Climbing Mount Slippery

I have blogged before about the metaphor of the slippery slope and suggested variations on it or rejecting it entirely. The image came up again in Sunday school this week, when Scot McKnight (in his book The Blue Parakeet) problematized the notion that changing your mind in one area automatically leads down a “slippery slope” to liberalism.

As I thought about the image once again, it seems to me that the image as it is most commonly used is precisely backwards. Here’s why:

First, in my experience, changing your mind on one topic doesn’t automatically lead to a rethinking of other areas which logically ought to be affected by the change. Educators will tell you this. Pastors will tell you this. I think everyone knows it to be true in their own experience. It may be that those who are concerned to be logical and think things through will eventually realize the additional implications of changing their mind on the topic in question. But it is rarely automatic, much less a fast and direct path such as the downhill slippery slope metaphor suggests.

Second, even when education, reading, and/or thinking suggest that we need to change our minds about our cherished beliefs, we rarely do so willingly. Anyone who has had their assumptions challenged, whether in a university classroom or an informal conversation, will surely acknowledge that they did not immediately confess to having been wrong and undergo a complete revision of their thinking. We resist. We deny. We look for counter evidence and for arguments that will prevent the change. Sometimes, the mere fact that someone we respect continues to hold the view we wish to cling to will encourage us to do the same, even if we have amassed an incredible number of reasons and arguments that are pushing us to change our minds. Sometimes we say “I don’t see any logical reason why I should continue to think or believe this, but deep down, in my heart, I want to, and so I will.” That’s hardly a slippery slope.

Or maybe it is, but one that leads uphill from our assumptions and upbringing rather than downhill. Perhaps education and learning are best likened to a climb up a slippery slope. The easier path of least resistance is to return to old habits of thinking and action, even after learning new and improved ways of doing things. Whether you are learning to play an instrument or studying the Bible, old habits re-emerge naturally, and it takes effort to improve our playing, our thinking, our understanding, or anything else. The slippery slope lies behind us, and learning is not something that puts us in danger of falling downhill, but allows us slowly and painfully to climb upwards.

And so I find myself less inclined now to ditch the problematic notion that exposing yourself to new and different ideas takes you down a dangerous slippery slope, and more inclined to reverse it. Exposing yourself to new information will potentially allow you to climb to higher ground and see further than you currently can. The slippery slope is a real danger, but the danger is that you will prefer to stay put and seek the security that seems to afford, or in spite of learning and growing will allow yourself to slip backwards down the slope.

The real danger is not that education will lead you to change your mind more than you had hoped. The real danger is that we are able to resist and avoid changing our minds, even when things that we have learned provide us with good reasons to do so.

And so let’s challenge those who think they are in danger of sliding down a slippery slope if they learn new things to join us in realizing that the slippery slope rises before them, and only by exposure to new information can we climb upwards and hope to see more clearly from higher ground.

Sliding down does have its pitfalls, but climbing up is by far the bigger challenge.

  • Dan Wilkinson

    I'm always amazed by those who see danger in critically examining their own beliefs—who are fearfully of tumbling down a slippery slope. But who defines the slope? Who determines what's at the top or at the bottom or in which direction one is heading? One person's slippery descent towards the bottom is another's tedious climb to the top, and the top of that slope may merely allow one to better see the long trek up a much larger mountain.

  • Beyond Words

    I was doing research on cognitive dissonance theory yesterday, and this posts fits right in. We try all sorts of coping mechanisms to relieve the tension when we encounter contradictions to deeply held beliefs and changing our beliefs is usually the last resort. Your suggestion that we have the slippery slope reversed builds on a thought that I once explored: there's no danger of slipping if evidence exists that gives us solid footing for a belief. It's only a lack of evidence that could allow us to slip.

  • CH

    The unsung hero in the slippery slope metaphor is gravity. I like to think of gravity as representing truth or reality. Gravity is the force that pulls us down the slope. For those who have dared to venture away from their dogmatic purchase, truth inexorably pulls them down the slope questioning and discarding the fantastic.

  • Timo S. Paananen

    Another metaphor I've seen used is duck theologian – a person diving under the water of religious studies only to emerge some years later (with a diploma) completely unscathed, completely unchanged. No amount of biblical studies will challenge the old habits of reading the Good Book.Metaphors are so ambiguous I don't know anymore if they have their uses or not. They are powerful in the manner they can illustrate our particular points of view, but every use of a metaphor can be challenged by another use of a metaphor, even if one has to make one up on the spot.

  • James F. McGrath

    Timo, I like the metaphor of "duck theology". Now all we need to do is put the pond somewhere on the slippery slope, put the duck there too, and find some complicated but entertaining way to mix our metaphors! :)CH, I think we'd need to include in your analogy the many very creative ways that humans have come up with of resisting the effects of gravity! :)

  • Don

    I have found your post to be very true in my own journey from conservative Southern Baptist for 59 years, to liberal, almost Unitarian credos in the period of five years!