By Paul Petersen
Imagine watching 10 Americans move down a salad bar of theological beliefs. When picking leafy greens, seven select the spring mix––three greens in one. But as they move down, you notice two of the seven pick out the spinach, saying, “It’s a good addition but not really salad.” Several more extract the iceberg saying, “It doesn’t do anything for your body.” The other three put no greens on their plate, claiming greens are not essential to a salad.
Their choices reflect the 2020 State of Theology’s findings that 72% of Americans agree that “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Yet 52% of Americans claim, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God” and 59% agree “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.” Perhaps 7 in 10 Americans aren’t quite so orthodox.72% of Americans agree that “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Yet 52% of Americans claim, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” Click To Tweet
The group continues moving down the line, where more options await, but selections get more divisive. Half of the group adds tomatoes, at which the others roll their eyes. When the same half chose carrots, they received a verbal castigation. Once they decided their dressings, groups were ready to divide into factions––ranch versus vinaigrette.
It might not surprise many that a narrow majority of Americans (51%) agree that “Sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin” and “Abortion is a sin.” Those in dissent of these and other “traditional” ethics say, “Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth” (54%). In America, it’s possible to pick and choose our beliefs out of a “theological salad bar.” But why?
Relativity at the Salad Bar
After the 10 in the buffet line of beliefs made their plates, you ask a few questions. First, you ask, “How did you make your salad?” Five of the individuals raise their hands and indicate, “We were given a pamphlet at the start of the line that told us how to make the right salad, and we followed the instructions.”
A few others indicate that they received the pamphlet and took some of the ideas that seemed right to them but departed from the instruction when it didn’t seem to fit together right. The other members acknowledged that when offered the instruction book, they politely declined, saying, “This was a salad bar after all. We are free to make the salad that seems right to us.” When you follow up this statement asking, “How did you know that you would create the right salad?” they conclude, “Well, everyone knows the right salad for them.”
When asked about their beliefs toward the Bible, nearly half of Americans indicated, “The Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches,” and also agreed “The Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do.” At the same time, an increasing number of Americans (48%) agreed with the statement, “The Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.” In 2014, 41% agreed with this statement, growing to 44% and 47% in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
This budding skepticism towards the place of the Bible correlates with the finding that two-thirds of Americans agree, “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” Applied to beliefs, this suggests Americans assume that people will make the right choices and believe the right things for them given the right conditions. Human nature is sufficient to guide us into personal truth. Thus, at the salad bar of beliefs, objective claims about God or morality violate the fundamental principle that life is a salad bar, and you are the rightful creator of your plate.
Cultural Impact on Belief Systems
It helps to know what most Americans believe, but even more so, we must grasp how Americans believe, if we might engage them with the truth. Those cultural Christians who attend church on Christmas and Easter can select orthodox-looking statements about God on a survey. Still, their approach to knowledge prepares them to depart from Christian teaching further down the salad bar line. A culture that ingests “Be yourself” will also absorb “Believe yourself.”It helps to know what most Americans believe, but even more so, we must grasp how Americans believe, if we might engage them with the truth. Click To Tweet
A few hundred years ago, “Life is a salad bar” could not have been plausible when geographical distance, social hierarchies, and the variable authority of nature would not allow for the unhindered expression of who you discover yourself to be. Today’s culture emphasizes that any identity is attainable. The modern world is one where nearly any possibility seems achievable given the right technology, enough money, and a community that will affirm the lifestyle or beliefs you’ve chosen for yourself. How could anyone, including God, claim to know the right path for every individual?
Engaging with Others at the Salad Bar
How then do we engage those at this theoretical salad bar? In social media posts and other portrayals of public discourse on ethics and beliefs, one typically witnesses an exchange that looks like people speaking two different languages. To a modern individual, “The Bible prohibits homosexuality” deserves little respect because it is built on a false assumption––the necessity of external authority for human and personal flourishing. If a Christian fails to recognize this alternate take on knowledge, their well-reasoned argument falls on deaf ears.Few individuals today give thought to how they construct their belief system, but therein lies an opportunity. Click To Tweet
Few individuals today give thought to how they construct their belief system, but therein lies an opportunity. The next time you find yourself in a spiritual conversation, whether with a Christian or non-Christian, try respectfully responding to their claims with, “Who gave you that idea?” or “Where did you hear that?” You will inevitably receive a puzzled look because the question implies that they received the idea from outside themselves. Culture curates theological and ethical taste buds, whether we realize it or not. A salad bar allows freedom to choose only from the ingredients that were placed there by the restaurant. So, who determines which beliefs culture offers?
“Who gave you that idea?” points to the relational nature of knowledge. Beliefs develop in the context of community as we learn who to trust. As a parent, I refuse to use a lie at my child’s expense or as a means of coercing obedience. I want them to know I can be trusted and have their best interests in mind, but not every child experiences this from family, friends, or educators. Our world forms skepticism towards those around us through many avenues. It fosters the attitude “Decide for yourself what is true.” Yet followers of Christ––who are not more intelligent than the world but lit by the light of Christ––can engage others in conversation about how to believe and who to believe.Jesus is not just an idea to discuss; He is a person whom we trust. Click To Tweet
Each person chooses to trust someone’s ideas. Jesus is not just an idea to discuss; He is a person whom we trust. If we can respectfully and humbly learn how to discuss what makes someone a trustworthy source, perhaps our conversations about beliefs, ethics, and authority might look different. Our efforts must build trust in the person of Christ, the one whom the Bible reveals.
Paul serves college students in Boulder Colorado with The Navigators and alongside his wife Aimee and two daughters. He is also pursuing a ThM at Dallas Theological Seminary.