The Art of Distinction

Theology has long been held by its admirers as the queen of the sciences. This may seem strange to the modern or postmodern ear, but think about it from the perspective of faith seeking understanding: “unless I believe, I shall not understand.” The corollary to faith seeking rational explanation is that faith is itself supremely rational. Until you understand theology you cannot hope to truly understand anything else. And thus theology is the most distinguished of all arts, the greatest pursuit of the mind of man. [Editor’s note: for those of you wondering who’s the king, let it go. Queens can also be #1.]

My experience of theology leads me to believe that it is not merely the most distinguished art but also the art of distinction. As one learns about God, the Christian faith and life, the purpose of the world, he finds himself drawing lines in the sandbox. What was once “save yourselves from this wicked generation” becomes a vast network of this-not-that, of orthodoxy, heterodoxy, heresy regarding salvation or soteriology.

But is that right? Doesn’t this inevitably lead to hair-splitting? Should those who would follow Christ spend so much energy debating its finer points at the expense of all the Bible commands? While there is no doubt a point at which theology goes overboard, I think that looks different to different people. Perhaps what looks like hairsplitting to one person is really of central importance to the faith. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if every undistinguished matter seemed frivolous to most people.

Yet I think that learning to distinguish is the nature of learning in general. To borrow an analogy from Dr. Freed (who undoubtedly borrowed it from someone else) an infant might be prone to call a dog a cat—which is forgivable to a certain extent since the two have so much in common. But only once the child has learned what distinguishes dog from cat can she see reality for what it really is.

Anselm said he wanted to see a glimpse of the truth of God that he already loves. Is that asking too much? I think it is at the heart of worship; God humbled Himself, even humiliated Himself to reconcile humanity to Himself. God sent His Son that we might have fellowship with Him. Perhaps we evangelicals have overextended the concept of having a personal relationship with God, but it is indeed the Gospel truth. And it is in the context of this relationship that we cannot help but want to know Him better.

Of course, we must guard against missing the forest for the trees, being so caught up in minutia that we lose the purpose, the big picture, the One we pursue. I love the insight Jaroslav Pelikan brings to this in Fools for Christ: we do not seek God merely to gain knowledge of what is true, as though God were just a means to an end. And we do not seek the truth in order to gain access to God as though knowledge itself could save us. Instead we seek God for who He is and we get truth as an added benefit because it flows from God’s nature.

So there it is. We’re coming up to that turn in the road where you can finally see the whole landscape from your window. Are you ready to take it all in? This art of distinction is learning to truly appreciate the view, and the things we will see are the most breathtaking you could behold.

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