Syncretism

Syncretism [sing-kri-tiz-uhm] is the combining of different (often contradictory) beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. Syncretism may involve the merger and analogizing of several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, thus asserting an underlying unity and allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths. Syncretism also occurs commonly in expressions of arts and culture (known as eclecticism) as well as politics (syncretic politics).

The word entered the English language in 1618; it derives from Latin ‘syncretismus,’ drawing on Greek (‘synkretismos’), meaning ‘Cretan federation.’ The Greek word occurs in Plutarch’s (1st century) essay on ‘Fraternal Love’ in his ‘Moralia.’ He cites the example of the Cretans, who compromised and reconciled their differences and came together in alliance when faced with external dangers. ‘And that is their so-called Syncretism.’

Erasmus probably coined the modern usage of the Latin word in his ‘Adagia’ (‘Adages’), published in 1517, to designate the coherence of dissenters in spite of their differences in theological opinions. In a letter to Philipp Melanchthon Erasmus specifically adduced the Cretans of Plutarch as an example of his adage ‘Concord is a mighty rampart.’

Overt syncretism in folk belief may show cultural acceptance of an alien or previous tradition, but the ‘other’ cult may survive or infiltrate without authorized syncresis nevertheless. For example, some Conversos (Jews and Muslims who converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition) developed a sort of cult for martyr-victims of the Inquisition, thus incorporating elements of Catholicism while resisting it.

Some religious movements have embraced overt syncretism, such as the case of melding Shintō beliefs into Buddhism or the amalgamation of Germanic and Celtic pagan views into Christianity during its spread into Gaul, the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia. Indian influences are seen in the practice of Shi’i Islam in Trinidad. Others have strongly rejected it as devaluing and compromising precious and genuine distinctions; examples of this include Judaism, Islam, and most of Protestant Christianity.

Syncretism tends to facilitate coexistence and unity between otherwise different cultures and worldviews (intercultural competence), a factor that has recommended it to rulers of multi-ethnic realms. Conversely, the rejection of syncretism, usually in the name of ‘piety’ and ‘orthodoxy,’ may help to generate, bolster or authenticate a sense of uncompromised cultural unity in a well-defined minority or majority.

Religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. This can occur for many reasons, and the latter scenario happens quite commonly in areas where multiple religious traditions exist in proximity and function actively in the culture, or when a culture is conquered, and the conquerors bring their religious beliefs with them, but do not succeed in entirely eradicating the old beliefs or, especially, practices.

Religions may have syncretic elements to their beliefs or history, but adherents of so-labeled systems often frown on applying the label, especially adherents who belong to ‘revealed’ religious systems, such as the Abrahamic religions, or any system that exhibits an exclusivist approach. Such adherents sometimes see syncretism as a betrayal of their pure truth. By this reasoning, adding an incompatible belief corrupts the original religion, rendering it no longer true. Indeed, critics of a specific syncretistic trend may sometimes use the word ‘syncretism’ as a disparaging epithet, as a charge implying that those who seek to incorporate a new view, belief, or practice into a religious system actually distort the original faith. Non-exclusivist systems of belief, on the other hand, may feel quite free to incorporate other traditions into their own.

In modern secular society, religious innovators sometimes create new religions syncretically as a mechanism to reduce inter-religious tension and enmity, often with the effect of offending the original religions in question. Such religions, however, do maintain some appeal to a less exclusivist audience.

Classical Athens was exclusive in matters of religion. The Decree of Diopithes made the introduction of and belief in foreign Gods a criminal offence and only Greeks were allowed to worship in Athenian temples and festivals as foreigners were considered impure. Syncretism functioned as a feature of Hellenistic Ancient Greek religion although only outside of Greece. Overall, Hellenistic culture in the age that followed Alexander the Great itself showed syncretist features, essentially blending of Mesopotamian, Persian, Anatolian, Egyptian (and eventually Etruscan–Roman) elements within an Hellenic formula. The Egyptian god Amun developed as the Hellenized Zeus Ammon after Alexander the Great went into the desert to seek out Amun’s oracle at Siwa.

Such identifications derive from ‘interpretatio graeca,’ the Hellenic habit of identifying gods of disparate mythologies with their own. When the proto-Greeks (peoples whose language would evolve into Greek proper) first arrived in the Aegean and on the mainland of modern-day Greece early in the 2nd millennium BCE, they found localized nymphs and divinities already connected with every important feature of the landscape: mountain, cave, grove and spring all had their own locally venerated deity. The countless epithets of the Olympian gods reflect their syncretic identification with these various figures. One defines ‘Zeus Molossos’ (worshipped only at Dodona) as ‘the god identical to Zeus as worshipped by the Molossians at Dodona.’ Much of the apparently arbitrary and trivial mythic fabling results from later mythographers’ attempts to explain these obscure epithets.

In ‘Moses and Monotheism,’ Sigmund Freud made a case for Judaism arising out of the pre-existing monotheism that was briefly imposed upon Egypt during the rule of Akhenaten. ‘Aten,’ the disk of the Sun in ancient Egyptian mythology, and originally an aspect of Ra, was chosen as the sole deity for Akhenaten’s new religion. The ‘Code of Hammurabi’ is also cited as a likely starting point for the Jewish Ten Commandments. Hammurabi was from the Mesopotamian culture that revered Marduk, among others. Judaism fought lengthy battles against syncretist tendencies: such as the case of the golden calf and the railing of prophets against temple prostitution, witchcraft and local fertility cults, as told in the Tanakh. On the other hand, some scholars hold that Judaism refined its concept of monotheism and adopted features such as its eschatology, angelology and demonology through contacts with Zoroastrianism.

In spite of the Jewish halakhic prohibitions on polytheism, idolatry, and associated practices (avodah zarah), several combinations of Judaism with other religions have sprung up: Jewish Buddhism, Nazarenism, Judeo-Paganism, Messianic Judaism, Jewish Mormonism, and others such as Judeo-Christianity. Until relatively recently, China had a Jewish community which had adopted some Confucian practices. Several of the Jewish Messiah claimants (such as Jacob Frank) and the Sabbateans came to mix Cabalistic Judaism with Christianity and Islam.

The Romans, identifying themselves as common heirs to a very similar civilization, identified Greek deities with similar figures in the Etruscan-Roman tradition, though without usually copying cult practices. Syncretic gods of the Hellenistic period found also wide favor in Rome: Serapis, Isis and Mithras, for example. Cybele as worshipped in Rome essentially represented a syncretic East Mediterranean goddess. The Romans imported the Greek god Dionysus into Rome, where he merged with the Latin mead god Liber, and converted the Anatolian Sabazios into the Roman Sabazius. The degree of correspondence varied; Jupiter makes perhaps a better match for Zeus than the rural huntress Diana does for the feared Artemis. Ares does not quite match Mars. The Romans physically imported the Anatolian goddess Cybele into Rome from her Anatolian cult-center Pessinos in the form of her original aniconic archaic stone idol; they identified her as Magna Mater and gave her a matronly, iconic image developed in Hellenistic Pergamum. Likewise, when the Romans encountered Celts and Germanic peoples, they mingled these peoples’ gods with their own, creating Sulis Minerva, Apollo Sucellos (Apollo the Good Smiter) and Mars Thingsus (Mars of the war-assembly), among many others. In the Germania, the Roman historian Tacitus speaks of Germanic worshippers of Hercules and Mercury; most modern scholars tentatively identify Hercules as Thor and Mercury as Odin.

Syncretism did not play a role when Christianity split into eastern and western rites during the Great Schism. It became involved, however, with the rifts of the Protestant Reformation, with Desiderius Erasmus’s readings of Plutarch. Even earlier, Syncretism was a fundamental aspect of the efforts of Neoplatonists such as Marsilio Ficino to reform the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholicism in Central and South America has integrated a number of elements derived from indigenous and slave cultures in those areas; while many African Initiated Churches demonstrate an integration of Protestant and traditional African beliefs. In Asia the revolutionary movements of Taiping (19th-century China) and God’s Army (Karen in the 1990s) have blended Christianity and traditional beliefs. The Catholic Church allows some symbols and traditions to be carried over from older belief systems, so long as they are remade to fit into a Christian worldview; syncretism of other religions with Catholicism, such as Voudun or Santería, is condemned by the Church.

One can contrast Christian syncretism with contextualization or inculturation, the practice of making Christianity relevant to a culture: Contextualisation does not address the doctrine but affects a change in the styles or expression of worship. Although Christians often took their European music and building styles into churches in other parts of the world, in a contextualization approach, they would build churches, sing songs, and pray in a local ethnic style. Some Jesuit missionaries adapted local systems and images to teach Christianity, as did the Portuguese in China. The Latter Day Saint movement can be framed as a syncretic outgrowth of main-line Christianity.

The syncretistic controversy was a theological debate provoked by the efforts of Georg Calixt and his supporters to secure a basis on which the Lutherans could make overtures to the Roman Catholic and the Reformed Churches. It lasted from 1640 to 1686, and had the result of lessening religious hatred and of promoting mutual forbearance. Catholicism benefited, as some Protestants came to better understand and appreciate it. In Protestant theology, it prepared the way for the sentimental theology of Pietism to become more popular than Lutheran orthodoxy.

The mystical tradition in Islam, known as Sufism appears somewhat syncretic in nature, not only in its origins but also in its beliefs since it espouses the concepts of Wahdat-al-Wujud and Wahdat-al-Shuhud that are, to a great extent, synonymous to Pantheism and Panentheism and sometimes Monism although the traditional Islamic belief system reject them and stress on strict monotheism called Tawhid.

The Bahá’ís follow Bahá’u’lláh, a prophet whom they consider a successor to Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, and Abraham. This acceptance of other religious founders has encouraged some to regard the Bahá’í religion as a syncretic faith. However, Bahá’ís and the Bahá’í writings explicitly reject this view. Bahá’ís consider Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation an independent, though related, revelation from God. Its relationship to previous dispensations is seen as analogous to the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. They regard beliefs held in common as evidence of truth, progressively revealed by God throughout human history, and culminating in (at present) the Bahá’í revelation. Bahá’ís have their own sacred scripture, interpretations, laws and practices that, for Bahá’ís, supersede those of other faiths.

The process of syncretism in the Caribbean region often forms a part of cultural creolization. (The technical term ‘Creole’ may apply to anyone born and raised in the region, regardless of ethnicity.) The shared histories of the Caribbean islands include long periods of European Imperialism (mainly by Spain, France, and the United Kingdom) and the importation of African slaves (primarily from Central and Western Africa). The influences of each of the above interacted in varying degrees on the islands, producing the fabric of society that exists today in the Caribbean. The Rastafari movement, founded in Jamaica, syncretizes vigorously, mixing elements from the Bible, Marcus Garvey’s Pan Africanism movement, Hinduism, and Caribbean culture. Another highly syncretic religion of the area, vodou, combines elements of Western African, native Caribbean, and Christian (especially Roman Catholic) beliefs.

Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in ancient India have made many adaptations over the millennia, assimilating elements of various diverse religious traditions. One example of this is the Yoga Vasistha. Sikhism is a syncrentic monotheistic religion consisting of the Hindu concepts of reincarnation and the Abrahamic (especially the Muslim version) concept of monotheism. In China, most of the population follows syncretist religions combining Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and elements of Confucianism.

Unitarian Universalism provides an example of a modern syncretic religion. It traces its roots to Universalist and Unitarian Christian congregations. However, modern Unitarian Universalism freely incorporates elements from other religious and non-religious traditions, so that it no longer identifies as ‘Christian.’

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