Vertigo is another reason why there are so few lifelong learners.
Last year, a friend, a lifelong learner, asked me: Why are there so few lifelong learners? He’s referring to Americans, including Christians. It’s a good question, given that most Americans believe they are lifelong learners. How can that be?
Most folks are referring to continuing education, learning more about their field of expertise, typically related to work. Using this definition, three-quarters of Americans say they are lifelong learners. And they are, but there’s a better, wider kind of lifelong learning.
Yep, there’s learning that widens our imagination, learning outside our field of expertise. This kind of lifelong learning describes no more than 10 percent of any given population. These learners enjoy unlearning, what Mark Twain said is “the essence of education.”
It gets harder the older we get. According to a World Bank study, the brain’s ability to learn decreases with age, so the effort to learn must increase with age. At age 29, ability and effort cross paths. After 29, increasing effort is required to learn anything new. This is likely why most folks spend the rest of their lives merely recycling what they learned in their 20s.
This includes what most Christians learned about God, the gospel, the world we live in. After the age of 29, few ever unlearn any of their assumptions. C. S. Lewis noticed this in introducing students to the medieval universe. “The Medieval Model is vertiginous.” It’s dizzying, lofty, what is called “the enchanted background.” In being introduced to it, students experienced what Henri de Lubac called the “vertigo of the imagination.”
Faith is a widening of the imagination. Widening begins with feeling vertigo, what often happens in students taking my course on the medieval universe. I ask them to watch U2’s Vertigo. It’s a song about opening our minds, widening our imagination, looking at things in a different way. I sense most of the students are drawn to this. Others are not so sure.
I think I know why. I came to faith in the modern western evangelical tradition. I’m grateful for it, but I never knew how it’s characterized by a quest for certainty rooted in the Enlightenment. We evangelicals are often like Steve Martin in Parenthood. He wants certainty, life as a merry-go-round—but “that just goes around,” says the grandmother. It’s nothing. “I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”
We get more out of vertigo for it’s not recycling what we believe but arriving back where we started, except that our imagination (our faith) has been widened, what wrote T. S. Eliot describes in Little Gidding: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
Augustine spoke of such a “widening” that can only happen by loving what is partially known. Partially—not completely, not with complete certainty. “Whoever thinks that in this mortal life a man may so disperse the mists of bodily and carnal imaginings as to possess the unclouded light of changeless truth, and to cleave to it with unswerving constancy of spirit wholly estranged from the common ways of life—he understands neither What he seeks, nor who he is that seeks it.”
This has been my experience as a believer, except that I’m a late bloomer, so I first felt a sense of vertigo as I was nearing 40. I read The Myth of Certainty (Daniel Taylor). I discovered certainty is an Enlightenment myth. Then I stumbled upon Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence. I unlearned. Faith is not certainty but proper confidence in God. Confidence is flexible, open to unlearning how we imagine God, the gospel, the church. Certainty is not.
Within a year, I discovered I had been making an ascent to the next meadow every ten years. Hadn’t planned it, just sensed every 10 years that what I had learned to date was at risk of being stuck on a merry-go-round. I had to ascend to the next meadow. But with each ascent, I had to leave behind friends who don’t like vertigo. The increased effort to unlearn and ascend feels to them like disloyalty to God, the gospel, their church.
I don’t blame them. I don’t judge them. It seems that every other day I entertain thoughts of plateauing. I get tired. What’s kept me ascending (I’m now 67) is how much higher and wider and deeper the faith feels to me these days. It’s wondrous but dizzying, vertiginous. Imagine what it’s like to be married to me.
So, at the end of the day, it seems to me it’s partly appreciating vertigo that makes us lifelong learners. But it’s also being in a wondrous marriage, appreciating my very flexible bride, Kathy. The combination seems to be what make a few of us lifelong learners.
 C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1964), 98.
 Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 45.
 Enarrationes in psalmos, in Ps. 142, 12.
 Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (University of California Press, 1967), 140.