A perspective on syncretism and its modern trends

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The goal of every missionary work is to plant Christian churches that are both true to the word of God and historical tradition and indigenous at the same time.

In the attempt to create this balance, most times, churches fail to remove the aspect of their culture that are contrary to the gospel and living tradition of the Church. Because of this incompatible mixture, they fail to penetrate the debt of the Christian message and find themselves oscillating between the redeeming gospel of Christ and their constricting traditions without settling for any. Situations have arisen when it has become imperative to once again examine the modern trends of syncretism.

The English word “syncretism” comes from the Greek word synkretismos. Its origin is the custom of the people who lived in the Island of Crete in ancient days, who always fought themselves, but when enemies from outside attacked they combined force with each other to combat their foreign enemy.  They called this practice synkretismos, which comes from the verb meaning ‘to combine’ (Richard Gehman 2001, p.213). The concept is also employed to refer to the uniting of quarrelling brothers in the face of common enemies (Harrison 1960, p.510). Generally, syncretism would refer to the attempt to unite together those elements which do not agree (Richard Gehman 2001, p.213).
Tippet defines syncretism “as the union of two opposite forces, beliefs, systems or tenets so that the united form is a new thing, neither one nor the other” (Yamamori 1975, p.17). This agrees with the understanding of Robert Schreiter (1994, p.144), who defines syncretism as the “mixing of elements of two religious systems to the point where at least one, if not both, of the systems loses basic structure and identity”. Joseph Pinto (1985, p.22) has a dismal concept of syncretism. In his opinion, it is the “fusion of incompatible elements” or the “mingling of authentic notions and realities of the revealed faith with realities of other spiritual worlds”. By this, he is saying that elements of other religions are uncritically borrowed and fused into Christianity, watering down or spoiling Christianity in the process (Chidili, B., 1997, p.28). One could also ask Pinto, which faith is not revealed. Heavily perturbed by the problem of syncretism, Peter Schineller (1992, p.52) called for the abolition of the word because it bears many connotations and is no longer helpful or constructive. In so suggesting, he failed to suggest an adequate word to replace syncretism, and so the word is retained. As long as the church is universal and catholic, she must dialogue with other religions, and if she must make herself truly present among them, she must take in something of other religions, so as to make Catholicism the religion of the people. Aylward Shorter (1977, p.43) speaks of “crude syncretism” while Lamin Saneh (1985, p.43) speaks of “uncritical syncretism”. These suggest that syncretism is not bad in itself, and that when criticised, something good could come out of it or when refined could be redeemed.
In this case, we distinguish between “critical syncretism” and “uncritical syncretism”. While a “critical syncretism” can be good, “uncritical syncretism” is misleading.

A definition of the theological content of inculturation can be considered from a variety of angles. However, from whatever angle you choose to approach it, the theological content remains the same. Its content is contained in the words of the Gospel of St John, “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). It is therefore a process that finds its suit in the incarnational parameters already set by Christ.
According to John Walligo (1986, p. 11.), “Inculturation means the honest and serious attempt to make Christ and his Gospel of salvation ever more understood by peoples of every culture, locality and time. It is the reformulation of Christian life and doctrine into the very thought patterns of each people…. It is the continuous endeavour to make Christianity ‘truly feel at home’ in the cultures of each people.” In the contention of Pedro Arrupe (1990, p.6.), “Inculturation is the incarnation of Christian life and of the Christian message in particular cultural context, in such a way that this experience not only finds expression through elements proper to the culture in question, but becomes a principle that animates, directs and unifies the cultures, transforming it and remaking it so as to bring about a new creation.”
Syncretism of the Christian gospel occurs when basic elements of the gospel are replaced by religious elements from the host culture. It often results from a tendency or attempt to undermine the uniqueness of the gospel as found in the Scriptures or the incarnate Son of God. In inculturation, Christianity is not brought into a synthesis with something alien to it. It is the seed of the gospel that is already present in a particular culture. The reason for this synthesis is in fact the possibility of compatibility. Inculturation is not a negative phenomenon, but when it is not guided by the right principles it could become a crude syncretism. Whatever distinction I try to make here, there will always be disagreement between churchmen and theologians on whether or not a particular action is genuine inculturation/development of syncretism in the pejorative sense. However, some degree of openness and tolerance is required in dealing with new views. The principle of Gamaliel in the acts of the Apostles must be recalled. If it from God, no one can stop it; if from humans, it will die on its own.

In this section I would explore briefly a number of examples of what might be called syncretism by some, with examples from the church in its history and in the present.
Right from her early days, the church has rejected syncretistic approaches to religion. One of the earliest expressions of the rejection of the amalgamation of incompatible believes is in the Letter of St Paul to the Colossians. St Paul makes it clear that the Christian believe is based on the risen Lord, and not from the synthesis of religious believes or practices from one religion or the other. He therefore warns Christians not to be captivated by “an empty, seductive philosophy according to human tradition, according to the elemental powers of the world and not according to Christ.” (Col 2:8).
Acts of the Apostles chapter 15 records a refined syncretism. The event of the Council of Jerusalem in which the pristine Church decided the fate of the gentile nations vis-a-vis the Jewish concept of the newly emerging Christian religion. In this council, it was decided that all gentile converts should be allowed into the church without circumcision, and other Jewish dietary laws, meaning that one does not need to be a Jew in order to be a Christian. Obviously, this permission must have been seen by conservative Jewish Christians as compromising and therefore a gross dilution of the Christian faith (Chidili, B., pp.56-57).
In Corinth, on a mountain top near the city there was the temple of Aphrodite (the goddess of love). Sacred prostitutes were on duty in this temple, and pilgrims thought that by sleeping with them they were in contact with the goddess herself. There were Christians among this pilgrims (Fernando Armellini, 2002, p.126). Paul state that this is like joining the body of Christ to the body of a prostitute (I Corinthians (6:15-16); the Christians who went up to the mountain were syncretistic, because they were joining their Christian faith with pagan worship, which were incompatible.
Sceva, a Jew who cast out evil spirits with magical powers is reported in Acts 19:14-16, to have decided to add the name of Jesus to his collection of magical powers. In this process, the evil spirit overpowered his seven sons. This made the people of Ephesus to understand the superiority of the name of Jesus and the incompatibility of magical arts and the power of God. It is not surprising that they brought their magic books and instruments and burnt them before everyone.
The history of the early Church is the history of how the Church opposed syncretism and articulated her identity. As early as 70 AD, the Church was aware that it had a distinct identity that governed its relationships with other spiritual traditions. It was on this basis that it dealt with the Judaism from which it emerged, the mystery religions which abounded at the time, and emperor worship which anchored the Roman social and political order. There was the controversy of the Ebionites, who wished to keep Christianity tightly bound with Judaism. There were the Gnostics, the Marcionites, Valentinians, Docetists, Monarchianists etc. The church declared their outlook as being incompatible with the Christian faith (Bernard Green, 1994).
The clearest form of syncretism is that of the Catholic feminist movement known as Women-Church which is fast losing all connection with Catholic tradition.  The underlying concern is
that the Women-Church, in its attempts to be inclusive of all women is a adapting the religious values, rites and practices into the catholic faith. They are willing to accommodate many different spiritual traditions on an equal level with Catholic faith and practice. The report from “The National Catholic Reporter” said that an upcoming Women-Church conference would have, in addition to rituals by witches, rituals led by “Buddhists, American Indians, Quakers and Jewish leaders–as well as by Catholic nuns.”
Readings are selected every day from the sacred texts of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Islam, as well as Christianity. On occasion, ancient festivals of the Celts or Saxons are remembered, and members dance around a maypole or fire-pit in the fields or forest…. The Chapel is visually stimulating and instructive…. Icons of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Risen Christ are placed side by side with statues of Buddha, Lord Vishnu and Moses (Bernard Green, 1994).
Another form of modern day syncretism in the church is usually nurtured and propagated during interreligious and ecumenical dialogues. Because the world is becoming one politically, technically and economically there is a felt need to be drawn together in a universal brotherhood. Religions are also called upon to unit with one another. Christians, Muslims, and ATR are told to find common beliefs to unite them, and in many cases, this places a political pressure upon Christian churches, and the end result is syncretism and the compromise of the gospel. Here, the quality and compatibility of religions are justified by subsuming their various categories under generic categories. For instance, we say that the writings of various religions are “sacred”. We speak of the different deities of the different religions as “transcendent”. We say we serve the same God.
Syncretism is also found among African Independent Churches, which were founded as a consequence of resentment over missionary and colonial control. These churches try to reclaim some of their traditional beliefs and practices which had been rejected by missionaries. These beliefs and practices are inserted into Christianity without any criticism, this is expressed in their songs, dance and rituals especially. Sometimes, these elements are placed side by side to the gospel and sometimes exalted above the Christian tradition. When traditional beliefs and practices which are not compatible with the Christian belief are included in the Christian faith, the result is syncretism (Richard Gehman, 2001, p.221).
In Latin America and Brazilian religious cults, many of the traditional figures of popular religious cult, often with African roots, are given equivalents from Christian communion of saints. The result is often the modification and lessening of the challenge from the gospel values and from the examples of Christian saints. Pagan elements predominate over the Christian tradition, even if Christian names are given to such saints or matrons. In Cuba, for example, Yoruba divinities have been identified with Catholic saints: St Peter is Elegnara, St John the Baptist is Ogun (Peter Schineller, 1992, p.55).
In the struggle against modernism, Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius X strongly opposed modernist ideas, in their effort to preserve the truth of Christianity. They feared that the mingling of modern historical scientific and philosophical perspectives would overpower the gospel. The Second Vatican Council, called for a more critical relationship between the Church and the secular world, rather than a rejection of what it stands for (Peter Schineller, 1992, p.55).
1.      Geographical, economic and linguistic factors facilitate syncretism. For instance, cosmopolitan cities or business nerve centres could breed syncretism. A case in point is the city of Alexandria, which favours cultural contacts, language dissemination and the interchange of gods (Bartholomew Chidili, 1997, p.31).
2.      Another cause of syncretism is the policy of religious tolerance. In this case, syncretism becomes an effort to plug all the gaps in a given religion (Bartholomew Chidili, 1997, p.32).
3.      The Innovations in Christianity is said not to provide for some of the functions the traditional values perform. The gospel displaces them without replacement. This is one of the reasons why the African Independent Church movement is growing by geometrical proportion. These independent churches provide traditional needs for spontaneous prayer, exorcism and faith healing lacking in established churches (Louis Luzbetak 1992, pp.372-3).
4.      Christianity, argues Luzbetak (1992, pp.372-3) does not preach what touches the essential being of the people, it scratches where it does not itch. people go to church and come back filling empty. The church must also respond to the deeply felt needs of the people. he argues that an elitist or cultural irrelevant religion, will merely encourage untheological forms of popular piety, a return to pre-Christian ways, beliefs and practices borrowed from neighbouring societies, or neopaganism. He insists that the church must bid for a religion that is deeply aware of the felt-needs of the people.
The Catholic Church has an identity, her teachings and practices are based on the veracity of the original witnesses. Her ideas and beliefs are not drawn from a smorgasbord of beliefs and practices, from here and there. The church has a living spiritual tradition which is rooted in her historical experience as a community of believers. To be a member of the Catholic Church therefore implies commitment to her beliefs, practices and institutional disciplines. This is not to say that the Catholic Church is straight jacketed in her beliefs and practices. These take on a particular mode depending on the local culture within which the church finds herself, and this is where inculturation comes in. The faith is made visible to the people through the employment of their cultural categories, and in this process, their culture is Christianized and Christianity is made their culture, not by relegating their culture to the background but by making their culture blossom in the spirit of the gospel. While the practices of the church take a particular colour depending on the local church, in Catholicism, the church is universal. Its centre is in Rome and its core beliefs, practices and disciplines transcend any particular form of it.
Catholicism is not a syncretistic religion and this explains why from the very beginning of the church she has worked hard to block the intrusion of syncretism in all its forms. Rather than speak of the Catholic Church as a syncretistic religion, I would speak of the Mother Church as a synthetic religion. Being a mother, she always seeks to give birth to something new as she learns from her interactions with every culture and religion. Because the church is catholic she does not undermine the elements in other religions that are good and touched by grace. She enters into cultures that she may preach the message if salvation to all peoples through their language and cultural forms. In this process, the gospel message is not changed or compromised, because she has a critical function in relation to the culture she encounters. The Church discriminates what it assimilates in accord with her own identity.
Scholars like Richard Gehman, (2001, p.218), have accused the Catholic Church of syncretism. They argue that the church assimilated the Roman Law, Barbarian feats, Mythologies, Arabian and philosophies etc. These scholars anchor on this positions because of their inability to differentiate between syncretism and synthesis. While the church assimilated these traditions, she transformed them.  Bernard Green (1994) argues in defence of the Church’s synthetic ability, that “It was the Church’s synthesizing dynamic that led it into dialogue with Hellenistic thought and thereby added to the development of its moral thinking. St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius absorbed Neo-Platonic spirituality, and produced a Christian understanding of mysticism. Thomas Aquinas engaged Aristotelian philosophy, and developed that great synthesis of theology which continues to be a major source of spiritual and theological insight and practice even today.” He further argues that synthesizing and syncretism are radically different. This is because a syncretistic religion has virtually no identity of its own, whereas a synthetic religion has a clear identity of its own. Therefore, what Catholicism absorbs, it transforms, and that transformed element enhances rather than dilute her identity (Richard Gehman, 2001).

  1. Bernard D. Green, Catholicism Confronts New Age Syncretism. http://www.ewtn.com/library/newage/syncret.txt
  2. Louis Luzbetak, (1992); The Church and Cultures, Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  3. Crollius Roset A., (1986); “Inculturation: Newness and Ongoing Progress”, in Walligo, John, “Making A Church that is Truly African”, in Inculturation: Its meaning and Urgency, Ed, John Walligo, Nairobi: Pauline Publications.
  4. Pedro Arrupe, (1990); In a Letter Written to the whole Jesuit Society in Africa, quoted in Schineller, P., A Handbook on Inculturation, New York: Paulist Press
  5. John Walligo, (1986); “Making A Church that is Truly African”, in Inculturation: Its meaning and Urgency, Ed, John Walligo, Nairobi: Pauline Publications.
  6. Richard Gehman, (2001); African Traditional Religion in the Light of the Bible, Kaduna: Baraka Press.
  7. Fernando Armellini, (2002); Celebrating the Word: Year B, Commentary on the Readings, Nairobi: Pauline Publications
  8. Robert Schreiter, (1994); Constructing Local Theologies, Maryknoll: Orbis Books
  9. Yamamori Tsunao, (1975); Christopaganism or Indigenous Christianity? Pasadena: Wm.Carey Library.
  10. Aylward Shorter (1977); African Christian Theology: Adaptation of Incarnation, Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  11. Lamin Saneh (1985); Translating the Message, Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  12. Joseph Pinto (1985); Inculturation Through Basic Communiction, Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation. 
  13. Peter Schineller (1992); “Inculturation and the Issue of Syncretism: What is the Real Issue” In Evangelization in Africa in the Third Millennium: Challenges and Prospects. Ed. Justin S. Ukpong et al. PortHarcout: CIWA Press.
  14. Bartholomew Chidili, (1997); Inculturation as a Symbol of Evangelization: Christian Faith Taking Root in African Soil, Jos: Mono Expressions.


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