Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
AS we go through school, we work with a basic assumption about learning. Learning is incremental. You first go to school and learn basic skills, such as addition and subtraction. Then, you move up to the next stage of multiplication and division. From there, you proceed to algebra. If you continue to learn in math, you go into calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra. What we learn previously serve as the base for what we learn in the future. In college, this is represented by having prerequisite, basic level courses before you can sign up for more advanced coursework. In our education-centered society, this form of learning is so intrinsic to us that we make the assumption that most, if not all learning, is essentially progressively incremental in nature.
However, this is not the only form of education. Sometimes, we must unlearn some things before we can learn. For instance, if you believe in the conspiracy theory that the earth is flat, one would have to unlearn this belief and all the propaganda that is given in service of that belief before one could proceed to genuinely learned about the science of the round earth. If you think that all white people from Mississippi are racist and redneck, you would have to unlearn that stereotype before you can see the many anti-racist Mississippians.
While learning in subjects where the field of inquiry is relatively fixed and narrow, it is unlikely for false beliefs to propagate the field of study. However, when we are dealing with the more complex domains of human life, we are much more likely to insert false beliefs that hinder our ability to come to a deeper understand of the truth. This is because we are inclined to be egocentric about our beliefs and when it comes to complexity, we (over)simplify so that we can feel that we know how to be safe and comfortable rather than coming to a reliable truth on the matter. This need to feel safe and secure leads us to belief false things about life and the world, but these false beliefs are regularly rooted in fear.
When Paul addresses the Gentile audience in Ephesians, he reminds them of the way that Gentiles live. Their minds are darkened, living in ignorance and with a hardened heart. However, Paul tells them that they did not learn Christ in this way. All their ways of life that they had learned in the Greco-Roman world they had to unlearn in order to be taught and receive Christ. Yet, the truth is that their unlearning was only partial, as Paul feels the need to continue to exhort them to distance themselves from this previous way of life. In order to continue to their growth of their minds, along with putting on the new self, they would need to continue to unlearn their past ways so that they could continue to progress in the renewal of their minds.
This isn’t how we are training to think as Christians today in the West, though. We work from an incremental assumption that what we learned early on is a solid foundation for learning deeper truths later. Yet, the truth is so much of what we learn about Christ early on in our faith isn’t a solid foundation for the depths of godly wisdom and insight, but it is a syncretism of Christ and our cultural backgrounds and upbringing. When we treat our beliefs early in our faith as foundational for our later maturation of faith, rather than the person of Christ, we build on a faulty foundation, living in the incremental assumption that our early knowledge is foundational for our later knowledge.
This is not the way we learn and grow in Christ, however. The disciples were routinely shocked and surprised by what Jesus said and did, including most notably in His crucifixion. In order to learn who Christ is and come to deeply comprehend Him and His words, they had a lot of unlearning to do. Their Jewish upbringing, even as it contained echoes of the truth was not going to give them the satisfactory foundations to know and understand Christ.
Similarly for us, when we study the Scriptures, especially giving focus to Jesus’ words, the way we read and interpret is largely a factor of our cultural, traditional, and educational backgrounds. We unconsciously fit the meanings and significance of Jesus’ words into the salient, practical concerns that we have for ourselves, our community, and our society. Perhaps we even get a bit more academic and study history, languages, etc., but even then, our learning in these fields are largely conditioned to our previous learning.
We can’t escape this reality; it is just the case. Nevertheless, this reality does not fix our destiny. By unlearning, we can open our hearts and minds to receive something new about Jesus and His Words from the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean we forget everything we learn and come to Jesus’ words with a blank slate, but it means that we become freer to hear God’s Word from the vantage point that the Spirit is instilling within us. If God’s life is what the words of Jesus is giving to us through the Spirit and the world does naturally not have this life on it’s own accord, this means that to understand and experience this life that Jesus’ words speak to, we have to unlearn before we can learn. Not only do we need to do this once, but we need to do it again, again, and again so that what emerges from our understanding is the new life that the Spirit continues to bring about in us, rather than the old way of life that we have learned.
The problem with the incremental assumption of learning when it comes to faith is that we don’t recognized how much our old life has influenced and controlled our understanding of faith. Rather, we grow confident about our incremental learning, as our confidence in what we learned early buttresses our confidence in our later learning. This is why those of us Christian who have gone down an academic direction can sometimes be some of the hardest to unlearn and learn afresh, as we have ‘learned’ about God without unlearned much of what we “knew” early about Jesus. This leaves us often times coming to Jesus like Nicodemus, trying to fit His words into largely earthly, fleshy frame of reference and being unable to shift perspectives to understand from the Spirit is bringing about in our lives.
Now, lest one think “unlearning” is unbiblical and thus not valid, there is synonym term for “unlearning” that is quite Biblical. It is called repentance. It through repentance that the control that our sins born out of fear can become broken and we become freed to continue to learn Christ into the renewal of our mind. It is by this unlearning, by this repentance, than people can move from those who believe in the name/reputation of Jesus to being people who are open to be taught by the Father and become drawn to the true Christ in the Scriptures, rather than the reputation that we ascribe to Him, in order to believe in Him and experience the life that comes by continuing in His word as that which is ultimately part of God’s direct self-expression of Himself.