A Reflection on Pain and Learning

I remember one of my professors at Azusa Pacific University, just short of ten years ago, saying, "learning is always painful." He wasn't talking about pain of labor, of tests and papers. He was talking about something deeper, more existential, about the process of gaining new understanding. Essentially, learning is a process of changing one's mind. With any significant change in perspective, there is a dynamic and multi-layered transformation. A humility is required--to learn anything new, you have to be ready to believe that what you thought you "knew" wasn't so. A death is involved--when a new understanding is birthed, its alternative must, on some level, be put to death. And learning doesn't occur in a vacuum. Learning takes place in the midst of a complex matrix of relationships, and with any real change of mind occurs a change in relationships as well (and thus a deeper, more ontological change is is implied). Of course, not all learning is significant enough for this pain to have lasting effects. Sometimes more than one perspective can be held simultaneously, sometimes humility comes more intuitively, sometimes thew change will strengthen relationships and not damage them. But the pain is always there. And when dramatic learning occurs over years and decades, the pain can be just as sharp, especially in relationships--relationships not only with individuals but with groups and ideologies. One might find themself alienated from a perspective with which they once identified and in which they found comfort and resolution. Learning can create not only understanding, but perhaps even more fundamentally, a great uncertainty. 

I often feel this pain of learning, this pain of alienation from a former perspective and its adherents. Much of my spiritual formation has been influenced by Evangelical sources. It was from very conservative people in a very conservative Evangelical context that I learned to appreciate the Bible, to read it and study it, and to worship God. My love for scripture and my commitment to the fundamental importance of the worship of God are products of this perspective. But I have learned... changed a lot over the years. In many ways, I am miles away from where I used to be. I sometimes have to remind myself that not only did I vote for George W. Bush in 2004 (which wasn't too terribly long ago) but that one of my main reasons for doing so was because I thought he'd keep gay marriage illegal for good (much of my angst concerning this issue, and the sense of urgency with which I approach it, comes from an embarrassment and anger toward how I used to think). There was a time when I thought that you had to believe in Evolution, vote Republican, and read the Bible like a rule book to be a Christian. Yes, I have changed dramatically over the years. My learning--which has come from nothing less than a commitment to the study of scripture and to a fundamental responsibility toward the authentic worship of the God revealed through scripture--has lead me toward what I would've once called a "liberal" perspective (I don't think I'm really a liberal). I believe that scripture reveals to us a God whose love determines God's justice, a God who chooses people over rules (who's only real motivation to make rules in the first place is love for people), a God who constantly opens God's circle... who indeed demolishes the walls of every circle which might exclude people from acceptance. In short, scripture and worship have lead me to a place where I am now alienated in significant ways from the very people who taught me to value them. 

I can handle a debate... I have to if I want to have any place in scholarship... but the most painful accusation that gets thrown at me by conservatives with whom I would have once agreed is that I disregard or don't care about scripture. That accusation represents to me perhaps the greatest pain of my learning. The ideas I have put to death in order to learn from scripture are the very ideas that some people herald as the ideas of scripture. To be so misunderstood as to be accused of insincerity or infidelity by the very people from whom I came is still painful, no matter how sure I am of their ignorance. My learning has caused me, in fact and ironically, to lose credibility with some of the people who are most important to me, the people with whom I thought I might have gained credibility through studying scripture. 

So I guess this can simply serve as a warning: real learning is not easy. It is painful. But I believe it is worth the pain. The greatest shifts in history--think, for example, of the civil rights and women's suffrage--were birthed with great pain in learning. I do not regret that I can now look at my gay and lesbian brothers and sister as... well, brothers and sisters, and not as a problem for society or objects for biblical correction. I do not regret that I can now find not only support and authority but also illumination from scripture. And I don't claim to be the most faithful Christian or the most competent reader of scripture, but let no one doubt my sincerity in worship or my commitment to scripture. My faith has not lost its simplicity--the simplicity of loving Jesus--and the scripture is more alive to me than ever before--alive and untamable, not literal and tyrannical. As painful as learning may be, it can indeed give life to faith, even if that faith is no longer the faith of conservative Evangelicalism.