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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

Forget It! 2024 New Year’s Message | January 7, 2024 Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake


I try, therefore, to allow myself to be taken by the force of all living life; forgetfulness...

There is an age when one teaches what one knows.

But there follows another when one teaches what one does not know...

It comes, maybe now, the age of another experience: that of unlearning.

                                                                                         -Roland Barthes

I had read this quotation in Rubem Alves’ magnificent work, Tomorrow’s Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture before re-rereading it quite recently. This reading stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps it was because the semester at Pacific School of Religion was ending, and I was attempting to assess what it had meant for the students and me. Always, I have been guided by the idea of the role of the teacher being that of helping students come and stay alive during the semester and hopefully beyond.

I subscribe to Loren Eiseley’s understanding of teaching.


The uses of a great professor are only partly to give us knowledge: his real purpose is to take his students beyond knowledge into the transcendental domain of the unknown, the future and the dream – to expand the limits of the human consciousness. In doing this he is creating the future in the minds of men. It is an awe-inspiring responsibility, and the men to whom this task is given should be chosen with all the care of which society is capable. The teacher is genuinely the creator of humanity, the molder of its most precious possession, the mind. There should be no greater honor given by society than permission to teach, just as there can be no greater disaster than to fail at the task. The evolution of man, which is still near to its animal beginnings, demands guidance by precept and great example. The teacher alone is in a position to supply that guidance through the long years of man’s impressionable youth. He must teach men not alone to dream, but to dream so substantially that they will never in after years capitulate through weakness to the demands of a passing and ephemeral materialism. It is in the nature of man to transcend himself. All teaching which neglects this aspect of humanity will end in failure. It will fail sooner or later because it constitutes a denial, in fact, a deprivation, of human nature.


Naturally, the quote from Barthes seized my attention. The second sentence “when one teaches what one does not know...“ was disturbing enough on the initial reading. However, upon reflection, I understand that the professor does lead students to vistas of knowledge not known or experienced by the teacher. So, I’m okay with the second sentence as well as the first. The idea of unlearning, however, is more than challenging. If we make ourselves available, we may be rescued by unanticipated sources.


For me, it was the film, Forgotten Love. Forgotten Love which takes place during the interwar period in Poland. A brilliant surgeon, Rafal Wilczur, leaves a press conference where it is announced that a new wing at the hospital for impoverished children has just been established due to Wilczur's insistence and financial assistance. Wilczur will head the initiative. Upon arriving home, he learns that his wife has left him taking their beloved daughter, Marysia, with her. He searches for them and ends up being savagely beaten by hoodlums and left to die. Interestingly, his coat is found but not his body. Fifteen years later, he resurfaces in the countryside, with complete memory loss. He calls himself Antoni Kosiba, a name he purchased from someone else. He meets a woman and one of her workers who has seriously injured his arm while dealing with a wheel that abandoned their wagon and crushed his shoulder. Antoni restores both the wheel and the arm. Zośka, the woman, invites Antoni to come work at the mill that she owns, which he does. Although he has no memory of being a doctor, he performs serious surgery and other methods of healing. One day a medical partner from the past ends up in the village. He does not tell anyone, not even Antoni, who Antoni was or his association with Wilczur. He warns Zoska, who is now in a love relation with Wilczur, to contact him if memories begin to emerge. This could be problematic. And this is the line that for me, opened vistas of understanding. She responded: “Why should he want to remember? He’s happy now!"

Memories can lead to unhappiness. Many of our New Year’s resolutions put the past at center stage with the vow not to go down that road again. Resolutions too often fight the past rather than live in the present while the future beckons to us. Leave last year’s baggage at last year’s station. Become a new engine.


John 3:3f

English Standard Version

You Must Be Born Again

3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born again.’ 8 The wind[e] blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Nicodemus recognizes the deep connection with God that this teacher, Jesus, has. Otherwise, Jesus could not have brought about miracles in the lives of the people. Nicodemus cannot accept the fact that the empowering life of Jesus is due to his freedom not to cling to laws made for the past that need to stay in the stagnant past. New birth for the kin-dom is required. Letting go of laws that cage him rather than emancipate.

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? (Wow, Jesus! Are you embarrassing Nicodemus or seriously telling what he should know, or should unlearn?) 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you[f] do not receive our testimony. 

Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “Your traditional ways of thinking and acting are not satisfying. You know that. That is why you have come to me. Yet you refuse to abandon those ways because you are too lazy to imagine the rebirth of our culture.”

I am imploring each of us to be available to the new, the new wine and to be new wineskins by accepting the awesome wonders of the new year, new teachings, and new experiences, not prejudiced by the shortcomings in your past.

Malidoma Patrice Some says in Ritual: Power, Healing and Community “The clock tells you everything and keeps you busy enough to forget that there could be another way of living your life.” I would add the calendar. The clock and the calendar...

What of Barthes’ unlearning idea that so disturbed me? Are there things that we need to unlearn? What about what we have been told about the nation’s inception and how it sustains itself? How about the cultures and lack of significant contributions of subjugated people? What about the lie of rugged individualism? What about the criteria for designating a nation as developed or undeveloped? What about the sanctity of the capitalist economies? What about independence rather than interdependence? How about the idea that nature is to be exploited for the benefit of human beings? What about self-preservation as the first law of nature? What about disdain for people without housing? What about punitive justice rather than restorative justice? What about territorial claims rather than global cooperation? What about the idea that there can be victors in war and that war is a legitimate way to resolve conflict? Please add what you think should be unlearned to the list. What do you need to unlearn to grow in wisdom, knowledge, and understanding of our cosmos and our role in it? What do you need to unlearn to have a juicy heart, to find courage, to learn to think beyond the box, to abandon norms that are suffocating? What do you need to abandon to live with intention the life you were spanked into this world to live?

What do you need to abandon to engage the new year with confidence, courage, commitment, and creativity?

“Because life is dynamic and we are deeply alive, the end of the year can only mean the end of the year, not the end of life, not the end of us, not even the end of time. We turn our faces toward the year being born with a riding hope that will carry us into the days ahead with courage and with confidence. The old year dies; the new year is being born ⁠— Long live Life!

The beginning of another year means the end of a year that has fulfilled itself and passed on. It means that some things are finished, rounded out, completed forever. It means that for some of us certain changes have taken place so profound in their nature that we can never be what we were before.

The New Year means a fresh start, a second wind, another chance, a kind of reprieve, a divine act of grace bestowed upon the children of men. It is important to remember that, whatever the fact may have been, it cannot be undone. It is a fact. If we have made serious blunders, they are made. All our tears cannot unmake them. We may learn from them and carry our hard-won lessons into the New Year. We can remember them, not with pain, but with gratitude that in our new wisdom we can live into the present year with deeper understanding and greater humanity. May whatever suffering we brought on ourselves or others teach us to understand life more completely and, in our understanding, love it more wisely, thus fulfilling God’s faith in us by permitting us to begin this New Year.

– Howard Thurman



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