Often when we think about the issue of syncretism we think, very easily and rightly, about the mixing of African or Latin American spiritualism with Christianity. These are the sorts of blending different traditions are evident in holidays such as Día de Muertos in Mexico – a holiday that takes it cue from spiritualist worship of the goddess of the dead and blends it with Catholic Christianity. These are the overt forms of syncretism, and are easily called out for what they are, and either engaged in with caution, or avoided altogether.
Syncretism is the blending of two or more religious beliefs/practices, that are often contradictory, into an entirely new one. As cited above there are many overt examples of this sort of thing going on – Christians going to see a witch doctor for help with their crops, for example. But, as I look around, at the West in particular, I see a far more subtle form of syncretism going on in the Church.
It is different from contextualisation or assimilation, both of which the Church can, and does do freely. Contextualisation is the process of making the message of Jesus relevant and understandable to the people whom it is being presented to. Assimilation is the process of retrieving for the Christian faith anything that is good, true, and beautiful. St Justin Martyr said, “Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians.” This is the traditional understanding that all truth, no matter where it may be found, belongs to God, and therefore can be used and claimed by Christians in the mission that He has given to us. Both of these show discernment and faithfulness on the part of the Christian, who knows what the Gospel is, who knows the boundaries of Orthodoxy, and is able to make a judgment between what is right and what is wrong.
Syncretism is something that is becoming a problem in our modern (or post-modern, or post-post-modern) age. In an age where you can believe whatever you want, and no one can tell you that you are wrong, or that it it untrue, then it is easy to have a ‘pick ‘n mix’ faith. You can take something that you like from Buddhism, something from Islam, something from New Age thought, and you can tag it on to the end of Jesus, all the while ignoring, or refusing to engage with, the bits of the Bible that we find difficult or uncomfortable – like a child who pronounces that they know they can build a rocket to fly to the moon out of wood, while ignoring the fact that there is a great many truths that will stop that from happening, even when they are told it will not work, they continue to ignore what is being said.
The way that I see it being worked out today is, mainly, in the attitudes and behaviours of those who would say that they follow Jesus, but apart from their words, look no different than those who have nothing to do with God or Church. A great example is people who give their time to pursuing something other than Jesus. Young women start blogs about fashion, tattoos, wine, and tag Jesus on at the start and the end – “All glory has to god to God for this! Here is an amazing eye cream, make sure you follow me on YouTube! All glory to God!” Apart from two sentences there is nothing to differentiate them from any other blogger or YouTuber in the world! They dress the same, talk the same, focus on the same things, and for what? Not really glory to God, but glory to themselves. They have taken the assumptions of the world on board and simply tagged Jesus on the end. Ask them to articulate what the bounds of Orthodox Christianity are, and you will find them sorely lacking! Young men do the same with fashion, movies, whisky, and cigars! This is a Christian blog about whisky, GLORY TO GOD!
Now, I’m not saying that those things are not fun, interesting, and able to be talked about. BUT, when the focus in on those things OVER JESUS, there is no mention of how these things point to God, or how they help us to fulfil the call of Jesus, then is it really glory to God? You have to wonder, have we become so in sync with the culture, with the world around us, that we have become out of step with the one who really matters? We are meant to live out a different vision of what is important than those around us, we are a part of an upside down kingdom, does this come across in our lives?
I ask myself the same question – when people look at me, do they see the Good News of Jesus, who was crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended?