Syncretism Research Paper

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The meaning of the term ‘syncretism’ has changed drastically over the course of time. Currently, the term refers to the mixing together of elements from different religions. This mixing is sometimes viewed with contempt, especially by the clergy of the religions concerned. Scholarly use of the term is more objective and does not entail this kind of value judgement. In this research paper we shall describe the history of the term. Special attention will be given to current debates on power mechanisms in syncretism. Lastly, syncretism will be compared with fundamentalism.

1. History Of The Term ‘Syncretism’

1.1 Earliest Uses

The first known use of the term ‘syncretism’ is found in Plutarch’s (46–125) Moralia (Morals), a treatise on moral principles. When suggesting that one should consider one’s brother’s enemies and friends as one’s own enemies and friends, he uses the example of the inhabitants of Crete. Plutarch uses the word syncretism to refer to their habit of forgetting internal conflicts and differences when confronting a common enemy. It may be that the use of the word was inspired not only by the Cretans’ example but also by a word play, since the Greek syngkrasis means a ‘mixing together’ (Stewart and Shaw 1994).

The second author known to have used the term was the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1496–1536). He quoted Plutarch and, like him, recommended syncretism, although here as a way of seeking a synthesis of seemingly disparate philosophical and theological opinions and as an attempt to understand the other completely, despite differences of view.

After the Reformation, with its increase in divergent theological views, the term acquired a negative connotation for the first time. Opponents of the German Lutheran theologian George Calixtus (1586–1656), an early defendant of ecumenism and theological reconciliation, used the term pejoratively as a mixing of points of view that, in their opinion, was to be avoided. The debate became known as the ‘syncretistic controversy.’

1.2 Views From Religious Studies And Missionary Practice

In the nineteenth century, when research on world religions began to flourish and colonialism brought cultures and religions into contact, syncretism was understood more objectively as the mixing of elements from different religions, although purity continued to be viewed implicitly as the norm (Rudolph 1979).

Christianity also reached the height of its expansion in the nineteenth century. Missionaries objected to the tendency of new converts to continue practices from their prior religion. Syncretism then became the concept used for this—condemned and combated— tendency. This meant that Christian theological use of the term was no longer restricted to internal differences between theologians but referred to the mixing of religious elements, especially Christian and non-Christian. Unlike its usage in religious studies, syncretism was considered censurable and illegitimate. The term still retains this meaning, even though ecumenical missionary circles have become more understanding of the need to translate the Christian message into local cultural terms (so-called inculturation; see Schreiter 1993). It has also been suggested that Christianity itself is the result of a syncretistic process (Pannenberg 1970). Yet, despite this development, the theological criterion continues to be how intact the core message of Christianity remains.

For a long time scholars in religious studies have worked with the term and defined its meanings (Rudolph (1979) offers a useful summary), whereas, as will be shown in the next section, the term has a much shorter history in anthropology. Scholars in the field of religious studies, such as historians and phenomenologists of religion, view syncretism objectively and point to its general presence at the founding of new religions (even in religions that now oppose syncretism) and in their mutual contact. Scholars distinguish between symmetrical and equal relationships between religions on the one hand and asymmetrical and unequal ones on the other. Typologies of the degree to which elements can be mixed have been proposed, using terms such as identification, amalgamation, and symbiosis. It has been acknowledged that syncretism may involve elements other than religious ones, since religions are linked to cultural contexts.

The basic ambiguity of meanings in syncretistic contexts has been emphasized (Pye 1971). Sometimes syncretism is presented as the result but more often as the process itself. Syncretism is presented as part of popular religion, while the representatives of official religion generally condemn it. Correspondingly, syncretism has often been depicted as unconscious, implicit and spontaneous, as typical of what Redfield called the little tradition of the unreflective many (Rudolph 1979).

There have also been proposals to excise the term from scholarly vocabulary (Baird 1971, Schineller 1992, Van der Veer (1994) in Stewart and Shaw 1994) for being too vague, subjective, and too broad. If syncretism occurs in all religions and if borrowing and blending are universals in any event, the term seems to be insufficiently specific and therefore superfluous. Moreover, virtually no religious person sees himself or herself as syncretistic. However, terms are not easily eliminated from scholarly vocabularies. Precise definition or even redefinition may resolve this dilemma. In view of the increase in contact between believers of different religions, some term is needed to refer to the inevitable mixing of religious elements. In addition, the long history of the term has shown that its meaning may change.

1.3 Views From Cultural Anthropology

While students of religion from outside cultural anthropology focused on world religions, the first anthropological texts on syncretism referred to Latin American and Caribbean examples, especially the Afro-Christian syncretism that was followed from the presence of slaves and their descendants in the region. Of course, syncretism was present in other areas, but where the negative missionary use of the term was the norm, as in Africa, anthropologists avoided using the term, even with respect to obvious cases of syncretism, as occurred in the so-called African independent churches founded by Africans and not by missionaries (Stewart and Shaw 1994).

When the American anthropologist Melville Herskovits began using the term in anthropology, following his Brazilian student Arthur Ramos, he took his examples from Afro-American religions (Greenfield and Droogers 2001). His interest in the topic was partly ideological since he understood syncretism as a tool for promoting a unified culture in the United States, to be formed from the many cultures that immigrants, including those who had involuntarily come from Africa, had brought with them. This melting-pot idea was, of course, a way of rehabilitating the Afro-American strand in US culture over against white racism. Moreover, Herskovits saw syncretism as a half-way stage in the process of acculturation, the intermingling of cultures in contact. He was very much interested in the way people gave meanings to selected old and new elements, mixing cultural standards, and thus initiating change towards a new synthesis.

The alternative course is an emphasis on authenticity and a return to tradition and to the past, as in the case of the black consciousness movement. Nourished by the political ideal of integration the concept of acculturation may have suggested a one-sided linear evolution.

Another scholar who used the term syncretism in the Latin American context was the French ethnologist Roger Bastide (Bastide 1978). On the basis of fieldwork in Afro-Brazilian religions, he emphasized the systematic way in which analogous elements from different religious sources are mixed. He also pointed to the role of power mechanisms, especially in the contact between slaves and their masters. The structural similarity between African, Catholic, and Amerindian worldviews facilitated syncretism. Thus African gods could be identified with Catholic saints and Amerindian spirits. In the oppression that the slaves suffered, supernatural help was most welcome. This redressed the balance of power somewhat, such as when masters were the object of slave rituals intended to harm them. The redress of this balance also became clear when Catholic elements were selectively adopted through the application of African criteria, and not vice versa, as the masters wished when they baptized their slaves. In practice, as a strategic device, identification with and differentiation from the masters’ religion were both used in a double game. Thus the apparent adoption of a Catholic ritual attitude in Mass could serve as an alibi for the continuation of African ritual practices.

2. Current Issues

2.1 Power

The political use of the concept of syncretism has received more attention in the 1990s (Droogers 1989, Stewart and Shaw 1994). The negative sense of the term is an indication of a conflict between clergy and laity on the right to produce legitimate religion. Leaders of a religion whose adepts are involved in a syncretistic process will, from a purist point of view, use their power to condemn any effort to mix elements from different religions. Stewart and Shaw (1994) accordingly proposed the term antisyncretism.

As suggested above, the subjective meaning of the term could be a reason for abandoning the term in scholarly use. Yet it has the advantage of revealing the power dimension of the syncretism process. In that sense, syncretism is one of a number of terms used in anthropology despite their pejorative meanings, such as magic or popular religion.

An attitude of antisyncretism is not only held by leaders of affected religions but can also be found in representatives of religions that are the result of a process of syncretism. Thus some leaders of the very syncretistic Afro-Brazilian religions adopt an antisyncretistic attitude, favoring a return to the African roots and the removal of all Catholic influence.

2.2 Syncretism And Fundamentalism

In various senses syncretism and fundamentalism are opposites. Whereas syncretism uses more than one religious source, fundamentalism defends the uniqueness of the one source, often codified in a sacred text. Syncretism implies that more versions of the experience with the sacred are acceptable and can be combined, whereas fundamentalists defend one exclusive version. Syncretists experiment with religious symbols, as many as seem to be applicable to their situation, whereas fundamentalists jealously guard the one central symbol of their religion. Syncretism is usually criticized by religious specialists who feel that they are losing control and who may react by defending a fundamentalist view. Syncretists interpret the opportunity offered by the growing contact between cultures and religions as a chance to combine religious repertoires for thought and action, whereas fundamentalists react to the moral side effects of this contact by retreating to the traditional repertoire, even though they may make use of modern means of communication to spread their message. Both syncretism and fundamentalism seem to flourish as a consequence of modernization and globalization but for different reasons: one embracing the new situation, the other being critical of it because it is felt to threaten cherished traditions and morals. Syncretists behave as global citizens, whereas fundamentalists divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Syncretists are not organized and rarely present themselves as such, whereas fundamentalists tend to organize themselves and to occupy power positions.


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