A Debate About Syncretism

30 06 2008

First, I must give credit to the Cruising Down the Coast of the High Barbaree blog for directing me to this article on the syncretic attitudes of Hindus and Thomas Christians in Kerala. It is well-worth a thorough read, and Josh S. and I get into an interesting discussion on the post cited above.

Of course, my Lutheran interlocutor on the thread cited this article as representing the dangers that apostolic Christianity has of falling into superstition, and no doubt a number of Catholics will also find the actions of the Thomas Christians described here highly objectionable. I personally think that they crossed some lines that should not have been crossed.

On the other hand, in a lot of ways, the Christianity of the laity is often about what we can get away with. ( I am thinking here specifically of some of the quirks of my grandmother, que Dios la tenga en Su gloria). I am beginning to think that the shepherding of our pastors in the Church is not as simple as they lead and we follow. As I have written in the past, the cult of the saints in my mind did not arise as a “from the top-down”, but rather as a “from the bottom-up” phenomenon. In other words, the emergence of the Catholic ethos was not a strictly “by the book” affair, and it can at times resemble a wrestling match between God and man, pastors and laity, as to the shape and flavor of their beliefs and practices. While I think the Christians of Kerala have taken their syncretism too far (as have some Mexicans in their cult to Holy Death), I do not see these actions as part of a process that is contrary to the Gospel, but rather as one that is very much a part of it. It is just an issue of regulating these things so that they don’t get out of hand.



8 responses

15 09 2010
Andrea Di Castro

Can I please ask more deails about the image you have posted? I wonder what sort of object is the goddess holding with her top right hand.
it seems a cornucopia. I am conducting a research on ancient goddesses in the Hellenised Asian regions and the outcomes of the synchretic images that were created some 2000 years ago. If this image that you have posted is really holding a cornucopia it is a remarkable thing.
Can you please help me ?
All the best.

7 02 2009
Arturo Vasquez


Thank you for your contributions both here and in other posts. Much to think about.

6 02 2009
Leyla Jagiella

I am not sure if race per se is the general idol of Wotanism, or gender the one of Dianic witches. People may be attracted to these paths due to many different reasons, though it is very true that most of these reasons have something to do with a dislike of aspects of so called Christian culture.

What strikes me very much is the claim of modern Neopaganism of reconstructing (or even continuing) the “Old Religion” and the large bulk of people today attracted towards Neopaganism but essentially not taking the “Old Religion” seriously.
We can assume that ancient Egyptians saw e.g. Ra as a serious entity that was able to give reward and/or punishment to them and whose rules (of conduct, worship etc.) definitely HAD to be obeyed, no ifs and buts. Similar to how today many Santeros would treat an oricha like Chango.

However, many (But not all! there are differences) Neopagans, especially those close to New Age ideas, would never take an entity like Ra or Chango seriously.
In the end they would only treat them as names, projections, relative versions of a universal story.
And if a typical Neopagan would do something wrong in a ritual to Ra or Chango he would not really fear that this could bring many negative consequences to him.

I am not saying that one approach is bad and the other is good. Both approaches may benefit human beings in many ways. My personal opinion here is neutral, myself neither being a Catholic nor a Neopagan but still having some fascination and respect for both paths.

I just want to say that both are essentially and fundamentally different in theology, ethos and attitude and it is in my humble opinion true that traditional Catholicism is indeed much closer to classical Paganism in theology, ethos and attitute than most versions of current Neopaganism will ever be. But this is an observation that, interestingly, both many Catholics and many Neopagans may not like very much.

6 02 2009

Thanks for sharing your knowledge. This is very useful.

13 08 2008
C. Wingate

Well, when you look at Japan you see a pervasive syncretism between Shinto, which is certainly pagan to the core, and Buddhism, which in isolation is almost a theology without a religion. Western Buddhism is very much syncretic with the enlightenment underpinnings of almost all modern western thought, and the latter has a distinctly Christian color. There’s no intrinsic sense in which this is wrong; it seems odd to us adherents to Semitic religions, and as Leah says, some of their claims to escaping Western religion don’t hold water. But within the scope of Buddhism, it isn’t inconsistent, but simply atypical.

The neo-pagans are a completely different kettle of fish. It’s not just that their task is so heavily archaeological, and it’s not just that the project is heavily tainted by occultists. It’s that the systematization of philosophy and especially theology in the west has made the project impossible. All you have to do is try to read Voluspa; its lack of systematic coherence is characteristic of true paganism. The neo-pagans cannot but superimpose a systematic structure on it because that’s the way western thought works. Theological archaeology is by its nature a manifestation of western thought.

And it’s false for another reason, which Vaquez gestures at. One of the things that Rudolf Otto bases The Idea of the Holy on is the notion of the numinous, which is to say, the experience of the supernatural and uncanny. In the Semitic religions, this is found crucially in revelation, and in Christianity especially in the incarnation and in the church. Real pagan religions also seem to trace back to something numinous, but it’s usually not clear what. There’s something deeply wrongheaded about the notion that one can start from some decidedly non-numinous worldview and recast it as religion by simply introducing the symbols of numinous religion. To take an example, European religions tend to find something numinous in the passage of the seasons; but for modern people, it is an understood physical process. We cannot but play at making it numinous with religious ritual, because we know another truth (which not incidentally traces back to the Judaeo-Christian view of God having created an ordered universe). The real faith expressed is in something else, not in the religion they create.

12 08 2008

Generally speaking, the majority of Western neo-pagans are worshipping something other than the polytheistic gods of the forefathers. Race is the primary object of worship for Wotanists, whereas gender is the idol for Dianic witches. Adherents of bio-centric neopaganism worship turn environmentalism into a religion. One could argue that adherents of the Nation of Islam also worship race as well, rather than Allah or W.D. Fard or whatever their theology teaches.

Modern reconstructions of neo-paganism are always trying to escape some aspect of Christian culture that they dislike, be it racial egalitarianism/racism, sexism, or environmental degredation. In reality, other non-Christian cultures weren’t much better on the issues of race, sexism, or the environment. However, in the West there is a belief among some non-whites are incapable of the same mistakes as whites. This is evident in Western Buddhism. While Buddhism in Asia is even more patriarchal than Christianity in the West, Western Buddhists have a large number of women in leadership positions. Western Buddhism is also closely linked to vegetarianism and environmental activism, which is not shared by the majority of their Eastern co-religionists. As with neo-pagans, Western Buddhists have created a new philosophy to suit their modern desires rather than faithfully recreate an ancient faith.

12 08 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Yeah, but all of the gods of the Gentiles are demons, so that’s where we get a little stuck…

On the other hand, the ethos of paganism was passed on to us Catholics. We just replaced demons with real, live people who are actually worthy of emulation. Not demons. Our veneration of the saints can look a lot like veneration of ancient gods since the saints, in reality, are more powerful than any stupid false god or demon: they stand at the throne of God and intercede for us before Him. Therefore, any elan or beauty of the pagan religion has been perfected and purified in apostolic Christianity. All of you so called “pagans” are a bunch of posers who really have nothing to do with real pagans. You are just skeptical crypto-pantheists who really don’t believe in anything. Real pagans are not like that. But then again, an apostatized European ex-Christian can never be a real pagan.

11 08 2008

What about Santeria and Voudun syncretism? You can’t stop people synthesising one religious system with another, because you can’t stop them thinking, “Well what happened to my old deities?” That’s why Buddhism was more enlightened than Christianity in its approach, because it didn’t stop people honouring their indigenous deities.

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