Syncretism (noun): “the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.”
I first heard of syncretism in a seminary course on missions that I took many years ago. It plagues missionaries across the world. New peoples in new places come to faith in Christ, but their old religion dies hard, and their old customs linger. Before long they become set in new patterns, more Christian than the old, but still not fully and truly Christian.
Some South Americans make offerings to pagan gods along with Christian saints, even on the same altar. Followers of some Caribbean religions combine Christianity with animism or spiritism. Sun Myung Moon's "Unification Church" combines aspects of Christianity with Buddhism and Confucianism.
It's a good thing that we in the Western world don't practice syncretism, isn't it?
Not so fast.
We who live in the Western world—especially Europe, North America, and Australia—are the beneficiaries of centuries of Christian influence. As Vishal Mangalwadi put it in a recent book, the Bible "made our world." Still there is competition between a biblical view of reality and other competing worldviews. Sometimes neither view wins; it's more of a tie instead. The result is syncretism, right here at home.
I can illustrate that with two examples: materialism and materialism. No, you're not seeing double.
My first example, materialism, is a familiar one. It's been the subject of thousands of sermons. There's a good chance you heard one of those sermons last month: a warning not to turn Christmas into a frenzy of giving and getting. We're all influenced (if not thoroughly infected) by our culture's consumerist, materialistic drive to get more stuff, a drive that has turned Christianity's most visible annual celebration into the world's biggest shopping spree.
Consumerist materialism flows from a certain way (or ways) of viewing reality. It reflects a worldview. Whereas the Gospel tells us that our great problem is sin, and the alienation it produces between us and God (primarily) and between us and others (secondarily), materialism is based on the idea that our problem is not having enough of the right stuff. The Gospel tells us the solution is found in a Christ-centered life of faith, which may well include personal sacrifice; materialism's promise is that getting more good stuff will solve our problems. The good news of Christ is that we can have joy everlasting; materialism says forget that, let's worry about today (are all my gadgets up to date?).
Christmas is an obvious point at which we've let materialism's false promises overrun the good news of the Gospel. It's not just a one-month-a-year problem, though. Some preachers have built their ministries on the promise that following Christ will bring health and wealth. Yet even where health-and-wealth is explicitly rejected, it's hard to escape the message that there is a kind of salvation to be gained—salvation from dissatisfaction, at least—in getting more stuff.
That's what can happen when we let consumerist materialism infect our Christianity. More subtle yet, though, is the effect when we let the other kind of materialism into our view of reality.
This other form of materialism, sometimes called philosophical materialism, is the view that nothing exists except matter (material stuff) and its counterpart, energy, and that nothing can happen except what takes place according to natural law. It's a strong form of atheism, for it denies the reality of anything except for the natural, material world.
Obviously no one who believes in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Son of God could accept an atheistic worldview like this. I wonder, though, whether many of us might be more heavily influenced by it than we realize. Here's why I think that might be the case. Materialism considers that everything that exists, and every event that happens, is subject to natural law. There are no exceptions: Nothing happens but what nature requires.
If that's true, then the natural sciences rule over all knowledge, for when it comes to explorations and discoveries in the natural world, there's nothing to compare to the natural sciences. All of theology, philosophy, and even the knowledge we could acquire through arts and literature must bow to the sciences, if this form of materialism is true.
(One reason I think materialism is not true is that there are good reasons to believe science doesn't rule over theology and philosophy. That's another issue, which I can't take time to go into here.)
We Christians can get caught in a subtle kind of error related to this, though. We know how successful the sciences have been in explaining the physical world. Science works, and it works very, very well. It works so well that if we're not awake and aware, it can fool us into thinking that it does indeed rule over all other kinds of knowledge. And since science tells us there are natural laws that determine all that happens, therefore natural laws really do determine all that happens.
Did that last paragraph make sense? In a way I hope it didn't, because what I was describing was an example of poor reasoning that shouldn't have seemed like good sense. A better way of stating it would have been, for all science knows, there are natural laws that determine all that happens; therefore as far as science knows, natural laws really do determine all that happens. In other words, for all its success, and for all that science knows, science doesn't know everything.
I wasn't saying it was a right way of thinking, but rather that even though it's mistaken, it's the sort of mistake we're liable to fall into if we're not careful. That's because we can hardly get it out of our heads how powerful the sciences are. The result of that is that we tend to think—by habit much more than by logical reasoning—that science rules reality, and therefore nothing happens except what's allowed by natural law.
That's a bad habit of thinking for Christians, for if we don't believe natural law can be broken, then we don't think God can do much by way of answering prayers. He can "guide the hands of the doctors," for example, but He can't heal us directly, miraculously. God's providence must be an invisible effect on the world, and as for miracles, those must have been for another time and place than ours; for we have science now, and we know better.
Science doesn't know everything, and it can't know everything, because not all of reality is physical, and not all of reality is subject to physical law. This philosophical materialism is just as wrong, though in a different way, as materialism of the consumerist sort.
Syncretism At Home Syncretism can happen right where we live. We can attach materialism—consumerist or philosophical—to our Christian beliefs. It's easy to do; in fact, it takes intentional effort to prevent that from happening.
I think if you were to ask cross-cultural missionaries how they deal with syncretism, they would tell it's important to understand the local culture's beliefs and practices well enough to be able to recognize what is good, and to identify and define what is not. It helps to be able to name the error.
Far more than that, though, they would emphasize knowing the truth, and knowing the True One. The truth is the Gospel of the Kingdom; the True One is the King. The truth is the weapon of knowledge and understanding against syncretistic errors; the True One is the One who holds and exercises the power to dislodge and correct error.
Those are the same defenses we can bring against syncretism where we live: knowing what is good in our culture so we can embrace it; understanding what is not so that we can avoid it; and above all pursuing the truth in Christ, and Jesus Christ Himself.
Tom Gilson is a Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru writer and strategist currently on assignment to BreakPoint. He blogs at ThinkingChristian.net.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.