Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday Sermonizing (Cuz You're Allowed to Sermonize on Your Own Blog): In Defense of Cafeteria Religion

You hear the phrase "Cafeteria Religion" mostly in pejorative settings. You don't get to pick and choose your religion, people say, you're either all in or not. (False Dilemma Logical Fallacy, anyone?)

I say: hogwash.

I believe that cafeteria religion is not only acceptable, it is essential.

For me, it's a question of rhetoric.

See, religion, like many human institutions is dependent upon rhetoric in order to function. And in the rhetorical situation, there are three pillars: the author (the one who's trying to say something), the audience (the person/people they're trying to say something to), and the medium (the way they say it).

In the mortal world, we can't just think something and have it magically appear in someone else's head. We have to use a medium of communication. The medium differs--we can write things down, say them out loud, sign them with our hands, paint metaphorical pictures, etc. But we can't change the fact that we *need* a medium.

But there's a problem with mediums: None of them are perfect.

Take language. It is useful. Essential. But it is also *completely* bound to culture. Remember back to that grammar example I gave about the nurse and the secretary? "A good nurse takes care of ____ patients" or "Part of a secretary's job is to manage _____ boss's schedule?"

You filled in those blanks with "her" in your head, right?

Why did you do this?

I never told you that the nurse or secretary were women. And there actually are male nurses and secretaries, right?

The reason you did that is that your language is inherently tied to your culture. You're going to make assumptions (e.g. nurses are female) that I have not told you to make unless I go out of my way to clarify every single possible assumption. And even if I did that, I'd miss something. Because that's the way that language and culture work.

Religion does not function outside of culture.

Maybe *God* is outside of culture, sure. But *you* are not. No one is.

So, let's think about God and rhetoric for a bit.

Let's say that God wants to talk to you. He has become the author in the rhetorical relationship. You are the audience. And even if the talking is going to happen in your head, most likely it will involve language, because that's just how our brains are wired. So even if God is going to try to stick to images and impressions, you're probably going to covert them to language if you want to communicate them to anyone else. Language is the rhetorical medium of prophets.

In order to talk to you in this kind of situation, God's gonna have some limitations, right? First, you have to be listening. That means that God has limited time. Probably not enough time to clarify every single assumption that you are going to make. And the assumptions that you make are going to be deeply tied to your culture and to your language.

For example, let's say that you're Moses and God is telling you about creation. He gives you an impression of a series of events that take place in seven discrete periods of time. "Ah!" You think. "Seven DAYS." Because maybe "days" is the closest idea your language has to what you're seeing. And God is going to let that fly, because, hey, maybe that *is* the closest thing in your language.

But what happens a few thousand years later when society/culture has done some growing? What about when we discover archeological artifacts, evidence of evolution, when we develop a better understanding of the history of the world and the universe? Our language has changed. Our assumptions have changed. Does that mean that God was lying to Moses?

No. It means the rhetorical situation has changed.

In fact, open up your Bible and read some Genesis. Now, imagine that *you* are God, and you're going to try to explain evolution, terrestrial change, and universal history to him. And then imagine that after you do that, Moses writes it down so he can tell other people and you don't get much chance to do a line-by-line edit with him.

What is that text going to look like?

It might actually look quite a bit like Genesis.

If we believe in God--more than that, if we believe in a God *who talks to us*--then we have to remember that we look at everything through the lens of our own culture and we have to try very, very hard to see the dirt on that lens. And if you're listening to a prophet, you have to remember that *even if God really did talk to them,* it would have been through the lens of culture and language. Even prophets come from cultures and when they talk to us, it's with language. So in order to listen to *God* by listening to a *prophet,* you have to try to figure out which part was God and which part was culture and how all of it was restricted by language.

And I don't have to tell you, cultures can be messed up. More than that, the worst bits of cultures are their "blind spots." The places that they haven't changed because they haven't *realized* how messed up they are.

If you put restrictions on your religion, like, I have to do ALL of it or NONE of it, then you're taking away from yourself the ability to think critically about the screwed up bits of your culture that are messing up your thought processes and, consequently messing up what should be sacred.

Essentially, you're allowing (possibly warped) bits of your culture to corrupt your religion.

Which is exactly how religion can be used to perpetrate cultural evils. Like, "Gah. I don't understand those Turks. Let's just make them Christian by starting the Crusades and killing them all." The medieval refusal to see the difference between culture and religion allowed culture to win. I even would argue that it allowed *evil* to win. Because to take religion all or nothing means to reject a critical examination of where your religion has been corrupted by your culture. Which means unnecessarily embracing the corruption of what should be sacred.

Back to the all or nothing cafeteria thing.

The reason people cling to false dilemma fallacies is that they make things seem *simple.* There's something very comforting about there being one right choice and one wrong choice and no debate and no thought. We all like to be right. We all like to have something to feel zealous about. Something to fight for. It makes us feel like we have a purpose--a righteous purpose. We feel "good" when we have an "evil" foe.

But true religion isn't about simple choices. And it isn't, I'm guessing, all about fighting foes.

God tells Adam and Eve, "Don't eat the fruit, but also multiply and replenish." What if you can't do one without the other? God tells the Israelites not to kill, but then tells them to make sacrifices. Can you make a sacrifice without killing? God tells Nephi to chop off Laban's head. God issues all kinds of commandments that are in conflict with each other, actually. Then says what's the highest law? Love. So, here are a bunch of laws in conflict with each other. Choose the one that's the most loving. Oh, and also, the "right" answer will probably change. Depends on the circumstances.

I don't think these are problems with the bible. I think they're the *point* of the bible.

Mortal choices aren't easy ones. And the second you make them easy choices, you've missed the point. Repentance (μετανοεω) means *to think differently.* Not to think like you're told or to allow others (even--especially!--prophets) to think for you.

And so every single time *anyone* tells you something they've heard from God--I don't care if it *is* a prophet--you question it. You evaluate the rhetorical pillars. You try to discern for yourself which part is godly and which part is culture. Because even if he is the world's most amazing prophet, he *will* come from a culture and it *will* influence at least part of what he says or the way he says it.  Some of what he says will be culture; and some will be godly. 

And if you don't feel like something is godly? Then you don't put it on your cafeteria tray.

It's not only your prerogative as someone trying to live a moral life, it's your responsibility.

Along with, yanno, clearing your table when you're done eating.


Barb @ getupandplay said...

This is why you are the writer in our family. Beautifully and coherently written!

Kristin said...

Hey! You stole some of my "Darwin and God" article I've been working on. I guess I'll just have to quote you since you're PhD and all.

Kerry said...

quote away sweet cheeks.

Catherine said...

I like this.

It makes me think of the assumptions most people have about where I live (the Middle East), specifically the religious norms. Most people (especially Americans) don't realize that Muslims are a people who love God and are devoted to peace.

Rachel said...

I adore this post. I'm constantly trying to explain this idea to the YW I teach: the importance of taking the reins of their own spirituality/religion/relationship with God. And trying to sound faithful and steady while I do it.

I think there are very few things that are eternally TRUE, and so I believe our religion requires constant individual vigilance in determining and defining truth for oneself.

Thanks for sermonizing. Can I expect another next week?

Kerry said...

I guess it all depends on how cranky I am. Apparently, the crankier I get, the more I rant. So if I am cranky next Sunday then YES! :)

Anonymous said...

I don't think this is completely accurate.
God is perfect. Prophets are imperfect human beings, but God would never let them tell us anything inaccurate. He's promised us they won't lead us astray. And although it is good to question, it's more important to have faith.
Yes, we need to ask in prayer, but once we begin to doubt, we can't get answers anyway.

Andy said...

Anonymous, the prophets have promised us that God told them that they would never lead us astray. This, of course, depends on your definition of "astray," which could entail any number of things.

And doubt is just as important as faith; if you don't have doubt, you don't have faith, you have knowledge. Of course, this is getting into issues of linguistic semantics, but that's the nature of this whole thing, anyway.

And I could throw out specifics of prophets saying pretty wacky things that I can't imagine any reasonable people would agree with, but that's not really the point of the discussion.

Fact is: this is an excellent post that's right on all accounts. Thumbs up.