Today, I want to talk to you about syncretism. What is syncretism, you say? I’m glad you asked. Syncretism is the melding of different beliefs, usually ones that are apparently contradictory. Now, while some theologians and philosophers are very talented at merging different religious traditions into a largely coherent belief system, the sort of syncretism I want to talk about is the kind that most people do without even thinking about it. People have this odd tendency to declare various beliefs that are in strong tension with each other, and sometimes all-out contradictory.
For instance, we will tell a pouting child who feels slighted by us, “sorry kid, life’s not fair. Get use to it.” But, when we or a friend feels slighted by someone else, we borrow a little karma from Hinduism to tell ourselves, “what goes around comes around,” as though life ultimately is fair. We assume an Arminian freewill theology when we advise teenagers to “make good choices” on the weekend, but then switch to a Calvinistic determinism when we comfort a suffering person with “everything happens for a reason.”1 Sometimes we sound almost Pelagian when we dote on people with the phrase, “you are perfect just the way you are,” but when we want to defend our own actions, we throw our hands up proclaiming in good ol’ Augustinian tradition, “hey, nobody’s perfect” – both approaches arguing for the same thing, tolerance and understanding.
When a preacher quotes Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies, congregations shout a hearty “amen!” But when people with different skin color and different beliefs fly airplanes into our buildings, those same people assume he probably wasn’t referring to these enemies. When Jesus taught his followers to give their shirts to someone who demands their coat, we all nod in assent. But when the waiter at the restaurant after church has a bit of an attitude, we suddenly think it’s our job to teach them about work ethic by denying them a decent tip.
As if promoting opposing beliefs in different circumstances wasn’t bad enough, we often don’t even have the integrity to follow our own advice. And how could we? We don’t even know what we believe. We don’t have real convictions – all we have is a potpourri of maxims and idioms floating around in our heads. Most of us haven’t bothered to organize our beliefs into any sort of intelligible system. Instead, we hodgepodge it all together, resulting in a very nice sounding, but sorely impractical, way of living. We end up looking like Alice wandering around Wonderland uttering proverbs and virtues to others with no real intention of following our own council.
You see, I think the biggest danger in syncretism is not when it comes in the form of a dissertation or scholarly treatise, but when it comes in the day-in day-out actions and comments that we make without even thinking. Now, this is not at all to say that seemingly contradictory ideas can’t sometimes be made to harmoniously fit with one another. But, it is to say that spouting off conflicting statements with no care for their implications isn’t doing anyone any favors, ourselves included.
So next time you want to be the voice of wisdom in someone’s life, just be sure to stop and think about what it is you’re about to say. You may just realize that you don’t actually believe it.
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1: Which, when you think about it, isn't all that comforting... in fact, it's kind of terrifying!