Syncretism Breeds Pharisees
(You May Be "Syncretized" ... and not know it)
by Phil Miglioratti • The Reimagine.Network
...am I concerned about this issue?
I was introduced to syncretism in a seminary class on "missions." It was described as a problem missionaries must confront in order to deliver a pure theology of the Gospel on the mission field (read: foreign countries).
Syncretism, "the fusion of different forms of belief or practice" (Webster), inevitably results, according to the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, in “the replacement or the dilution of the essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Christian elements” (Moreau 2000; quoted by Larry Owens for Missio Nexus).
The danger is when individuals, as well as cultures, come to faith, believe in Christ, they invariably add elements of their current faith system and/or worldview to their understanding of biblical Christianity. This can lead to the acceptance of cultural traditions that are not Christ-centered, religious rituals that are actually idolatrous, and/or theological viewpoints that are simply unbiblical. This was an important eye-opening concern I had not been exposed to in my discipleship process. I immediately began to watch for it in missions-related contexts.
But I now realize I had assumed (and was not taught otherwise) that "heathen" nations or people groups were the only ones susceptible to this error. I had failed to consider western nations to also be susceptible, including the United States of America. And also American denominations. As well as the tens of thousands of congregations similar to the ones that helped me grow up in my faith; the ones I most closely relate to now.
...does syncretism look like?
Syncretism is the "combination or fusion of two or more different forms of belief or practice."
"The ancient Greeks mainly used the term synkrētismos to describe the joining together of Greeks in opposition to a common enemy. In the early 17th century, English speakers adopted the term in the anglicized form syncretism to refer to the union of different religious beliefs.
Their religion, Mexican syncretism, worships the forces of nature, the animals of the jungle, and the planets in the sky.— Pilar Guzman, Travel + Leisure, 9 Nov. 2021
"To understand the Day of the Dead, Ramírez-Oropeza told me, you must appreciate two concepts. The first is syncretism, the merging of two traditions into a new one." — Steve Padilla, Los Angeles Times, 28 Oct. 2021
"The United States, being a nation formed by immigrants, is an excellent example of cultural syncretism. Decades of the blending of cultures is evident in the food and music that is considered “Amercian.” Asian Tacos, Mexican Pizza and Jazz are all examples of the blending of multiple cultures to create something new."
"Strongly syncretist Romantic and modern movements with some religious elements include mysticism, occultism, Theosophical Society, modern astrology, Neopaganism, and the New Age movement."
"Syncretism of the Christian gospel occurs when basic elements of the gospel are replaced by religious elements from the host culture. It often results from a tendency or attempt to undermine the uniqueness of the gospel as found in the Scriptures or the incarnate Son of God."
Sources: Dictionary, Wikipedia, Theological Blogs...
...are the implications for American Christianity?
If we assume Western (read: White) believers and theologians are immune to syncretic influences, we will fail to assess if we have unintentionally added personal preferences, adopted political perspectives or acceded to cultural points of view.
Syncretism results when we fail to realize how (or even refuse to admit that) our environment and experience influence our interpretation and /or applications of Holy Scripture ... thereby granting our doctrinal statements a functional authority equal to the Scripture Truth itself. No one considers themself or their teachers or their doctrinal statements to be inerrant. But when we fail to assess syncretic infection, we might as well.
Syncretism is most easily discerned when examining a different culture or a diverse ethnicity but this same process is seldom applied to one's own belief system. We overly trust our discernment. We assume our answers-beliefs-choices are flawless. We defend our value-systems and cultural-adaptations as if they were inspired from a burning bush.
[Note: To help you understand the basis of these comments, please take a couple of minutes to read my articles on homogeneity and pharisaism below at "Related Articles"]
A belief system combines Scripture statements (the inspired, ineerant text), well intended explanations (unlike Scripture itself, our exegesis is never authorized at the level of Scripture), that lead to applications that cannot escape the context of their culture. Over time, our applications to Holy Scripture become intertwined with our doctrinal statements, which elevate them to an untouchable status.
[Note: If this last sentence seems unbelievable, think about the political statements of people who identify as Christian but align with a different party or perspective than you. What else can explain the level of defensiveness, opposition, even hatred?]
Dancing, dress-codes, consumption of alcohol, length of hairstyle, discipline of children, the role of women/wives, compassion for the poor, voting rights, personal and corporate stewardship of wealth, justice or righteousness, patriotism, black or blue ... while scripture speaks to these and other areas of life, history is replete with examples of a too liberal (anything goes) or a too conservative (authoritarian control) prescription. The problem is not that evangelicals disagree on these points, but that we disagree because we automatically assume our opposer is altogether wrong and we are completely right. We fail to even ask why they have reached their conclusion because we know (read: assume) whatever they propose is the result of faulty assumptions, motivations, and applications.
We have left behind the biblical teaching of "fallenness;" that all sin in thinking and acting. Which should produce enough humility to remember we are not inerrant on every faith statement or cultural viewpoint and those we oppose may actually have an insight worth pondering.
...can I do to transform my ministry by rethinking with a renewed mind? (Romans 12:2: not conformed but transformed)
Ask, Seek, Knock.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you (and your group, congregation, movement) how syncretic thinking has infected your theology
- Listening prayer requires listening once you've asked the question. Silence. Take notes. Discuss with other seekers as you pray. Respond with questions, as you...
- Seek wisdom in how to differentiate between Truth and traditions and the impact of the worldview of the context (culture, nation, church) in which we live.
- Desire (and assume the need for) correction.
- Knock on the door (persistent prayer) by re-searching Scripture and reassessing applications, values, worldview.
- Learn with and from others. Read. Debate. Discuss.
Assign different categories to your beliefs, viewpoints, values, perspectives, ministry presumptions:
- To Die For - literally, which Truths should you be willing to die for?
- Jesus is the Gospel: God Our Savior Promises Eternal Life
- Focus: The core truths of Christianity in the Apostles Creed (creation, incarnation, resurrection)
- Preach...proclaim, declare, these truths
- Worship and Evangelism
- That's Debatable - what teachings are viewed differently between authentic Christians?
- Biblical issues (Baptism modes, Lord's Supper protocols)
- Focus: Doctrinal statements about Scripture
- Teach...to respectfully persuade; hold fast to your belief while listening to other views
- For Discussion and Dialogue- what topics
- Your personal perspectives & preferences (dress codes, worship styles)
- Focus: Your applications of Scripture
- Reach..."As you go" build relationships as you respect, listen, serve, seek justice, win a hearing
Syncretism is like COVID; everyone eventually gets infected. The Church cannot afford to consider itself a-symptomatic. We need leaders who hold fast to biblical Truth while fearlessly assessing differing interpretations and analyzing varied applications. Because we are called to be radical disciples of Christ, not blinder-wearing Pharisees ("able only to see things one way and unwilling or unable to consider other possibilities"). Only this will empower us to penetrate (think salt and visualize light) culture, not (even unknowingly) preserve the way of life of a homogeneous culture or tribe.