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Cafeteria Christianity

I get a little rush of tickly bubbles rushing through the irony centers in my brain whenever I hear religious leaders complaining about “cafeteria Christianity”. They rant in disgust in reaction to some Christians’ exercise of freedom of conscience, saying that they’re making a mistake by thinking that they can just pick and choose what aspects of Christianity they want to practice, as if they’re at a religious cafeteria, where they can fill their tray with the theology that they like, and ignore the theology they don’t like. What these leaders suggest instead is a kind of tortured family dinner, in which the Mother Church forces the helpless toddlers at the table to eat whatever is given to them, even if it’s the most disgusting, unhealthy slop imaginable.

That gives a new meaning to being saved. They expect us to eat ideological leftovers that have been sitting around, unrefrigerated, for centuries.

st paul cathedral iconicThe irony comes from the fact that these authoritarian religious leaders are themselves just picking and choosing the aspects of Christian ideology that suit them. They go along the Bible Buffet, and pick up all the little bits that can be used to justify their hunger for centralized theocratic power, and choose not to eat the little bits that suggest that religious practice should be a personal matter for individuals to consider on their own.

I found a representation of this choice between the authoritarian meal and the meal of free conscience in my experience of different churches as I went walking through London last week.

The biggest church there, of course, is St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s difficult to walk across London and not see that cathedral, as big as it is. I suppose that’s the point. The church was built as a demonstration of the authority of the Anglican Church, rivaling the authority of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. This was one of the churches that entered lustfully into battles of religious genocide, killing people who thought that they were free to eat as they chose from the cafeteria of Christianity, founded by a king who had his wives’ heads removed when they ceased to suit his interests.

With this ruthless alignment to violent authority, the Anglican Church gained power over the generations, until it was able to summon the wherewithal to build its super cathedral, a majestic building that no one could ignore. Visitors to London seem unable to ignore it to this day. Walking across a pedestrian bridge over the Thames, St. Paul’s gawkers stop and snap pictures of the building’s iconic structure. They pay obeisance to the Anglican Church’s crown architectural achievement with ever snap of their digital cameras.

But, that’s the far away view of St. Paul’s cathedral. Up close, cafeteria Christianity comes back into focus:

st paul cafeteria

People may hop inside St. Paul’s cathedral to get an inside glimpse of its glorious dome, but where they linger is on the steps of the church, eating the meals they’ve bought from the restaurants that line the plaza in front of the building. In front of St. Paul’s, a food court has been erected, with yummy snacks for tired tourists.

With all its grand columns and impressive statues, there was no actual religious worship going on at St. Paul’s when I visited. The structures of power seemed to make room only for a superficial show of the symbols of peity, and the ordinary business of life has filled in the gaps.

essex unitarian churchI happened upon a very different kind of religious architecture as I was walking through Notting Hill the next day and passed the Essex Unitarian Church. This church was miles outside of the center of London. There are no Unitarian churches in the center of London at all. The Unitarians have never assembled enough muscle to push their way into those streets. There has never been a Unitarian theocracy, or a Unitarian crusade. Unitarians have been marginal in the history of political power, and now, Unitarian-Universalists have evolved to eschew the authoritarian approach to both political power and moral conscience.

So, the Essex Unitarian church was quite small in comparison to St. Paul’s cathedral. It was on a side street. No one else was on the sidewalk trying to take this photograph alongside me. It’s not a tourist destination, because no well-known historical figures were involved in its construction. It has never been the scene of political intrigues or memorable events, as far as I know.

The events going on at the Essex Unitarian church are, on the other hand, quite meaningful to the people who enter the building. When I peeked my head inside the building, the front two rooms were filled with people engaged in their own form of spiritual practice – yoga in one room, still meditation in another. As far away from the physical center of the city as the church was, it was nonetheless a real, functioning center for its members.

The lesson of this vision of churches in London is political as much as religious. When authoritarian leaders attempt to force the consumption of meaning as they see it, they create large, enduring structures that are relatively empty of personal meaning to the people who enter them. When people are free to construct their own meaning out of their experiences, on the other hand, their creations are likely to remain small and difficult to find, yet ready to serve an ongoing function that is personally relevant to those people who happen to find them.

23 thoughts on “Cafeteria Christianity”

  1. Jacob says:

    Did you stop at the churchs in the middle? You picked the big obvious political church and the YMCA church that truely has the buffet style. Both are cafeteria but just in a different way. One is structured and force feeds crap, the other is completely open and nothing matters. The Unitarian websites even claim that if you believe God is real, thats ok, if not, thats ok to. They are ‘Christians’ athiests, agnostics, monothiests, trithiests. Its the same cafeteria, just with unlimited choices where you can use clay to build any god you want to worship. Things get much easier when you can build god to meet your needs

    1. J. Clifford says:

      Do they get easier, Jacob? That’s a big assumption. I’d like to hear you explain it. Also, there’s a difference between having the freedom to discover meaning individually and adopting an attitude that “nothing matters”. You’ve confused the two.

  2. Jacob says:

    No, there website declairs that it doesnt matter what you believe. God will sort it all out in the end. No confusion, thats exactly what they say. It does get easier when you can use your own presupositions to look into truth. If I say that I feel God would never send anybody to hell I read the Bible thinking how can I defend my thoughts and I come up with a different thought then someone who says “is hell real? what does the bible say of its own accord on the subject” thats not an assumption either, its logic. if i dont have to challenge my beliefs then im always right

    1. J. Clifford says:

      Jacob, it would be nice if you could direct me to the particular statement you’re referring to on the Essex Unitarian church web site so that I can see what you’re talking about. I’ve searched for “doesn’t matter” and “does not matter” on the web site, and here are the statements I can find:

      “Courage is learning to TRUST that the outcome doesn’t matter.”
      “It doesn’t matter how you imagine the divine, because amazingly enough all the various concepts lead to similar understandings of right relationship.”
      “Some Unitarian Universalists employ God language; some do not. It really doesn’t matter.”

      Are these the statements you were referring to? If they are, then you have some explaining to do. These statements are not saying that “nothing matters”.

      I don’t agree with these statements, actually. I think that the structure of ideas does matter. However, I also think that the freedom to explore ideas matters, and so I’m not going to support efforts of religious authoritarians to force conformity of belief.

  3. Jacob says:

    My understand of “Essex Unitarian church” is that it is one pice of the church. Its like “Main Street Baptist” or “First Methodist of New York”. If you go to the donominational page you will find

    “Unitarian Universalists include people who identify as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and others. As there is no official Unitarian Universalist creed, Unitarian Universalists are free to search for truth on many paths. ”

    “To quote the Rev. Marta Flanagan, “We uphold the free search for truth. We will not be bound by a statement of belief. We do not ask anyone to subscribe to a creed. We say ours is a non-creedal religion. Ours is a free faith.”

    It doesnt matter what you believe. Everything goes and therefor non of it matters. This also comes from them

    “Unity defines heaven and hell as conditions in the here and now. They are not places where people go to spend eternity”
    so, none of it matters…
    Salvation to the UU is a guarantee.
    once again it doesnt matter, you are saved because you exist. even if you believe in no God your ok. nothing matters here on earth
    The enter idea that there is no truth at all whatsoever lends credence to the fact that nothing matters lends crediance to the fact that what you believe doesnt matter. Its all subjective and up to persona interpretation. Its based on feelings. It may matter to the person but to the church at large NOTHING maters, it all gets worked out in the end.

    1. Jim says:

      “Ours is a non-creedal religion” does NOT equal “it doesn’t matter what you believe.”

      I’m not a UU but I have been to UU services. In my experience, UU members and leaders alike have a conscientious attention to matters of belief and seem to feel very much that “it matters,” so much so that they take on the responsibility for carefully considering such matters themselves, refusing as a matter of conscience to simply conform to some authority’s say-so on the matter. If your understanding of the UU approach is that everything, everybody and every action is simply all OK, then I’d suggest you really don’t understand the UU approach at all.

  4. Kevin says:

    Jacob, you’ve got a hard head there son….

    “The enter idea that there is no truth at all whatsoever lends credence to the fact that nothing matters ”

    what? I am sure UUs would agree that a statement such as “people with normal vision usually see the sky as blue” or “light travels at such and such a speed in a vacum” as true.

    Or definitions such as 2+2=4 as “true”.

    so you are wrong there.

    The point it that it does not matter what various words you use to describe life, because all words are human and are, in the end, meaningless.

    Feelings, other peoples feelings, a contribution to your fellows, emotional and physical support to your cohort,
    these things are real.

    When you are dead you are worm food. There is no soul and no afterlife. THis is it.

    Somehow, that makes it even MORE meaningfull than before.

    1. Jacob says:

      So you are 100% positive that there is no God?
      What if there was one?
      What if heaven and hell are real?

  5. Jacob says:

    no the same idea. If I told you that all math lead to the answer of 4 you would stop doing math. It would no longer matter. No matter what things look like the answer becomes 4. You are talking a basket of apples and pointing to them yelling “See! No oranges!” If all religions or not religions leads to the same end result it doesnt matter. The same thing happens to everyone regardless…

    What does the UU see as absolute truth? Show me something that they believe strongly in. Heck, show me something they almost all believe in besides the fact that it doesnt matter what you believe.

    1. J. Clifford says:

      Jacob, the Unitarian Universalist Association does not dictate beliefs, therefore, there probably isn’t anything that almost all Unitarian Universalists believe. That isn’t the point of the organization. The point is to support the individual’s responsible search for truth and meaning. There is no creed in the UUA. That also means that there’s no central belief of the sort you identify, that all religions lead to the same end result. Some Unitarian Universalists might say such a thing, but they don’t speak for Unitarian Universalists when they do.

      I think it’s difficult for you, Jacob, to imagine how people can live without an authority telling them what to think. That issue was at the center of this article, and is reflected in the difference between the physical structure of an Anglican church and a Unitarian church in the same city.

      As for your belief in God, well, that’s swell for you, but the questions you have about God and Hell and such things just aren’t important to me. Are questions about whether Krishna was a divine being important to you? Do you ever find yourself wondering, “What if Valhalla is real?”

      1. Jacob says:

        O, and what is the point? What unites this ‘church’? I think there is more unity at the local YMCA. At least there evertone agrees that working out is good. At these churches there is nothing that you can point at and say that is important.

  6. Jacob says:

    You might be suprised. You seem to make some HUGE assumptions about me and my beliefs. How about, “it’s difficult for you, Jacob, to imagine how people can live without an authority telling them what to think” I have spent a long time studying and even left the faith of my family. I have very little contact with my family because I am considered a freak for my beliefs. If you could prove that God was not real and I was living in vain I would be happy to hear it and yes, I spent A LONG time looking into other beliefs in the hope that I was wrong. Life would be much easier if I was wrong. In regards to Valhalla, I have never been in combat and do not plan on being in such so I dont need to worry about it. In that same vein I can rule out Odin and Freyja’s feild and Folkvangr. Only people who died in combat would go to either place, but yes I am quite versed on Norse Mythology and a large portion of other religions. You work under the assumption that people who believe what I believe have had this crammed down their throats since childhood and that they are simply living what they are told to live. You fail to understand that many people choose this after searching everywhere after great personal loss and that in believing this we are in fact rejecting the authority of our lives and moving away from our roots. You also seem to think that we blindly follow along believing everything we hear and not studying at all. The fact is there is more “Christian” garbage on Earth then all other philospies combined. It would be quite impossible to listen and follow all of the “Christian Authoritys”

    The amazing thing is that just on this one blog I have been called “hard headed” and talked down to because its difficult for me to understand. Weird how the people who are soo open get very closed minded around me… Everyone elses ideas could be right but the idea that Jesus is God, well, not that idea.

    1. Jim says:

      We’re open about your right to express yourself and your right to believe what you want to believe. We’re not open about the idea that we have to pretend your ideas make sense when we don’t feel they do. There’s a difference.

      Funny how when it comes to you you’re asking us to be open, but when it comes to the UUs, you criticize them for being open.

  7. Jacob says:

    Im not asking you to be open and I dont plan on being open unless some Earth shattering eviedence is brought forth. Im simply pointing out that you are open to all possibilities but one… You seem extremely offended by the Gospel and are closed to it but you are open and celebrate a group you have stated you dont agree with

    1. Jacob says:

      Of course, the gospel is offensive. Being told that you are a sinner is always offensive… Hmm, guess the Bible was right on that too…

    2. J. Clifford says:

      No, I think that there are plenty of ideologies that we’re not open to, not just Christianity. Search, for instance, for “clean coal” or “unity 08”. We’ve done some pretty good mocking of Buddhist mysticism in the form of adulation of Ram Bomjon. We’re not at all open to versions of Islamic stupidity, such as throwing riots over cartoons. Heck, I’ve written articles riticizing certain writing by Unitarians. Ooh, and try searching for “Breatharian”. No, Jacob, this accusation of being open to all possibilities but one really doesn’t stick.

  8. Jacob says:

    You have writtin A (singulair) article on many many things. How many would you say you have written on Christians?

    1. J. Clifford says:

      No, we’ve written multiple articles on those subjects.

  9. Jacob says:

    On a side note, I feel like the only reader here during the days… The recent comments are almost all me and you here recently…

    1. Jacob says:

      I just did a small search and looked at the things you told me to. There are a couple of posts at most on many of them. The I did a search for Jesus and after what seemed like a thousand articles i got bored going backwords to around may 2005. I didnt read all of the 1,000. Maybe someday I can look into it a bit more but I did scim the titles and I read a couple. I didnt see any positive at all in about 5 years and a thousand articles so yea, Im going to say it sticks pretty well that Irregular Times is less open to Jesus then anything else in the world…

      1. Jim says:

        Consider that you’re going to be unsatisfied if you expect us to agree with you about your religion.

      2. J. Clifford says:

        Look, we wrote about Unity08 for years. I went after Breatharians for months straight. Ram Bomjon has been an ongoing target. You were saying that we’re open to everything but Christianity – that’s clearly not the case. Right?

  10. Tom says:

    “God forbid” (as my 85 yr old mother says) that people actually interact and think about their religious beliefs, and decide for themselves what works for them going through life. Strict dogmatic churches will become obsolete for most thinking people in the long run (witness the great exodus from the Catholic church, possibly as a result of their policy on priests being able to marry).

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