Cafeteria faith


“Young people today, they just pick and choose what they want to believe.”

I hear this often. It’s usually said with a scowl, shaking head, and eyes looking toward heaven. It’s assumed that everyone in my generation has a faith based solely on me, me, me. There’s nothing communal about it. It defies all logic, and there’s no respect for what’s come before us.

And it surprises me. Honestly. Every time I hear it. Maybe it just shows that I’m part of my generation’s milieu. When I hear this frustration, I smile, nod. Then I stare and blink, kind of hard, because I’m thinking, Wow. This is a shift. I want to ask, So, you just believe stuff because everyone before you did? You don’t try to make your faith sensible in your own time, place, and experience? Have you ever thought that it may not be supreme relativism that’s driving us, but an enduring honesty? That we just don’t want to parrot something that feels like a lie?

Robert Wuthnow wrestles with younger generations’ religious beliefs in his book After the Baby Boomers. It’s a valuable resource, an academic reference that I’m sure I’ll keep using. Wuthnow presents what the young adults say about orthodox beliefs, according to Gallup and Harris Polls. And he wrestles with the results, which are a confusing mix of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Carefully looking at different scenarios to explain the complicated beliefs of a generation, Wuthnow points out James Davidson Hunter’s work on cognitive bargaining:

Religious beliefs at the popular level are never quite as systematic or consistent as they are in the minds of theologians…Religious beliefs nowadays, [Davison] argues, are negotiable. Nobody is burned at the stake for denying some particular creedal proposition. Everybody has the authority to make up their own minds. That is how we understand belief–something that is personal, idiosyncratic, and always somewhat tentative (93).

Wuthnow’s example of cognitive bargaining is the orthodox belief that it’s necessary to be a Christian in order to go to heaven. It logically follows that everyone who’s not a Christian is not going to heaven. Since many young adults believe the first to be true, and cannot believe the second, then we come up with other conclusions, like God will find other ways to save non-Christians. This is cognitive bargaining. (I would ask, “Is it logical that a loving God, who created humans for God’s good pleasure, would send billions of people to hell because they were born in the wrong place or into the wrong family?”)

And I would add, isn’t this great? This means that young adults come to religious belief (and to church), not based on societal expectations or because this is what they ought to be doing, but because it’s an authentic expression of who they are. Remember Attack on Christendom? When Kierkegaard was so irritated that everyone was going to church, not because of what they believed, but because it was the state religion, the societal expectation. We don’t have that anymore.

I disagree regarding communal beliefs. I still think that they’re also incredibly important. Our generation is also longing, deeply for tradition. It’s just that we don’t swallow everything, hook, line, and sinker.

So what does this look like in our churches? Well, at Western, we don’t have an Affirmation of Faith in worship, because it’s a huge obstacle for someone who’s struggle on their spiritual journey to have to stand up in a congregation of 200 and say, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth….” Those are just really big words that can mean a whole lot of things in our culture.

Over the years, if you looked into my head, while saying these twelve introductory words, this is what you’d find:

Am I declaring that God is a man? Is Mary Daly right? If God is Man, does it follow that Man is God? What does “Almighty” mean? Does that mean that God is all-powerful? Does that negate our free will? If God’s all-powerful and all-loving, why does evil exist? What about natural disasters? Why does AIDS exist? Why are there so many other terrible diseases? Wouldn’t an all-powerful and all-loving Father do something to help his children? When I say this, am I saying that I believe in creationism? Does this negate evolution? Do I have to believe in a literal seven days? What about the dinosaurs? And heaven? Am I declaring belief in pearly gates and streets of gold, with Saint Peter and a roll book?

I’m not saying that we should can the creeds. They’re extremely important. I’m just saying that we can take seriously that we live in a world where church and orthodox belief are not a given. People may not be ready to stand up and declare everything on their first visit.

So, what does this look like in your congregation?

photo by John Baird

13 thoughts on “Cafeteria faith

  1. I participated in a worship service once where we were invited to stand for the words in that creed and sit for those words that we don’t quite affirm. It was a wonderful experience of what you are highlighting here. It reminded all of us that there are words that we struggle with and that there are some that accept these things without questioning. I find this a lot in the congregation I serve. There are lots that have not questioned and don’t want to question — so when I preach, I get the comment “you’re really going to make us think, aren’t you?”

    I think that faith involves some academic fervor. Perhaps this is my own experience of faith (and the only one I can truly speak from), and yet, the questions are what enhance my faith. When I say these words in the UCC Affirmation of Faith, I’m pushed to recognize how these words bond me to others saying these words and how they impact my own understanding of faith in the here and now.

  2. It took me years to be comfortable saying the creed and now I consider it an expression of faith, an act of yielding to God. Like I said though, it has taken me years to get to this place. I think it makes new comers feel uncomfortable.

  3. Do you use some other affirmation of faith for sacraments? My old church had to write their own creed to use during sacraments, since we couldn’t do the Apostle’s creed–too many detractors.

    Another church I belonged to used to preface with something along the lines of “let us now stand and affirm the faith of our spiritual ancestors….blah, blah, blah, while knowing that God is working in different ways in our time….something like that. It was a way of following the BOO, but not following the BOO.

  4. Oh, sorry…Presbyterian polity overtook my primary comment, which was this: I believe our faith has always been a cafeteria faith. We have always accepted and rejected portions of historical faith, always reformed, always reforming, blah, blah, blah….it’s just that often this required forming yet another denomination. In some ways young adults are wiser than my parent’s generation. They stick with things, even while disagreeing on one or another point, not willing to throw out the proverbial baby, and generally tolerating another person’s differing interpretation pretty well.

  5. I hate the creeds and if I am in church where the recitation is part of the service, I refuse to say them. I object to them on so many levels and I simply can’t, as Marcus Borg can, somehow put an interpretive spin on them while reciting them. The Nicene and Apostle’s creeds are the product of fourth century (or earlier) internecine religious struggles over who got to tell others what to believe; they focus on birth, death and resurrection while ignoring the public ministry and teachings of Jesus; and instead, as if his life and teachings didn’t matter, they focus almost exclusively on the mythological elements of Christian orthodoxy.

    When I read something like “Young people today, they just pick and choose what they want to believe,” my response is to say, “You say that like it’s a BAD thing.” Really, how terrible that people actually might use their brains and think for themselves, instead of simply swallowing a dogma wholesale and unquestioningly.

    The idea that religious dogma is an all-or-nothing thing that you have to either accept in its entirety or reject completely is a fallacy. It forces people to make choices that they shouldn’t have to make, and it drives many thinking people away from organized religion.

  6. at our mainline protestant church, we’ve been able to move away from reciting the creeds (nicene or apostles’) on most sundays. instead, we have come to say together a summary of the law — love God and neighbor — and leave it open beyond that to interpretation. we may pull out the other creeds on special occasions because so many of the folks there still find some comfort in those words.

  7. Perhaps we can understand the complaint of “cafeteria faith” a bit more charitably. I think it’s unlikely that anyone of whatever age expects someone to “swallow hook, line and sinker,” “a dogma wholesale and unquestioningly.” I am a young minister serving a theologically conservative congregation, and no one, not even the most conservative members, suggests anything of the kind. Probably what a complaint about “cafeteria faith” is getting at is rather a perception that people have not wrestled honestly with the answers that previous generations have offered, instead just chucking certain teachings of the faith before seeking to ear and understand them. I do think there is a sense of theological and historical amnesia among many folks (though not just “young people”)–a friend of mine calls it the tyranny of the present, C.S. Lewis called it chronological snobbery. My guess is that this “cafeteria faith” statement is not a call to unquestioning conformity, but rather a lament that people are dismissive of ancient ideas before they really try to understand them.

    Also, the fact that the creed prompted all those questions is precisely the reason I love reciting them in worship–they serve as doorways to all kinds of wonderful discussions.

  8. Mystical Seeker,

    I’m pretty happy that we’re not burned at the stake. I consider that to be one GIANT step in the evolution of humanity….


    Ironically, I had a comforting experience with a creed today (can’t say that every day, eh? And today it took me by surprise). I was at a Local Governing Body meeting, and we said the Holy Spirit part of the Brief Statement of Faith–a beautiful document that was written under the leadership of Jack Stotts. It’s book-ended with Romans 8, “we know that in life or death, we belong to God.”

    I worked for Jack for years, and he was a wonderful mentor to me. Now his health is failing, and saying those words at that moment, having a chorus around me affirming it a well, was quite powerful.

  9. I think it goes further than just complaining that people haven’t given certain doctrines due consideration before rejecting them. If that were the case, then those who complain about “cafeteria faith” would be saying that it is okay to selectively take only parts of Christian orthodoxy as long as you thought about it sufficiently first (and I wonder how one judges how much thought another person gives to such matters anyway). And I am just not hearing this from conservative Christianity. What I hear over and over again is that Christian orthodoxy is a package that you have to take as a whole. In fact, the very term “cafeteria faith” really seems to suggest that the real complaint, when all is said and done is that people are “picking and choosing” instead of taking the entire package lock,stock and barrel. That, I think, is the real issue–the need to enforce orthodoxy as a complete package. And this inevitably means telling people to turn off their thinking and just accept the dogma.

    Tribal, you are right that we can be thankful that people are not burned at the stake for engaging in free religious inquiry. Sometimes they get fired from seminaries or excommunicated, but not burned at the stake. Thank God for small favors. 🙂

  10. Fair enough, perhaps I am being TOO charitable! On the other hand, “cafeteria faith” may neglect the way that many Christian teachings are organically related to one another. For example, one’s understanding of grace may influence one’s understanding of baptism, say. Or the doctrine of the incarnation may influence our view of evangelism. A “cafeteria faith” may run the risk of unwitting ignorance of some of these far-reaching implications. If this is true, the “cafeteria faith” complaint may be just a lazy way of making a more substantive point: “Hey, these ideas work together–don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!”

    I guess to my mind (showing my cards here, if I haven’t already), the struggle to understand orthodoxy in a deep way is for me an intellectually fruitful exercise, indeed the exact opposite of shutting my brain off. In fact, I find that seeking to understand the received wisdom of past generations helps me to think more and better, not to think less and worse.

  11. Yes, but the opposite is also true. We may find that one person’s limited view of grace might deeply influence a person’s understanding of eschatology, or one’s view of original sin might have far reaching organic implications on gender roles. Re-imagining such orthodox concepts as grace, atonement and original sin are essential to the 21st Century revelation of Christ. The Holy Spirit is leading us out of our once limiting capacity in misogyny, homophobia, exclusive language and attempts at subsuming the divine’s freedom for judgement. In the end I believe that God applauds our attempts to reason, but ultimately wants our action.

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