In the last blog, I raised the question of how to deal with practices that mix Christian with non-Christian elements. This mixing is called syncretism. Today, I will briefly define syncretism, contrast it with the process of contextualization, discuss some of its root causes, and then introduce you to a five-step process for dealing with cultural practices to avoid syncretism.
What Is Syncretism?
Syncretism is the illegitimate combination of different religious beliefs. Whenever the gospel travels across cultural barriers and encounters other religious belief systems, people are trying to understand the challenges of the gospel through the lenses of their own religions and cultural practices. As the aspects of the gospel are appropriated and mixed with local religious and cultural values, beliefs, and worldview elements that change the meaning of the gospel the end result may be syncretism. In such situations it is important to help a community of believers to examine their practices and encourage a greater faithfulness to the gospel.
New Believers—Old Belief Systems
But you may ask, When is something syncretism, and when is something just a normal process of cultural adaptation that is necessary to make the gospel intelligible to people of another culture? This question is not always easily answered. Wherever the gospel goes it confronts old belief systems and practices. The Early Church faced the same dynamics. After the persecution in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) believers brought the “good news of the kingdom of God” to Samaria. One of the new converts was Simon, a man that had been a practicing sorcerer (verse 9-14). When the apostles Peter and John arrived at the scene heard to check it out, they saw what God had done. They wasted no time to pray for a special manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the new believers by “placing their hands on them. And the Lord granted their request and the new believers visibly received the Holy Spirit (verses 14-18).
What interests us here is the reaction of Simon, the new convert. When he saw the power of God in response to the ritual of consecration performed by Peter and John, how was he to interpret this experience? Would you blame him for seeing it through the lenses of his past experience and worldview as a magical rite (similar those he was familiar with). Peter was less impressed. In fact, he was indignant and reacted strongly against Simon’s misconception.
Two insights are important here: First, Simon was a baptized believer when he made the request that enraged Peter so strongly. Second, new converts bring their non-Christian perceptions and worldview into their new life with Christ. Being a Christian is a growth process. New believers still interpret reality through the lenses of their former logic systems. As they grow as disciples of Christ, they learn to sort out how the new realities of the gospel relate to their own view of the world. That process of translating the gospel truths into meaningful principles and practices in a local culture is part of what we call today contextualization.
What Syncretism Isn’t
Some missionaries, in their desire to protect new believers and the church from non-Christian influences have been too quick to reject as pagan elements of culture they were unfamiliar with, e.g. music, marriage customs, and forms of reverence. They usually opposed attempts to contextualize as syncretism. But true contextualization is not syncretism. Contextualization is a necessary part of the process of planting the gospel in a different cultural soil. Granted this process is sometimes fraught with dangers and tensions. But without it, the Christian faith only develops shallow roots in a local culture and stays a foreign religion.
The Danger of Failing to Contextualize
Contextualization aims at translating the gospel into the life and practices of another culture. It is a process that neither adapts blindly to a new culture by watering down the principles of the gospel. It does not uncritically accept the conventions and values of a given culture just to please or win people over. This road frequently ends up compromising truth and leads to syncretism. But neither does contextualization demand a wholesale rejection of cultural practices that are different from the culture of the missionary. If missionaries fail to address the root causes of these practices, such attitudes of rejection often produce unwanted results. The old practices often continue under the surface and produce a split-level Christianity. Thus syncretism becomes a fact of life, but hidden from the face of the missionaries.
Dealing with Non-Christian Practices
So what is the solution to this dilemma. The only solution is in fact an ongoing, spirit-led process of examining and evaluating any aspect of life of a society in the light of the principles of the gospel. This process takes time and involves the whole community of new believers. Sometimes we call this process, critical contextualization. To encourage careful evaluation of cultural issues the Global Mission Issues Committee recently recommended five steps missionaries and church leaders.
When dealing with any cultural issue that needs to be evaluated consider the following steps:
- Ethnographic study—Examine the specific issue in the light of all the cultures and religions concerned. This necessitates a careful analysis by cultural insiders of the significance of the particular practice or idea in question.
- Bible study—Let the people from all cultures concerned examine all that Scripture says about the issue or related issues. Carefully think through the implication of scriptural principles.
- Evaluation—In the context of reflection and prayer, let the local community of believers apply the scriptural insights to their situation. The process has at least one of the following possible results:
- The practice or idea is accepted, because it is compatible with scriptural principle.
- The practice or idea is modified to make it compatible with Bible principles
- The practice or idea is rejected, because it contradicts Bible principles.
- The church develops a functional substitute for a cultural practice that fulfills an important need in that society.
- The church introduces a unique Christian practice that is required by scripture but has no correspondence in the culture (e.g.: baptism).
- Implementation—Carefully implement the idea or practice thus agreed upon.
- Re-evaluation—After a period of trial it may be necessary to evaluate the idea or practice, or the decision made again.
The result we are seeking is a truly authentic and meaningful faith, practiced in appropriate local ways, but faithful to the principles of the gospel. Contextualization is often a long and ongoing process. It needs the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is also a community process, requiring honest and faithful dialogue between local believers and expatriate missionaries as they seek to understand the meaning of their faith more fully.
By Erich W. Baumgartner