Worries and accusations of heresy – also in the form of mixing unwanted elements – in Christian faith are as old as Christianity itself. Theological disputes about the correct interpretation of the Gospel are the bread and butter of Christian discourses.
Syncretism in theology and religious studies
Ross Kane has recently published Syncretism and Christian Tradition: Race and Revelation in the Study of Religious Mixture. As the subtitle reveals, the book is more about the study of syncretism than about syncretism as such. I expect that book to become standard reading in theology and religious studies on the concept of syncretism due to its compelling historical analysis of the development of ideas about syncretism.
In religious studies, that approach religions as if from outside, it is commonplace to understand that there is no pure religion. Every religion builds upon earlier religious traditions and is in a give and take relationship with other religions even today. Additionally, in real life, the borders between religions are not as clear-cut as in the books. In theology (that tends to view religions more from the inside perspective), however, one does not usually recognise the pervasive syncretism of religion and when recognising, one often does not draw the theological consequences. Syncretism is still today commonly used as a pejorative label for religious mixtures one does not approve of both in academic theology and in most religious communities. Thus, on one hand, the concept syncretism seems to cover too much and on the other hand, it is either ignored or used for ideological labelling.
One of Kane’s the major findings is that the pejorative theological use of the term syncretism reveals racist tendencies in western theology. Western ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism are laid bare by the very fact that the doctrines and practices used as measuring sticks for sorting out the pure from the syncretic are western in nature. If the white man and his culture is the yardstick of true Christianity, that should cause us some major concern. Let me illustrate the issue through a couple of examples from different contexts:
Firstly, in Helsinki, Finland, a major passion play, Via Crucis, is organised on every Good Friday. In 2010, the main character, Jesus, was played by a Japanese woman. “Could one not have found a Finnish man instead?” was a common reaction. But is the point in incarnation that God became a white man? In addition to the manifest emphasis of masculinity and thinly hidden racial tone, there was also a hint of fear of syncretism as the actress came from a predominantly non-Christian country and came from a non-Christian background. A non-Christian actress playing Jesus may smuggle in non-Christian elements! But which approach should be counted as more doctrinally correct approach here – that God became a white man (considering even that Jesus of Nazareth was not white) or a human being?
Secondly, when I studied in Rome, Zambian Catholic Archbishop of Milingo (who had been called to Rome to be under stricter control was the most visible faith healer and exorcist in Italy. The media presented him as a sort of “witch-doctor bishop” (“vescovo stregone”) mixing African religions with Christianity. Syncretic, that is. However, eager Catholic-charismatic exorcists of European background were rather seen as overly biblical – trying to impose outdated biblical worldviews on modern Europe. Does this mean that they are not syncretic enough?
Even language can cage us in an ethnocentric bubble
Thirdly, the first course of theology that I ever taught was the development Christian dogma – in Kiswahili. I was supposed to cover the doctrinal developments in Nicaea, Chalcedon etc. in a language that does not have verbs like “be”, “exist”, “subsist” or nouns related to them or even “person” or “nature”. The logic and structure of this very rich and expressive language is entirely different from Greek. It means that so-called classical theological categories are unintelligible unless expressed in a foreign idiom. Yet, there I was, supposed to teach the right doctrine to Lutheran parish workers who would, in turn, carry the message to the parishes. Is it really so that in order to become a true follower of Jesus, one should first learn how to think in a European manner? It seems obvious that European philosophical thought serves here as the measuring stick of right faith. To many Tanzanian Christians, doctrine is secondary to personal relation to God.
Building up a Bantu-languages based theological response to Christ would mean a total reformulation of Christian faith. In this process, ontological thinking and dogma-centeredness would need to give way to local ways of experiencing the Gospel. This would inevitably bring in the African traditions labelled as religion because language, culture and religion are inseparable. This is a scary scenario for the one dreading syncretism – and at the same time revealing Europa-centrism of much of Christianity.
Doctrine and the ways in which we define and defend the right doctrine are never a matter of simply abstract realities. Faith is lived out in real situations and real life does not consist of hermetically sealed compartments. There is always overlap and mixture. In religions, orthodoxies are old mixtures sanctioned by the leaders, whereas newer ones are either contextualisation or syncretism, depending on whether the leadership has accepted them or not. An intellectually honest Christianity cannot act as if the white man in church leadership, yesterday or today, represents the suprahistorical and universal religious truth.