The Problem of Syncretism - Being
Just Like Everyone Else
an attempt to remain relevant and attractive in a changing world,
many Christians are apt to reflect the patterns and modalities of
society at large. Playing “follow-the-leader” this way
may be a logical soft option, but only conforming to the image of
Christ will empower us to impact our generation. Christians must be
contemporary as, indeed, Jesus was, but he was not “just like
everyone else”. The life of God, multiplied exponentially by
the Spirit living within gave him (and will give us) the burst of
power we need to make a difference.
mass over, the priest’s words were echoing around the niches
and chapels built into the sides of San Francisco Cathedral in La Paz
as the Aymara family next to me stood up and prepared to leave.
Pulling his “chullo” down over his ears, to keep the cold
off his head, Don Juan (not his real name) told me he was going home.
I asked what the mass meant to him. He told me he had been coming
to the church every week since he was a boy. Did he believe in
prayer, I asked. He told me that he did, but that he didn’t
understand some of the things that happened in the service. He was
mainly concerned about keeping his family going. Religion was
helpful, but he confided that it did not always meet his needs. When
prayer failed the shaman in his village would say incantations over
him, maybe sacrifice a chicken, so that the spirits would heed the
sight of blood and give him the favour he needed. I asked him how he
managed to balance two competing faiths. He told me they were one
and the same, in his opinion. “They are all about God.”
In his mind, shamanism and Christianity functioned as one paradigm.
He saw no conflict, because that is how he had been brought up. He
told me the spirit world of his village predated the arrival of the
Spaniards and their gilt images five hundred years previously. It
had kept his ancestors together and given them hope and power in
times of need.
exactly is Syncretism?
option of mixing faith systems and observing them as one is called
“syncretism”. It is a framework, a process by which
elements of a single set of world views are harmonized and
assimilated into another, resulting in a change in the nature of both
of them and the emergence of a new system, a revised set of beliefs
It is a union of theologies. The synthesized form is a new product,
although separate segments retain some identifiable components, such
as a high altar, or a witchdoctor’s tools of trade. I have
seen syncretism at work in some African churches, where animism and
other traditional religions have been wedded to the Christian
message. I have observed it in Andean villages in Peru, where
indigenous religions are often mapped to Christianity, giving local
deities new Christian identities, so that prayers are said in old
ways to new names, such as the Virgin Mary or the Apostle Peter.
When our Prime Minister recently attended a Christian church service
to celebrate the opening of a new parliament, nodding his assent to
the creed recited, and then went to help officiate at a Hindu
ceremony, he was being syncretistic. Biblical Christianity and this
type of accommodation simply do not mix (2 Corinthians 6:15-16).
is usually associated with attempts by belief systems to be relevant,
less confrontational, controversial and culturally alienated by
mixing and matching with local ones. It removes absolutes and works
on the assumption that any belief can be adopted, melded, re-shaped,
discarded, denied or repudiated, depending on whether it suits the
new operating environment. Syncretism involves representation of a
limited and distorted part of the underlying message, so that it fits
the values and traditions of outsiders, or is rendered acceptable to
it is all around us.
have been to India a number of times. Hinduism is syncretistic. I
recently read a fictionalised account of an Indian boy who met a
Christian missionary who explained the Gospel and led him to accept
Jesus Christ as his Saviour. The boy then went home and thanked
Krishna for helping him find Jesus as his new god. In spite of its
claim to be universally monotheistic, Islam is also practiced
alongside traditional faiths in many countries. In Indonesia,
millions of Muslims tolerate traditional Javanese folk religion,
parallel to the mosque.
the West, syncretism is widespread. In essence, it means “living
like everyone else”, adopting their world views and mixing them
with faith, so that the new soup is palatable to everyone and no one
is offended by “fundamentalist” beliefs. It involves
downplaying key elements of the Gospel that are considered “old
fashioned” or “not cool”, so as to be more
acceptable, less eccentric. Young people growing up in church have a
fear - almost a phobia – about distinctiveness, of being
rejected because they are different. They don’t want to be
associated with the image of the small, traditional, suburban church
with a hall, a manse and an aging membership. The church of the
future must employ culturally sensitive evangelism, without being
seduced to conform. Otherwise, the natural process of syncretism
will increasingly lead to the acceptance and validation of
extra-Biblical offshoots such as Christian feminism, Christian gay
groups, atheistic evolution in Christian schools, removing Christ
from Christmas celebrations and a host of similar developments in
respectable ecclesial circles.
what’s wrong with syncretism?
demands that worship of God be shared with competing deities. This
occurred constantly in the Old Testament, as the values of the
Canaanites, Babylonians, Assyrians and others permeated ancient
Israel. On one occasion, the Prophet Elijah challenged the nation to
stop dithering between two opinions and decide whether Jehovah or
Baal was the deity worth following (1 Kings 18:21). That should have
been a no-brainer, but Baal and other gods of the Canaanites had
great influence. I have visited ancient Canaanite settlements in
Lebanon and seen the influence of the deities that sought to displace
Jehovah in the life of his people.
history is filled with the struggle against syncretism from
political, social, religious and economic sources. In New Testament
times, Greek, Roman and so-called “mystery religions”
sought to undermine the Christian community through
syncretism. In subsequent centuries (particularly after Christianity
became the official religion of the state following the conversion of
Constantine in 312 AD) it was easier to undermine Christian faith by
mandating “toleration” rather than persecuting
Christians, which only led to martyrs.
crisis that faced the early church was acceptance of non-Jewish
Christian converts. Many Jewish believers acted as though their
faith was an extension of their national history and identity. When
God began to save Gentiles many of them were horrified. Only a major
conference in Jerusalem, under the leadership of wise men of God, was
able to deal with the issue (Acts 15, Galatians 2). Now we know the
people of God are not identified by ethnicity, gender or social
status, but their relationship to God and to one another through
Christ (Galatians 3:28).
Pressures exist on all sides today,
as secular humanism strives to be the common ground for solving
problems. Pluralism is proclaimed as the ground for melting all
religions into a porridge of new religious ideas. The values of this
world view strive for a place in the church's response to both the
demands for conformity and the cries for liberation confronting it.
Some people argue (or act on the
basis that) that the best way to reach people is to live in their
space and be like them. This involves “contextualising”
the Gospel. I once listened in horror as a visiting speaker in a
church I attended told the congregation it was OK to break the law if
imprisonment could be used by God to reach non-Christian prisoners.
Where do we draw the line? When God is just like everyone else, the
whole reason for being a Christian is up for grabs.
of the Christian gospel occurs when basic elements of the Bible are
replaced by religious elements from other faiths.
It often results from a quest to make the Gospel acceptable, less
alien, or embodied in a different cultural context. In many
societies, including in the West, standing up for the absolutes of
Christian revelation is a criminal offence. It is safer to look for
common ground and inter-faith dialogue than run the risk of being
labeled a “crank”.
Bible teaches that truth comes by revelation, through the agency of
the Holy Spirit. There are times when elements of traditional
religion foreshadow aspects of the Gospel and can be a way of opening
up communities to evangelism. This was the case in Athens (read Acts
Chapter 17) and many Asian societies where missionaries eventually
made inroads when they learned enough about local religions to show
the people that Christ was the One they were looking for and
encouraged them to abandon half-truths for the real thing.
on the other hand, involves adding other beliefs to Christian
doctrine, with the intention of supplementing
the salvation provided by Jesus - as if it were somehow incomplete.
Syncretism springs from lack of faith in Christ's saving power. At
issue are not methods of praying, clothing worn, songs that are sung,
styles, forms and expressions that are used (let’s celebrate
Jesus with the best music available), languages that are spoken, or
even objects used in worship, but the heart. Syncretism is a tool of
Satan to water down revelation and separate God from his people by
the accretion of symbols, liturgies, art forms and theologies that do
not “offend”. It involves a loss of moral and spiritual
but into whose mould?
billion people simply do not squeeze into fixed moulds. They are
influenced by a host of cultural realties that include gender,
education, ethnic space, occupation, family mores, taboos and
semiotic frameworks. The global cultural economy is a complex
network, a sophisticated multi-dimensional jigsaw. Culture is not
unified. It is ideological, political and economic. If we are to be
relevant Christians in a global village we have to recognize local
dynamics, histories, subcultures, prejudices and imagined communities
and try not to compartmentalize people or insist on a single “fix”
on human dynamics that cannot be constrained by a single “snapshot”.
Our message must be addressed to population fluidity,
disjunctiveness and rapid global transformation. As Christians,
being relevant in the modern world involves learning how to be
simple, uncomplicated and transparent as we relate to the Eternal and
His creation. It means being open to people but sticking to Truth.
That is a hard juggle. If the balls fall, the message is compromised
and people look elsewhere.
First Commandment requires that we love God with all our heart, mind,
soul and strength (Matthew 22:37-38). Jesus
is the only one through whom we can be saved (Acts 4:12). He said,
"I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one can come to the
Father except through me" (John 14:6). These are categorical
statements. The Bible says that the “natural mind” of
the non-Christian cannot understand the things of the Spirit, but
rejects them. They are “foolish” to him (1 Corinthians
1:18-25). When we strive to be like others, and reify their values
in our lives, as our guiding principles and aspirations, we are not
consciously bowing to false idols or making them our “gods”,
but yielding in more subtle ways.
efforts not to be squeezed into everyone else’s mould (Romans
12:1-2) must not be confused with religious pride and self-effort,
making us so out of step that our walk is disqualified and people are
turned off by our lives. (People should be drawn to the message
because of our lives, not driven away from it.) My father used to
tell the story of a man who went to a passing-out parade to watch his
son’s graduating class. As he sat in the stands, he looked
hard to make out his son. Finally he saw him. “Look”,
he cried out, “There is my son. He is the only one marching in
time”. No doubt his listeners realized the poor man’s
son was the only one marching out of step. Instead of surveying the
whole, he focused on one small aspect and missed the obvious.
is building a contemporary church, one that overflows with his
abounding life, presence and purpose, in step with the Holy Spirit.
He has come to show us how to live, and how to make the reality of
Christ a compelling force in our generation, tearing down false
images, rather than the other way around. Sections of the modern
church are working hard to reinvent techniques of praise and worship,
to make it more “real”, more tangible, but fully birthed
of God. This is great news. Lamentably, some traditional elements
of the Body of Christ respond with criticism, rather than rejoicing.
Holding to the simplicity of Christ
an effort not to be like the world around us, it is important that we
not become so different as to turn them off. Let me give an example.
I once took a flight from Perth to Melbourne, surrounded by several
dozen men and women who belonged to an exclusive Christian
denomination and were on their way to a conference in Melbourne. The
women wore scarves on their heads. The men were dressed and spoke
conservative English (not unlike the vernacular used in the version
of the Bible authorised by King James in 1611). One of their number,
a middle-aged farmer who sat in the seat beside me told me the group
refused to have formal contact with other Christian denominations,
because they considered them a’’ “too worldly”.
The longer we talked the more convinced I became that the focus of
this group was not holiness but exclusivity. What was important, in
their world view, was not the Body of Christ but externalities such
as dress styles, forms of music and social intercourse. Their
response to syncretism was to cut themselves off. In so doing, they
lived as though they were the only ones left in God’s Family.
Jesus lived among us and we were attracted to him because the
presence of the Spirit in Him created and celebrated overflowing
life, not because he established an exclusive society. It is
important that we not tie ourselves to legalistic bandwagons that
focus on stereotypes about form, rather than substance. We are not
different for the sake of being different, but as a consequence of a
new inner life, living by new values, appetites and priorities. The
normative family of God is above culture, nation, language or
Apostle Paul encouraged Christians in the first church at Corinth not
to lose sight of their pure and simple devotion to Christ, not to add
anything to it, but hold firm to the simplicity of the Christian
message (2 Corinthians 11:3). We can add nothing to what Jesus has
already done for us, but need to know what we believe and be
committed to it, holding to the absolutes of Biblical revelation,
living by our faith. God doesn’t have to be so different as to
can we be people of influence, relevant, dynamic, attractive,
persuasive and still be able to proclaim the message, with integrity
to the truth. How do we avoid syncretism in our church, family and
of us is free from the innate desire to be accepted by others and to
be like the world around us. The human heart reaches out to gods in
all forms. Dealing effectively with the temptation to compromise on
many levels is an essential part of Christian growth and maturity.
We cannot long mask the subtle attachments we feel to “our”
world, and the hunger to be part of what is going on.
calls us to be different, to escape the downward drag and be re-made
in the image of His Son. The Bible says that true liberty comes from
the Lordship of the Holy Spirit, as He makes us less like others and
more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). Only He can give us power
to be different. Regardless of culture or personal background,
believers don’t have to live by the standards and patterns of
everyone else, because they are “born of God” and their
Biblical praxis is predicated on the person and presence of His Son.
Let’s allow Him to bring this about in a transforming way.