Climbing Mount Slippery (From the Archives)

I have blogged before about the metaphor of the slippery slope and suggested variations on itor rejecting it entirely. The image came up again in my Sunday school a while back, 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 toreverse 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.

  • Anonymous

    The difference, I suppose, would be that one would climb by seeking to understand their political views philosophically, instead of through scripture. It would still be ‘faith seeking understanding”, wouldn’t it, just not faith in “God”, but a “good society”, or “good government”….

  • angievandemerwe

    The difference, I suppose, would be that one would climb by seeking to understand their political views philosophically, instead of through scripture. It would still be ‘faith seeking understanding”, wouldn’t it, just not faith in “God”, but a “good society”, or “good government”….

  • Anonymous

    People are biased against changing their beliefs so I’m not sure the slippery slope exists in Bible scholarship.
    http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/I do, however, think there are times when those who made the slippery slope argument have been vindicated (though I do not think there is a method to predicting which times it will happen and which times it won’t beforehand).  Megan McArdle pointed out several justified slippery slope claims several years ago.http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005244.html

  • http://digestofworms.blogspot.com/ admiralmattbar

    People are biased against changing their beliefs so I’m not sure the slippery slope exists in Bible scholarship.
    http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/I do, however, think there are times when those who made the slippery slope argument have been vindicated (though I do not think there is a method to predicting which times it will happen and which times it won’t beforehand).  Megan McArdle pointed out several justified slippery slope claims several years ago.http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005244.html

  • Gary

    Good analogy….climb up with knowledge and scholarship (to view a wider world). Slip down to the depths of the valley, where the view is limited, with fundamentalism. Although the fundamentalist views it just the opposite. As in another post, you can use Leviticus for scholarly investigation on the history of Aaron priest rituals, but PLEASE don’t try to develop any holy or moral lessens from it.

  • Gary

    Good analogy….climb up with knowledge and scholarship (to view a wider world). Slip down to the depths of the valley, where the view is limited, with fundamentalism. Although the fundamentalist views it just the opposite. As in another post, you can use Leviticus for scholarly investigation on the history of Aaron priest rituals, but PLEASE don’t try to develop any holy or moral lessens from it.

  • http://thechurchofjesuschrist.us/ Joel

    good! this was one of my favorite posts!

  • http://thechurchofjesuschrist.us/ Joel

    good! this was one of my favorite posts!

  • http://likeachildscience.blogspot.com lac

    Thanks for linking these posts. I wanted to let you know yours wasn’t the post i was referring to (I wasn’t reading blogs in early 2010;). It was actually some posts on Biologos and perhaps Jesus Creed, neither of which tackle NT higher biblical criticism as much as I’d like.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks for your comment, Like a Child – and for your blog post about this subject. I suppose that while I may have denied the existence of a slippery slope at one point, my effort here was not so much to deny that there is a slippery slope as to reconfigure the way we think about it. I would be interested to know whether there is any sense in which my attempt to invert the image and the direction, and connect it with education, resonates with you at all. 

    I’m glad I wasn’t among those you felt to be trivializing your experience! And as always, I appreciate your sharing your experience through your blog!


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