by Charles Corwin
Webster says religious syncretism is the "combination of or reconciliation of differing beliefs in religions." Scholars say syncretism shows a religion is weakening.
Webster says religious syncretism is the "combination of or reconciliation of differing beliefs in religions." Scholars say syncretism shows a religion is weakening. The purpose of this article is to show how religious syncretism damages Christian witness in non-Christian cultures. Religious syncretism opens a Pandora's box of primitive beliefs. Such beliefs vitiate the distinctive elements of the religion tolerating such compromise.
BACKGROUND IN CHINA
Ever since Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), leader of the Jesuit mission to China, tried to get support from the ruling class by accommodating Catholicism to Confucianism, religious syncretism has been a problem in missions. The Jesuits tried to find figurative biblical symbols in the Confucian Classics. The high ethical attainments in China without revealed religion amazed them. Working from the top down, they accommodated Christian teaching to Confucian in three ways:
1. By language. They used Chinese words colored with Confucian nuance to render biblical ideas. For example, to render "Jehovah" they selected "Shang Ti," mythical sovereign of China's hallowed past: to the average Chinese, the highest concept of a moral administrator of heaven and earth.
2. In concept. Ricci tried to interpret in the Christian sense some things that were ambiguous in Confucianism. The Jesuits referred to the classics to find common ground with Chinese scholars; some even went so far as to say that the Chinese originally descended from Noah and had access to primitive Hebrew laws.
3. In the cultic. They tried to syncretize the worship of saints with Chinese ancestor worship. When questioned about this, they maintained that worship before family altars was not a religious but a civic ceremony.
BACKGROUND IN JAPAN
In Japan the Jesuits at first followed Ricci's example in using the Confucian Classics in debates against the Neo-Confucianists. They wanted to establish common ground for Christianity in Japan with the society built on Confucian lines. However, when early converts renounced the faith in large numbers, there was a syncretist backlash; the Jesuits questioned the whole approach. For instance, Catholic writers purposely avoided Japanese words; instead they Japanized Portuguese words to explain biblical concepts to catechumens. God became Deusu; the Cross, curuxusu; faith, fidesu. They also rejected syncretism in the cultic; they made compromise with Buddhist or Shinto practices a mortal sin. The Jesuit leader Valignano reported that those who went through their catechism seldom if ever returned to their idols. He saw the effects of rejecting syncretism: twenty-six martyrs went to their crosses in Nagasaki in 1597.
What should missionaries think of Christians taking part in Japan's cultural customs: offering incense before the remains of the departed, bowing at pictures at funerals, school excursions to shrines and temples, placing the kado matsu (pine tree cutting) by the front door during New Year's, and so on? I went to a funeral for a Christian and the Japanese evangelist directed the end of his message not to the audience but to the deceased. Some feel that if missionaries presented a more Japanized form of Christianity more people would accept the Gospel.
AREAS OF AGREEMENT
Religious syncretism becomes a live issue when two religions of different ultimate realities confront each other. For example, it wasn't an issue when Buddhism spread through Hindu India (269-232 B.C.), nor when a resurgent Hinduism all but engulfed Buddhism in the 10th and 11th centuries A.D.; the ultimate reality of both systems is the impersonal universal mind of Brahma. But the Muslim Moguls reddened India's soil with blood by the Islamic sword because Allah and Brahma don't mix. But there's even some agreement between them because of the nature of religion itself. Religion says that man by himself is insecure, that natureishostile to him, that the changes of life threaten his life, his family, anti his community. Religion says that man himself has no enriching goals, compelling cultural drives, or constraining ethic. Religion assumes that man's knowledge is not exhausted by what he can see; higher virtues must be derived from and explained by facts other than those gained by physical tests. Religion says that the answers to life's predicaments grow out of a religious attitude. So much agreement has led some to think that differences in religions are primarily in terminology or methodology. All roads lead to the summit, so why make which road a major issue? Such haggling, they say, is simply prejudice, intolerance, provincialism, and bigotry.
THE AREA OF CONFLICT
The collision occurs at the summit. According to their ultimate reality, world religions are of three types: (1) Type I, those whose ultimate reality is found in nature and culturethe nature and culture religions of China, Japan, and ancient Greece. (2) Type II, those characterized by monistic idealism and whose ultimate reality is found beyond nature or the world-Buddhism and philosophical Hinduism. (3) Type III, those that locate one God both above and within the common world of men and nature-Christianity and Judaism.
Since in Type I religions, as Japanese Shinto, the religious ultimate lies in nature, what is in the world-moon, sand, trees, men, plants-is but a piece of the divine fabric. There can be no collision with "other gods," for all are divine.
Type II religions have no problem with religious syncretism either. Buddhism, for example, categorically rejects a dualistic concept of reality; all opposites are submerged beneath the waters of relativity. All distinctions between subject and object are resolved in the wholly other of Brahma or void of Buddhism. Syncretism is not a problem; there are not "two" to be syncretized. All religions are but accidental expressions of the religious ultimate lying beyond the phenomenal world.
But in Christianity and Judaism the religious ultimate is a Person. He has a distinctive nature; He is holy. Jehovah can brook no rival; idolatry is a blasphemous affront to His person. Paul expressed it: other gods simply do not exist before Him. Historic Judaism and Christianity logically reject religious syncretism.
Gibbon says ancient Rome was bound to reject Christianity because she was tolerant. Syncretism bolstered Roman culture and the empire; local autonomy could be encouraged without Rome imposing her religious views on distant provinces. The Romans could not tolerate, however, a group of people like Christians who disdained other religions as idolatrous and sinful. Such iconoclastic claims became the fly in. the ointment of Rome's universality. Rome persecuted the Christians because of one concept in both Type I and Type II religions that limits their syncretism: they cannot embrace a system that rejects syncretism. Rome's syncretism welded divergent peoples together. But Rome could not embrace a faith that refused homage to Caesar. Buddhism cannot assimilate a faith that is intolerant of it. Niebuhr expresses this one non-syncretizing element of the syncretist systems:
"The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world kingdoms is followed- by Christians who will worship only Christ . . . . and this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshipped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due religious homage. The antagonism of modern, tolerant, culture to Christ is of course often disguised because it does not call its religious practices religious . . . and also because it regards what it calls religion as one of the many interests which can be placed alongside economics, art, science, politics, and techniques."1
WHAT HAPPENED IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
During the first millennium A.D. the indigenous TypeIanimistic nature religions of Southeast Asia received wave upon wave of Type II religions through Indian traders and colonists going to Burma, Siam, and Java. In the interaction of Hinduism and Buddhism with local religions, syncretism was the accepted practice. Syncretism not only left animistic practices virtually untouched but opened the way for the Type II religions to add a transcendental dimension to the animistic cults; this fortified animistic customs that normally would have been sloughed off with cultural progress. At the same time, the ethically superior concepts of some of the Type II religions were blunted. Note a few examples of this:
Evidences of syncretism in Ceylon, for instance, are seen in the incorporation of Hindu devatas-the Brahma, Vishnu, Ishvara, Shiva images-into Buddhist centers; guarding them from evil spirits and serving Sakyamuni (The Buddha). Saunders comments: "A belief in demonism is inextricably interwoven with popular Buddhism . . . . in the sin-confused minds of these ignorant villagers, devils, and antidevils, exorcists and monks, incantations and prayers to Buddha are co-mingled with slight differentiation."2
In Burma, Shivaism (Hinduism) exists side by side with Buddhism. Even the patriarch Anauratha made room for the thirty-seven nats of Burma demonism within his colossal Shwezigon temple in Pagan. As the Burmese proverb goes, "At the front door a pagoda, at the back door King Magari (a nat)."
What about Indonesia? Syncretism is part of Java's tradition. Rassers explains: "At Plaosan there are remains where the inscriptions indicate a joint foundation by a Shivaite king and the Shailendra queen. Javanese Buddhism was included to multiply its pantheon and develop the Bengali ideas known as tantrism, which included magic and female deities. It was thus easy to harmonize the two pantheons. In the later shrines of East Java, syncretism actually went so far as to show both Buddhist and Hindu symbols in the same building."3
In Cambodia Hinayan Buddhism is dominant. It absorbed Indian Brahmanism and became the state religion. But it left the local spirit worship intact. In Laos the phi demons continue to dominate the religious thinking of the people, though Buddhism is the state religion.
From earliest times Thai religion has been a curious blend of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism. Weber cites an inscription of the 14th century A.D. which indicates that the ruling monarch is striving to enter Nirvana, all the while yearning for Indra's heaven.4 The Thai scholar Rajadhon explains the syncretism of his country: "Animism, with ancestor worship, is the primitive belief of the Thai . . . and this formed the first layer of the Thai religion. Later on came Buddhism and the Thai adopted it as their national religion . . . . Whatever cults and beliefs are adopted by the Thai, they are readily modified to suit their temperance and surroundings. When they adopted Buddhism, they greatly modified their basic belief of animism into the field of Buddhism."5 The Thai, though they happily engage in the Brahmanic-Buddhist festivals, e.g., the Loi Katong (Festival of Lights) or the king's birthday, actually worship the phi, malevolent spirits of the dead.
The lesson of religious syncretism in Southeast Asia is clear: ethically inferior customs gain religious status and sanction. Religion is profaned, brought down to the level of custom. Inferior practices gain status; superior ethics are blunted. Buddhism was originally an anticaste movement, but by tolerating Hinduism it kept the coals of caste smoldering until resurgent Hinduism fanned the system into flame again. In Ceylon animistic practices, such as worshipping the canine tooth of the Buddha, became the chief characteristic of the Sinhalese religious life. Buddhism in Burma gave a religious stamp and credential to the severe autocracy and despotism of the court. In Japan primitive beliefs in the ubiquitous kami, spirits of the dead, were given religious dimension and cultic expression through Buddhism's assumption of funeral rites.
SYNCRETISM FOUND WANTING
Religious syncretism as a strategy in foreign missions has been weighed in the balances and found wanting. The only common ground among religions of all types lies in the point of departure-man by himself is insecure. The clash comes when summits are viewed, roads are traversed. The syncretism of Type I and Type II religions has limits: it can't tolerate an exclusive religion. Judson's petition for religious toleration to the Burman monarch at Ava was dashed to the floor when his majesty's eyes caught the words, "There is one God." Martyr's plans for presenting his completed Persian New Testament to the Sha at Tabriz were frustrated when, upon being asked to repeat the Muslim creed, he said. "and Jesus is the Son of God." Carey's translation work at Serampore was threatened by the government when non-syncretizing elements in his tracts were falsely exaggerated by the people as attacks upon Islam. The holiness pastors in Japan became the target of all-embracing state Shinto because they persistently declared allegiance to a Lord above the emperor.
If Type II religions interacting with Type I religions fortify indigenous animistic practices; what do you think happens when Christianity tries to accommodate itself to these practices? If at Christian funerals for example, belief in lingering spirits is given impetus and religious sanction, no wonder Christian believers continue to halt between Baal (Type I ) and Jehovah. In linguistics Bible translators must be careful not to select words with Type I or Type II religious connotations. In our preaching we must not lower the Gospel to the level of utilitarian benefits; this keeps alive the persistent Shinto belief that a pleasant life in harmony with nature is one's ultimate goal.
If we try to syncretize Christianity and indigenous religions we pull down the high and holy Jehovah to the level of man and custom. Man, his customs, his walk through life are lifted to a transcendental plane, highest in the scale of values and alone worthy of man's concern. The nature of God, the awfulness of sin and judgment-these become hard sayings, painful for the seeker to assimilate.
If God be God, let us serve Him. Trying to make Christianity compatible with non-Christian religions and cultures only paves the way for its extinction.
1. H. R. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951)_ p. 7.
2. Kenneth Saunders, Buddhism and Buddhists in Southern Asia (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1923) p. 27.
3. W. H. Rassers, Panji the Culture Hero, a Structural Study of Religion in Java (The Hague: Matinus Nijhoff, 1959) p. 70.
4. Max Weber, The Religion of India (Chicago, Illinois: The Free Press, 1958) p. 262.
5. P. A. Rajahon, Thai Culture Series No. 1 (Bangkok: Natural Culture Institute, 1956) p. 8.
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