Cafeteria Christianity

A comment on my previous post got me thinking about the image of “cafeteria Christianity” – the idea being of a smorgasbord from which one picks and chooses, which is not in and of itself necessarily a bad thing.

I’d like to explore the metaphor further. All who consider themselves Christians are in the cafeteria. The difference is that some of us enter delighting the buffet, eager to taste new things and help ourselves to a little of this and a little of that, aware that we are not eating absolutely everything that is on the menu. Others simply enter and say “I’ll have what he’s having” and believe that they are tasting everything, when in fact what their pastor, family, church or denomination is serving is never everything Christianity has to offer, never everything “the Bible says”, never everything that Christianity is, was or has been.

Going even further, none of us are eating precisely what – or as – the earliest Christians ate. That’s because even when one follows the same recipes, the cafeteria itself has changed. It is also because the claim to maintain earliest Christianity ignores the diversity evidenced in the New Testament. Some items on the menu seem to be mutually exclusive. Christianity’s cafeteria has never served only a small range of food items, much less only one.

The benefit of acknowledging the fact that we all are either picking and choosing ourselves, or allowing others to pick and choose for us, is that it allows us to make an informed choice. There is nothing that obligates someone who has been eating the same sort of food all their life to try something new. But for those of us who dare to do so, even (perhaps especially) when we find there are things served in the cafeteria that we do not like, that are not to our taste, we return to those recipes that we personally enjoy and appreciate them in a new way. And sometimes the unfamiliar tastes of that “other stuff” grows on us, and we find that as our lives go on, some foods we enjoyed as children begin to seem bland, while spicier fare that we found unpalatable as children we now relish.

Let me close by noting that the cafeteria is full of people debating the merits of this or that food. But the point of the cafeteria is not simply to stay there, but to feed there and then go forth with fresh strength and energy to do something more useful than simply debate food tastes.

Bon appetit!

[Addendum: I realized after posting this that I hadn’t even included the question of other religions in my treatment of this metaphor. Let me just add a few more points. First, being committed to a restaurant doesn’t mean you never eat food from anywhere else. Second, the fact that you are eating in a Chinese restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean you are eating Chinese food. Third, many recipes, even if genuinely traditionally associated with one particular culture or part of the world, may still be influenced by or require spices from elsewhere.]

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  • Hugh

    Nice analogy James . like it . However I’m a notoriously ‘picky ‘ eater … :)Regards ..

  • Rhology

    Dr McGrath,You said:-none of us are eating precisely what – or as – the earliest Christians ate-Well, speak for yourself, please. What is our record of the earliest Christians? Why, the Bible, of course! You who believe the Bible is errant are in no position to know whether or not any of us are eating precisely as the earliest Christians ate, are you?-The benefit of acknowledging the fact that we all are either picking and choosing ourselves, or allowing others to pick and choose for us, is that it allows us to make an informed choice.-But informed by what standard? Whatever it may be, you have placed it above the Bible and thus above God’s revelation. It’s the same position as Eve in the Garden.Peace,Rhology

  • James F. McGrath

    I am speaking for myself. My views on this subject have changed. I was once an inerrantist. I see no reason why I should not speak about the views I once held, and about the overwhelming evidence from the Bible itself that changed my mind about it.

  • Mystical Seeker

    Great post!Early Christianity clearly offered a smorgasbord, but then orthodoxy came along and imposed a prix fixe menu on everyone. And you don’t even get a choice of deserts. :)

  • Josh

    And you don’t even get a choice of deserts.“Yeah only “just deserts.”;^)

  • Josh

    doh! or just desserts either… ;^|

  • Sabio Lantz

    Wow, I am honored you took my phrase “Cafeteria Christians”. I, myself, am a “Cafeteria Buddhist”. The pressure to buy the whole meal from any restaurant is huge. I think more Christians are “universalists” than can comfortably admit.I recently wrote a post called “Goyology” — see if you like the use of the word.Here is a site that explained the words you used: “Pluralism” and “Inclusivism”. This site only adds a 3rd, “Exclusivism”, to their choices of Goyology stances. May I suggest a 4th, (hmmmm, what should I call it?), how about “Co-Ignorancism”, the position that we are wrong in many of our beliefs and hope that we are open enough to the insights of others and not too blinded by the ones we have chosen to value.


    Now you have me thinking about how I ask my son to eat, especially new foods. These all have application in trying new things in church, I think.* The “three bite” rule: he does not have to like everything, but I ask that he give it a fair try.* Small portions for new items: if I load his plate with a novelty, it looks so daunting that he is likely to dig in against it.* It’s not necessary that he try something new every meal, or even most meals. A few meals in a row of consistent comforts (especially during trying times) lets him work up his courage for the next experiment. Of course, successful novelties might find a place in the usual routine.* Fine dining, or meals with company, are not the time to make him try something new: let him have the mac ‘n’ cheese. (This is like not having to try every new thing at Easter and Christmas.)* Others?

  • Steven Carr

    Hi James,There is such a thing as overuse of a metaphor :-)

  • Jay

    Rhology -Are you referring to the version of Christianity in Matthew, wherein not one jot or one tittle of the (Jewish) Law was to be overlooked, or Pauline Christianity, where following the Jewish Law wasn’t a consideration? This one’s kinda funny. You can actually make a legitimate claim in this case that both options are correct – you could be a Christian while following the Jewish Law (or not). However, this approach supports James’ position that there is a lot of diversity within Christianity to choose from.

  • Rhology

    Jay,It’s both. They don’t disagree. For more information, let me commend the book of Hebrews to your reading.So, the premise of your question is misunderstood. The problem that Dr McGrath encounters is that he pretends like he is taking the Bible as some kind of authority. You should do this, you should do that, b/c Jesus said so. But his standard of measure, the way he knows that this or that command or example of Jesus should be followed, boils down to mirror-gazing. If parts of the Bible are errant, he says, then we have good reason to reject the barbarities such as those commanded against homosexuals. I answer that you think the ‘barbarities’ commanded against homosexuals are morally wrong b/c of your personal, subjective opinion, but you don’t have any other reason fundamentally to think that in fact it’s the command to love one’s neighbor that is errant, and the “execute the homosexual” psg is actually correct.I worship Jesus, not my own image. I encourage anyone to do the same.Peace,Rhology

  • Levi

    There are also those that assume their way of interpreting the Bible is THE way to interpret the Bible (or God’s way). I find these people similar to those in Kansas City that assume their barbecue is THE barbecue. Often those people don’t even believe they interpret the Bible, they believe that God (or their BBQ) is the standard and everything else falls short.*** on a side note, I’ve either made a valid point or made you hungry. (or both)

  • dje333

    By any chance did your metaphor come down on a sheet from heaven…God bless you

  • BruceA

    Good food for thought.