Can Learning Be a Spiritual Exercise?

"There's a saying that you lose your faith by degrees -- bachelor's, master's and Ph.D," a friend of mine told me in graduate school... of all places.

Studying religion, especially one's own, is a dangerous thing. Inevitably, assumptions and presuppositions no matter how dear are subject to doubt. This friend of mine, super smart, and a real up-and-coming leader in his church, nearly dropped out of our academic seminary. Trained to read the Bible in only one way and with narrowly prescribed interpretation, it's a wonder he was ever there at all. But he loved learning about the Bible's history, its layered stories and the power of its multivalence. He left that church, stayed in school and has returned to (a different) church.

Raised in a mainstream Christian tradition and then having earned a Ph.D. in biblical studies, I've wrestled to balance faith and learning. There's no denying that what and how I believe has changed with my studies over the decades. And it seems that there's no end to the changing! This effort to reconcile knowledge with belief is humbling, even exasperating at times, but mostly it's exciting and deeply satisfying. Lately, I've been thinking how learning itself might be a kind of spiritual experience.

Most religions promote an opening up of the self, a giving over and giving in to something far greater than one's own experience, knowledge and abilities. For me, learning about the Bible constantly pushes me to open mind and spirit to what may be new, radically new. That there are so many different voices in the Bible, that its literature grew up over time and represents historical contexts spanning centuries, and that it continues to be translated and interpreted, retranslated and reinterpreted in our times and places, makes learning about it inexhaustible. I don't mean to suggest that one cannot know certain things about the Bible.

As a matter of fact, I wrote "Bible Babel" to help readers get a handle on some of what we do know about the Bible so that they can make sense of it for themselves. But such knowledge can lead to new and deeper ways of contemplating questions great and small. And I wonder if God isn't there, somewhere in the open-hearted humility of learning about and through these timeless texts.

There is a Zen saying, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." To maintain "beginner's mind" in the context of what is familiar is a challenging practice but richly rewarding. Ego-less, it liberates the imagination and allows compassion a place from which to grow. Learning, studying, meditating all require beginner's mind. Simple yet so sophisticated, the wisdom to be a fool.

An ancient Jewish story tells of a man who challenged Rabbi Shammai to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Shammai's response: No way! Shammai's respect for the sacred instructions of God made it impossible for him to tolerate what he considered such insolence and he sent the man packing. The man went next to Rabbi Hillel and posed the same challenge. Hillel's response by contrast was, "That's easy. Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary, now go and study it."

Notice how Hillel's answer doesn't end with this spin on the Golden Rule but goes on to challenge the man to work out for himself how all of the Torah -- its stories, laws and poems -- extrapolates on that one, simple statement. "Go and study," he said.

When Moses encountered God at the burning bush that didn't burn up, he was given an odd command: "Take off your shoes." God went on to say that the ground on which Moses was standing is holy... as if that explains it. Why the sandal removal? Why stand barefoot on holy ground? Maybe in order to experience the presence of God, to know God better by the enigmatic name "I Am" and to discover God's purpose (liberation, in that story), one has to take off whatever might stand in the way.

Even in the face of anxiety and discomfort, let go of the accretions of ideas and presuppositions that stand in the way of learning. Strip down and be open. Take off your shoes. Then, maybe, it's not so much that a person loses her faith in the process of learning about the Bible. Rather it's a loss of sorts in order to gain something greater (to paraphrase the gospels). That is, in opening oneself for the sake of earnestly seeking to understand God's Word, maybe one loses a flat and static faith to gain a multidimensional faith that is as dynamic as it is enduring.

Kristin Swenson is the author of three books including the national best-selling "Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time" (Harper 2010) to help readers learn more about the Bible -- what it is, where it came from and what's in it. She has written for Publishers Weekly and Christian Century and is associate professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Visit her Web site and blog at