Cafeteria Spirituality?

Robert V. Taylor

Robert V. Taylor

Who would have imagined that a Mormon candidate for the Presidency of the United States would be mainstreaming cafeteria spirituality? John Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah, is doing just that and giving voice to the nuanced and rich spiritual practices of tens of millions of Americans.

Huntsman says that his Mormon practices are “tough to define” and that he gets “satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.”  That may be startling to hear from a Mormon because it upends what many Americans perceive as monolithic Mormonism. Huntsman’s courage in naming his truth reflects the satisfaction he describes as much as it breaks open stereotypes about Mormons and spirituality.

Is Huntsman just a postmodern spiritual person? He describes himself as more spiritual than religious but so do countless numbers of people who, like him, profess a primary grounding in the teachings of one tradition.

This so-called cafeteria spirituality can be more aptly thought of as a balanced spirituality. It describes those who, like Huntsman, are secure in their Christian, Jewish or Mormon identity but know that the spiritual practices, wisdom and mystical truths revealed in other traditions enhance rather detract from their spirituality. They are not fearful that life-giving transformative truths are revealed beyond their chosen or cultural religious background.  

A few years ago I sat with a group of 30 people exploring membership in a Christian church. Every person spoke of their spiritual journey being enriched by practices learned from the spiritual wisdom of traditions as diverse as Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and Wiccan to name just a few. The fear expressed by each person in the room was that they would be asked to abandon or never speak of those riches in their new spiritual community. They were not interested in playing God with truth or being agents of religious certitude.

Those who are more spiritual than religious yet choose to be religiously affiliated are less likely to be doctrinaire because they know that eternal truths are not revealed in pronouncements; they have distinguished between religion’s institutional needs and the journey of the spirit. They have learned the importance of navigating competing truths and intuitively settling on core truths. They’re more likely to place their energy in life-giving pursuits than those that are negative.

Spirituality is after all about the “breath of life” – by its nature it invites expansiveness and inquisitiveness. John Huntsman’s truth-telling invites an expansive embrace of spirituality as part of the reality of American life. 

So where do you place yourself on this spectrum?

Share your story of Cafeteria Spirituality or Balanced Spirituality here

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6 Comments

  1. Robert – Thank you for another thought-provoking piece. If Mr. Huntsman were not running for the presidency, I think his ‘cafeteria spirituality’ would have more credence. However, the long-time political observer in me gives me a gut feeling he is positioning himself as an open-minded Mormon to garner more support and votes. Much like John F. Kennedy did when he put the U.S. Constitution above his Catholic faith before the largely
    evangelical ministerial group in Houston in 1960.

  2. You may have a point there Scott! The factor that makes this seems less politically calculated is his history even while Governor of Utah attneding services in religious communities as diverse as Buddhist and Hindu temples, Roman Catholic and Baptist churches and synagogues. Some of have suggested he is also part of a younger genrration of “Reform” styled Mormonism.

  3. Regardless of Huntmans’ ultimate agenda – the actions he is taking have great merit. If we would take the time to learn more about other religious communities and get to know the people we will find more in common than not. I was raised in the era of Cathlicism that was still spreading the ignorance that “only Catholics could go to Heaven.” I new at six that wasn’t true. We all are God’s children… regardless of what word we use for THAT which is beyond our intellectual understanding but not beyond our ability to experience. I find the more open my heart and mind the more joy, grace, and love I experience.

  4. Thank you Joan! Yes – an open heart to the Holy revealed in the wisdom of many traditions changes the landscape of how you approach and delight in life. It also enriches and deepens your experience of the tradition that grounds you! And it seems that in doing so compassion and love become ever more expansive!

  5. Patricia A. de la Fuente

    Robert, Thanks for the Summer Greeetings article just received. I particularly identified with your piece about Huntsman who as a Mormon, is remarkably unique for it had been my experience that the Morman faith was in some ways as orthodox and elitist as the Roman Catholicism of my childhood. Even before I began the long journey seeking a religion which had room for someone who interpreted spiritually and religion very differently than I had been taught. Specfically, identifying onself first as a spiritual person before a religious one. The former leaves much room for respecting and appreciating others theological beliefs, the latter often commits one to the idea that “this is the one true faith”-to this day I inwardly cringe when I hear or read such comments, either individually or from a group. One reason I chose the Anglican/Episcopal faith was not that I had found “the one truth faith”, but rather a faith in which other forms of religious worship were given the same respect and spiritual accord-the unspoken doctrine that God indeed belongs to all. His teachings are equal to that of any other honored and revered religious teacher and figure, whose message is that compassion, love and dignity are the inherent rights of all. This is where in my opinion,very orthodox beliefs tragically lead to much misunderstandings and harmful interpretations of our fellow man. They exclude others, rather than embrace others who are indeed spiritual, but choose to display that spirituality in another faith other than their own. It is sad to see that such beliefs clearly are still held by millions. I firmly believe that this is the cause of many of the wars and horrors going on in the world today, yesterday and sadly, very likely for many tomorrows. In my prayers, I pray that a more generous intellectual, spiritual as well as religious concepts can be adopted by all peoples in all lands. I include so called”non-believers” as well, for they too are children of God. It matters little if they choose not to subscribe to a particular diety or faith, or for personal reasons, distrust the same. What matters is what I choose to believe with all my heart and spiritual being, that I need to embrance and practice what I believe: God is indeed a God, a Higher Power, of all.

  6. Hearing about Huntsman’s embrace of a broad “spiritual” spectrum makes my heart sing. As a young child living on a farm in Eastern WA, I had a strong sense of “God” just in the daily miracles of growing vegetables and fruits, birthing colts, calves, etc. even before I was formally introduced to Roman Catholicism. As an adult, I feel free and invited to experience many spiritual paths as I travel throughout the world. Today, I choose to celebrate my personal spiritual beliefs in a Unity Spiritual center because it celebrates “many paths to God”. I see a change happening now in religious worship. I notice that a younger generation seem to be seeking a different kind of relationship to their God that embraces love, peace, compassion and joy but wishes to leave behind boring ritual and self-contempt. I wonder sometimes if many of the various types of religions will disappear and a “new age” of God worship will appear embodied in more individual spiritual expression.

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