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.
The 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:
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.
I 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.