The Slippery Concept of Slippery Slopes
It was encouraging to hear the brief conversation between N. T. Wright and Peter Enns on the nature of a “slippery slope.” Dr. Wright correctly pointed out that American culture has an overlay of biblical and social positions that aren’t replicated in Europe (where Biblical orthodoxy might lead to support for a social safety net, for example). The dialogue also opened up the realization, implied in the title, that the “slippery slope” can slide rightward as well as leftward. At the conclusion of the piece (2:20, to be exact), Dr. Wright suggests that we are often guilty of substituting our own framework to judge others, rather than doing the deep work of biblical or theological examination.
This final point, given while they were wrapping up, is in fact the most important piece to consider. It underscores the reality that it is hard to find actual evidence of “slippery slopes” in either direction. As a sociologist, I admit that social definitions of acceptable behavior do change over time. But we too often exaggerate the significance of such change and give it more weight than necessary, especially if we don’t look at the totality of forces at work. It is true that movies today have harsher language and more violence than movies when I grew up. But one shouldn’t argue from that a decline in society overall. During that same time period, we have seen significant changes for the better in health care for children, changes in labor laws, and an end to de jure segregation. Society is a complicated entity and it can be difficult to suggest the impact a given change will or will not have over time. There are just too many unintended consequences, and indirect relationships to support generalizations.
Twenty years ago, a teaching colleague had a poster on his door that illustrated how evolution was the crumbling foundation underpinning homosexuality, abortion, divorce, crime, etc. (forget for a moment that all of those behaviors existed before the 20th century). I discussed the poster with that colleague, as well as the argument I am advancing here on why social decline arguments leave us wanting. Let’s say we agreed to disagree.
The larger implication of Dr. Wright’s thoughts rests in theology and not simply in sociology. Sociologically, human society has always attempted to distinguish appropriate behavior from that which is seen as inappropriate. In the late 19th century, Emile Durkheim argued that such definitions are such a part of the social order that we would draw ever smaller circles until even religious leaders were seen as deviant.
The more important theological question is why we engage in these definitional practices. As Christians, we are committed to loving God with our entire minds and bringing all aspects of life under his Kingship. And yet we so easily put ourselves in the place of believing we know best. In the extreme form, we appear to be protecting God from difficult matters which can only be seen as a form of idolatry.
I believe that it is impossible for us to fully know the ways of God but we are always tempted to assume He must agree with us. Quite simply, we misappropriate the certainty that we are acting for God. We define certain stances as the only correct stances. Too often the stances we defend just happen to be our stances and we defend them because they are ours, not because they are God’s. Movement from our stance can be a threat to our security. God, whether we realize it or not, may have little to do with it.
This is an essential element of each individual’s patterns of belief. We are tempted to attribute our positions to the Creator. (For example, the Apostle Paul tells his readers in Philippi how he was zealous for the Lord in persecuting Christians.) This is, I believe, a constant in the human condition. Human nature causes us to think that we are able to think the thoughts of God. Throughout the history of the Church one can find evidence of stances taken that are attributed to God’s intent. Our position, we believe is at the top of the slippery slope and all other positions are lower down. We know God’s intent, and it just so happens that it corresponds to our own. Remember the first temptation in the Garden? Was it not the serpent who told Eve, “…when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God…” Who wants us to believe that our views are the ones at the top of the slippery slope—that we alone are the ones who can discern good and evil? Is it God who wants us to believe that? Or does God tell us, just as God told Adam and Eve, that such confidence is evil—because it separates us from each other and through eating it, we distance ourselves from God.
There are, of course, alternative paths of openness in the New Testament Church. The Galatian council examined how a Gentile could be a faithful believer without conforming to Mosaic law. This openness to new insights (tellingly told in Acts 10-11 as Peter has his encounter with Cornelius) allowed the Church to become the world-changing force it has become.
One more thought about social change. As a Wesleyan, I hold that the Spirit of Christ himself is working in my spirit to bring me to new understandings. Importantly, I also hold a high view of rationality and experience tempered by the voice of Scripture. This is a significant matter. The working of the Spirit in an immanent reality means that I may find new ways of understanding a scripture message, but these are not steps along the perilous slope but in fact a new solid place to stand. That voice bringing affirmation to my soul, mind, and body is something I rely upon to hold me steady in an ever changing world.
If our discussions of faith and science or faith and learning could remain motivated by a stance of eagerly listening for that Quiet Voice, our work would be less polarized and political and the World may see our courage.
John Hawthorne has spent the past 30 years in Christian Higher Education as a sociology professor and college administrator. He earned his PhD in sociology in 1986 from Purdue University. His research interests focus on articulating Christian community in congregations and schools. He currently lives in the greater Los Angeles area.