“Well, you know what they say, right?" The portly Christian gentleman leaned back in his chair, nodding confidently at his conversation partner. “The Secret Service trains their agents in detecting counterfeit money by only giving them real money to study. See, if you just focus on the real stuff, the fakes are obvious. That’s how it goes with truth, you know.”
The conversation meandered on, but my eavesdropping screeched to a halt. I was stuck on his analogy, a bold pitch for an easy discernment. It sounds so appealing, doesn’t it? Just study the truth. Just know what’s right. If you do, any falsehood will be startlingly obvious.
In theory the idea sounds promising, but does it hold up in practice? Let’s say an avid hiker bought a guide to edible berries, and opened it to find zero information on deadly varieties and no identifying factors for underripe or overripe fruit. The guide considered it sufficient to describe only ideal forms of the best berries. It may be somewhat informative, but it would be far from useful in the field. Nature rarely conforms to ideals or best examples, the human psyche less so.
Perhaps this is why Proverbs, the most recognized volume of wisdom literature in history, is a study in contrasts. The cascades of comparisons are relentless: wisdom cries out against folly, the righteous are compared to the wicked, the way of honesty is juxtaposed with the path of deceit. Discernment develops in a marketplace bustling with distortions, growing in its unrelenting contrast of truth with lie.
These contrasts fill and shape all of human activity. In secular arenas we often discover provocative graces, while in religious circles we can find piously-robed falsehoods. I headed to the Secret Service's page for detecting counterfeit money and discovered that the story I had heard about their agents was false. In reality, agents carefully examine fake bills and the methods of their creation, closely comparing them with the originals.
The Secret Service analogy turned out to be a counterfeit itself, an enticing claim with a dangerously false premise. Can discernment thrive where there is presumption without contrast? After all, a tree may appear good for food, a delight to the eyes, a thing to be desired to make one wise…