How to be a syncretist [July Synchroblog]

coexistOne of the most enjoyable things I do is travel to Maputo, Mozambique in Africa and teach at a seminary there for Mozambican pastors and church leaders. Every time I go, our friendships deepen and we invent more inside jokes, dine together, dream together and just enjoy being together. Laughter comes easier and the language and cultural barriers grower thinner.

The Mozambicans are very dear people to me. One of the things that we have been asked to pay special attention to while teaching is the problem of syncretism in their culture. Many have taken their Christian beliefs and melded them with animism and ancestor worship. And just so everyone is on the same page, syncretism can be defined as “the union (or attempted fusion) of different systems of thought or belief (especially in religion or philosophy) that can result in the reduction of both systems or forms.” Their pastors are worried about diluting the real Jesus by mixing Him up with the ancient beliefs.

I can understand their concern. There is a strongly established church there which mixes Christianity with the occultic practices of ancestor worship and even a tad of Judaism. The ancestor worship often involves making large payments to the witchdoctor or making a sacrifice of some kind (usually money or goods), offering it to the ancestors in a ceremony and burying in the ground only to be dug up by the witchdoctor later. It is a burdensome system on people who are already quite poor. The witchdoctors hold a great deal of power in the village and the people are afraid of crossing them. The pressure of relatives and community to attend to the old ways is also immense. It may mean feeding your newborn worms and mud because it is tradition and the witchdoctor will be angry with the family if you decline. If you do not believe in demonic activity, spend some time in these villages. It is not a mere habit or belief that we ask them to test. They are often genuinely frightened.

Their pastors desire them to know the freedom of Christ. They truly needed clarity. But before we could teach, our task was to learn to understand what their lives were like. Then we could celebrate with them what was good about remembering the ancestors, and what was good about honoring those who gave them life and story. They could preserve what was important to them and let go of the bondage to a system of fear and punishment, in which they had to pay dearly for the hope of blessing.

We have our own examples of syncretism of course. It becomes so familiar that it doesn’t seem to be syncretism at all. For example, many of us blend Christianity with ideologies. Many of us claim to be a “liberal Christian” or a “conservative Christian”. Much of Western Christianity has been merged with Greek dualism. We may also meld political affiliations with our Christianity. Some insist Christians must be Republicans, others say we must be Democrats. There’s even gun toting Christians, like the ones in Kentucky who had a “bring your gun to church” Sunday. The pastor is quoted as saying, “We’re not ashamed to say that there [is] a strong belief in God and firearms—without that this country wouldn’t be here.” Firearms Christians. There is also the boyfriend Jesus, who is there to make us feel good and meet our needs. Oprah Christians. There is a whole bunch of stuff mixed in with being a Christian here. All of it is just as damaging to us as it is to my African friends because it changes how we view Jesus.

I wonder if the way to discern syncretism in our own lives is through the practice of love. How does your brand of Christianity shape how you show up in this world? How do you love?

Here’s an example. Pastor Rick Warren – whatever you think of him- has said that “Muslims and Christians should be partners in working to end what he calls ‘the five global giants’ of war, poverty, corruption, disease and illiteracy.” One writer accuses him of  “promoting Christo-Islam, i.e., syncretism, another manifestation of delusional and self-delusional kumbaya,” and goes on to ask, “What about the gospel?” It frightens people, to say the least, to even think of finding common ground with those we see as enemies in order to create something better.

But what if we lay down our worries about ourselves and how we appear and being distinct and being right in order to become Christ? What would it mean to lay down our Christianity to become Christ? Muslims do believe that their religion should be dominant because it brings glory to Allah. We believe the same about ours. But the Jesus way is not to demand status or to grab domination or power. He shook an empire by loving the outcast, making friends with outsiders, and tearing down dividing walls. What if, in the way of Jesus, we chose to learn to see through their eyes, to experience the world as they do, and to share language and laughter? That would build the basis of trust, earning us the right to begin to speak, as it did with my African friends. If we did this, would they not then see the living gospel – our God who left all that to which He was entitled, even being God in order to be numbered with us, even those who are his enemies? In that sense, Jesus, who became sin on the cross, was the ultimate syncretist. He, who is Truth itself, became the lie. He was not merely reduced by that, he was snuffed right out of life.

It’s wild and crazy stuff to ponder to be sure. But we know the rest of the story. Jesus loved us well and He wins. I wonder if being a Christian in this age means to let go of the brand of Christianity to which we have attached ourselves with all its glory, and follow Jesus to wherever and to whomever He will lead. Do we believe that whoever will lose his life will find it?

Other Synchrobloggers:

Matt Stone Master Chef: How To Cook Up A Personal Jesus
Susan Barnes Our Uncomfortable God
Liz Dyer Does Interfaith Dialogue Lead To Syncretism?
Phil Wyman Synching on Synching Synchroblog on Syncretism
Steve Hayes The Man in the Moss
KW Leslie The Syncretists I Have Dealt With

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Showing 15 comments
  • Skip Newby

    Oh sure Ellen,
    call into question every cultural category that is part of my following Jesus. What do you leave me with then? A moment by moment life of being aware of how to be in every situation with Him, re-presenting Him at all times? Why, I wouldn’t be able to decide who’s in, and who’s out if I did that. I’d have to live a life of love toward everyone. Thanks for reminding me of what is really the Way little sister.

    And I posted a comment re/ the test I took about “What modern theologian are you?” I said I came up Rick Warren in a sort of disparaging manner, since he’s the pastor of a mega-church. However, again you pointed out what a judgmental fool I can be. It sounds like he is loving folks, breaking down barriers, and bringing in Father’s Dream of a Kingdom of Shalom in far better ways than me, his judge.

    Peace in Christ, Skip.

  • Matt Stone

    When I visited Zimbabwe back before I was married I struck up a conversation with a local taxi driver who affirmed Christianity but prayed to Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River God, as a sort of saint. Obviously syncretistic to me, but as you say, where are we syncretistic without realizing it.

    On the question of Islam though, how do you think most Muslims would sit with your proposal given so many deny the divinity of Jesus and denounce Trinitarianism as serious heresy?

    • ellenharoutunian

      That’s precisely why I think we need to try to make friends, Matt. A verbal, cognitive presentation of the gospel doesn’t go far, as we present ideas that are offensive to them, such as the Trinity and Jesus being the begotten son of God. I think we need to show Him to them instead. The Jesus represented by the Crusades hated them. But how would Jesus Himself treat them? A friend who works with Muslims says that often it’s Jesus Himself who shows up and presents Himself to them – in dreams or such like that. Cool, no?

  • Susan

    Great thoughts, thanks for sharing them.

  • gracerules

    “What would it mean to lay down our Christianity to become Christ?”

    Exactly!! We make our faith, our religion, our beliefs into idols and they end up hiding Jesus himself!

    Have you read Peter Rollins “The Fidelity of Betrayal”? It goes along with your thoughts.

    Way to go, girl!!

    by the way – my contribution to the synchroblog is not up here

    • ellenharoutunian

      You totally got it, Liz. Yes, I have read Rollins and also Shusako Endo who writes about similar things. They really shake things up for me. I posted your link – thank you!

  • Yewtree

    I liked the fact that you encouraged the people to look at what was good in their previous practices and retain it. It is sad when religion of whatever flavour is used to keep people down. Some African indigenous traditions are very beautiful, but some aspects of them clearly aren’t.

    You should read Steve Hayes’ article on mission and inculturation, it’s very interesting and he makes some similar points to yours above.

    Hayes, S., (2003) ‘Witchcraft and Death: Inculturation and Orthodox mission.’ Theandros: An online journal of Orthodox theology and philosophy.

  • Sabio Lantz

    I wonder how many syncretists are universalists. I wonder how threatening universalism has to be. But I realize it is difficult to keep club members up if all you have to offer is universalism. Oh well.

    • ellenharoutunian

      I am not sure I understand your meaning. We are already syncretists. We all have melded some cultural world views with our Christianity – it’s impossible to be fully otherwise. But the idea here is not about melding our beliefs, it is to be willing to lay down whatever we need to in order to become Christ in this world and enter it as He did. In that sense being we actually become more distinctive but through His love, not necessarily through an ideology.

  • Steve

    I’d like to know more about the church that mixes Christianity with occultic practices of ancestor worship and Judaism — like its name, who founded it and when and where. Se this article on the database of African Independent Churches – unfortunately that link won’t work after September, as Yahoo! is closing Geocities.

    • ellenharoutunian

      Hi Steve,
      I will email my friends there and ask. It’s a pretty simple name – don’t know why I can’t remember. I am not truly sure what they do with Judaism except that they have a Star of David on their buildings (huts or shacks). They acknowledge Jesus but the old practices are also a part of what they do, maybe the large part. They women wear all white when they go to services (not all the time, just then) which was remarkable to me since it’s so dusty there. Does that seem familiar at all? I’ll let you know what I hear.

  • Tammy

    hmmm…love this syncretism idea! But, just not too familiar with the term. Do you think “dropping our Christianity” to become Jesus followers requires having His eyes first for EVERYONE…not just Muslims, etc.? Just a thought. I sometimes think that we want to drop the Chrisianity because we don’t want to be associated with a group that has pretty much NOT had Jesus’s eyes for others OR have not unified in love! Myself included. 🙁 Don’t get me wrong, I hope for unity and believe it is possible…just not in the natural.

    • ellenharoutunian

      I sure would hope we’d be about loving everyone, not just one group! And I am not suggesting we “drop” our Christianity, just that we hold things loosely so that what we see as the essentials of faith don’t become a detriment to the actual living expression of the same. I agree – this kind of love is not natural. 🙂

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