Is Faith Like a Buffet?

Faith, Sincerity, and Buffets

“Faith” is a term that has become largely unclear when it is used in daily conversation. Some understand it as an ethereal notion referring to a person’s chosen beliefs, whatever they happen to be. Others view it as a label for religion and thus, only applicable to those who belong to “organized religion.” Many will also think of faith as something they need to get them through difficult times in life. Within these various understandings of the word “faith”, we find another perspective. This is the idea that faith is an inherently good thing and that what makes it a positive reality in a person’s life is the mere fact they possess it. In other words, this perspective on faith claims that it does not matter where your faith is placed, only that you are a person who possesses some kind of faith and that you are sincere in your beliefs. So, this perspective is built upon the elements of faith and sincerity

To illustrate this, imagine that religions are presented to you on a buffet table. Think about how a buffet works. A diverse spread of food is placed before you and you get to choose what food you eat and how much of it. You are the one who makes these choices and what you eat is guided by your personal tastes. Some view religious belief in the same way. The religions of the world are presented before you as options and your choices regarding them are guided by your personal tastes and desires. You can pick any one of them or you can mix and match. You can have a little bit of Buddhism, a little bit of Christianity, as well as a bit of New Age spirituality. The point is that all of them are equal options. In such a scenario, your choices and your sincerity in your choices are the only things that matter. 

Why This View is Appealing

Many find such a view of faith appealing. It seems to respect the beliefs of others because it locates the significance of belief in the choice of the individual instead of some authoritative source outside of the individual. This would mean that religious beliefs are mere private matters and no one can say that another’s choice is wrong. Surely then if religious beliefs are only a matter of one’s privately chosen commitments, then “faith” is an empty bucket (or plate to stick with the buffet illustration) that can be filled with whatever people choose. And the mere act of making such a personal choice of beliefs is seen as a virtue. Shouldn’t people be free to believe what they want? And if they are sincere in their beliefs, isn’t this a good thing? Well certainly, but these things must be qualified. For now, notice that, according to this view, the virtue of faith flows from the individual’s choice and sincerity

Now, it is certainly the case that we must respect the beliefs of others, especially if they happen to disagree with us. And of course, being sincere in your religious commitments is a good thing (as far as this claim goes). If you claim to believe in a particular religion, but there is no real commitment displayed in your life and actions, this shows you really do not believe it. Freedom of religion is also a good thing for society. But these things are sideroads to the main point here. What I want to point out is that merely having faith and sincerity is not enough. And this will prove to be the great flaw in the buffet approach to faith. 

Why the Buffet Approach to Faith Fails

The core problem with the view of faith we have been considering is that it neglects something very important when it comes to our beliefs. This is whether or not our beliefs are true. You see, someone can have faith in a given religion and they can be very sincere in their beliefs, but this is not enough. If the religion they have put their faith in is not true, they have misplaced their faith. And no amount of sincerity will remedy this. 

Think about it this way. Imagine there is a patient who has been suffering from various symptoms such as low energy, muscle weakness, dizziness, etc. for a while. Finally, the patient sees a cardiologist. He says the patient’s heart is failing and he will need a heart transplant as soon as possible as there is nothing more that can be done with his current heart. Amazingly, a heart is found that matches perfectly and the cardiologist says he can do the operation. The patient gladly accepts this and expresses his thankfulness to the doctor for being willing to do the surgery. However, tragically, the surgery fails and the patient dies on the operating room table. What happened? Well, it turns out that the cardiologist who said he could do the patient’s surgery was not qualified or experienced in doing transplants. As a result, he made mistakes during the surgery that proved to be fatal for the patient. 

Now, the likelihood that an unqualified doctor would perform a heart transplant is not very high in real life so this illustration has its limits. But the main point remains. You see, the patient trusted the cardiologist. He placed his faith in the abilities, knowledge, and experience of the doctor and believed he could do the transplant successfully. The patient trusted in (placed his faith in) the doctor and was very sincere in his trust. But the patient’s trust was misplaced because the doctor was not qualified. And the consequences were fatal.

The importance of this point for religious belief must not be missed. A person can put their faith in a given religion or religious figure, but if the religion is not true and/or the religious figure is misleading, their faith is misplaced. Their trust will lead them astray from what is true and their sincerity in this will not help them. We can be sincere in our beliefs, but psychological confidence and sincerity alone cannot remedy what is false. The buffet approach to faith misses this and as such, it is not a good way to think about the concept of faith. 

Faith and Truth

It is easy to see in the illustration above that the truth of the doctor’s qualifications (or lack thereof) was more important than the patient’s faith and sincerity. In the same way, truth matters when it comes to religious belief and there is no good reason to think otherwise. Religions make claims about the world that are either true or false. If someone puts their faith and sincerity in a religion that is false, they have misplaced their faith and their hope. These tragic results will have ramifications for their eternal destiny.  Thus, religions are not solely about a personal choice of belief; their importance lies in whether or not they are true. 

Jesus called people to put their faith in Him and claimed that the eternal destiny of every human being depends on how they respond to Him. At one time, He told the religious leaders of His day: “Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). A careful reading of the New Testament gospels reveals that Jesus did not call people to place a blind faith in Him. Rather, the miracles He did served as evidence for the truth of His claims. Christianity presents itself as a religion rooted in certain truth claims about the world and these claims can be investigated. It is my contention that its truth stands up in the face of the numerous objections presented against it.