Unity Within the Cafeteria

Raybaptism, church, diversity, faith, LDS, Mormon, mormon, Mormons, testimony 22 Comments

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.

Comments 22

  1. In my opinion, every member of the Church all the way up to the prophet shows up to the buffet. Some members realize this about themselves and consciously make dining decisions. Some members do not see that they are making these choices. My proof is the impossible task of eating a full helping of every dish offered. Not only is it not possible, I would argue it isn’t even healthy.

    What a wonderful experience we have in life. One of those blessings is a challenge to understand how to be profitable servants in the choices we make at the buffet. Are we increasing our light, knowledge, wisdom and divinity? The buffet has a lot of choices, because there are so many different dietary needs. We are unique as individuals. Our needs change over time. It’s a beautiful and glorious system.

    From this perspective, I can’t fault someone who piles their plate different than mine. I don’t know. The Savior knows though.

  2. I’ll agree with that. We can’t run faster than we have strength, and we can’t pile our plate with everything on the menu. We’re forced to prioritize, and everyone’s perception of what’s most important is different. I think this leads to differences in “administration” so to speak…

  3. I am going to dispense with the food analogies because it is making me hungry. I just ate my lunch and it is barely 10:30am! 🙂

    I am in complete agreement with the idea that we are all “Cafeteria Mormons” in that we pick and choose that which we beleive. In some cases, it chooses us because of a powerful witness we receive and in other cases, it sounds right or it may not make sense.

    What sets us as individual members apart is the extent that we choose to advertise our choices. Most keep those to themselves or share them on a limited basis. Some feel overly compelled to share their personal beliefs with everyone they meet. Some enjoy wearing their most extremely different views as a badge of honor.

    Ray: “I am convinced that if all of us stopped labeling each other there would be fewer members drifting into inactivity”

    That certain is one aspect we CAN control. Offense given and taken from others. But, it seems that these days, we have more people who, on their own, are studying, thinking, acting and talking their way out of the Church.

  4. Ray, thanks for your post.

    What you’ve said can be related to these scriptures:

    Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind …gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. Matthew 13:47-48

    So we, being many, are one body in Christ…Having then gifts differing…
    Romans 12:5-6

    The Savior also provides us with other scriptures that help us understand why those who frequent the cafeteria don’t always stay:

    The parable of the sower

    The parable of the ten virgins

    There is a scripture from the Book of Mormon I‘ve been pondering lately. As I cruise the bloggernacle I’ve wonder if I am seeing this scripture fulfilled on almost a daily basis.

    And there are many among us who have many revelations, for they are not all stiffnecked. And as many as are not stiffnecked and have faith, have communion with the Holy Spirit, which maketh manifest unto the children of men, according to their faith. Jarom 1:4

    Then there is this companion scripture that Stephen gives us:

    Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Acts 7:51

    Thus, we have a good definition of “stiffneckedness” and it appears to me this answers a lot of questions that are brought up in the bloggernacle. The scriptures cut through the verbiage and rhetoric and help us see what is in the heart of some of those who post and comment.

    As I read the scriptures I think that the servings at the cafeteria may be many, but the path that leads to the Savior is narrow. I’ve said it often, and I’ll repeat it again, each of those who would follow the Savior need to focus on fulfilling their baptismal covenant and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. We can do that soon or late, but it must be done. Generally, I feel most members need to trade-in our stiffneckedness towards the gift of the Holy Ghost, and opt for diligently seeking after the Holy Ghost.

    I hope my post comes across as nonjudgmental. My desire is to encourage and build faith but sometimes, as the Book of Mormon teaches, the message needs to be “stirring” and using plainness of speech (Enos 1:23).

  5. Eating a Nature’s Trail bar right now to make it until lunch at 1…


    What would you say to those LDS who argue that we are actually, or should be, eating in a chow line, military-style, with the same food being ladled onto each of our plates, and maybe, West Point-style, be using our forks, spoons, and knives in the same way too?

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    I like the “can’t run faster than we have strength” and “can’t pile our plates with everything on the menu” statements.

    You know, part of this is not labeling those who move in and out of the cafeteria, as well – those who show up off and on for a spiritual fill-up, so to speak. It’s not an easy balance to find – encouraging them to eat in the cafeteria but respecting their ability to not accept that encouragement, without slapping a label on them when they ignore our advice. I know it’s semantics, but I’ve always preferred, “He doesn’t come very often,” to, “He’s inactive” – and I really don’t like “less active”, especially for someone who isn’t any “more active” than a cadaver. “He doesn’t attend,” is every bit as accurate, but it doesn’t carry any of the automatic us vs. them connotations of “active” and “inactive” or “less active”.

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    Jared and John,

    It’s an interesting question to go deeper and start talking about what simply had to be on all plates, but I don’t want to go there in this post. I can’t remember who gave the address in General Conference, but one of the apostles a few years ago mentioned 13 things that all Mormons must accept in order to be considered true believers. It wasn’t a very difficult list for most members. (and it was a list compiled by one apostle and never stressed by all, so it might fall into the same category as McConkie’s “Seven Deadly Heresies” talk – one man’s take on it)

    Understand, I am NOT trying to “soften” the commands of Jesus or any of his apostles in any dispensation. I believe strongly in trying to eat “as much as I can”. I just believe that there is great wisdom in recognizing that all of us digest differently, that all of us have different gifts given to us, that all of us are unique sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, that all of us have unique and varying missions here on earth, etc.

    My central point is that we tend to accept these differences **among those who serve in leadership positions** – including the apostles and prophets who lead the entire Church. If we understand that even our top leaders have very different opinions about many things, why do we insist on uniformity **of thought** among ourselves? If people are wiling to walk among us in the greater community of believers (the cafeteria), why do we insist on labeling people and causing divisions that, I believe, need not exist?

  8. Ray,

    “I know it’s semantics, but I’ve always preferred, “He doesn’t come very often,” to, “He’s inactive” – and I really don’t like “less active”, especially for someone who isn’t any “more active” than a cadaver. “He doesn’t attend,” is every bit as accurate, but it doesn’t carry any of the automatic us vs. them connotations of “active” and “inactive” or “less active”.

    Let’s face it, those are terms that were given to the membership by its leaders. And only for the best of intentions. Labels exist in every phase of our existence, we give them to every person we meet, our individual family members, Church members, business associates, etc. It is a legitimate way of characterizing our own relationship with that person. It really does not apply specifically to that person except as it applies to us personally. When others, willingly or unwittingly adopt our personal label for that person, than a wrong is committed. They must come up with that for themselves. But, using that designation to stigmatize or demean another person is wrong.

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    John (#5) – To answer your question directly, I will quote from the post:

    “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.”

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    Jeff (#9), I agree that we all label naturally, and I realize some labels come from “the Church”, but I love the fact that Elder Ballard mentioned “non-member” and “inactive” in his list. I see much of the labeling we do as part of the “natural man” we need to overcome. I only addressed it as it relates to other members, but I think the overall issue applies every bit as much to those outside our cafeteria.

  11. 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

    Ray, its nice of you to acknowledge the crossing the line aspect of actually forcing your meal choice on another, but its also fairly obvious. What is more complicated and less easy to recognize is when folks believe they are “warning” others that their meal choice tastes bad, is not nutritious, or is even poisonous, but they are really just sitting close by and talking loudly about how gross they think the other’s food tastes, or how they read a study that “proved” that item causes cancer. Often the true underlying motivation is to shore up one’s own feeling of being superior because they are among the ones eating healthy, demonstrating moderation, or possessing enough wisdom to have selected safe and wholesome foods. I’m not saying many people are thinking in malicious terms on a conscious level, in fact its usually all going on without us realizing it. I also readily admit that this goes in all directions, its not just one ideology vs. another.

    Although in the public arena we all battle over the right to choose our buffet selections in faith, politics, entertainment, etc. without being actively judged in a sense of being ridiculed or prohibited… there is also an unseen but definitely felt damage that we do to each other, and mostly ourselves, when we continue to actively judge the selections of others, even without expressing it in any demonstrative way. Its like urinating in the dishwater in the back of the cafeteria because you think no one is going to drink it, but it ultimately contaminates the experience for eveyone whether they know it or not.

  12. I think intent also plays into this situation. Most members try to help one another make their way along the path to the tree of life. Granted, there are some that are strident and clumsy in the way they do it. But there is no malice in the same way that some Christian tells others they are going to hell, if they don;t believe as they do.

    As for feeling superior, the second one feels more superior to another, they are,in fact less than superior no matter what their station in life is or where they think they are.

    “Love one another” does both ways as does “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.

  13. Clay, I agree completely that there also is a line between a “loving” warning given gently and sincerely and a “loving” warning given from a sense of superiority and condescension and to “save” someone. However, I still think losing that sense of concern that motivates a warning is worse than the warning itself. If we ever get to the point where we truly don’t care enough to warn someone we love when we believe they are hurting themselves . . .

    To be clear, some of the most obnoxious, hurtful statements I’ve ever heard have been given by people who did so thinking they were correcting out of love. I also understand that the most loving thing I can do in certain situations is to shut up – after it’s been made clear that the other person doesn’t share my view of the danger. That’s one of my points – that once a “warning” has been given, generally it’s up to us to honor agency and stop warning.

    For example, not to threadjack, if someone says, “I don’t want to be contacted by HT or the Church,” we should honor that and stop contacting them. Ironically, that is HT in the truest sense – providing the service the individual wants. I have no problem with an annual “check up” phone call or note (“Do you still want no contact?”), but anything more is moving from a warning voice to a constant and alienating telemarketing call.

    That’s my take, anyway.

  14. Great post, Ray. I would add that those who applaud when someone drops their tray, well . . .

    Also, is this a cafeteria of Mormonism or the whole world??

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    I have a hard time extending it to the whole world, because there are some things out there that I truly believe are poisonous – down to one little drop. Even focusing strictly on religion, my own perspective sees the existence of an actual, distinct Heavenly Father with an actual distinct Son whom we are commanded to emulate – and the idea that we actually can become like Them – as so central to the cafeteria diet that taking them away literally would remove me from that cafeteria and place me in a different one. That’s why I told JfQ on another thread that I have a hard time envisioning comprehensive inter-faith unity; there simply are some things that each denomination can’t let go without destroying their own cafeteria walls – nor should they, imo, if they truly believe the things that make the walls necessary.

    I think we can focus on the items on our plates that are common to others, and I certainly believe (strongly) that doctrinal differences should not get in the way of inter-faith humanitarian efforts (that perhaps separate cafeterias can be built for such efforts, if you will), but extending this analogy outside the Church . . . I probably wouldn’t do it. I’d have to write a separate post for that discussion.

  16. There are meals available to the whole world of Christ-pursuers in the cafeteria, I believe. Alas, Ray, there are differences. You can have your brownies a la mode. I’ll be over here enjoying tiramisu. 😉 j/k. Seriously, I think it’s a nice post and thoughtful analogy.

    I like what Jeff had to say in #13. I was watching a great sermon last weekend by Bill Hybels, a prominent evangelical. He made a very compelling observation that as we grow in Christ we grow more and more open to receiving what God would have for us. (He expressed it visually by holding his arms upward and then opening them to the side to represent how we grow to embrace transformation in Christ.) Yet he said that as we open up to God, sadly we often close ourselves to others. (He then expressed it visually by having his arms wide in an embrace that could be given to another that unfortunately closes to a point, keeping us distanced from those we should embrace.) He said Christ saw opportunity, not judgement, in even the most run down of society. He then likened as we grow to embrace God upward out embrace for the opportunity in others should also widen.

    I thought it was a beautiful use of imagery. It would have been an even more persuasive sermon to me if he would have stopped talking after that. He then went on to talk about how salvation is not a game. It is a real struggle, and we must witness to others so that they can be saved and grow in Christ. He shared an example of an “unsaved” friend who he witnessed on a deathbed to confess his faith in Christ, who did shortly before he died. I appreciate the doctrinal imperative, but at the same time, I grow increasingly uncomfortable with perpetuating an imperative that Christians have any part in the role of judging who is saved or not, to look for cliche signs of faith like a verbal confession.

    I’m fine with differences of belief and even in stating that some belief “systems” seem very risky from a theological perspective or very dividing, different or irreconcilable. At some time, even with important differences, if we can’t sit down and eat together at a table in the cafeteria, then it seems we are ultimately shouldering God’s judgement role for ourselves, making God’s redemptive work our redemptive work. In my opinion it is only God who knows who is His. It is our role to see the opportunity for salvation in everyone, and to be moved to faith, love and charity for all. Even if our belief convictions lead us to doubt the salvific efficacy of another’s beliefs, I still really dislike that we don’t try harder to still embrace and love one another, trusting in God to work with those who are His own.

    I couldn’t see why Hybels didn’t see these messages of his sermon as contradictory or conflicting like I did. (I might be a malformed evangelical *smile*) Obviously it is Jesus’ role to judge and save. Is it given to people like pastors to truly, honestly, judge that? (Yes, and I reject any biblical support for the LDS redefinition of “Judges in Israel”.) I don’t have an easy adaptation to Ray’s allegory to express that I wish we were better at embracing one another as we grow in God’s transformation — better at eating meals together.

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    I have been thinking about the analogy and how it might apply to Christianity at large – or even religion at large, and I think it can hold up as long as we are very specific and clear about what constitutes the main course. There are things that we share with others, and if we were to approach them as a communal cafeteria it might go a long way toward allowing inter-faith collaboration in areas other than doctrine. Humanitarian efforts are what I mentioned in my last comment to Hawk (#17), since hopefully serving the poor and afflicted and diseased and marginalized was at the very core of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

    I believe there is great power in such efforts, not just as they help the “needy” but also as they bring us in contact with those we otherwise might stereotype and marginalize mentally and spiritually – breaking down biases and helping us see each other truly as children of God. Frankly, that cuts both ways: we will be understood as more than brainwashed cultists, but we will understand others as more than ignorant or unenlightened apostates.

  19. #20 “I have been thinking about the analogy . . . I think it can hold up as long as we are very specific and clear about what constitutes the main course.”

    I have taken out Ray’s referenced to Christianity at large, and am applying it just to the LDS Church. I think even in our own church, we can’t come up with a specific and clear understanding of what constitutes the “main course.”

    I think many would at first attempt strip away everything, except “accepting the atonement of Jesus Christ” which seems reasonable to me, and certainly seems to me to be central to our belief system. If, however, in just our church, that is the main course, and baptism by immersion, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon aren’t part of the main course” then we may not be very different from the other churches at all, and perhaps should just go to whichever church of any denomination is closest to our home, so we reduce greenhouse gases.

    Further, is there room in the church/cafeteria for someone who would warn “every time” he thinks someone is about to eat poison, if that person has perhaps a very different constitution from the others, and what is poisonous to one isn’t poisonous to others. For some, perhaps, injesting a single super-sugary dessert could send them into a diabetic coma, but others eat the super-sugary desserts in moderation and suffer no effects, while still others over-indulge and injur themselves.

    But then, in our daily lives, how do we determine what that “super-sugary dessert” actually is? Is it reading racy romance novels? Is it looking at pornography? Is it posing for a calendar? Is it watching reruns of Star Trek on Sunday night after the kids are in bed? Is it reading Harry Potter? Is it celebrating Halloween?

    In our analogy super-sugary desserts have virtually no food value, so can be avoided completely, and some folks will insist on it. Again, I come back to the same question I always seem to have. How can we know what to do? How can we know which advice to follow and which to ignore?

    I have known some church members (including some church leaders) who were adamant, for example, about not celebrating Halloween or permitting their children to read Harry Potter on the argument that both glorify witchcraft, sorcery, etc. and it is the first step down the “slippery slope” toward following Satan.

    I have known other leaders who felt that reading any type of book designed to help couples in their sex lives was pornography and cause for church discipline. While other church leaders have suggested that occasional viewing of actual pornography can be beneficial to some people.

    Again, the question comes down to, when are we “crossing a line” by “warning” someone that something is poison. And, possibly, are we crossing a line at all if we “invite” someone to try something we find delicious, but might cause them irreparable harm e.g. the super-sugary dessert to a diabetic that sends them into a coma, or the delicious home-grown wine that we have on special occasions that we offer to someone and it rekindles their alcohol abuse problem.

    I maintain that the Church works very hard maintain two opposite positions. First, we have the answers, and therefore we can give you clear, unambiguous instructions on how to live your life. Second, we don’t have the answers, but we know what questions you should ask yourself as you live your life.

    I find it very, very difficult.

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