In the adventure comedy “City Slickers,” the grimy, gristled, rough-and-tough cowboy Curly slowly raises his index finger in a gnarly old leather glove and proceeds to expound on the meaning of life. “The secret,” he says, “is one thing, but you have to find that one thing for yourself.” Curly won’t say, or even hint, at what that one thing is.

Was it gold? Guns? God? The people in the audience are left guessing, wondering, and perhaps asking themselves, What is the one thing? What is my one thing? Great questions for all of us to ponder.

The Bible actually agrees with Curly. There is really only one thing that we need. Here’s how the psalmist put it. “One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I will seek; That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life...”(Psalm 27:4) Jesus told Martha, who was getting on Mary’s case for not helping with dinner preparations, “Only one thing is necessary.” (Luke 10:42) Jesus told the rich young ruler, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22)

The one thing is not mere head knowledge – it is experience. The blind man Jesus healed said he didn’t know whether Jesus was a sinner or not, but  “One thing I do know...though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25) The apostle Paul used slightly different words to say the same thing when he told the Corinthians: “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) Paul’s one thing was bound up with the message of the cross and the signs and wonders produced by the Holy Spirit, proving that Christ had been raised from the dead and was reigning from heaven. Later Paul, admitting that he was anything but perfect, said, “One thing I do...I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13-14, emphasis added)

This one thing is what all of us want in our deepest heart of hearts, that part of us which is the image of God calling out to our Creator. It’s what most youth group leaders and pastors want their people dearly to experience and appreciate. And unfortunately, it’s something many people miss.

The whole idea of one thing hints at a tension in the spiritual life between faith (pursuing Jesus, loving God, being sensitive to the Holy Spirit) and knowledge (trying to systematically figure things out and logically fit them together). This tension goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, where God told Adam and Eve they could eat of any tree, including the tree of life, but they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately the broad permission became an obsessive prohibition, and Adam and Eve decided to put knowledge first rather than trusting God.

This tension plays out in what we might call the faith-apologetics continuum. At one pole you have faith, the spiritual, one thing mentality that – with support from Curly and the Bible – says we really only need to concentrate on the one thing; everything else is peripheral or downright distracting. This attitude can lead to intellectual laziness.

At the other pole you have an intellectual, many things mentality that – appealing to wisdom and the intellectual tradition of the Church – seeks to prove the rational certitude of Christian faith; everything needs to be relentlessly logical. This attitude can lead to intellectual snobbery.

It seems that in the churches people are usually heavily leaning toward one or the other of these poles. What perspectives can be brought to this state of affairs?

First, let’s remind ourselves of the Bible’s recommendation to us to get wisdom (Prov. 16:16; 23:23); Paul’s effort to meet the Athenians on their own terms (Acts 17:16-34; 1 Cor. 9:19-23) and of the best of Christian thinking through history. If we want to bring the gospel to people effectively, we don’t want to be unprepared.