In my church on Easter we bring to church baskets overflowing with foods we forwent during Lent. The priest blesses these baskets full of meats and cheeses, butter and wine, and we exuberantly share the bounty with each other. It has become a personal tradition to include a pepperoni in my basket. One Easter a few years ago, I was enjoying slices of my pepperoni and offering chunks and slices to everyone in the parish hall. Then one of my dearest friends curled her nose at my offering. She squinted at me. “Basil,” she said, “how long have we been friends? What? Ten years? We’ve been friends for all that time, and you still don’t know that I hate pepperoni?” She may as well have told me she hates breathing. I mean, really: Who doesn’t like pepperoni?
My father is a retired Methodist minister. He and my mother now attend a rather large Baptist church in their rural Tennessee hamlet. To Catholics and Orthodox this is as surprising as learning that a delicatessen owner used to prefer pepperoni but, now that he is retired, he prefers salami. To evangelical Protestants, especially those from the rural South, this is akin to learning that the owner of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise now hates chicken and spends all of his time with beef cattle farmers.
He has been asked by friends and colleagues why I am Orthodox. He tells them that I was always interested in liturgical expressions of faith, which to Baptists sounds like, “He’s always been interested in vegetarian expressions of meat.”
The food metaphor is apt, I think. By framing my faith as motivated by worship style, it becomes a question of taste. De gustibus non disputandum est. There is no disputing over taste, states an old medieval proverb. Like my friend who does not like pepperoni, there is no point in arguing whether you “like” something or not.
Because of the pluralism of our society, much of our discourse about our religious beliefs and practices is framed in the language of taste. If choosing between Jesus or the Dharma or the Tao is like deciding whether to have pizza, steak, or barbecued spare ribs this evening, then I am not hurt if you like Jesus and not the Tao, or even if you prefer your Dharma with a side of Yahweh and a light slice of Quran for desert.
If religion is a matter of the truth of things, that is, when believers act as if they are making statements about the way things really are, then people get hurt. No one likes it when people get hurt, right? And getting hurt reminds people about some very nasty things in the history of Western Christianity pursued under the name of religious truth: the Inquisition and the Crusades, for example.
People are especially likely to get hurt when they are told what to do. Pray this way. Do not eat that. Keep your sexuality pure and whole and simple. Despise not foreigners and weirdos. Give to the poor. Aid the lovelorn and the fatherless. Love unconditionally. The prescriptive nature of religion vexes the irreligious.
License is so much shinier than goodness. Who wants responsibility when you can do whatever you want? Well, teenagers, actually. An important effect of religion is just helping us to act like adults in the face of life’s nastiness. Keep religion no more important than a preference for pepperoni over salami, and no one gets hurt. But if it is not important, one wonders how religion gives meaning to anyone at all.