Printer Friendly

Defining syncretism: an interim report.

In the twentieth century, syncretism has been understood as a negative force in Christianity in general and in missiology in particular. Starting with Adolf von Harnack and continuing on with Barth, Kraemer, and others, syncretism has been viewed as a distorted form of the Christian faith, skewed by cultural and religious forces in the environment into which Christianity has come. The roots of this negative attitude go deep into Christian history and its early encounter with the variform map of religiosity in the Mediterranean basin. Theological assertions of the uniqueness of Christianity among the world's faith traditions have served to sustain a negative view of syncretism.

Whatever the protestations to the contrary, Christianity has absorbed a considerable amount, both in form and in content, from its environment. This is so much so the case that adherents of some of the twenty thousand forms of Christianity alive on the planet today would likely not feel comfortable in some of their cobelievers' worship of the same God. How would a U.S. Congregationalist feel standing outside an Ethiopian church while the priests celebrated the Divine Liturgy inside? How do Pentecostalists feel among Quakers? When one takes this kind of a reading diachronically through Christian history, the variations can be seen to be even wider. Some faithful Christians would aver that many, if not most, of these forms represent a genuine discipleship; others aiming at a similar fidelity would beg to differ. No one can deny the great variety of cultural accretions; how to judge them, however, divide us.

Should We Continue to Speak of Syncretism?

Not only does the syncretism problem not go away, it has once again become the object of an increasingly lively discussion. The focus of the debate is shifting along with this new interest. In an earlier part of the twentieth century, syncretism was addressed primarily in terms of its theological consequences. Today, however, it is being discussed especially in light of its relation to the inculturation process--that is, its role in the development of a response to the Gospel that is rooted in a specific time and place.

The recent resurgence of literature on the topic is indicative that we are entering a new stage in this discussion.(1) New forays into the field are most evident in the Netherlands and the German-speaking countries.(2)

They note the term's checkered history, and each offer's some suggestions about new directions that we might take. All dwell, in one form or another, on the largely negative use of the term "syncretism" in Christian theology and offer constructive suggestions about how we might proceed in the future.

Along with these new attempts, there is another approach, found largely in the Americas, that takes its cue from the social sciences' use of the term "syncretism," viewing that usage as a lens to refocus the discussion within Christian theology.(3) Many of these authors find the earlier discussion of syncretism in this century conscientious but ultimately misdirected. The traditional concern over syncretism, they maintain, obscures the cultural process while imposing theological criteria in a way unrelated to those cultural processes. To the extent that the criteria do not relate to the actual situation, they leave the resultant cultural formation largely unaffected by theological judgments. The consequence is that the syncretism discussion does not advance; instead, the processes of syncretism are largely obscured and thus allowed to develop without appropriate dialogue with the Christian tradition.

Last year, in the pages of this journal, J. Peter Schineller tried to mediate some of these differences and ended with the proposal that missiologists abandon the term "syncretism" and call it something else, mainly because the term carries so much negative weight.(4) I would argue that this is not a fruitful way to proceed, since it not only does not clarify the issue but ignores important dynamics now present in the Christian church worldwide. We need to keep the term, come to grips with its history, and work toward a new definition.

Why We Need to Redefine Syncretism

It is tempting to drop a term that seems to have taken on too much history, but to do so neither clears the ground for new thinking nor advances us into the thicket of contemporary theological discussion. Three major factors suggest that we continue to grapple with the term.

First, the fact that some missiologists may agree to abandon the term does not guarantee its passing out of our vocabulary. The term may simply become the sole property of a more conservative missiology, with two negative results: (1) it will work to arrest the larger discussion on culturation, and (2) it will work as an obstacle for missiologists in conservative traditions who are trying to help their colleagues understand cultural processes in the proclaiming of the Gospel.

Second, to substitute "inculturation" or some other term for "syncretism" can obscure the very neuralgic point that syncretism raises--namely, the relation between theological development and cultural processes. Missiology has not yet recovered from Barth's distinction between faith and religion, a distinction that can make some sense in a monoreligious situation but is less useful elsewhere. We need to come to an understanding of culture and the Christian faith that is responsible to both. The syncretism discussion, both past and present, occurs at the very juncture of culture and Christian faith. To let go of either results in an uncritical treatment of both--naive understandings of how cultures work and cultural identities are formed, and naive understandings of how the Gospel is transmitted faithfully from generation to generation and from culture to culture.

Third, we are clearly in a time of considerable change within Christianity. This is so not only because of where and how Christian faith is taking root but also because of both general globalization and acute particularization of the world's cultures. We seem truly to be coming into the age of the world church, to borrow Karl Rahner's much-quoted phrase.(5) If so, we will see interactions of faith and culture that will be more varied and more acute at the same time. At least five implications come immediately to mind:

1. As never before, we are consciously moving into intense and complex patterns of intercultural communication.(6) The compressing of time and space in the globalization process makes these junctures even more lively. Intercultural communication is not a new phenomenon in Christianity. We have a long history of it, often with poor outcomes (witness the reception of the Council of Chalcedon).(7) We are in a unique learning situation in which to explore the impact of modes of cultural communication on the proclamation and reception of Christian faith.

2. The commemoration of the quincentenary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas has prompted a call for a deeper evangelization of the Americas, on the one hand, and a series of studies on how Christian faith has been transmitted and preserved, on the other.(8) A question missiologists have to ask is, Why do certain expressions of Christian faith endure in certain allegedly syncretistic forms, despite the best efforts of evangelization? Put more formally, what do these persisting signifiers (symbols and practices) teach us about the signified (the religious meaning) behind them? In other words, do so-called syncretistic processes have something to teach us about Christian faith?

3. If indeed we are coming into a new age of Christianity (Rahner's third age of a world church, or Visser 't Hooft's fifth wave), then we need to look for new forms and configurations. This quest includes not only burgeoning new forms such as pentecostal Christianity but also new forms of universal discourse that will allow these particular communities to speak to one another. The quest for new universalisms is made acute by the explosion of particularisms.(9)

4. Studying the changes going on in the world church may help us locate more clearly the variety of ways that people are thinking theologically. Sociologist Andrew Greeley has been exploring the use of the analogical and dialectical imaginations, based on the work of David Tracy.(10) Although theologians are prone to believe that everyone does or should think the way they do, the recent appearance of so many works in practical theology is expanding our understanding here.(11)

5. Attending to these new encounters of faith and culture also will help us develop new categories for understanding the relation of faith and culture. Weberian categories of modernization and secularization have worked fairly well for Europe but have not explained religion and modernity as well in North America and certainly not the modernization now going on in East and Southeast Asia.(12) Even German sociology is turning to fresh approaches.(13) Studying faith and culture encounters should help us see why religion endures, even when it was supposed to have disappeared.

Put simply, we need to be able to engage those processes whereby Christians are forging their identity in faith amid contexts of cultural change. This is more than a practical or a pastoral problem. It touches at its very heart the way Christians live faithfully in their particular histories. It will reveal also the new modes of universal or connecting discourse appropriate to a world church that will likely be as distinct from its Eurocentric predecessor as was the Hellenistic church from its Semitic forebear.

Steps Toward a New Definition

These reflections on syncretism in contemporary missiological discussion are intended as an interim report, assessing in a general fashion where we have come, the challenges of the current situations, and the next steps that will have to be taken if we are to come to a definition of syncretism that will sustain us in a new time and place. Some of the next steps, methodologically, might be the following:

Close readings of people living in multiple worlds. This step would involve studying devout Christians who negotiate multiple boundaries within their particular communities. In the United States, there is already an academic tradition of congregational studies. This needs to be broadened to include not only Christian communities undergoing transformation in their own faith but those who find themselves negotiating more than one religious tradition. Some of the 1992 studies in the Americas mentioned above would address that issue. But there are other intriguing examples as well. The largest Japanese community outside Japan lives in Brazil. The New Religions (Shinko shukyo) are also present there. Interestingly, non-Japanese are members of some of these religions, often nationalistic ones, and in some instances constitute the majority of the membership. What is going on here in the minds of those people? How might it help illumine Christian formations of identity?

Study of how globalization is both straining and stimulating religious identity. The concern for particularism is partially driven by globalization and its attendant pressure on the identity of cultures. This factor is likely to cause both cultural revitalization and cultural collapse. Eastern Europe has already provided examples of both. Concern here is for what will be the avenues of universal but nonhegemonic discourse in a world church. Is such possible? If so, how? Some forms of what we identify as syncretism are responses to colonization.(14) The universalizing mode is the necessary counterpart to the syncretistic formations found in particularity.

Identification of texts of encounter. We need to locate specific kinds of texts across cultures to help to discern useful categories. We need both diachronic studies of cultural texts to sharpen our critical skills and synchronic ones for their heuristic value. I would suggest that there are four kinds of cultural texts that provide privileged entry into worldview and formation of religious identity--those that concern healing, conversion, multiple religious encounters, and new religious movements.

Whatever people perceive as putting them out of joint with their world, and what it will take to realign them, probably says more about what they believe and hope for than any direct attempt at articulating worldview and identity.

Conversion may have a sudden, identifiable moment, but it also seems to be a long and subtle process. Studying conversion helps answer the question of just how religious identities are formed and changed.

There are instances of communities absorbing and embracing successive religious encounters. An example would be Vietnam, where local traditions had to deal with two thousand years of Chinese hegemony with its attendant Confucian ethic, the introduction of Theravada Buddhism, and, most recently, Christianity. All four traditions are often present together in contemporary Vietnamese people. How is such a mix negotiated into a religious identity?

New religious movements have always been in formation, but the twentieth century has been particularly fertile in this respect. What do those of Africa, for example, teach us about reception of Christianity? Or those in Japan of Buddhism?

Theoretical considerations of a new definition. A new definition of syncretism will prompt some new reflection on the categories we use to frame the discussion. Four areas will have to come under special scrutiny: Christianity as a religion, theories of culture, perspectives, and truth claims.

As noted above, the discussion of Christianity as a religion has been dominated by a Barthian point of view and perhaps less so (though still significantly) by H. Richard Niebuhr's categories of Christ and culture. As definitions of religion evolve, so too will our perspectives on Christianity.(15) Most important here will be Christianity's relationship to the cultures it encounters.

Some recent theorists of culture have been moving toward more loosely imagined views of culture, away from seeing culture as a system to culture as a conversation or a tool kit by means of which one negotiates one's day-to-day existence.(16) The relationship between religion and culture has been defined in many ways: epiphenomenal, emblematic, projective, and so on. As religion is considered in these new ways vis-a-vis culture, we may see new models for understanding the formation of religious identity.

Studies in race, gender, and class--and the social construction of each of these--reveal different types of identity formation in the same culture. These too will need to be taken into consideration.

The study of syncretism is not just phenomenological, although that is an important element. The ultimate issue is truth. What constitutes Christian fidelity, authenticity, identity? From the angle explored here, we still are in early stages, since we still but dimly perceive how cultural identity is formed and how those processes shape how we construe authentic identity (including religious identity). We see the latter point reflected in individualist and collectivist understandings of what it means to be a Christian. We need to look at our ideal frame of Christianity as a cultural fact--namely, what does Christianity look like when it is lived out truly, and how is that affecting our definitions of identity now?

Aims of a new definition of syncretism. This point brings us full circle in this interim report. Just why do we want to have a new definition of syncretism? Three reasons come to mind. The first is theological. We seek to find a new communion in the particularities of the expression of Christian faith. In a world where that particularity is often accompanied by conflict, we seek fidelity both to the Gospel and to the justice of God. We hope to forge thereby a new form of universal discourse that does not colonize peoples but allows their voice to join those of other Christians and persons of good will.

The second is cultural. We need to find a universal discourse that is genuinely dialogic and nonviolent, in which the particularities and forms of life that nourish and sustain persons and cultures will be respected while at the same time linking communities into the larger sphere.

Finally, the aim is missiological. Missiology has undergone something of an identity crisis as the meaning of mission has been rethought in the postcolonial period. What we are now seeing is a "deterritorialization" of the globe as persons and cultures intermingle and interpenetrate as never before. Missiology's longtime concern about crossing boundaries is now becoming a central concern in theology as a whole. In this regard theology is becoming missiology. Missiology needs to take the lead, and a key area is the formation of religious identity in new circumstances. That is why, it seems to me, we must continue to speak of syncretism. We cannot ban its troubled history; we must, rather, come to terms with that past so as to understand the present.


1. Jerald D. Gort, Hendrik M. Vroom, Rein Fernhout, and Anton Wessels, eds., Dialogue and Syncretism: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989); Hermann P. Siller, ed., Suchbewegungen: Synkretismus--Kulturelle Identitat--Kirchliches Bekenntnis (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliches Buchgesselschaft, 1991); Peter Schineller, "Inculturation and Syncretism: What Is the Real Issue?" International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16 (1992): 50-53.

2. Gort et al., Dialogue and Syncretism; Siller, Suchbewegungen. Cf. also Evangelische Theologie 52, no. 3 (1992), devoted to syncretism and inculturation, edited by Theo Sundermeier.

3. Leonardo Boff, Church: Charism and Power (New York: Crossroad, 1989); Jeffrey Carlson, "The Syncretic Self," Council on the Scientific Study of Religion Bulletin 20 (1991): 17-19; Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985).

4. Schineller, "Inculturation and Syncretism."

5. Karl Rahner, "Toward a Fundamental Interpretation of Vatican II," Theological Studies 40 (1989): 716-27.

6. I explore this development in Robert J. Schreiter, "Multicultural Ministry: Theory, Practice, Theology," New Theology Review 5 (1992): 6-19; idem, "Contextualization from a World Perspective," Association of Theological Schools Occasional Papers, no. 1 (forthcoming).

7. Alois Grillmeier, Jesus Christus im Glauben der Kirche (Freiburg: Herder, 1964- ), has designed the second volume of his magnum opus (three of four parts have appeared thus far) with a communications and contextualization paradigm in mind (cf. II/1, 9ff.).

8. Among them, Ramon Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1991); and Manuel Marzal, ed., El rostro indio de Dios (Lima: Universidad Catolica, 1991).

9. On the reciprocity of globalization and localization, see Roland Robertson, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992).

10. Andrew M. Greeley, "Theology and Sociology: On Validating David Tracy," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 59 (1991): 643-52.

11. Cf., e.g., Don S. Browning, Toward a Fundamental Practical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991); Edmund Arens, Christopraxis: Grundzuge theologischer Handlungstheorie (Freiburg: Herder, 1992).

12. See William H. Swatos, Jr., A Future for Religion? New Paradigms for Social Analysis (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992).

13. Cf. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992); and Gerhard Schulze, Die Erlebnisgesellschaft: Zur Kultursoziologie der Gegenwart (Frankfurt: Campus, 1992).

14. One of the best studies remains Serge Gruzinski, La colonisation de l'imaginaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1988).

15. Cf. Swatos, Future for Religion?

16. E.g., the qualitative methods such as those of the team that wrote Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985); and idem, The Good Society (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1991).

Robert J. Schreiter, C.PP.S., is Professor of Theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. An earlier version of this article was presented at the International Association for Mission Studies meeting in Honolulu in 1992. His most recent book is Reconciliation: Mission and Ministry in Changing Social Contexts (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992).
COPYRIGHT 1993 Overseas Ministries Study Center
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Schreiter, Robert J.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:Revolutions in Eastern Europe: The Religious Roots.
Next Article:Max Warren: candid comments on mission from his personal letters.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters