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Syncretism in Christianity


Voices resistant to theological change have created a make-believe dualism meant to protect ” (evangelical) orthodoxy” from outside contamination. This is the false dichotomy of “contextualization” vs. “syncretism.” The success of this fantasy isn’t really all that surprising. Evangelicals have noticed how important it is to relate to the culture in which they find themselves. Yet, they want to find a way to protect their eternal message from enduring the pressure of the cultural realities from invading their pristine chapels. They want to communicate the(ir version of) the gospel in a relevant way to convert and fill the pews. But they also want to feel justified in sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “lalalalala” in order to keep information from the culture out. In short, they want one-way communication. It’s safe and clean. (While this may not be the stance of all evangelicals, it does seem to be the most dominant stance.)
The propagan… er, argument asserts that contextualization is good and syncretism is bad. Contextualization is taking cultural forms and filling them with evangelical meaning. So, The Passion of the Christ is good because it takes the form of a movie and uses it to communicate the message. Syncretism, on the other hand, allows not only form but meanings to mingle. Since this would contaminate the message, we can see how scary this is to evangelicals.
Theologian Kosuke Koyama pointed out the blatantly obvious more than 10 years ago when he said, “Condemning syncretism is like condemning the air one breathes. Nothing in history is pure and isolated. For the human mind, there is no choice but to meet, converse and syncretize. What a vast reality of syncretism is Christianity in the United States!” Though I realize how appealing the false dichotomy is to those who feel a need to stay pure, the resistance to basic reason sometimes baffles me. Even more interesting is the willingness to bury one’s head in the sand and pretend reality isn’t happening.
The reality I’m talking about here is the make-up of the central symbols of Christianity itself. And yet, strangely enough, as we explore them we see how the earliest Christians engaged in a healthy (well, that may be debatable) form of syncretism.
Baptism has its roots in primarily in Judaism, though its significance is best understood in light of baptism in the mystery religions. Generally speaking, from what we can tell, mystery religions viewed the worlds populace as belonging to one of two categories: the pure and impure. When joining a cult, one would first purify one’s self, then undergo baptism as a rite of entry into the pure community. So it was purification, baptism, then participation in the pure community. Jewish baptism was an act of purification that happened inside the community. The community by definition was not pure but being purified. Christian baptism seems to have taken on the role of baptism in a mystery religion (a gateway into the community, the role also played by Jewish circumcision), and it filled it with the communal theology of Judaism. The separation of humanity into the pure and impure was liturgically rejected. Through the act of liturgical syncretism, early Christians took a stand on the nature of humanity. (For more on baptism, see the works of Wayne A. Meeks. Unfortunately, my books are in storage, so no citations today.)
The Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist, or Communion) actually seems to draw more from a mystery sacrifice than it does the Jewish Passover. In basic mystery religion lore, a god (or son of a god) comes down to earth to teach humanity how it’s done. Humanity, however, doesn’t like this. So they unjustly persecute and kill the (son of a) god. In a grand reversal of the injustice, the god resurrects his son (or the god resurrects himself), thus the truth is vindicated. Those who would follow the god’s teachings join the cult. One such cult was the cult of Mithras in which (if I recall correctly) the eating of the flesh of the sacrificial bull and drinking its blood empowered a participant to partake of the eternal life of the risen god. From the Jewish influence, it appears that the use of Passover imagery primarily served to identify which deity is setting the table. By injecting this hint of Passover theology into the rite, early Christians were able to claim the ritual and its mystery theology as their own.
We see syncretism written into the texts of faith early in the gospel of Matthew. According to the Zoroastrian religion, our world is the battleground between two gods, one of light and one of darkness. The human calling is to choose a side (and not choosing defaults you to the god of darkness). Their religion taught that one day, the god of light would send a divine emissary to lead the followers of light to victory over the darkness. The arrival of that emissary would be heralded by the appearance of a star. A task of the Zoroastrian priests was to watch for this star. Zoroastrian priests were also called magi. Thus, we see in the beginning of the gospel of Matthew a rubber stamp placed on the beliefs of the Zoroastrians. And in the gospel’s dualism between light and dark, we see the incorporation of their religious dualism into the narrative itself. The textual evidence right up front, then, seems to indicate that the dualism prevalent in Matthew is drawn more from the Zoroastrian narratives than it is from Jewish fringe groups.
Then, we have the story of Jesus himself. I have to wonder, to what extend did the story of Socrates influence the recordings of the story of Jesus? Is the Holy Spirit of Jesus a rip off of Socrates’ divine voice? Both were portrayed as men of strong character and amazing teachers. Both enjoyed a final meal with their friends. Is Jesus a literary parallel to Socrates? Or was the story a Jesus an attempt to overturn the story of Socrates (as the story of Jesus is clearly meant to overturn the story of the Emperor)? Socrates was educated from birth, but Jesus was not; perhaps the writers were trying to show their poor communities that wisdom comes from God and not classical education, so they need not feel inferior to their social superiors. I have not looked into this much, but I suspect we would find that the story of Socrates was partly written into Jesus’ story in order to make a point. That, too, is a form of syncretism. (An old but interesting source to read might be Joseph Priestly, Socrates and Jesus Compared, 1803.)
So, if anyone really wants to proclaim that Christianity must protect itself from syncretism, then those people have some serious house-cleaning to do. They need to rid their theology (at least) of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the gospels, and (since the gospels are our foundation for what we know about him) Jesus himself. If their not willing to do that, they shouldn’t expect me (or any other reasonable person) to take them seriously.

Posted via email from Evolving Christian Faith Network

10 thoughts on “Syncretism in Christianity”

  1. Good and thought-provoking article, Bo. IMO, Christians, though perhaps not syncretic in their theology, are very much so in their practice. They are just very selective about their syncretism. For instance, many of them disdain higher education and critical analysis, yet they are just as materialistic as the surrounding culture. While they may deride evolution and science, they have no problem going to the doctor for medical help.

    In my personal life, I am trying to get away of this dualistic mindset that wants to divide everything up into the two categories of the sacred and the profane. This kind of thinking, IMO, has brought nothing but hurt and harm to our world. It has effectively separated the message from the messenger and I suspect that at the core of Jesus' teachings on what we might call 'evangelism' is the notion that WE OURSELVES are the message. The message needs to be 'incarnate' if it is to carry any credibility. And the message is not that God has divided creation into the sacred and the profane and that we need to choose, by default being evil. Rather, the message is that we are in God and God is in us, if we were to only realize it. In this way, the sacred and the secular are seen to be part of the whole. God does not speak to our culture from without it, but from within it.

  2. Interestingly enough, I've been thinking about this more. I guess I can understand why "syncretism" could be considered a "bad" thing. Just look at the KKK, a supposedly "Christian" organization. Or maybe we could look at the theologians who supported Hitler. Either way, both make a mockery of the religion.

    So, while I accept syncretism as part of religious life, I argue it needs to be done mindfully. As Christians, our measure for what is best is the quality of love toward others that we encounter in the stories of Jesus. Jesus, as our primary truth, becomes our measure for truth.

    >>…I suspect that at the core of Jesus' teachings on what we might call 'evangelism' is the notion that WE OURSELVES are the message.<<

    I agree with this. Well put. I would add to that a preamble: if "it" isn't about the well-being of people, then "it" isn't about God. That would tie the two together as us being both messenger and message.

  3. I detect a slight confusion of forms and definitions here.

    Evangelical Christianity posits that what seems to be combined within the definition of syncretism here is actually two stances.

    Syncretism is seen as the union of non-orthodox belief with established religious forms/structures.  Healthy indigenous Christianity is seen as the union of orthodox belief within localized and culturally enmeshed forms/structures.

    The attempted stance of the observer is a modicum of epistemological humility that recognizes that nobody has "the pure faith" but that there are a range of beliefs that are more "core" to the faith that determine relative orthodoxy.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful response.  I appreciate you clarifying the more evangelical approach.  It sounds like you share the perspective of Leslie Newbegin in The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (  

    While familiar with it, I don't take that approach.  Mine is more akin to Kosuke Koyama (and there's an article out there on the web that I've tried to find and link to, but it is eluding me; I'll update when I can get it).  For him, religious syncretism (which includes core beliefs) happens as readily as does breathing air.  

    Also, there is the issue of what constitutes a culture.  Some would argue that the core values or core beliefs are what bind Christians.  I don't believe that to be true.  Like Kathryn Tanner in Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (, I assert that cultures revolve around symbols, which become meaningful as a community discusses them.

    So, perhaps from the Evangelical perspective, it may appear that I am confusing forms and definitions.  But from my perspective, I am not.  

    Again, thank you for the reply.  Your posting of your perspective is appreciated.  

  5. Thank you for the nourishment. I like the historical tribute that Christianity
    brings to light. Human species will inevitably fall prey to confusion and a legion of many. The "accord" at which all babies are born into, innocently
    usually don't have time to figure out which is holier and mightier.

    In most parts of the earth, they simply pray that all these that propose
    polarity to the point of conflict, will realize sometimes people aren't as "smart"
    and all they want is to eat, survive without conflict and so on. I guess
    it's a matter of how important others are for them. I wonder if they
    realize that it is darker where they tread.

    The real Christian divides between those who do not obey the commandments, not people of different faiths trying to uphold what
    they have been taught as they grew up from babies into childhood into
    adults as "righteous behavior." J

    A person against "syncretism" probably don't like others because
    as the Preacher of Ecclasiastics complains, (3:18) "The spirit of man is
    no better than the spirit of a beast." It shows with their venomous
    arguments. Lip service these hypocrites who say they are of God,

    but really don't know the parts of the mystical body.

  6. I think the problem is similar to one of the great works of art depicting dieties, that includes the "final" point, a "hunk of flesh." I suppose it is worth arguing
    for many that if all others don't worship the hunk of flesh they have it all wrong.

    God is to be worshiped in the SPIRIT. Christ does not tell us to worship Him
    in the flesh. Christ Incarnate IS (Invisible Spirit) HIS (Holy Invisible Spirit) Incarnation. The "Flesh" is discarded, not to be worshiped like a dead pig.

    Jesus said that the "Flesh shall not inherit the kingdom." He warns us
    that we should "Worship the Father in the Spirit." Jesus and the Father
    are one. But to try to convince others that they must worship someone that
    they are unable to see, well it's better to take the advice of Jesus Christ.

  7. KKK HITler and Christianity … that does sound like a farce when "syncretizing" opposing values and regards for "righteousness."

    The term, in my opinion is another "double edge sword." For some
    one sense of it should not be thrown about, especially when the
    scornful pay lip service but not the true Christian formula.

    The flip side of the term is how the "spirit of man" conquers these
    obvious slits into the fabric. Mending might mean swallowing pride
    and realizing that the Christian view allows for respect of other cultures, and religions. It is a "dialect," even one by one, interpreting,
    and before you know it, there is more than one language that
    says the same thing.

    What one says by words, another mimes, another draws an image.

    But the "impossible dream" is that all the different peoples, no matter what religion iron out their issues. It doesn't help to
    tell others that no other religion makes sense, that it should be disregarded from heaven, and the Christian Spirit.

  8. >>But the "impossible dream" is that all the different peoples, no matter what religion iron out their issues. <<

    Though impossible, still a worthy dream. Keep dreaming!

  9. When I think of worship, I think of what James says, "Pure and undefiled worship before God the Father is this: to care for the orphan and widow and remain unstained from the world." That, to me, is spiritual worship.

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