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Slip and Slide

Over the last little while, The Biologos Forum has been posting a conversation between Pete Enns and N.T. Wright dealing with various questions about faith, culture, science, politics, etc. Today’s video has to do with the perception, in parts of the evangelical world, that there is a “slippery slope” in evangelical-dom and that it always goes to the left (i.e., to more “liberal” understandings of faith).  The questioner wanted to know if the “slippery slope” argument could also be applied to the right?

It’s an interesting question to think about.  It’s also, regrettably, a question that Wright doesn’t seem to directly address.  His response in the video is something to the effect that the whole “continuum” understanding of political, theological, and social positions is an unhelpful one, and probably more of a reality in the United Stated than anywhere else in the world, and that we should all just be more willing to learn from all kinds of different people and positions.  Fair enough.  There is certainly much to be affirmed in Wright’s response.  I’m not sure we can avoid thinking in terms of spectrums and continuums, but Wright’s plea to take a step back from this whole approach is certainly well-taken.

Having said that, I think the initial question itself is worth probing a bit.  In the first place, the very image of a “slippery slope” seems to assume, at least in my view, a relatively stable and fixed starting point from which to slide.  The way the question is framed—is it possible to “slide” towards understandings of faith that are both “too liberal” and “too conservative?”—seems to assume that the goal is not to slide at all!  That how we think about faith (and, one assumes, politics, science, etc) is pretty much decided, thank you very much.  That the goal of a life of faith is preserve and protect and guard our treasured cargo from the perils that loom on either side of our precarious perch.

I’m not sure that the image of faith as sitting atop a hill, doing one’s best not to slide off either the conservative or liberal side is a very helpful one.  Perhaps a better picture would put as at the bottom or partway up the hill.  Perhaps a better image of faith—and a pretty common one, found throughout church history—would be one of ascent.  We’re not trying to avoid going down (or back) as much as we are actively moving up (or forward)—to God, to love, to peace, wholeness and harmony and all other manner of eschatological goodies (if you’re wondering what an “eschatological goodie” might be, I once attempted an explanation here).

There are obviously better and worse paths to take on the journey up the hill of faith. Some detours might fall into the “too liberal” category, while others might fall into the “too conservative” category, fraught as these two terms are with unhelpful baggage.  But there are times in our journey when we need to slide to the left and there are times when we need to slide to the right.  We don’t know everything, after all, nor do we consistently apply what little we do know.  We’re learning and growing as we go.  That’s part of what the journey of faith is about.

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. I like your post, because I very much dislike the slippery slope analogy. It seems to be used either out of fear or to control what others think, or even consider thinking about. Just as you said, it assumes a fixed point to begin with, and that point is fixed by the authority of the speaker.

    Your post reminded me of another post on the subject. Have you read it before?

    September 1, 2010
    • I think you’re absolutely right about fear and control and the role these play in these kinds of discussions.

      I had not read McGrath’s post before—thanks for the link. The topic of Biblical inerrancy probably isn’t as hot up here in the Great White North, but what he says obviously has application far beyond the inerrancy debate. And I like the skiing metaphor :).

      September 1, 2010
  2. You could even go so far as to say the hill is a mountain, with parts sheer and slow, and we are climbing it with the saints triumphant cheering us on and sometimes even lending a helping hand.

    Great analysis.

    September 1, 2010
    • I like this image very much, Michael. Especially the bit about the saints triumphant encouraging and helping us. We do not journey alone.

      September 1, 2010
  3. The slippery slope argument is a subset of a larger tactic. Call it the ‘if-then’ argument. If you (believe or do this), then (this undesirable consequence will result). It’s a way to undermine someone’s position, and it can be very effective. It’s a rhetorical tool.

    Conservatives use the if-then argument in the slippery slope form all the time. “If you allow gay marriage, then you will also allow polygamy,” is one example. The Left will use the if-then argument in a different way. They might say, “If you oppose gay marriage, then you lack compassion,” leaving conservatives defending themselves against not having a heart. But neither of these ‘then’ statements (lacking compassion or allowing polygamy) logically follows.

    The key is to know that these if-then constructions are rhetorical, not logical. They are meant to persuade and to win arguments. They work, too, which is why people use them.

    September 1, 2010
    • Ken #

      Chris, I think you are right about the rhetorical use of this expression.

      Aside from that, your reference to polygamy reminded me of Luther’s discussion of marriage (and divorce) in “Pagan Servitude to the Church.” It is quite an interesting discussion in which he suggests that it is probably okay for a woman to have sex with a man other than her husband if her husband is impotent (at least if the aim is to have a child.) He was also quite liberal on divorce, at least compared to the literal words of Jesus in the gospels, and compared with the Roman Catholic Church, but still he said he hated divorce. He said he preferred bigamy! (And he probably meant polygamy.)

      In addition, I think that Luther’s analysis of marriage and divorce, and impotence and infidelity, in Paul’s writings is like one of the arguments I heard a liberal evangelical person make for gay marriage: it is better to allow gay marriage than to allow all that unbridled lust.

      Of course, if one is really liberal, nothing is wrong with unbridled lust either, is there?

      September 1, 2010
    • It’s amazing how often rhetorical devices masquerade as arguments in contemporary discourse (although I suppose this is a problem that goes at least as far back as the ancient Greeks). Ephesians 4 is ringing in my ear (“putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another”). I wonder how human discourse would change if we actually thought of our neighbours as “members of one another” as opposed to opponents to be defeated?

      September 1, 2010
  4. Ken #

    I don’t think you have answered the question either: can the slippery slope argument be applied to the right?

    Like Wright, I think you have changed the subject.

    September 1, 2010
    • I guess I assumed my last paragraph made my view clear. We can slide left or right.

      I probably didn’t make it explicit enough, but I think to whatever extent the slippery slope argument is valid (i.e., points to something beyond rhetoric), it can go either way. I think that decisions we make, conclusions we come to, etc around one issue make similar decisions and conclusions about other issues more plausible/likely. I should be clear that don’t think of this at all in deterministic terms, as if conclusion x leads inexorably to conclusion y in another situation. But I think there is some kind of cumulative effect of our thinking and decision-making, even if it is difficult to pin down.

      September 1, 2010
      • Ken #

        I guess you are kind of saying that an evangelical is somewhere in the middle, or that a Christian should be there. I thought your assessment might be closer to mine.

        I think of evangelicals as much closer to to the right extreme than to the left extreme theologically and politically, notwithstanding the examples of some who are clearly left (Marxist) politically like Tony Campolo. I don’t think evangelicals have much room to “slide” very far to the right theologically or politically. Even those on the left politically are generally still quite far to the right of the possible limits of the left. From far left perspectives, even mere liberals are obstacles to change.

        And for the record, I don’t think evangelicals need to move to the left theologically or politically. That does not mean, of course, that their theology or politics is mine. I mainly fear and oppose those religious people, Christian or not, on the left or right who believe their politics is God’s. Otherwise, I don’t really care what their theology is.

        September 1, 2010
      • I guess you are kind of saying that an evangelical is somewhere in the middle, or that a Christian should be there. I thought your assessment might be closer to mine.

        First, “evangelical” is not a term that I tend to self-identify with. I am more comfortable with “Anabaptist” or “Mennonite,” although at times I wonder how well even these terms describe my theology. Endlessly qualifying terms gets tedious, though, so we use the terms we have.

        Second, I’m not necessarily saying I think the middle is always the best place to be. As I said in the post, sometimes I think it’s better to move left, sometimes (although less frequently, in my view) it’s better to move right. My own inclination seems to quite regularly be to the left, but not always. I suppose the question is always “left or right of where?”

        September 1, 2010
      • Ken #

        By left do you mean your inclination is Marxist or liberal? Politically or theologically?

        My impression from your postings has been that your theology is relatively conservative, even though evangelicals irritate you. For example, I have the impression that you believe Jesus really rose from the dead (conservative) but you don’t emphasize the atonement as evangelicals (but not all conservatives) do, and that you dislike the substitutionary version of it associated with evangelicalism. In addition, your reaction to the new atheists strikes me as quite conservative, even while you also write that you believe evolution accounts for the origin of species (liberal.) I also have the impression that you emphasize ethics over belief (liberal, although not all liberals emphasize ethics – I don’t, for example.) My impression has been that your politics are somewhat Marxist, but not nearly so Marxist as my fellow seminarians, and the starting point of your theology does not appear to be Marxist. My impression has been that your politics are also somewhat liberal on cultural issues, although not nearly so liberal as is commonly found in a university.

        My own politics and theology are liberal but not Marxist. I have no quarrel with evangelicals (or Buddhists, Muslims, etc., except for the violent ones.)

        September 1, 2010
      • As I said, the question is always “left or right of where?” Compared to political Marxists and liberal theology of the nineteenth-century variety, I suppose I would be conservative. These are not standards that I often evaluate my theology (or politics) according to, but I can appreciate that for those drawn to these positions I would probably seem quite conservative.

        Evaluated from the perspective of what might broadly be described as historical Christian orthodoxy (i.e., believing that God really does exist, that Jesus really did and said the things that more enlightened folks are convinced that he couldn’t possibly have done or said, etc), I would probably fall somewhere near the middle. In the relatively conservative world that I grew up in and am most familiar with, I find myself pushing left more often than right (in some of the ways you identified above). I realize this is a very different starting point than yours, but we don’t get to choose our contexts, do we?

        September 1, 2010
      • J #

        Ken:

        Something to keep in mind is that Canadians tend not to work with the whole conservative-liberal dichotomy that predominates (at least from a Canadian perspective) in the US.

        For example, unlike the basic choice between Republicans and Democrats in the US, which tend to fall very much along conservative and liberal lines, in Canada we have 5 political parties currently represented in government, none of which would could be classified as completely conservative or completely liberal. Our New Democratic Party, for instance, which has roots in both an evangelical social gospel movement of the 1940s and 50s as well as the communist movement of the early 1900s is now “accused” of being fiscally conservative (at least in the province where I grew up).

        Ryan:

        I’m surprised you didn’t just respond to Ken’s question about where you fall on the conservative-liberal question with the typical Canadian comment: “Depends what issue we’re discussing.”

        September 1, 2010
      • Ken #

        Ryan,

        I imagine if I grew up in your context I would react to it the same way you have.

        In my case, I grew up admiring liberalism, and still do. At the same time, I don’t have negative feelings for conservatives. I see Marxism as an oppressive ideology, one associated with violence greater than even the Protestant Reformation.

        I am conservative with respect to ecology – I see more hope in preservation of wilderness than in progressive sustainability efforts, for example. I believe, as Thoreau did, and Darwin, that in wilderness is the preservation of life. Evolution through emergence is a conservative process.

        J,

        I am somewhat aware of Canadian politics and how the parties differ from those in the U.S. I don’t believe the difference between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. so easily breaks down between conservative and liberal either, even though our media may give that impression, and even though conservatives do seek dominance in the Republican party and labor unions and white liberals and radicals seek dominance in the Democratic party. With Ryan’s background in philosophy I imagine he understands these categories in their historical contexts rather than merely as they are cheaply presented in the media. I imagine that Ryan, like me, has an appreciation for each, even for those that are not our own.

        September 2, 2010
      • Thanks for the reminder of the importance of context, J. And I think I did answer the question about where I fit on the liberal-conservative spectrum in roughly the way you describe, except in a wordier and more convoluted fashion :).

        September 2, 2010
      • Ken, just to be clear, there is much in my background for which I am extremely grateful. My worldview is not a reaction against my conservative upbringing or anything like that. I would like to think that I try to take what is best from the conservative approaches I am familiar with and combine it with what I admire about more liberal approaches. And the result is a perfectly seamless and coherent and wonderfully virtuous hybrid.

        Well, maybe not…

        September 2, 2010
  5. Ken #

    One other thought about the slippery slope and evangelicalism.

    I think maybe the slippery slope fear of liberalism within evangelicalism is that liberalism results in a loss of faith. I think that has largely been true in history. Even Julius Wellhausen concluded that his teaching was leading to a loss of faith. And in my own case, my liberal theology comes with an uncomfortable load of doubt that I don’t wish on anyone.

    I think evangelicals in America have always feared the slippery slope to the right also. Evangelicalism in America began by turning away from a stricter fundamentalism, a turning away that was in the liberal direction, or at least towards popular culture. If there is a loss of faith associated with the slippery slope to the right, it is different from the one on the left. I think that what may sometimes be lost on the slippery slope to the right is perhaps a remembrance of grace, rather than a loss of faith. I remember an evangelical campus minister telling me that he “hit them with the gospel.” One cannot hit with grace. Or, what may be lost is one’s connection with the larger culture and with that one’s sanity.

    September 2, 2010
    • I think your analysis is pretty much bang on, Ken. Certainly the drift to the left is often assumed to be a drift away from faith. I remember well-meaning people in my church telling me to “be careful” when they learned that I planned to study philosophy at university, presumably because my faith was thought to be at stake. There is certainly a load of doubt that comes with a liberal education, although sometimes the element of doubt was there all along and was just waiting for a language to express it. That was certainly true in my case. I would say that my faith did change at university, but for the better. As you say in your comments on the slippery slope to the right, grace is too important to lose, as is the possibility of cultural engagement (and sanity!).

      September 2, 2010
    • James #

      I think that doubt, like pain, is a gift from God and as long as it is evenly applied there is nothing to fear in it. My big quarrel with post-moderns is that they are selective doubters.

      September 3, 2010
    • James #

      I am realizing that life moves along quickly in this medium but the question of Biblical faith and the role of skepticism in it, do keep me thinking. So in that spirit I came across a great Francis Bacon quote-
      “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
      I think this is one of the points at which Biblical faith and science do intersect. I am not optimistic as Bacon that we always end in certainties but IMO there is no place to begin but with doubt.

      September 8, 2010
      • It really is a great quote—although, as you say, it’s not a formula. We’re all familiar with people who begin with doubt and stay there indefinitely. At some point, choice and agency and commitment have to come into the picture.

        September 8, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: Ryan’s “At some point, choice and agency and commitment have to come into the picture.”

        Unless those who hold that it is grace that overcomes doubt (or not) are right.

        Re: James’ “I am not optimistic as Bacon that we always end in certainties”

        Like you, few of us are as optimistic as Bacon these days, not even his brothers in science.

        September 8, 2010
      • I don’t think that choice, agency, and commitment are in any way alternatives to grace.

        September 8, 2010
      • Ken #

        It is an important distinction in the reformed tradition. What does your say?

        September 8, 2010
      • Grace is real. Choice matters. Our choices are one of the means through which grace operates.

        September 9, 2010

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