Patchwork Religion I

District Fellowship News

November, December 2007

Theologian Donna Hallison calls it ‘cafeteria religion’, Reginald Bibby called it ‘religion ala carte’, and Robert Wuthnow used the term ‘patchwork religion’. What is it? How can it be defined? George Gallup, Jr. concludes that Americans “pick and choose” what they want to believe, often mixing ideas from within one religion or blending two or more different religions into a personal belief system. “Substantial portions of traditional Christians, for instance, subscribed to non-Christian beliefs and practices, such as reincarnation,” he said in a telephone interview (Star-Telegram, Feb. 7, 2000). People put together different elements of their own tradition and other traditions and then say things like, “Well, I’m Catholic but…”, or “I’m Christian but…”

Why do we try to take bits and pieces of many different beliefs and concoct our own religious stew? For many of us, it starts with what we believed before we became Christians, or what our parents taught us as young believers. Paul tells us that we are to be transformed into new creatures when we come to know Jesus. The old man is to die and in his place a new man lives. Most of the time, we have interpreted this to mean that our actions must change, but God is really looking for a radical sift in even our beliefs. We set aside everything and start as if we were babies, knowing nothing, needing to learn even the most simple and basic ideas. Usually, instead of transforming totally we bring many of our ideas with us and just incorporate them into our new system. It is certainly hard to admit that everything we knew and assumed about God and truth is suspect, and so we keep the things that we like, that have some special meaning, or that seemed to work in the past.

Also, as we are presented the truth about Jesus, there can be a disconnect between the cosmological (overreaching, total) truth and its application into our everyday lives. We see the big eternal picture but it doesn’t seem to apply to the issues we face all the time. In the Zulu of South Africa in1985, a study was done that found 69.6 percent of those professing Christ continued to believe that ancestral spirits “protect them” and “bring them good fortune”. There were fewer professing Christians who affirmed the deity of Christ than expressed dependence on the ancestral spirits for problems connected with daily living (Evangelical Missions Quarterly 21). The transformation that Paul speaks of did not happen completely. Instead of removing the old and replacing it with the new, some of the old stayed and was added to the new. This is the same phenomenon that God warned the Israelites against when he instructed them not to intermarry with the nations that lived around them. The inhabitants of those lands worshipped idols and had many varied beliefs. When the Israelites married someone who had not become a God follower, that individual’s beliefs were incorporated into the beliefs of the Israelite’s family and children. This mixture is described in Zephaniah where God speaks against those “...who bow down and swear by the Lord and who also swear by Molech…”.

A third reason we incorporate varied beliefs into our theology is the “I” syndrome. Since the time of Adam humanity has had a problem with absolute truth. The human will wants to find its own way and define things in its own terms. We are always looking for something new and better to believe, and we certainly don’t want to submit ourselves to someone else’s version of reality. However, just as science has tried to find the absolutes of the physical world (and by the way, the basis of science is that there are absolute facts out there that can eventually be found), we must also come to the realization that there is absolute truth in the spiritual realm as well. Usually, we are fine with beliefs until there is a crisis. Many times we will realign our beliefs based on our feelings or circumstances. Right or wrong becomes relative to the situation. We change the truth to fit the situation instead of judging the situation by the truth. Because of what we have experienced or felt, we add or subtract from our belief system. Of course, searching for the truth is necessary and important. We must always be willing to realign our belief system with truth, but realigning the truth to match our beliefs is not only impossible, but it reeks of egocentric behavior. Truth doesn’t change. The whole idea of searching is only feasible if there is truth to find that is the same for everyone. An infinite number of truths dependent on each person’s desires do not exist.

Next time: What can we do?