Jana Riess did an oft shared post this week on “cafeteria spirituality.” This in turn generated a lot of discussion. I just wanted to make a few comments. First I think we should distinguish between what some have called cafeteria Mormonism from cafeteria spirituality. I don’t think they’re really the same although Jana conflates them somewhat. Cafeteria Mormonism usually means simply picking and choosing what teachings one accepts. Cafeteria spirituality I think is largely about supplementing ones practices beyond Church, church activities, and suggested practices. They seem rather different.
I think most members have more of a problem with cafeteria Mormonism. Certainly there have been defenders. BCC did a post defending it a few years ago as did Patrick Mason. Jana’s is just the latest. The usual defense is that almost everyone has some doctrine or teaching in Mormon history one doesn’t accept. Often over time the Church finally gets around to acknowledging these things as problems (such as particular theories as for why there was a priesthood ban). The idea is that if people reject even one doctrine taught in a General Conference talk or lesson manual that one is a cafeteria Mormon. Thus cafeteria Mormonism isn’t a big deal.
The problem with this defense is that I think it only works by making no difference in value over teachings. It’s hard to see the importance of say, “don’t murder” as equal to someone’s theory of priesthood ban. Yes both had been taught at some time in history. Surely we can make distinctions between their value.
I think those who see so-called cafeteria Mormonism as problematic do so over more core beliefs. Some members simply don’t think sex before marriage is a big deal for instance. They would love to end worthiness interviews that ask questions about such things. Others want to make scriptures wholly fictional. It seems that it is these issues and not how one interprets say Genesis 2 that are of large concern. It seems somewhat problematic that what gets accepted or rejected seems so tied to ones pre-existing political beliefs (whether right wing such as recently with the Bundy family or more left wing beliefs). I think that ultimately the concern over cafeteria Mormonism is really about the concern over when and how our political and associated ethical beliefs trump prophetic warnings. It seems clear that the brethren are not infallible so some things may be wrong. However the reasons people reject prophetic counsel often seem weak – tied to emotional reaction or personal preference. While prophets may be wrong on a point, I think the burden of proof for judging them wrong should be quite high.
Cafeteria spirituality by contrast seems simply to be finding needs loosely tied to spirituality that aren’t met at Church. I think that’s healthy, within reason. For instance I find my spirituality is deeply affected by how much exercise I do and what I eat. Church doesn’t provide that. Likewise I find a lot of the lessons at Church doesn’t really speak to me too well. So I read a lot beyond what gets discussed at Church and even have discussions (like this one) online. Even meditation, which Jana mentions, depending upon how taught, seems fine. I used to do a lot of Zen meditation which helped quiet my thinking that in turn helps me listen for answers to prayers better and not become so stressed about life. There are dangers of course since often many meditation practices are wrapped up in particular religions and religious claims. (I liked Zen since it tended to not adopt the various metaphysical claims of other forms of Buddhism)
Probably one of the most important spiritual practices one should do outside of church is friendship. While of course we should help and serve those in our wards, sometimes they just aren’t the people you might want to hang out with in your free time. Again, we have to be careful, just as we see with our children, peers can have a lot of influence on our own thinking and what we value.
Overall those we’re commanded to be doing more spiritually than just what happens in our three hour meetings. So long as our practices aren’t turning us away from God and the Church, there’s no problem whatsoever. It more in the arena of rejecting teachings that I think the problems arise.
1. Jana does towards the end of her article bring up Fowler’s Stages of Faith theory. (Although she doesn’t mention it by name) In one sense Fowler’s theory is just the idea that some religious beliefs are more valuable than others and the “highest” faith is to just adopt some ethical principles. I confess Fowler’s stage theory makes me cringe for a wide range of reasons. (It seems far more pseudo-science than science, despite being influence by Piaget’s developmental theory which is science) It’s not surprising that those who embrace cafeteria Mormonism the most usually end up also embracing Fowler as a defense.