get the syncretistic log out of your own eye…

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard missionaries from various parts of the world talk about syncretism.

Syncretism involves a melding of Christianity often with traditional belief systems, such that what looks good and Christian turns out to be something quite different once you peel back the veneer.

It’s pretty much always a disaster — whether it’s folk Catholicism in Latin America, in which the pantheon of Roman Catholic saints simply gets laid over the traditional pantheon, or the kind of ‘Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare’ popular in some Pentecostal circles, that missionaries tell me closely parallels African spiritism.

The funny thing though is that it’s very easy to spot syncretism elsewhere. As even the two examples I’ve given show, it’s the kind of thing Westerners are accustomed to seeing outside the West.

It’s a cultural blindspot. One I’m fairly sure I share in.

Can you help me? Do you have any ideas about where a shallow Christian overlay is being wheeled out to ‘baptise’ cherished, non-Christian Western beliefs and values?

I have a few hunches. But would love to get a sense of what others reckon.

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7 comments

    1. Thanks, JB. But I suspect it may die the death of everyone who might have commented on it being in Katoomba listening to Piper and Lennox instead…

  1. Pft, punx. I’ll engage with you Swanny… for fun, I’ll offer 3 suggestions in place of 3 poeple who should be commenting on this important topic.

    1. Surely it is hugely popular to blend faith with materialism. I’m not thinking of prosperity gospel (although I could be) I’m thinking evangelicals driving new mercedes benzs. Why do this? Or to put it more sharply, the fallacy that if a certain level of income is reached, every possession must be a uniformly middle class/upper class brand. Tynan, who has a highly unChristian worldview, makes this point very clearly here: http://tynan.com/polarizing
    I probably need to do some more crafting to truly outline the way it’s syncretistic as you describe…. I suppose the way we *unquestioningly assume* a middle class purchasing style would be a syncretistic blend of materialism and faith. Instead Christians, of all people, should selectively purchase goods to enjoy and then practice generosity with the rest of their income. I can’t claim innocence here.

    2. I think attitudes toward other’s opinions/beliefs tend to be polarised between either prima facie fundamentalist rejection (which would be baptising discriminatory behaviour). Or liberal acceptance of every worldview: I’m ok, you’re ok – which is popular postmodern culture, not Christianity.

    3. I wonder if our lack of passion for maximising our enjoyment of creation is a failure to engage in the world as God created us to. This would be a negative syncretism, if there were such a thing. Where our culture discourages healthy interests and behaviours (e.g. sport, artistic expression and creation) by over-emphasising the importance of others (building wealth and security).

    Yes, I acknowledge that this last point seems to be contradicting my first point, but I’m not. I think we can *think* we are enjoying the good things of this life, but in reality we are only amassing them (point 1). This amassing of wealth as a process then takes the place that enjoying the wealth should have.

    1. Ooooo – I love your second suggestion, John. I’d like to hear it extended further!

      I wonder if specific examples might strengthen your first suggestion — e.g., international travel, Apple products, property? And I agree that your third suggestion doesn’t contradict it. True materialism — affirming the goodness of created matter by thankfully enjoying and generous sharing it — is the only real alternative to our culture’s toxic materialism.

  2. Sure, international travel, apple products. That’s the vibe I was going for.

    As for my second suggestion, I’m going to take a reverse example to prove my point. Many times I have checked into atheist blogs to catch up on what they were saying about Christianity, and although I can often feel they are trying to articulate Christian beliefs fairly, their conclusions tend to paint faith in rather terrible colours. They look for contradiction rather than coherence, absolutes where limits apply, and so on. The root of the problem tends to be a general unwillingness to allow a Christian worldview to be the real, developing, functional worldview that it is…. aka simple, arrogant prejudice against it. There’s no point wishing for them to simply take the time to evaluate it on its own grounds, because they have already done this. The problem is that they think it’s wrong before the conversation starts.

    Now I remember sitting in university lecture halls being told quite firmly by a really well known Christian leader that you can’t be a consistent atheist. Or that Buddhism or Mormonism is stupid. I’m not an atheist or a Buddist or a Mormon, but I can guarantee right now, that if I met any one of these, they wouldn’t take kindly to my suggestion (explicit or implicit) that their beliefs are stupid. I’ve also been blessed with being a little dull, I have met atheists that seem very consistent to me, not even my sharpest moments have penetrated their worldview. But to get back to my main point, I’m not sure how we can hope for other people to investigate Christian faith, without showing interest or respect for theirs.

    On the other hand, I’m not by any means advocating that we believe any other worldview than Christian faith. Nor do we need to support them at all, other than in a basic human rights/dignity kind of way. This is the standard evangelical take which I support wholeheartedly.

    1. Thanks for fleshing that out, John!

      I definitely agree with your principle. I’d also add that it usually seems to be those people who are most secure in their own convictions (rather than those who proclaim something like relativism) who are best at taking alternatives seriously and not writing them off before the conversation’s even started.

      I wonder though about whether we evangelical Christians might have a PR problem here though. Even if in personal conversation we all managed to come across as interested, respectful and open, how are we going to tackle the public perception that we’re narrow, close-minded and irrational?

  3. I’m pretty sure that if we all came across as interested, respectful and open, the PR problem would take care of itself. Even our ‘enemies’ would defend us.

    I would suggest that the problem is not simply PR, it actually is our problem. Which means we are either syncretistic bigots as per my original suggestion – the solution to this is to repent. Or we are secretly insecure, in which case we need to gain experience, spines and manners.

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