Which ones are really the “cafeteria Christians”?

I happened to read a long Facebook post by David Gerrold (someone I almost recognise by name) a while ago. It had a good point, but my attention was caught by something in this part:

Back in the days of CompuServe, a couple of bible thumpers were going on at length about homosexuality — and after I walked them down the path of bacon-cheeseburgers, shellfish, mixed fibers, and tattoos, I called them out as being “cafeteria Christians” picking and choosing what they wanted from the bible. They changed the subject.

Three weeks later, one of them came back at me, calling me a “cafeteria Christian” — he’d grabbed my argument and turned it back on me the first chance he got.

And that demonstrated something that has stuck with me ever since. There are people who can recognize the words that claim the moral high ground in an argument — tolerance, inclusiveness, helping minorities, etc. But rather than recognize their own responsibility in the matter, they simply grab the language as a useful weapon — a weapon to defend the very bigotry and oppression they’ve been accused of.

That last paragraph was about the overall point of the text, how the intolerant appropriate the language of tolerance. I agree with it, and the text also had even better examples — particularly intolerant people accusing others who disagree of being intolerant. The point is correct, then. This example made me think of something else, though — in just that one example, aren’t both right in a sense? Isn’t it true that both conservative and liberal Christians are picking and choosing from the Bible — so is it a sensible accusation against the conservatives from the liberals?

I think the answer is more or less: yes, both are, yet yes, it is. At least insofar as the conservatives in question claim to be anything like literalists and saying that the matter isn’t up for debate because it’s in the Bible. In reality, everyone has to make choices about how to interpret moral rules and what to consider right and wrong. If they’re Christians relying on the Bible, they still do. No-one follows everything the Bible says, and those who come closest are nowhere near mainstream — not even mainstream fundamentalist. The Bible even contradicts itself if you actually look at all the details strictly.

So, the difference isn’t that some Christians are picking and choosing and some aren’t. However, there’s a difference between those who admit it and those who don’t. You can, as a Christian valuing the Bible, use the argument “You think the whole matter is just settled because you can refer to this one statement in the Bible, yet you ignore these others — you’re not basing your beliefs on what you claim to.” If you just say they’re picking and choosing like that’s a bad thing, you’re open to the counterargument that so are you, because you are. Instead, you should be able to say “Yes, but I admit you have to think about it for yourself and look at more than just one passage, instead of just pretending it’s already settled. You’re the one who’s pretending you’re not choosing.” Of course, there are also different reasons for choosing. Better be aware of your own.

(Just to make sure people get it, I’ll mention again that I agree with the overall point that Gerrold as actually making in that post. It was just the springboard that got me thinking about this matter that he mentioned in passing.)

More broadly on the question:

Man as the Measure of All Things?

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One thought on “Which ones are really the “cafeteria Christians”?

  1. Modern ideas about biblical foundationalism come out of a post-nominalist framework, where the biblical text operates as a set of divinely-given signs.

    In the ancient world, however, the biblical text most often operates in a Iamblichean-Proclean fashion (even before Proclus and Iamblichus): it facilitates the _reditus_ after something has gone wrong with the _exitus_. The images of the biblical text are to be interpreted, writes Augustine in the DDC (and others say it elsewhere — see here http://intotheclarities.com/2014/09/12/pseudo-dionysius-epistle-9/), according to proper theological principles. This is to say: even in Augustine, theology has priority over the biblical text.

    Might I suggest that one is better off looking at the fundamental commitments of the communities and individuals in question, and asking questions about them in the light of what is common and public, rather than noting that none of them thinks that God has an ass to stick his hand up (Psalm 74), or that some think that God has a literal voice and mind, while others do not, &c.

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