up to; they even come from the people we’re taught to look askance at.
We accumulate these lessons throughout our life, never quite understanding how important they are, how significant they are in shaping the way we see the world and our place in it.
And here is the funny thing about those lessons. A lot of them are wrong. Just plain wrong.
It is not our fault that the lessons we learn are wrong. It is not our fault that over thousands and thousands of years we evolved to be acutely aware of the things that seem to tell us that other people who look and sound like us might have something in common with us.
And it is not our fault that in just the same way we evolved to be acutely aware of the things that seem to tell us that other people are different from us. We are deeply conditioned to perceive difference, and to translate difference into danger.
But when we do that, we are pretty much always wrong. Because the lens through which we see those lessons is itself just a little flawed here and there. It was flawed by just that feature about our long road of adaptive change. It served a single purpose, but that became a way of seeing the whole world.
That’s what it means to be fallen.
Some of us from Saint John’s went down to the cathedral yesterday for a conversation about how we talk about things about race. And one of the things that we all had to confront in the midst of the day was just how many of the lessons the world has taught us, how many of the most important guideposts we set up to chart our course through life with, are wrong.
Lessons like: People who look or sound differently from how I do are likely to think or believe differently from me. Lessons like: Being educated or well-off or Episcopalian means we are probably not liable to fall into traps of racism or prejudice. Lessons like: Everything we have has come to us by our hard work and our deserving.
Those are the lessons the world, and our parents, and our culture, and our leaders teach us. And so we hold on to those ideas as wise guidance.
The world teaches us to believe in the gospel of Stuart Smalley: We are good enough, we are smart enough, and doggone it people like us.
But the Christian gospel says something else. It says we make mistakes, like believing in the lessons the world teaches us. The gospel teaches us instead that we are all fallen. And even though that sounds so awful at first, if you really think about it, it turns out to be kind of liberating. Because it accounts for a lot of stuff that we observe every day.
The world teaches us to believe there is something meaningful and important about the differences we can observe between people. And the gospel teaches us that when we do that, we go astray.
The gospel teaches us lessons like the idea that all people everywhere are radically equally in all the most important ways. And we know that must be wrong, because we observe exactly the opposite of it every day.
We even celebrate the opposite of it. We celebrate the fastest speed skater, the smartest student, the most brilliant researcher, the wealthiest investor. Everything around us teaches us how different people are. And the gospel teaches us that we are all absolutely equal in worth in the end.
And here’s one thing more. The world teaches us that what is most valuable about us is measured in the terms of this world: our wealth, or the number of followers we have on Twitter, or how popular we are.
The gospel teaches us that what is most valuable, most precious, most tender, most amazing, most fragile about each one of us—is something that none of us can see. Because it’s our soul; the part of us that is the stubborn proof that we really are made in the image and likeness of God, and not just us, but everyone else. Everyone else at school, everyone else at work, even everyone else right here.
For those of us who are disciples, or trying to be, the wisdom of the gospel’s lessons, the wisdom of the cross, can be hard to live by. Because we don’t like appearing to be fools. We don’t like the idea of running so hard against the wisdom of the world. We don’t want to be ridiculed, or dismissed as foolish, or even worse, regarded as naive.
But our task as disciples is to unlearn the lessons the world teaches us. Just at the moment when we finally feel as though maybe we’ve figured it all out—or at least figured out enough of it to make sense of the world—our faith catches up to us and says, not so fast. All of that stuff we thought we knew—at least we have to have the courage, and the grit, to see it by the light of the gospel, to find out how much of it stands up to scrutiny.
When we do that, what will happen is a lot of stuff will get turned over. A lot of settled truths will become unsettled. A lot of tables will be turned. And a lot of things we think and do because we’ve always thought and done them will be thrown to the ground. And we, thanks be to God, will be free of the delusion of this world, and will be wise in more lasting ways. Amen.