Syn-cre-tism (sin’ kre tiz’m) n. 1. The combining, uniting, or reconciling of disparate beliefs. 2. The indiscriminate mixing of religions.
Adventist missionaries from the beginning have always aimed at faithfully teaching the message of the Bible. Their commitment to Scripture has also led them to confront practices and lifestyle issues that contradict the injunctions of the Bible. Yet despite these good intentions we are surprised to find that we have not been immune to the danger of syncretism – the illegitimate mixing of non-biblical beliefs and practices with the truths of the Bible. The following story illustrates the point. It is based on a real event, but the details have been slightly modified.
Not too long ago I visited a friend’s home. There I met an Adventist missionary who, with her baby son, had recently visited relatives in a Latin-American country. During the visit her son became mysteriously ill with no specific symptoms her Western mind could read and deal with. Yet her relatives and hosts clearly new what it was. They all agreed that the sickness was a case of “evil eye” and needed to be treated appropriately to absorb the mysterious force plaguing the child.
This Adventist mother faced a real dilemma. In her mind “evil eye” was not a “real sickness” in need of a cure. It soon dawned on her that while it might be “just” a superstition to be ignored, it might actually be linked to some mysterious power she was ill prepared to deal with. Moreover, she realized that her hesitation to give her child the “obvious” treatment was being regarded as neglect of her motherly duties. The required treatment for evil eye seems to have been a certain ritual involving an egg rolled over the back of the child.
To escape the subtle pressure surrounding her, she decided to take the child to a doctor to get a proper medical diagnosis and an explanation of what was wrong. But to her dismay, the doctor only confirmed what everybody else already new. There was “nothing wrong with the child.” One look at her crying child, however, told her the child was not well. So, what should she do? In her distress she turned to Adventist friends. Surely they knew all about this mysterious phenomenon and had an answer to it. Indeed they had! But it was not what she wanted to hear. They agreed with her that “we [Adventists] don’t believe in these things [evil eye] anymore,” but they reasoned “why not at least give the local remedy a try, just to be sure!”
That answer only deepened the mother’s distress. As she anxiously watched her crying child, she sank on her knees to pour out her heart to God and ask for His wisdom. And that’s where she found peace. Yes, the child did get better, but the incident left some confusing questions on her heart. Why were Bible-believing, Sabbath-keeping, loyal Adventists still engaged in what seemed to be pagan practices? How do you know what is and what is not acceptable practice?
What this missionary had just discovered is the phenomenon of syncretism, the mixture of practices or beliefs that are not compatible with the truth of the Bible. Of course, syncretism has a long history. We find it in the Old and New Testaments and if we were to review the history of mission of the Christian church, we would quickly find that the mingling of elements of religious systems also accompanied the spread of Christianity during the last two thousand years.
What is more astonishing is the fact that conservative Protestant denominations -denominations that moved into new cultures with the intention of transforming the culture of a people with the influence of the gospel – are discovering that beneath the loyal veneer of practiced Christianity, old practices have survived that are often incompatible, even contradictory to the Gospel. Yet local members continue to practice them. This phenomenon has been labeled by missiologists as “split-level Christianity”. On the surface there is close adherence to accepted Adventist/Christian practice. People regularly go to church on Sabbath,
Pay tithe and are otherwise loyal to the church. But when facing a crisis, they may revert back to practices that are incompatible with the gospel, such as secretly sacrificing at the shrine of a local deity or visiting the local healer or priest in times of sickness just as their ancestors may have done for many centuries.
In our next post, we will discuss possible reasons for syncretism and ways missionaries can respond to it.
By Erich Baumgartner
Original article first appeared in Global Connections, Fall 2001.