Syncretism

Introduction

‘Syncretism consists of the attempt to reconcile disparate or contrary beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term may refer to attempts to merge and analogise several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, and thus assert an underlying unity allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths.’ [1]

 

Examples of syncretism are found in the Old Testament where the people of God attempted to mix their monotheistic (one God) religion with other forms of religion (particularly those practiced by the pagan inhabitants of Canaan.) Stories like the golden calf, Baal and Asherah worship, and the numerous accounts of idolatry that took place in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel are examples of syncretism.

 

The New Testament story takes place in fairly syncretistic contexts. ‘Rome harbored all cults and mystery religions. Antioch, Ephesus, and Corinth each boasted syncretistic gods seeking to absorb the church. NT confrontations include Simon Magus, the Jerusalem Council, the Epistle to the Colossians, combating Jewish thought mixed with early Gnosticism, and the rebuke of the church at Pergamum. Against these forces the church developed its creeds, canon, and celebrations….It is helpful to study the books of Hebrews, 1 John, and the Revelation from the perspective of defending against syncretism. The NT canon and the recognized creed became the church’s two greatest weapons against the growth and transmission of syncretism. ‘ [2]

 

Syncretism can be particularly challenging when the gospel is presented in a cross-cultural context. Imbach points out  that in this situation there are actually three cultures involved: firstly the culture that the Bible story happened in, secondly, the culture of the ‘preacher’ or ‘missionary’ and thirdly the culture of the listener [2].In attempting to contextualize the message of the gospel, it is possible that the  meaning that is conveyed is different to the intended meaning creating an impure understanding of the gospel.

 

Another place where syncretism can occur is when well-meaning people attempt to find common ground between similar belief systems eg. Judaism and Christianity or one of these and Islam (the so-called Abrahamic or major monotheistic religions.) Another example would be to try and find common ground between Catholic and Reformed theology. A major controversy in church history was known as the Syncretistic controversy when one Georg Calixt attempted to convince his fellow Lutheran theologians to adopt a more liberal and unifying approach to Catholic theology. This debate raged on for 46 yrs (from 1640 to 1686)! [3]

 

Some theologians believe that ‘the modern celebrations of Christmas (the northern European tradition that replaced older pagan Yule holidays), Easter (the eastern European tradition with incorporated spring fertility rites), and Halloween are all examples of Christian/pagan syncretism, as some symbols and traditions are re-incorporated into a Christian context. The elevation of Christmas as an important holiday, for example, grew out of the Church’s need to replace the Saturnalia, a popular December festival of the Roman Empire, and naming a day in honour of Christ’s birth.’ [1] (there are many other explanations for where Christmas originated apart from this as well!) This particular article goes on to comment on African forms of Christianity that blend the gospel with African belief systems and cultures.

 

Syncretism should not be confused with contextualization which is the attempt to present the gospel in a relevant meaningful way to people in a given context by ‘packaging’ the message in words and images that are familiar to that audience.

 

 

What about NCF Church and syncretism?

 

  1. In a primary sense I think that we live quite far from the dangers of this way of thinking. We have a very fundamental approach towards theology. I think that in many ways the opposite is true – we could (perhaps correctly) be accused of being intolerant to other schools of thought (even within mainstream Christianity.
  2. In a secondary sense we perhaps live in danger of synchronising the gospel to a middle-class expression of Christianity. Sacrifice, discomfort and persecution for the sake of the gospel are not concepts held to by most of our congregation. Although we subscribe to the Great Commission as a major part of our value system, not many have left NCF to learn a new language and preach the gospel in a different language and cultural context (Matt and Shelley and the Sparrow brothers are the only examples I can think of). Financial difficulties and tough times are often associated with God’s displeasure in the minds of many in our church. Involvement with the poor and destitute is very low and selling of land and possessions and sharing with everyone as they have need is much more evident in Acts than in NCF Church! Hell is another topic that educated middle-class people don’t generally like to talk much about. Have we followed suit in our preaching and gospel presentation?
  3. Our approach to Christmas and Easter is one that I feel comfortable with. While these holidays may have had their roots in pagan festivals (or at very least competition from pagan festivals) to most of us they are reminders of Christ and His life and death. We use them as tools to present the Gospel, but I think it is important to remember that in themselves they are no more special days than any other in the calendar.
  4. Contextualisation is something that we are aware of but perhaps something that we could continue to do better in. One of the dangers I feel that we face is that most of the people who preach at NCF have been saved for many years and perhaps it slips our minds how unsaved people or visitors to the church think. In all of our preaching and leading of meetings I feel that it is imperative that we filter our words and actions through this filter and do our best to present the gospel and a compelling and relevant way by removing as many of the obstacles that our language and Christian experience may place in the way, without stripping the Gospel of its inherent power to radically change and adjust people’s lives.

 

 

Steve Wimble

Sept 2009

 

 

References:

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syncretism

[2] http://www.mb-soft.com/believe/txc/syncreti.htm

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syncretistic_controversy

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14383c.htm

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/syncretism

http://www.answers.com/topic/syncretism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contextualization

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06710a.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas

 

Incidentally, I find no mention of syncretism by Grudem, Rodman-Williams, New Bible Dictionary or Baker’s Theological Dictionary of the Bible)