Ponder with me, the migratory behavior of birds—the beauty and wonder of avian flight patterns. Think, for example, about the bar-tailed godwit. Weighing just 10 ounces, it boasts the longest nonstop migration path of any bird. Every year, this stoic wader covers around seven thousand miles, flying from Alaska to New Zealand without pausing for food, water, or sleep. Ponder the ruby-throated hummingbird. In preparation for its biannual journey of two thousand miles, this colorful creature will feast for a week, doubling its bodyweight in fat. Then, flapping its wings approximately three thousand times per minute, it carefully manages the calories so as to arrive at the target destination without a hint of surplus podge. Muse upon the bar-headed goose. Though its migration path is relatively short, the journey from Mongolia to India involves a pass over the Himalayas. Thus, soaring to altitudes of 7,000 meters, this fearless member of the two-winged community must fly on only 10 percent of the oxygen available at sea-level.

These fun anecdotes (and many more) come to us courtesy of countless ornithologists who have worked tirelessly to understand their subject matter. The migratory behavior of birds is a fascinating field of study. At the same time, each discovery has been met with some fresh unknowns—questions about flight paths, the answers to which are hibernating in some far-away land. How do birds navigate across land and sea with such immense precision? Why do some birds fly clockwise, while others (from the same flock) counterclockwise? And why exactly do most songbirds migrate at night? Do they forgo the navigational advantages offered by light for a less turbulent atmosphere, cooler flying conditions, fewer predators, or all the above? As the collation of data persists, and new hypotheses abound, our curiosity only grows. The migratory behavior of birds is an awe-inspiring phenomenon to behold.

At this point, you may be double checking your URL. Like a sparrow confused, did you accidentally land on the wrong website? What relevance is bird migration to the pastor, seminary student, or average church member? Certainly, the annual routines of the great snipe do not impinge directly on your daily decisions. Whether a bird migrates to Africa or Australia does not change your choice of coffee in the morning. But such does not render the information irrelevant. The migratory behavior of birds is worthy of our contemplation. Why? Because it is an example of what might be termed serendipitous learning.

Pertaining to the incidental acquisition of knowledge, wisdom, or beauty, serendipitous learning is a unique kind of education. Rarely do we seek it (in any formal sense). And seldom do we anticipate its trajectory. We do not sign up for a class in serendipitous learning. Nor do we foresee its effect on our lives. Most often, this kind of instruction seeks us out. It overtakes and confronts us with the happy end of broadening our limited horizon and increasing our perception of the world. Two minutes ago, you were probably ignorant of the behavioral patterns of the godwit. Now you are not. You’re welcome.

Pertaining to the incidental acquisition of knowledge, wisdom, or beauty, serendipitous learning is a unique kind of education.

Commenting on the value of serendipitous learning, Yuval Levin draws attention to its distinct form, and effect:

Among the most valuable benefits of living in society is the miracle of serendipitous learning: finding ourselves exposed to knowledge or opinion or wisdom or beauty that we did not seek out and would never have known to expect. This kind of experience is not only a way to broaden our horizons and learn about the ways and views of others, it is also an utterly essential component of what we might call socialization. Being constantly exposed to influences we did not choose is part of how we learn to live with others, to accept our differences while seeing crucial commonalities, to realize the world is not all about us, and at least abide with patience what we would rather avoid or escape.1

What is required for serendipitous learning? By virtue of its incidental nature, the question is difficult to answer. On the part of the student, we might simply say, an inquisitive mind. Indeed, a hunger for learning is perhaps the only prerequisite necessary to stand as the ready recipient of unsought out wisdom. (For this reason, it is often children who are the most frequent beneficiaries of serendipitous learning. Not yet saddled with responsibility, their minds prove fertile soil for beauty or the wisdom to seek a harvest.) But there is more. Beyond an inquisitive disposition on the part of the student, his environment must be rightly configured. Since the whole enterprise depends on a unique intersection of knowledge and the mind, society must play its part. There is an unstated yet necessary layout to the classroom of serendipitous education. And it is with respect to this detail that we begin to notice some problems.

Levin points to the deleterious effects of social media. Governed by algorithms that continually narrow our experience of the world, we are guaranteed to see only that which we already know and affirm. Levin writes:

Such algorithms are a particularly important source of this loss of serendipity online. They are designed to predict our preferences, and so to ensconce us in exposures and experiences we might have chosen, rather than ones we would never have known to want. They affirm us rather than shape us. Therefore, they are forms of expression more than means of formation. We might say that in moving large portions of our social lives from the streets of the city to the arena of social media, we move ourselves almost literally from a mold onto a platform.2

Our submission to these algorithms comes by way of the social media “feed”: a brilliantly constructed series that deceptively presents itself as a fully orbed picture of the world. And their effect on us can be seen by considering our response, the “post.” With the Alps, the pyramids, or Sistine Chapel as a backdrop, the twenty-something influencer submits the next selfie. Well-meaning, he intends to show something of his experiences. “Look at me!” “Better than a day in the office.” “#loveitaly.” In reality, he confirms that he is a product of his time. His perspective is narrow. And his interpretive grid meanders between self-affirmation and self-elevation. “The grandeur of the world is my backdrop. Unfathomable beauty is my stage. I stand at the center.”

Again, the blame for this ironic inversion cannot rest wholly with its proponent. Though not altogether naive, the egophile also is not as adamantly self-absorbed as we might suspect. Rather, he has been conditioned to think according to a particular logic. His virtual utopia continually upholds his convictions and shields him from all others. Thus, over time his perception of the world is one that only ever acquiesces to his thoughts. He is the focal point of all that goes on. When this is his reality, how else would he view the Great Wall except as a mere backdrop?

The online age has encouraged an intense form of individualism.

Thus, Levin is surely right. The online age has encouraged an intense form of individualism. With it has come the loss of serendipitous learning and an ever-diminishing appreciation of the world. We stand affirmed, yet ignorant—cognizant of our perspective, unlikely to encounter new ones. And of course, the problem does not end with Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. The paradigms to which these platforms adhere are readily identifiable in everyday life. With consumerism as a willing catalyst, society has reengineered itself so as to sequester all unwanted knowledge from our purview. The more a business can affirm my preferences, convictions, and limited perspective, the more likely I am to give them my money. Why intrude on my safe space with an expression of wisdom I did not seek when you could tell me that “chai tea lattes are great; you should buy that again”?

So, toward what end is this decline leading us? Most immediately, we might point to the strain it places on meaningful communication. Discussion and debate are now harder than ever because neither party can conceive of a viewpoint that differs from their own. Deference and humility are in short supply in the Twitter-sphere. In turn, this affects the caliber of leadership we can anticipate moving forward. The well-informed, even-keeled statesman may soon become a relic of history (if he has not already), as the next generation of leaders heralds a myopic vision of what the world could be. But, perhaps the most far-reaching, all-encompassing consequence of serendipity’s death pertains to our sense of purpose. As our diet of learning aligns evermore with a mere review of our established choices, we steadily lose our way. The world becomes smaller, our sense of wonder evaporates, and we are left asking the question, What’s the point?

Sadly, the remedy for such a scenario is not easy to administer. Not only are the constructs of society being reconfigured to ensure that we have an ever-diminishing perspective of the world, but with each successive shortening of the horizon, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the individual to abdicate his throne. The endorphins of affirmation are more powerful than the fear of futility. If the disconcerting thought should arise that perhaps we have lost our way, it can be quickly silenced with another Facebook post informing the community of our most recent success. As the “likes” accumulate, we are persuaded afresh that nothing is wrong, and our limited bubble of existence is saturated with significance.

Thus, even the most persuasive appeal for open-mindedness is destined to fail. A genuine antidote will come by addressing not the issue of individual perspective but that of identity. If the question has arisen, “What am I doing?” to this a response must be given. And it is here that we find that God’s Word issues a triumphant response.

In the very first chapter of Scripture, we behold the majesty of God, who creates the heavens and the earth. With unmatched authority and corresponding ease, He speaks, it is, and goodness abounds. For twenty-five verses this majestic rhythm is maintained. “God said . . . and there was . . . and He saw that it was good.” The resultant tableau is an iridescent taxonomy of the sun, moon, stars, waters, earth, fish, mammals, and birds. Then, the metronome slows. The creation tempo meanders towards a gentler beat. Indicative of theological significance, this shift in narrative pace beckons us to look more intently on the pinnacle of God’s creative work—humankind.

We stand as ambassadors, projecting the Creator in ways and degrees not attainable by anything else in the universe.

Invoking for the first time the divine plural, “Let us,” God makes the enigmatic yet profound declaration that man and woman will be fashioned “in His image” (see Gen. 1:26). In so doing, the Creator decrees that we will inhabit the world in a manner unique to the rest of the created order. Notwithstanding the self-evident glory of the lion, the eagle, or the horse—humanity alone will be stewards of the imago Dei. Implying the idea of representation, the status of image bearer establishes Adam as an emissary of the divine. We stand as ambassadors, projecting the Creator in ways and degrees not attainable by anything else in the universe. “Let us make man in our image” points to the unfathomable privilege of communicating God.

Further, we may note that as guardians of the imago Dei, we inhabit a role of regality. Attested to elsewhere in the ancient Near East, image bearing was the preserve of kings. It was the monarch alone, dressed in royal robes, who represented his god. Hence, when Adam receives the imago Dei, he is simultaneously instructed to exercise dominion over all creation (Gen. 1:28). God establishes humanity as vice-regents—entrusted with the royal prerogative of making known the divine.

Proper consideration of this doctrine portends a multitude of implications. Ethically, it endues human life with unparalleled worth (Gen. 9:6). Shedding the blood of an image bearer cannot be overlooked. A reciprocal response is required. Correspondingly, the image of God binds us to speak honorably to one another (James 3:8–10). Curses spoken against another vice-regent form an implicit confrontation with the Creator. Concerning salvation, the imago Dei compels us to pursue Christ. He is the perfect representative of God the Father (Col. 1:15), and through Him alone we can find reconciliation.

Returning to the issue of serendipitous learning, our role as image bearers also implies a particular disposition in society. God has placed us on earth to represent Him. To fulfill that office faithfully, we must know something of the Creator and His creation. We must learn of the One for whom we are ambassadors, and the environment in which we are to project His image. Stated otherwise, we cannot successfully represent God unless we have a robust understanding of ourselves, in the world, under His sovereign rule. Thus, we see that as stewards of the imago Dei, it is incumbent on us to engage with society. As we seek to project God, we must also learn. We should be present in the world, receiving the manifold iterations of other image bearers. Indeed, successfully fulfilling our role as emissarial vice-regents necessitates a balance between projecting and receiving. We must both communicate, and apprehend, the divine image.

Practically, this requires an intentional effort to resist many proclivities toward individualism. It necessitates a readiness to be present, with others, in a variety of different circumstances. We must choose to situate ourselves amid an actual community, not merely those online. And we do so always with a disposition of humility. We gladly acknowledge that there is much we do not understand, perspectives yet to learn. Thus, when an image bearer is truly cognizant of his role on earth, it is not surprising to find that his calendar is full. He plays an active role in various groups, and committees—many of them unrelated to his line of work. When an image bearer understands his responsibility to project and receive God, it is anticipated that he keeps up many friendships. His network of meaningful relationships is extensive. He spends time with a host of other image bearers, many of whom think differently to him. And the common thread throughout is his readiness to learn. Appointed by God as a vice-regent over creation, he continuously seeks opportunities to perceive the world from a new vantage point.

A biblical anthropology tells us that we were made for more.

The persistence of such an attitude will invariably yield at least two significant benefits. First, by taking seriously our role as image bearers, the pathways to serendipitous learning will be established afresh. By situating ourselves in society, with a desire to learn, new and unforeseen knowledge will assuredly find us out. The mother who has accepted a role on the school board will strike up an unexpected friendship. Through this relationship she will hear points of view and convictions that are not her own. She may not embrace them, but she will be challenged by them. And her life will be richer for it. The forty-something businessman who enrolls in an art class will learn much more than how to paint a still-life. Through the example of his professor, he will grow in his appreciation for that which is not merely business. For the first time, a life spent pursuing something other than profit margins will appear valuable. The young college graduate who takes a job abroad will be exposed to worldviews not her own. She will receive projections of the divine image that go beyond anticipated cultural differences. Over time, she will learn to love such transcontinental diversity and to cherish the experience of being far from home.

The hypotheticals are endless. The point is simple: when we understand our role as stewards of the imago Dei, we avail ourselves of new learning opportunities. And when we do, our education will consistently transcend our expectations. With the world as our classroom, we are instructed in ways that we did not anticipate. The miracle of serendipitous learning is experienced anew, many times over. And with this exposure to unforeseen wisdom, knowledge, and beauty, comes a maturation of perspective—a better estimation of ourselves, in the world. We grow in our ability as citizens; we better live amid others; we become more faithful image bearers.

A second benefit that derives from a right understanding of our purpose in God’s economy pertains to our happiness. Intimated in the examples above, growing in our ability as image bearers offers greater enjoyment of the world. With each new effort to apprehend the imago Dei, our curiosity is aroused, a sense of wonder is provoked, and we revel in the glory of God’s created order. Naturally, this logic appears contradictory to those ensconced in the culture of self-affirmation. The aforementioned YouTuber fears that if he steps away from his bubble, he will be desperately sad. His make-believe world only ever congratulates him. How could his departure lead to anything but misery? But of course, he is wonderfully mistaken. It is when we dare to be vulnerable—situating ourselves amid many other vice-regents—that we become genuinely fulfilled. A reinvigoration of serendipitous learning—by way of stewarding the imago Dei—breeds deep-seated contentedness. Those who habitually perceive great things readily rejoice. They grow in their praise for the Creator, they marvel at the wonder of His creation, and they celebrate their appointed lot.

Ours is a time in which serendipitous learning has been marginalized. The auspices of individualism, consumerism, and utilitarianism work against it, and they are predominant. The implications are exacerbated as a series of algorithms determine what we see. Like never before, our perspective is foreshortened. We do not see what we most need to see, as our apprehension of the world is rendered according to our preferences. A biblical anthropology tells us that we were made for more. As image bearers, we were designed to behold wonderous things. Indeed, a continual perception of glory is necessary if we are to fulfill our role faithfully. To this end we must give our attention. According to this privilege, we must order our steps. There are no shortcuts or quick fixes. To be a vice-regent, we must ponder the songbird.


  1. Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream (New York: Basic, 2020), 124. ↩︎
  2. Levin, 125. ↩︎

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