Reflections on Syncretism

Craig Ott and Stephen Strauss, in their book Encountering Theology of Mission, define contextualization as “relating the never-changing truths of scripture to ever-changing human contexts so that those truths are clear and compelling” (266). Contextualization is necessary because of both the sender and the recipient. For the sender, the gospel is always “presented in cultural clothing,” and for the recipient, “when the gospel is presented in ways that ignore the local context, much of culture and life remain unaddressed by biblical truth” (266). The gospel must penetrate deeper than than surface level changes, but must take hold “until it transforms a culture’s inner beliefs, values, feelings, and worldview” (268). This is needed universally: “because all cultures are human, they are all corrupted by sin. So the gospel must also challenge every culture to change and more deeply conform to the will of God” (268). Context includes religious or theological heritage, historical era and current events, social, economic, education group, age, gender and personal circumstances (268–69). We find hints of contextualization in the Old Testament but much more in the New Testament, and in church history in figures like Cyril and Methodius, Roberto de Nobili, and Matteo Ricci.

Once the chapter turns to questions of “Syncretism,” “Traditional Practices,” and “Globalizing Theology,” it seems that there is an inconsistency and a failure to rigorously apply these principals to all cultures. Instead, a western view is still considered default. Earlier in the chapter the authors acknowledge that “well-educated, middle-class Westerners often do not realize the extent to which their education and socioeconomic condition affects the way they perceive both the world and the Word” (268). However, when addressing the danger of syncretism, only “other” theologies are up for consideration and critique. “Advocates of liberation theology, Minjung theology, or theologies of decolonization often seem to find their authority more in economic or political ideologies than in scripture” (275). I know next to nothing about Minjung theology, only a little about theologies of de-colonization, and only slightly  more about liberation theology, so my response may require alteration upon deeper investigation, but it seems to me that Western, American-theology ought also to be in the mix, with warnings against the dangers of syncretism. Evangelicalism in America is far from a “neutral” theology, but may itself be a dangerous form of syncretism. It seems incongruent that “dozens of ‘ethnic theologies’” are viewed as a problem, but that “American-theology” isn’t itself also included as another “ethnic theology” (276). Why is it that when Europeans blend theology and empire to colonize someone else’s land, we find it so easy to abstract their “pure theology” but when the oppressed react to that, their theology is “syncretistic”? Why is it that Jonathan Edwards’s theology is considered normal, Reformed, biblical and orthodox, irrespective of the fact that it was wedded comfortably to his own personal ownership of slaves, but when descendants of those slaves produce a theology in reaction, that “liberation theology” is dangerously syncretistic? Why is it that for Ott and Strauss, of the “five different responses” to culture, celebrating “Independence Day” is a cultural practice that can simply be “adopted” without modification, when for Native Americans and African Americans, that “holiday” represents the worst of American oppression and inequality? This is perhaps a nice litmus test: if an American can without reservation or reflection partake in activities like the 4th of July or “pledging allegiance to the flag,” it looks like deep syncretism is taking place.

A theology, like Jonathan Edwards’s, which uses all the correct and orthodox terminology, betrays its deep syncretism by its egregious ethical shortcomings. What is your doctrine of man, really, if it permits you to enslave another human being made in the image of God? What is your doctrine of salvation, if it doesn’t cause your life to change in setting your slaves free? What is your doctrine of the church if you are willing to baptize converted slaves, only so long as such a baptism has no bearing on their status as property? What is the nature of one’s “love” if he not merely “sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him,” (1 John 3:17) but actually is the one keeping him in utter deprivation? The Apostle John wonders: “how does the love of God abide in him?” What is the nature of your “faith” if you not only fail to give a brother or sister “the things which are needed for the body,” but are actually the one responsible for keeping them in destitution. James wonders: can such faith save you?

Ott and Strauss hint in the right direction: “The more theological exchange that exists between believers from different cultures, socioeconomic groups, ethnicities, and theological traditions, and the more carefully we learn from the theological lessons and mistakes of the past, the less likely it is that a church will slip into syncretism” (276). Indeed, but in order for an “exchange” to truly be an exchange, the critique has to cut with equal sharpness in both directions, otherwise those in the west are left with an under-contextualized gospel, and wide swaths of culture and life “unaddressed by biblical truth” (266).

If “Latin American theologians might have special insight into what the Old Testament prophets teach about justice,” (279) then they need to be heard, not written off as “syncretistic liberation theologians.” And that hearing has to be done with humility and openness, not as one holding some superior theological high ground and passing judgment on “other” “ethnic” theologies, and only accepting those parts that fit neatly into the Western grid.

In words Ott and Strauss point in the right direction: “the key is humility and a true learner’s spirit among all believers” (288). Their citation of Whiteman is apropos: “we do not have a privileged position when it comes to understanding and practicing Christianity” (287). Their reminder is good: “even the ancient creeds and the well-tested confessions of the church are themselves contextual theologies, shaped by their own historical era” (288). Yes and good, but in order for true “global theology” to take root, these ideas will have to push much further than just words, and the critique of evangelicalism will have to become much more radical and thoroughgoing. And most importantly, true Biblical theology, true saving faith, will have to be accompanied by a radical commitment to Biblical obedience, and not stop at merely being satisfied with an orthodox creed.

(Photo by Stephanie McCabe on Unsplash)

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Syncretism”

  1. Hi Ben — thanks for the suggestion. As interesting as that question is in its own right (see, for example, David Hunter’s “General Introduction” to Augustine’s Marriage and Virginity or his article “Marriage” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia) I’m not sure it’s necessary, at least not as a sequel to this post.

    One of the main points of the post is to highlight the fact that the American/Christian syncretism is pervasive and largely unexamined, at least in my own circles. The more invisible syncretism is, the more dangerous its potential, as it becomes the assumed norm by which all other views are judged.

    I haven’t seen a similarly unexamined Augustinian view of marriage in my circles. His blind spots seem rather easy to spot given our distance from him. The post was meant to draw attention to that which resides much more close to home.


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