"In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists."--Eric Hoffer quoted by Jeanne Liedtka, professor of Business Administration, Darden School at the University of Virginia.
Let me provide two disclaimers at the beginning of this discussion. First, my undergraduate education was in History with a minor in Religion and Philosophy, so I have always been interested in the past and how we got from there to here. I still think we need to understand the implications and lessons of our history in order to make good decisions about the present and future. Second, I am currently blessed to serve as an adjunct faculty member for a theological seminary with many learned and gifted colleagues. Most of their disciplines are thoroughly rooted in the past—theology, history, biblical studies. Again, if we are to understand who we are now, we need to have a grasp of how got here.
With that established, I would argue that Hoffer (and Liedtka, by association) are not suggesting that our history is not unimportant or that we should ignore learning about it. They are arguing that we should be present in the moment. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before but we are not limited by their experiences. We have our own experiences upon which to build.
The truth of the quote is that if we rest on our laurels, that is, only value what we have learned in the past, we miss the opportunities of the present. We must immerse ourselves in the reality of the now in order to respond to its challenges.
From a Christian perspective, the church has always been in the process of learning. When the early disciples engaged the Greco-Roman culture of their day, they took advantage of language, philosophy, and law to articulate more clearly their message so that they might that engage the people of their day. They did this not in their own power but in the power of the Spirit.
In the upper room discourses in John’s gospel, we read the words of Jesus preparing his disciples to engage the world:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12, NIV)
It is not too bold to say that Jesus expected his disciples to learn, grow, adapt and listen to the leadership of the Spirit in order to be faithful to his mandate of sharing the Good News.
To be a Christian learner, one respects the past but is not bound by it. Rather, the Christian “dances in the moment” and responds to the insights of the Spirit of God in order to bring in the Kingdom of God. In so doing, the church is renewed, refreshed, and repurposed for the challenges of the day.