Syncretism (English pronunciation: /ˈsɪŋkrətɪzəm/) is the combining of different beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term means "combining", but see below for the origin of the word. Syncretism may involve the merger and analogising of several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, thus asserting an underlying unity and allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths.
- 1 Nomenclature, orthography and etymology
- 2 Social and political roles
- 3 Religious syncretism
- 4 Cultures and societies
- 5 Fiction
- 6 New media art
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
Nomenclature, orthography and etymology
The Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word syncretism in English in 1618. It derives from modern Latin syncretismus, drawing on Greek συγκρητισμός (synkretismos), meaning "Cretan federation."
The Greek word occurs in Plutarch's (1st century AD) essay on "Fraternal Love" in his Moralia (2.490b). He cites the example of the Cretans, who reconciled their differences and came together in alliance when faced with external dangers. "And that is their so-called Syncretism."
Erasmus probably coined the modern usage of the Latin word in his Adagia ("Adages"), published in the winter of 1517–1518, to designate the coherence of dissenters in spite of their differences in theological opinions. In a letter to Melanchthon of April 22, 1519, Erasmus specifically adduced the Cretans of Plutarch as an example of his adage "Concord is a mighty rampart".
Social and political roles
Overt syncretism in folk belief may show cultural acceptance of an alien or previous tradition, but the "other" cult may survive or infiltrate without authorized syncresis nevertheless. For example, some Conversos developed a sort of cult for martyr-victims of the Spanish Inquisition, thus incorporating elements of Catholicism while resisting it.
Some religious movements have embraced overt syncretism, such as the case of the adoption of Shintō elements into Buddhism as well as the adoption of Germanic and Celtic pagan elements into Catholicism during Christianity's spread into Gaul, the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia. Indian influences are seen in the practice of Shi'i Islam in Trinidad. Others have strongly rejected it as devaluing precious and genuine distinctions; examples of this include post-Exile Judaism, Islam, and most of Protestant Christianity.
Syncretism tends to facilitate coexistence and constructive interaction between different cultures (intercultural competence), a factor that has recommended it to rulers of multi-ethnic realms. Conversely the rejection of syncretism, usually in the name of "piety" and "orthodoxy", may help to generate, bolster or authorize a sense of cultural unity in a well-defined minority or majority.
Religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. This can occur for many reasons, and the latter scenario happens quite commonly in areas where multiple religious traditions exist in proximity and function actively in the culture, or when a culture is conquered, and the conquerors bring their religious beliefs with them, but do not succeed in entirely eradicating the old beliefs or, especially, practices.
Religions may have syncretic elements to their beliefs or history, but adherents of so-labeled systems often frown on applying the label, especially adherents who belong to "revealed" religious systems, such as the Abrahamic religions, or any system that exhibits an exclusivist approach. Such adherents sometimes see syncretism as a betrayal of their pure truth. By this reasoning, adding an incompatible belief corrupts the original religion, rendering it no longer true. Indeed, critics of a specific syncretistic trend may sometimes use the word "syncretism" as a disparaging epithet, as a charge implying that those who seek to incorporate a new view, belief, or practice into a religious system actually distort the original faith. Non-exclusivist systems of belief, on the other hand, may feel quite free to incorporate other traditions into their own.
In modern secular society, religious innovators sometimes create new religions syncretically as a mechanism to reduce inter-religious tension and enmity, often with the effect of offending the original religions in question. Such religions, however, do maintain some appeal to a less exclusivist audience. Discussions of some of these blended religions appear in the individual sections below.
Classical Athens was a exclusivistic in matters of religion, the Decree of Diopithes made the introduction of and belief in foreign Gods a criminal offence and only Greeks were allowed to worship in Athenian temples and festivals as foreigners were considered impure. Syncretism functioned as a feature of Hellenistic Ancient Greek religion although only outside of Greece. Overall, Hellenistic culture in the age that followed Alexander the Great itself showed syncretist features, essentially blending of Mesopotamian, Persian, Anatolian, Egyptian (and eventually Etruscan–Roman) elements within an Hellenic formula. The Egyptian god Amun developed as the Hellenized Zeus Ammon after Alexander the Great went into the desert to seek out Amun's oracle at Siwa.
Such identifications derive from interpretatio graeca, the Hellenic habit of identifying gods of disparate mythologies with their own. When the proto-Greeks (peoples whose language would evolve into Greek proper) first arrived in the Aegean and on the mainland of modern-day Greece early in the 2nd millennium BCE, they found localized nymphs and divinities already connected with every important feature of the landscape: mountain, cave, grove and spring all had their own locally venerated deity. The countless epithets of the Olympian gods reflect their syncretic identification with these various figures. One defines "Zeus Molossos" (worshipped only at Dodona) as "the god identical to Zeus as worshipped by the Molossians at Dodona". Much of the apparently arbitrary and trivial mythic fabling results from later mythographers' attempts to explain these obscure epithets.
In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud made a case for Judaism arising out of the pre-existing monotheism that was briefly imposed upon Egypt during the rule of Akhenaten. Aten, the disk of the Sun in ancient Egyptian mythology, and originally an aspect of Ra, was chosen as the sole deity for Akhenaten's new religion. The "Code of Hammurabi" is also cited as a likely starting point for the Jewish Ten Commandments. Hammurabi was from the Mesopotamian culture that revered Marduk, among others. Judaism fought lengthy battles against syncretist tendencies: note the case of the golden calf and the railing of prophets against temple prostitution, witchcraft and local fertility cults, as told in the Tanakh. On the other hand, some scholars hold that Judaism refined its concept of monotheism and adopted features such as its eschatology, angelology and demonology through contacts with Zoroastrianism.
In spite of the Jewish halakhic prohibitions on polytheism, idolatry, and associated practices (avodah zarah), several combinations of Judaism with other religions have sprung up: Jewish Buddhism, Nazarenism, Judeo-Paganism, Messianic Judaism, Jewish Mormonism, and others such as Judeo-Christianity. Until relatively recently, China had a Jewish community which had adopted some Confucian practices. Several of the Jewish Messiah claimants (such as Jacob Frank) and the Sabbateans came to mix Cabalistic Judaism with Christianity and Islam.
The Romans, identifying themselves as common heirs to a very similar civilization, identified Greek deities with similar figures in the Etruscan-Roman tradition, though without usually copying cult practices. (For details, see Interpretatio graeca.) Syncretic gods of the Hellenistic period found also wide favor in Rome: Serapis, Isis and Mithras, for example. Cybele as worshipped in Rome essentially represented a syncretic East Mediterranean goddess. The Romans imported the Greek god Dionysus into Rome, where he merged with the Latin mead god Liber, and converted the Anatolian Sabazios into the Roman Sabazius.
The degree of correspondence varied: Jupiter makes perhaps a better match for Zeus than the rural huntress Diana does for the feared Artemis. Ares does not quite match Mars. The Romans physically imported the Anatolian goddess Cybele into Rome from her Anatolian cult-center Pessinos in the form of her original aniconic archaic stone idol; they identified her as Magna Mater and gave her a matronly, iconic image developed in Hellenistic Pergamum.
Likewise, when the Romans encountered Celts and Germanic peoples, they mingled these peoples' gods with their own, creating Sulis Minerva, Apollo Sucellos (Apollo the Good Smiter) and Mars Thingsus (Mars of the war-assembly), among many others. In the Germania, the Roman historian Tacitus speaks of Germanic worshippers of Hercules and Mercury; most modern scholars tentatively identify Hercules as Thor and Mercury as Odin.
Syncretism did not play a role when Christianity split into eastern and western rites during the Great Schism. It became involved, however, with the rifts of the Protestant Reformation, with Desiderius Erasmus's readings of Plutarch. Even earlier, Syncretism was a fundamental aspect of the efforts of Neoplatonists such as Marsilio Ficino to reform the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1615, David Pareus of Heidelberg urged Christians to a "pious syncretism" in opposing the Antichrist, but few 17th-century Protestants discussed the compromises that might effect a reconciliation with the Catholic Church: Johann Hülsemann, Johann Georg Dorsche and Abraham Calovius (1612–85) opposed the Lutheran Georg Calisen "Calixtus" (1586–1656) of the University of Helmstedt for his "syncretism". (See: Syncretistic Controversy.)
Catholicism in Central and South America has integrated a number of elements derived from indigenous and slave cultures in those areas (see the Caribbean and modern sections); while many African Initiated Churches demonstrate an integration of Protestant and traditional African beliefs. In Asia the revolutionary movements of Taiping (19th-century China) and God's Army (Karen in the 1990s) have blended Christianity and traditional beliefs. The Catholic Church allows some symbols and traditions to be carried over from older belief systems, so long as they are remade to fit into a Christian worldview; syncretism of other religions with Catholicism, such as Voudun or Santería, is condemned by the Church.
One can contrast Christian syncretism with contextualization or inculturation, the practice of making Christianity relevant to a culture: Contextualisation does not address the doctrine but affects a change in the styles or expression of worship. Although Christians often took their European music and building styles into churches in other parts of the world, in a contextualization approach, they would build churches, sing songs, and pray in a local ethnic style. Some Jesuit missionaries adapted local systems and images to teach Christianity, as did the Portuguese in China.
In this view, syncretism implies compromising the message of Christianity by merging it with not just a culture, but another religion, common examples being animism or ancestor worship.
The "Syncretistic Controversy" was the theological debate provoked by the efforts of Georg Calixt and his supporters to secure a basis on which the Lutherans could make overtures to the Roman Catholic and the Reformed Churches. It lasted from 1640 to 1686. Calixt, a professor at Helmstedt, had through travels in England, the Netherlands, Italy, and France, acquaintance with the different churches and their representatives, and extensive study, developed a more open attitude toward the different religious bodies than had the majority of his contemporary Lutheran theologians. While the latter firmly adhered to the "pure doctrine", Calixt tended not to regard doctrine as the one thing necessary for a Christian, nor did he regard all doctrine as equally certain and important. Consequently, he advocated unity between those who agreed on the fundamental minimum, with liberty as to all less fundamental points. In regard to Catholicism, he would have (as Melanchthon once would have) conceded to the pope a primacy human in origin, and he also admitted that one might call the Mass a sacrifice.
The theological faculties of Helmstedt, Rinteln, and Königsberg supported Calixt; opposed were those of Leipzig, Jena, Strasburg, Giessen, Marburg, and Greifswald. Abraham Calov opposed Calixt. The Elector of Saxony, for political reasons, opposed the Reformed Church, because the other two secular electors (Palatine and Brandenburg) were "reformed", and were competing with him. In 1649 he wrote to the three dukes of Brunswick, who maintained Helmstedt as their common university, and expressed the objections of his Lutheran professors, complaining that Calixt wished to extract the elements of truth from all religions, fuse all into a new religion, and provoke a schism.
In 1650 Calov became a professor at Wittenberg, and quickly attacked the Syncretists in Helmstedt. An outburst of polemical writings followed. In 1650 the dukes of Brunswick responded with the desire to limit the discord, and proposed a meeting of the political councillors. Saxony, however, did not favour this suggestion. An attempt to convene theologians was unsuccessful. The theologians of Wittenberg and Leipzig condemned 98 heresies of the Helmstedt theologians. They urged that this "Formula of Concord" be signed by everyone who wished to remain in the Lutheran Church. Outside Wittenberg and Leipzig, however, it was not accepted, and Calixt's death in 1656 ushered in five years of almost undisturbed peace.
The controversy broke out afresh in Hesse-Kassel, where Landgrave William VI sought to effect a union between his Lutheran and Reformed subjects, or at least to lessen their mutual hatred. In 1661 he had a colloquy held in Kassel between the Lutheran theologians of the University of Rinteln and the Reformed theologians of the University of Marburg. Enraged at this revival of the syncretism of Calixt, the Wittenberg theologians called on the Rinteln professors to make their submission, whereupon the latter answered with a detailed defence. Another long series of polemical treatises followed.
In Brandenburg-Prussia in 1663, the Great Elector (Frederick William I) forbade preachers from speaking of the Evangelical disputes. A long colloquy in Berlin (September 1662 to May 1663) led only to fresh discord. Growing impatient, the Elector ended his conferences in 1664 and published another "syncretistic" edict. Since the edict disallowed the Formula of Concord, one of the Lutheran Confessions as contained in the Book of Concord, many Lutheran clergy did not comply with the edict. Whoever refused to sign the form declaring his intention to observe this regulation was deprived of his position, including Paul Gerhardt, a pastor and noted hymnwriter. The citizens of Berlin petitioned to have him restored, and owing to their repeated requests, the Elector made an exception for Gerhardt. His conscience did not allow him to retain the post and Gernardt lived in Berlin for more than a year without fixed employment. During this time his wife also died, leaving him with one surviving child. The Elector withdrew the edict a few months later, but Gerhardt's patroness, Electress Louisa Henrietta, had died, so he was still without a position.
Calixt's son, Friedrich Ulrich Calixt, defended his father's views against the Wittenberg theologians's calling his school "un-Lutheran" and heretical. The younger Calixt tried to show that his father's doctrine did not differ much from that of his opponents. Wittenberg had a new champion in Ægidius Strauch, who attacked Calixt with all his resources of learning, polemics, and wit. The Helmstedt side was defended by the celebrated scholar and statesman, Hermann Conring. The Saxon princes recognized that trying to carry through the "Consensus" might lead to a fresh schism in the Lutheran Church, and endanger its position related to Catholic power. They forbade the Saxon theologians from continuing the controversy in writing. Negotiations for peace then resulted, with Duke Ernst the Pious of Saxe-Gotha especially active. They considered creating a permanent college of theologians to decide theological disputes. However, the negotiations with the courts of Brunswick, Mecklenburg, Denmark, and Sweden remained as fruitless as those with the theological faculties, except that peace was maintained until 1675.
Calov renewed hostilities. He attacked not only Calixt, but also and particularly the moderate John Musæus of Jena. Calov succeeded in having the University of Jena and Musæus compelled to renounce syncretism. But this was his last victory. The Elector renewed his prohibition against polemical writings. Calov seemed to give way for a time. Although he returned to his attack on the syncretists, he died in 1686, and the controversy ended.
The Syncretist Controversy had the result of lessening religious hatred and of promoting mutual forbearance. Catholicism benefited, as some Protestants came to better understand and appreciate it. In Protestant theology, it prepared the way for the sentimental theology of Pietism to become more popular than Lutheran orthodoxy.
The mystical tradition in Islam, known as Sufism appears somewhat syncretic in nature, not only in its origins but also in its beliefs since it espouses the concepts of Wahdat-al-Wujud and Wahdat-al-Shuhud that are, to a great extent, synonymous to Pantheism and Panentheism and sometimes Monism although the traditional Islamic belief system reject them and stress on strict monotheism called Tawhid.
The Barghawata kingdom followed a syncretic religion inspired by Islam (perhaps influenced by Judaism) with elements of Sunni, Shi'ite and Kharijite Islam, mixed with astrological and heathen traditions. Supposedly, they had their own Qur'an in the Berber language comprising 80 suras under the leadership of the second ruler of the dynasty Salih ibn Tarif who had taken part in the Maysara uprising. He proclaimed himself a prophet. He also claimed to be the final Mahdi, and that Isa (Jesus) would be his companion and pray behind him.
The Bahá'ís follow Bahá'u'lláh, a prophet whom they consider a successor to Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, and Abraham. This acceptance of other religious founders has encouraged some to regard the Bahá'í religion as a syncretic faith. However, Bahá'ís and the Bahá'í writings explicitly reject this view. Bahá'ís consider Bahá'u'lláh's revelation an independent, though related, revelation from God. Its relationship to previous dispensations is seen as analogous to the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. They regard beliefs held in common as evidence of truth, progressively revealed by God throughout human history, and culminating in (at present) the Bahá'í revelation. Bahá'ís have their own sacred scripture, interpretations, laws and practices that, for Bahá'ís, supersede those of other faiths.
Caribbean religions and cultures
The process of syncretism in the Caribbean region often forms a part of cultural creolization. (The technical term "Creole" may apply to anyone born and raised in the region, regardless of ethnicity.) The shared histories of the Caribbean islands include long periods of European Imperialism (mainly by Spain, France, and the United Kingdom) and the importation of African slaves (primarily from Central and Western Africa). The influences of each of the above interacted in varying degrees on the islands, producing the fabric of society that exists today in the Caribbean.
See the modern section for other Caribbean syncretisms.
Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in ancient India have made many adaptations over the millennia, assimilating elements of various diverse religious traditions. One example of this is the Yoga Vasistha.
The Mughal emperor Akbar, who wanted to consolidate the diverse religious communities in his empire, propounded Din-i-Ilahi, a syncretic religion intended to merge the best elements of the religions of his empire
Meivazhi (Tamil: மெய்வழி) is a syncretic monotheistic minority religion based in Tamil Nadu, India. Its focus is spiritual enlightenment and the conquering of death, through the teachings. Mevaizhi preaches the Oneness of essence message of all the previous major scriptures - particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity - allowing membership regardless of creed. Meivazhi's disciples are thousands of people belonging once to 69 different castes of different religions being united as one family of Meivazhi Religion.
Other modern syncretic religions
Recently developed religious systems that exhibit marked syncretism include the New World religions Candomblé, Vodou and Santería, which analogize various Yorùbá and other African deities to the Roman Catholic saints. Some sects of Candomblé have also incorporated Native American deities, and Umbanda combined African deities with Kardecist spiritualism.
Hoodoo is a similarly derived form of folk magic practiced by some African American communities in the Southern United States. Other traditions of syncretic folk religion in North America include Louisiana Voodoo as well as Pennsylvania Dutch Pow-wow, in which practitioners profess to invoke power through the Christian God.
Unitarian Universalism also provides an example of a modern syncretic religion. It traces its roots to Universalist and Unitarian Christian congregations. However, modern Unitarian Universalism freely incorporates elements from other religious and non-religious traditions, so that it no longer identifies as "Christian."
Universal Sufism seeks the unity of all people and religions. Universal Sufis strive to "realize and spread the knowledge of Unity, the religion of Love, and Wisdom, so that the biases and prejudices of faiths and beliefs may, of themselves, fall away, the human heart overflow with love, and all hatred caused by distinctions and differences be rooted out."
In Vietnam, Caodaism blends elements of Buddhism, Catholicism and Kardecism.
Thelema is a mixture of many different schools of belief and practice, including Hermeticism, Eastern Mysticism, Yoga, 19th century libertarian philosophies (e.g. Nietzsche), occultism, and the Kabbalah, as well as ancient Egyptian and Greek religion.
In China, most of the population follows syncretist religions combining Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and elements of Confucianism. Out of all Chinese believers, approximately 85.7% adhere to Chinese traditional religion, as many profess to be both Mahayana Buddhist and Taoist at the same time. Many of the pagodas in China are dedicated to both Buddhist and Taoist deities.
The Unification Church, founded by religious leader Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954. Its teachings are based on the Bible, but include new interpretations not found in mainstream Judaism and Christianity and incorporates Asian traditions.
Cultures and societies
The modern, rational non-pejorative connotations of syncretism date from Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie articles: Eclecticisme and Syncrétistes, Hénotiques, ou Conciliateurs. Diderot portrayed syncretism as the concordance of eclectic sources.
- Orange Catholic Bible, Zensunni, and Zensufi, all from the 20th-century science fiction Dune series by Frank Herbert.
- Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel
- Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley
- The First Amalgamated Church in Futurama
New media art
- ^ Boyce, Mary (1987). Zoroastrianism: A Shadowy but Powerful Presence in the Judaeo-Christian World. London: William's Trust.
- ^ Black, Matthew and Rowley, H. H. (eds.) (1982). Peake's Commentary on the Bible. New York: Nelson. ISBN 0-415-05147-9.
- ^ Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques (1988). "Zoroastrianism". Encyclopedia Americana. 29. Danbury: Grolier. pp. 813–815.
- ^ Heiser, James D., Prisci Theologi and the Hermetic Reformation in the Fifteenth Century, Repristination Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1461093824
- ^ "Syncretism", Cyclopedia, LCMS, http://www.lcms.org/ca/www/cyclopedia/02/display.asp?t1=s&word=SYNCRETISM .
- ^ Dan Vogel. "Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism". http://www.signaturebookslibrary.org/seekers/conclusion.htm#Mormons9. Retrieved 2009-12-10.
- ^ Smith, P. (1999). A Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications. pp. 276–277 & p.291. ISBN 1851681841.
- ^ Stockman, Robert (1997). The Baha'i Faith and Syncretism.
- ^ Christopher Chapple, The concise Yoga Vāsiṣṭha By Venkatesananda, 1985, pp. xii
- ^ Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, The 3 Objects of the Sufi Movement, Sufi Ruhaniat International (1956–2006).
- ^ George D. Chryssides, "Unificationism: A study in religious syncretism", Chapter 14 in Religion: empirical studies, Editor: Steven Sutcliffe, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2004, ISBN 0754641589, 9780754641582
- ^ Religious Requirements and Practices of Certain Selected Groups: A Handbook for Chaplains, By U. S. Department of the Army, Published by The Minerva Group, Inc., 2001, ISBN 0898756073, ISBN 9780898756074, page 1–42. Google books listing
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