Monday, April 15, 2013

Thinking in Spectra on the Slippery Slope of Fear

Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition just posted a very thoughtful quote by John Frame deconstructing the reasoning behind the "slippery slope" argument as seen in some Christian denominational examples. At heart, the slippery slope argument goes something like this in a Christian context: "If you accept A, then you must also accept B, and B is unbiblical, so you shouldn't accept A." And this kind of thinking really is all over Christian theological/doctrinal debates. Some examples:
This argument is an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, a disproof of some idea by showing that accepting it leads to accepting something false, only unlike in an actual proof the linkage between the idea being "disproven" and the demonstrably false one is not assured. The progenitor of the argument wants you to believe the slope from A to B is slippery--that once you step onto it it's impossible to avoid sliding down to the end. They may (as Frame notes) provide historical examples of others sliding down the slope. But quite frequently (as in all of the above examples) this isn't the case.

Frame commendably goes the extra mile of trying to look behind slippery slope arguments (emphasis added): "Thus the slippery slope argument appeals to fear—to our fear of taking undue risks and to our fear of being linked with people (such as liberals), disapproved of in our circles, lest we incur guilt by association." We are never told in the Bible to fear anything or anyone but God (Luke 12:5); evangelicals readily apply this rejection of fear to ridicule or persecution from the world, but rarely to bad theology or unbelief. And fear is never supposed to be the motivation for Christians (1 John 4:18). Unfortunately, it all too often is.

You might say, "but the Bible says we should watch our doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16) and see to it that we don't have unbelieving hearts (Hebrews 3:12); isn't it good and godly to fear bad theology and unbelief?" The distinction here is important: these verses do say to watch our doctrine closely and to see to it that we don't have sinful, unbelieving hearts--but they don't say to be afraid of failing at these things. Trying to succeed at something--while trusting in God for success--is quite different from fearing to fail at it. Fear shifts our focus away from what we are striving toward--which is always greater communion with God--and to what we are moving away from.

So Paul describes his own life thus: "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-13) Paul's focus in his spirituality is always ahead (joy), never behind (fear). Being motivated by fear tends to lead to identifying yourself, at least subconsciously, by what you are not rather than by what you are. If you're trying to get away from something, there are any number of places you can end up, most of them wrong, but if you are trying to get toward someone, there is little chance of choosing the wrong destination.

Let me be more practical. I think this kind of fear-motivated thinking tends to lead to simplified, spectrum-focused thinking. It's everywhere in Christianity. Are you conservative or liberal? Works-oriented or faith-oriented? Calvinist or Pelagian? Arminian or hyper-Calvinist? People keep putting their view on one end of a spectrum and the worst possible version of a disagreeing view on the other, then argue that since that view is obviously wrong, theirs should be clung to. This way of framing issues using the mental model of a spectrum reduces the multidimensional, kaleidoscopic truth to a one-dimensional dichotomy. For example, it is a great injustice to the gospel to reduce it to a matter of salvation by faith vs. salvation by works when in reality it is far, far more than this. If either view can be part of a healthy Christian spirituality (e.g. Calvinism and Arminianism), putting the debate on a spectrum (defining people as Calvinists and Arminians and concluding that there is always a conflict that needs to be resolved) also creates unnecessary and unhealthy division between fellow Christians.

Dichotomies and spectra can be helpful for understanding distinctions the Bible makes, but when they are made part of the foundation of your faith or thinking they become idols (or simplicity does) just like anything else. Two application questions that might take some deep introspection and prayer:

  • Am I primarily thinking of myself by what I am, or by what I am not?
  • In my thinking about Christianity, do I tend to define everything according to one issue (other than the one the Bible makes central, being "in Christ")?

1 comment:

  1. It often seems that when we focus on what we are not, we be begin to be less of what we are.