Syncretism and the Myth of Purity

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:49 am

‘Syncretism’ just means the process through which religions absorb into themselves parts of other religions, and also of the surrounding culture. Christianity’s embrace and re-imagining of the old pagan festivals that used to happen at Christmas time is one example.

It’s usually thought of as a bad thing, a dilution of the old purity of doctrine. But I’d suggest that it’s almost an inevitable thing: people change, societies change, and ideas mix themselves together and come forth in new ways.

Any serious look at Christianity in its early years when Paul was preaching, in the Middle Ages, at the Reformation, in the 1850s, in the 1950s and now would show massive changes and differences – and most of those changes are in one way or another the result of syncretism. Christianity itself could be seen as the result of syncretism between Judaism and the new teachings of Jesus and Paul.

Robert Pirsig has a nice image of Jesus (and other great religious teachers such as Buddha and Mohammed) as bursting open old ways of thinking and looking at the world and bringing new light. Pirsig then suggests that organised religion exists to kind of ‘ratchet’ that new progress in human belief and understanding of God. They stop us from sliding backward, but ironically they can also slow us down from moving forward. The goal of churches is almost always to keep everything the same.

But it never works – as the poem I posted below suggests, something always manages to creep in. It’s resisted and seen as corruption, and yet it happens.

What should be our attitude then? Resistance? Resignation? Embrace of syncretism?

2 responses to “Syncretism and the Myth of Purity”

  1. Marshdrifter says:

    Ears prick up!

    There are a lot of factors involved with this sort of thing. Where do we draw the line between the internal cultural framework and religion? Is there an actual distinction? I’d argue no, of course, and many of my arguments on the WGB reflect that there’s no actual difference between any sort of cultural belief systems.

    I’m not sure that syncretic processes are always noticeable, although there’s an approach involving the resistance of traditional forms within social agency theory. I don’t know if there’s any “should” in there. I’m a firm believer in traditions, although I easily accept that those traditions are often reinterpreted (though not always consciously) to better fit the rest of our cultural framework. Whether “traditionally” or “newly” syncretic, I can’t say it really matters, with the exception that we need to follow some basic rules of getting along with others. Whether you consider that to be religious (syncretic or traditional) or just general etiquette is up to you. 😉

  2. Bravus says:

    I think I was also thinking of syncretism where it’s not bits of other religions that get pulled in but bits of society in general. The recent Prayr of Jabez and Propserity Gospel movements in Christianity are an example – far from renouncing and denouncig materialsm, they embrace it. I made the claim the other day that during the past 15 years or so of the ‘Religious Right’ in America, religion has been influenced by the right much more than the right has been influenced by religion.

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