In chapter 4 of Neighbors and Wisemen, Tony introduces the big word syncretism. This is something that I wrote pages and pages about in my Master Thesis. I went back and found a part where I utilized the work of our recently deceased friend and teacher Richard Twiss.
Here is part of that.
Syncretism is commonly defined theologically as “the union of two opposite forces, beliefs, systems or tenets so that the united form is a new thing, neither one nor the other” .
Another way to say it is, ‘the combining of two sets of practices or beliefs that make an entirely new creation not recognizable as either of its components”
A slightly more generic definition is “the mixture of old meaning with the new so that the essential nature of each is lost”.
It quickly brings implications for classic expressions of church history and theology into question. The very idea of “a “pure” religion, untainted by outside influences, is regarded by many scholars of religion to be a myth. The difficulties and implications of these concerns on classic Christianity and modern expressions are eye-opening.
This is where it is vital to listen to the contribution of Richard Twiss. Twiss insists that syncretism be understood as a Theological issue and not simply as a Socio/Cultural one.
Twiss does not believe that just because a bracelet or drums have been used for evil in the past, that it makes all bracelets or drums inherently evil. He argues that while cultural syncretism is a normal fact of life – like the addition of horses to the Plains Tribes, he calls “a mixing or blending of two cultural lifestyles that becomes something previously unknown”. He is careful to clarify that,
Syncretism is a theological issue of faith and allegiances, not merely wedding religious form. Syncretism is any belief of practice that says that Christ’s work alone is not enough. (It) is believing that by performing a particular religious ceremony, or practice, one can alter the essential human spiritual condition in the same way that Jesus does, through His death on a cross, burial, and resurrection from the dead; and continues by faith to accomplish in the lives of believers today.
If Twiss’ definition is adopted then what is and what is not syncretism becomes clear and some radical implications begin to take effect. A new conversation comes up as some items and activities that had been traditionally taboo, or at least frowned upon (or down right outlawed), are revisited and considered under the category of “intent.” Some things that were assumed to be neutral or at least in the spectrum of “not harmful” to “acceptable” need to be reconsidered in the light of this new lens.
The forms that we use have the capability of both good and bad meaning. It is the intention and not the form itself in which value is found.
Twiss uses the specific example of the use of drums to illustrate the importance of separating out the socio-cultural criteria for discussions on syncretism. Since drums have at various times in the past been used to summon evil spirits and supernatural activity has been reported to have been experienced in conjunction with drums on occasion (such as human voices or animal sounds coming from the drum), some Native believers have regarded the drum itself as evil. This has meant that any use of the drums is evil and therefore, can never be used for holy purposes. The danger of coming to this conclusion is that it is based on subjective standards and not biblical precedent. One can look at the biblical Psalms and see no “prohibiting the use of ceremony, dancing, drum playing, incense burning, assigning redemptive meaning to colors, and designing special articles of clothing for religious ceremony”
Basically, when we speak of redeeming cultural forms we are speaking of redeemed believers in Christ, repossessing those God given forms that have been erroneously given away or surrendered to ungodly and idolatrous uses and practices. We also mean restoring those cultural expressions that were stripped from us, by an ethnocentric missions mindset…In developing a contextualized style of ministry, we are looking to see cultural forms of creation, restored to original intent- praise and worship to Almighty God.
Be not conformed to the world.
People love to quote Romans 12:1-2 Do not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind …
They partner this with Jesus’ saying that John 15:19 that we are in the world but not of the world.
I like to ask people what it means to be conformed to the patterns of this world. The answers I hear would astound you. Most are trivial (secular music) but some are fantastical (not having hope in the rapture).
What almost never comes up are the things that are probably most problematic about the patterns of this world.
People tend bristle when I suggest that it might be things like
credit card debt
working for a paycheck
supporting the military
eating 3 meals a day
getting a marriage certificate from the government
driving a gas powered car
any number of things both believers and unbelievers can do mindlessly and automatically.
Here is the irony of the situation:
We have preachers talking into microphones to people about the dangers of compromising the gospel with things like syncretism and challenging them to “Be not conformed to this world” … all the while they drove to church in an SUV, are in credit card debt, 20 lbs overweight, hopped up on caffeine and supporting the troops.
Does anyone else wonder what it means to be conformed to the world?
Would it help if we talked about being in sync with the world?
- Twiss was the author of Dancing our Prayers: perspectives on syncretism, critical contextualization and cultural practices in First Nations Ministry, and One Nation Many Tribes.