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Syncretism

by Tim O'Hearn

Any time a religion, or any culture, moves into a new area, a certain amount of syncretism results. With that said as a fact, perhaps a definition of terms is necessary. Syncretism is “the combination of different forms of belief or practice.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary) People are loath to give up some of their familiar traditions, so they keep them while finding a justification in the new culture. Many people, for instance, quickly point out that Jesus could not have been born in late December; however, since the Romans loved the festival of Saturnalia, they adapted the new religion in order to continue to celebrate the midwinter holiday. They created Christ’s natal mass, or Christmas.

Contrary to what some who object to celebrating Christmas, Easter, or Halloween believe, syncretism is not wrong in itself. In fact, it is unavoidable. The question should rather be whether the blending necessarily violates the tenets of the new culture. Is there anything, for instance, in the religious celebrations of certain holidays that would be inherently sinful in Christianity? If so, such a syncretism is bad; if not, it is acceptable, or at least neutral.

Over the centuries there have been many syncretistic religions based on Christianity. One could even argue that Christianity in the first century was a syncretism between Judaism and Universal Messianism.

Judaism itself was quite familiar with syncretism. Hardly had God announced his Law through Moses, when the Israelites brought in the worship of the golden calf. (Ex 32) They had not even entered the Promised Land when they began to worship the Baals. (Num 25) Throughout their history, until the captivity in Babylon, the Jewish people joined idols with their worship of God. They never fully left the Law of Moses; they just added to it. Ezekiel was even given a vision of the leaders of Israel turning the Temple into a place of worship of things, in addition to God. (Ezek 8)

Christianity is not immune to combinations of practice. These show up in Voodoo, Scientology, New Age, Christian Science, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and (less obviously) Roman Catholicism and the Protestant groups coming from them, and even modern Islam. Some of these are more obviously incompatible with what we read in the New Testament; others less so.

There is a more dangerous syncretistic religion. It occurs any time Christians add their own culture to their Christianity, and make that authoritative. An Australian once said, “We want Christianity. What we don’t want is American Christianity.” He has a point, whether it be American, African, Mexican, or any other cultural brand of Christian syncretism. Because Americans after the Second World War, have been more missionary minded than some other cultures, it is American Christianity that is most commonly objectionable.

When we teach other cultures, do we insist on four-part harmony in singing? Do we institute the two-on-Sunday-one-on-Wednesday pattern of assembly? The list could go on and on.

The real danger, though, is not when we send missionaries abroad; it is in our own churches. Have we bound American materialism on our Christianity (and not just in the “prosperity gospel”)? Do we associate church growth with events, like car shows and concerts? Do we insist on middle-class suit-and-tie dress in the “sanctuary?” In many ways, the American church has become just that—more American and less church. We are satisfied with our upper-middle-class comfort in an air-conditioned building, assembling with the same people (same in culture, as well as invariably people we know), hearing the same sermons on comfortable topics. When you are used to the American church, it is hard to leave the building and get your hands dirty, literally or figuratively.

Until we give up our syncretic gospel and begin to practice only New Testament Christianity in different cultures, we are not practicing Christianity as much as we are practicing Americanism.