There is regular discussion among Mormon bloggers about the term “cafeteria Mormons” – those who pick and choose what they will and will not accept – who fill their plates with what they like to eat. I usually hate those discussions, since they nearly always are directed at judging what others choose to eat – labeling others as different and highlighting those differences.
I’d like to take a slightly different view of this term. Ultimately, the only one who can tell what foods we individually are capable of digesting properly is the Lord – the one who paid to become our judge and is qualified to be our chef. We often are not truly aware of our own limitations and biases and blinders and other obstacles, much less those that others carry within them. Therefore, we can’t judge with 100% clarity whether or not someone else is living the Gospel to the best of his or her ability – or what that other person is capable of understanding or believing. Hence, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
A good example is the difference between myself and a brother in my ward. We both have served in ward and stake administrative positions; we both have large, active families; we both have been involved in the Church for over 40 years; we both try to live our lives in accordance with our understanding of the restored Gospel; etc. Frankly, however, we live very different lives. We interact with our wives and children in very different ways; we pay tithing differently; we emphasize different approaches to living Gospel principles; we interact with members differently; etc. I love him dearly and have learned many things from him over the years, but without the Church I might not associate with him at all. He eats his food; I eat mine; ne’er the twain meet. OK, we share the entree, but our desserts and spices are completely different.
If that is true of deeply believing members, even those with “administrative authority”, then think how true it is of new converts and those who struggle to believe. The permutations of religious belief and practice and intellectual and spiritual understanding are innumerable. What a wonderful thing that is! Again, as long as we are eating in the same cafeteria and trying to eat everything we are able to digest, then I prefer to avoid the tendency to judge someone else’s “Mormon-ness” simply because they choose different desserts and spices – or they choose different side dishes and soup or salad at times – or they eat their meat rare compared to mine that is medium-well – or they prefer a vegetarian entree. At some point in the far distant future of the after-life I believe we will reach a true unity of understanding; until then, I am content to worship with anyone who is willing to sit beside me and do the best they can regardless of our differences.
Given that situation, why do I care what anyone else in the cafeteria is eating? I can think of three obvious reasons without much effort.
First, if I believe they are eating poison, I will warn them of my concern – every time. Second, if I think they are going to get sick from over-indulgence or malnutrition, I probably will warn them of that possibility. Third, if I think what they are eating tastes terrible, I might warn them. Everything I do is intended to help them experience the delicious taste that I experience. However, once I step over to them, take away their food or put my own on their plate, and insist that they eat exactly what I’m eating or get out of the cafeteria – at that moment I have crossed the fine line and done to them what I would never dream of allowing someone to do to me. Struggling and disaffected members complain of this all the time, but they often fail to realize when they demand it of others.
In 1986, Elder Ballard said the following:
“As members of the Church we are sometimes inclined to place labels on others. The world needs to be a place of order, and I guess things seem more orderly when people are placed in categories and stamped with labels. Some of these labels might be “inactive,” “nonmember,” “active,” “single,” “divorced,” “uninterested,” “smoker,” “drinker,” and so on. May I suggest that there is a very real danger in applying these labels to people? …Are there any of us who are so free from sin that we can afford to categorize others? Let us be careful to view our brothers and sisters as sons and daughters of God with great potential and to care for them accordingly.”
(“The Message: Taking Time to Care“; New Era; October 1986)
“Cafeteria Mormon” is only a label in the sense described by Elder Ballard if we apply it to “others” – or only to a certain type of member. I like the idea that ALL OF US are cafeteria Mormons, as to doctrinal acceptance and/or practical application, because that concept allows us to quit labeling each other and quit trying to determine someone else’s level of righteousness or worthiness. As long as someone is willing to endure to the end at the table beside me, it’s not my job to categorize their faithfulness but simply to walk along and enjoy the companionship of the journey. Who cares if there is a scent of smoke or the reek of alcohol or no payment of tithing – ad infinitum? The temple is one thing; acting as a Judge in Israel is one thing; the fundamental fellowship of the Saints is another thing entirely. Given what I have seen in my callings, I am convinced that if all of us stopped labeling each other there would be fewer members drifting into inactivity – and the Church would be an even richer and more vibrant community than it already is.
So, perhaps we all are cafeteria Mormons specifically because we are willing to accept what is served to us as the entree (faith, repentance, baptism, living by the gift of the Holy Ghost, repeated ad infinitum) and then add our own desserts and spices. (Although I’m not sure how I feel about the picture of President Monson and Elder Oaks in aprons and hairnets.)
Summary: If someone continues to attend church whose plate looks radically different than mine, and if that person does not heed my warnings if I feel prompted to give them, and if that person is not trying to force others to eat exactly what she is eating, then I shut up and enjoy her company – and usually end up acquiring an appreciation for a food or flavoring I had not known previously.