The word “syncretism” comes from a Greek word first used to describe rival Greek armies who joined together to fight a common enemy. It later described the combination of religious ideas to form a new religion.
Syncretism is not a distinct religion. It is the practice of combining teachings and practices of various religions, changing the tenets or beliefs of any one. The combinations may result in a new theology for a religion, or even in a new sect.
Syncretism is not new in religious life. Jews encountered other religions as captives in Egypt and after entering the Promised Land. Much of the Old Testament recounts the struggle between faith in Yahweh versus pagan deities. The prophets repeatedly called the people back to the worship of the one true God. In the New Testament, Paul rejected baptism for the dead (1 Cor 15:29), a practice brought into the new church by converts.
Syncretism characterized a number of religions in the Roman Empire. One Roman emperor had statues of Christ, Abraham, Orpheus and others in his private chapel. Gnosticism combined Greek philosophy with Christian teachings.
African slaves, forced to accept Roman Catholicism after being brought to the Caribbean, began to identify Catholic saints with African deities. This practice gave rise to Voodoo or Santeria.
Sun Myung Moon combined teachings from Taoism, Buddhism, Korean tribal religions, and even Christianity to form the Unification Church.
Central to syncretism is the belief that all religions offer truth, or that different religions present different paths to God. Syncretism operates on the assumption that combining certain teachings produces a better way of knowing and/or reaching God.
Several recent theologians championed syncretism, including William Ernest Hocking. He believed Christians should not seek to convert others, but should see other religions as allies against secularism and irreligion. Another theologian, Arnold Toynbee, believed Christians should join with Buddhists to deal with the problem of human selfishness.
Syncretism pervades popular American culture. For example, in a popular song from the 1960s, “My Sweet Lord,” the word “Hallelujah” changes to “Hare Krishna.” In 1982, advertisements in 17 newspapers announced, “The Christ is Now Here!” In the advertisement, the Tara Center announced that a great world teacher, known by various names including Buddha, Christ and Maitreya, would make his appearance within two months.
Syncretism always faces Christianity. As the Gospel travels to new cultures, the hearer is inclined to try to understand the message in light of indigenous faith and culture.
Missionaries know that discipleship is an essential work to make certain the hearer understands the message of the Gospel. Missionaries struggle with making Christianity culturally relevant without destroying its unique message. Converts struggle with living a Christian life and being true to their culture.
Americans will increasingly struggle with syncretism as people from around the world move to the States and bring their religious cultures with them. Although the world offers distractions, faithful vigilance is necessary not to compromise the biblical teaching that God has acted uniquely and finally for humanity’s redemption in Jesus Christ.
Knowledge of Christian doctrines is important as friends and neighbors ask questions about differences between their faith and ours. Only as we are able to give a reason for the hope we have in Jesus Christ, can we present a clear picture of who he is and what he desires to do for us.
Gary Leazer is the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc.