If contextualisation is good syncretism, is syncretism just bad contextualisation?

Syncretism and contextualisation remain in debate. For a time it appeared as if Christians might have come to the consensus that contextualisation was an appropriate mixing of faith and culture, and syncretism an inappropriate, or at least contested, mixing of faith and culture.

Although syncretism is primarily about religion and contextualisation about culture, in practice the categories of religion and culture are deeply intertwined. However usage has changed over time, syncretism and contextualisation each describe processes before they relate to outcomes, and action and meaning have become independent variables. Processes of change in religious practice and understanding raise questions, but do not of themselves determine whether the outcomes are satisfactory. The concern of people for the integrity of their faith is not resolved by the existence or otherwise of practices from a variety of religious and cultural sources.

The idea that religions are culturally contained entities whose monocultural expression and integrity is necessarily contaminated by alien contact is no longer sustainable. This collapses meaning into the terms set by a dominant culture and takes no account of how meaning may be transmitted, retained and enriched within its own terms by borrowing from other traditions.

The identification of syncretism with indifference to truth (as in Visser 't Hooft, No Other Name, 1963 and other writings), however much it held for some, does not hold for all, and the scale of exceptions make the generalisation invalid. The fact that something is syncretistic or contextual no longer tells us, if it ever did, whether it is valid or not. Harold Turner's article quoted below arises out of the same period as Visser 't Hooft, but comes from a fresh experience of looking carefully at what was going on in new religious movements that had been condemned as heretical because they were syncretistic. Turner's comments arose out of careful observation not fear, and are still important for discussion of what contextualisation and syncretism may actually refer to.

These issues are fraught when different hermeneutical communities, as well as different individuals, attach different meanings to what is going on. In a multicultural environment it is difficult for an external culture to claim authority for its interpretation of cultural elements, particularly in a minority culture.

Missiology, with the help of anthropology in particular, needs to provide language which enables matter of fact discussion of both process and outcome. While the ability of any group to control language is limited, possibly even futile, it would be useful to have some idea of what we might do with the terminology that we have inherited, and whether there are new terms which might assist Christians deal with an era in history where awareness of culture is critical for any determination of truth.

One possibility may be to say that syncretism and contextualisation as processes should be seen as neutral, and syncretism as an outcome may retain a negative association if the loyalties expressed are diverse or confused. At the moment I am not convinced that the parallel for contextualisation applies, the fact that something is called contextual probably conveys affirmation, but juries sometimes need to go out for a long time before we know for sure.

Comments welcome to john@roxborogh.com

Quotes on Syncretism

André Droogers:

The concept of syncretism has been coined to describe the mixing of elements from different religious sources, sometimes as a descriptive term, sometimes as a pejorative concept

"Changing culture and the missiological mission" in Inus Daneel, Charles Van Engen, Hendrik Vroom, ed. Fulness of Life for All. Challenges for Mission in Early 21st Century. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003, p.63.

Harold Turner:

If what is drawn from local sources retains its original religious meaning, and is merely amalgamated with other Christian elements, we have a religious syncretism. This is a hybrid or mixture in which Christ through the Scriptures does not control all elements, and at best it is only partly Christian.

"Syncretism" in Stephen Neill, Gerald H Anderson and John Goodwin, eds., Concise Dictionary of Christian World Mission, London, Lutterworth, 1971, p.580.

Syncretism in church history.

Syncretism as a mixing of religions usually has negative connotations, suggesting indifference to religious loyalty, compromise and confusion. Syncretism seen thus as an inappropriate mixing of Christianity with a particular culture or alternative religious system, may then be contrasted with contextualisation where the same processes produce acceptable results.  

This may still be widely acceptable as a working definition, however syncretism can fairly be seen as a neutral process which of itself does not indicate a religious value or risk. Debate about syncretism as a concept relates to whether or not the usually negative connotation should be attached to it, despite its being a natural human process of cultural change. Syncretism will be seen to be a neutral process both by those who attach the word to the process not its religious value, and not simply only those who are not concerned for particular religious values generally.  

Given the belief of Christians in incarnation and the importance of the translation of its scriptures into vernacular languages, mixing with the symbols and practices of cultures and their religious expression is part of conversion and contextualisation. The issue is not mixing as such, but of where those symbols and practices point, and whether they function to enable Christian faith to take root in a particular culture, or instead confuse Christian identity and loyalty towards Jesus Christ.  

Debate about these issues takes place when people interpret symbols and practices in different ways, or when they consider the issue of exclusive loyalty unimportant. These debates can be very difficult when personal and political loyalties are also involved as in inter-faith marriages or the strong identification of national identity and culture with another faith. Historically these debates have been associated with questions of heresy.

We do not live in static societies and we need to be able to talk about these processes independently of making value judgements about their integrity.  If syncretism just means mixing, as derivation if not usage suggests, then it is something we need to be able to talk about as a process that is going on all the time. Christians cannot have mission, or even life, without it.  

The problem then is that we need both a useful word for inappropriate religious mixing, and a neutral one for the process itself. Which of these should we call syncretism? Can it serve both needs? We also need to have terminology which enables us to avoid confusion between the mixing of religious traditions without regard to the competing loyalties they may represent, from every day processes which are of the nature of the case in conversion, inculturation, growth, and cultural change.  

The difficulties are compounded when on the one hand Christians see themselves as having a religion which is not syncretic, compared to, say how they perceive Hinduism or new religious movements. On the other they see themselves relative to Islam as being convinced of the importance of translating their faith into local cultures. What concern about idolatry is to Jews, and rejection of shirk is to Muslims, syncretism is to Christians. The problem with this is that what from the perspective of one culture betrays the faith, from the perspective of another culture appropriates it, as the story of African Indigenous Churches illustrates sadly and well. And if Christians are taught to meditate by Buddhists, or by Muslims to pray and fast and be more careful about images in worship, is that syncretism?  

Although the use of the actual word syncretism through much of church history is limited, there are many occasions when the Church has been exercised about inappropriate mixing with other religious traditions. Gerald Gort sees fear of syncretism as a marker of Christian negativity towards other faiths.[1] though it is the concept rather than the term which he is most concerned with. Eugene Heideman[2] sees both syncretism and contextualisation as language of power, functioning “on the boundary line between heresy and orthodoxy."  The trouble is, "Just underneath the surface, one often discovers traces of neo-colonialism, racism, and oppression”.[3]

Both Gort and Heideman draw attention to the importance of the pre-Constantinian church and the writings of the Apologists, particularly Justin Martyr, whose concern for the centralities of the faith, gave them a robust attitude to what they were prepared to recognise as Christian outside the church. It is still an era when the church was seeking to define itself, its scriptures, beliefs, and patterns of leadership, but criteria appear to be much more about loyalty and orientation than concern about contamination. After Nicea in 325, religious loyalty in the Roman Empire becomes consistent with and defined by political loyalty, and the freedom to engage creatively with other traditions is restricted. 

However this picture should not be overdrawn. Gregory the Great shows little fear of syncretism in his instructions to Augustine about taking over pagan places of worship and adapting them to Christian faith. The iconoclast controversy can be seen as a battle of competing syncretisms. It indicates Eastern Orthodoxy as challenged in its own faith by Muslim sensitivities, yet at the end believing that the risks of idolatry in retaining images in worship was of less significance than the danger of denying the possibility of incarnation if they rejected them.  

The conventional derivation is that the word is found in Plutarch, with reference to Cretans sinking differences to oppose an enemy, and in Erasmus in 1519 in a similar sense, but with no literary evidence of the use of the term in between.[4] In the 17th century the term shifts its focus from “unification against a common enemy” to concern about the “incompatibility of different forces”[5] in connection with attempts to reconcile Aristotelian and Platonist philosophies, and Catholic and Protestant or Lutheran and Reformed theologies, and later groups within Catholicism. After the Colloquy of Thorn in Poland in 1645, Georg Calixtus (1586-1656) was depicted as syncretistic for trying to determine fundamental from other doctrine in an effort to reconcile Catholic, Reformed and Lutheran. This has left a legacy of Lutheran association of syncretism with church union and with inadequate commitment to questions of truth to the point where unionism and syncretism became synonymous.  This thrust of concern about union of churches, never mind mixing of religions has remained important in some Lutheran streams to the present day.

In the nineteenth century syncretism shifts in meaning and usage to the mixing of religious ideas and names of deities in the study of Greek and Roman religion. A difficulty here has been that the most that can be said about such a process is may have been particularly active in the post-Alexandrian centuries of interaction between Greek and other cultures, but it cannot be said to be a distinguishing feature of these or any other religions. Despite various attempts to “harmonise the chaos”[6] syncretism has become either “vague and indeterminate” or “just an expression for any kind of religious development.”[7] Levinskaya notes 6 distinct meanings in relation to the study of Hellenistic religions alone and suggests that: 

Using the term syncretism to describe all these phenomena creates an illusion of the correlation of each of them with the rise of a mixed religion. It suggests the combination of the features of different religious systems, i.e. any contact in the religious sphere becomes sufficient grounds for declaring the existence of religious syncretism.”[8] 

A recently published 1959 study of Christian beginnings in Korea, by David Chung has used “Syncretism” as the title,[9] as indicative of his thesis that in popular Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism there were elements of monotheism congenial to Christianity   

Within the Ecumenical Movement the concept of syncretism has had a mixed history[10] highlighted by the condemnation of syncretism by Hendrick Kraemer at Tambaram in 1938, and later by Visser ’t Hooft in his 1963 book, No Other Name.[11] Although both acknowledged syncretism in Western Christianity, and the value of incarnation and adaptation in relation to other cultures, their fear and condemnation of syncretism made openness to any idea of contributions to Christian understanding from other religious traditions difficult. By demonising and targeting syncretism Kraemer and Visser ’t Hooft intended to protect the integrity of Christianity in a relativistic era, but their aim has to be described as faulty. It was easy enough to find supporters of the views they condemned who had no objection to syncretism, but their mistake was to assume that syncretism was the problem. Although an effort was made to allow for the validity of translation, and of some “ideas and practices which have their origin in another religious world”[12] the narrow view of what constituted the syncretism they denounced had the effect of crippling consideration of the cultural accommodation which needed more delicate handling. The anger of the denunciation meant that legitimate discussion about what might or might not be valid in a new cultural context was inhibited.

An additional part of the problem was that a philosophical approach to religious truth made little distinction between orientation and cultural expression and took little account of what actually went on in Christian conversion and in the formation of Christian faith.

A further result of attaching orthodoxy to a fear of syncretism, was that the only way in which religious value could then be affirmed to anything outside the church and its teaching was through the very radical pluralism they felt threatened by. While theologians such as Pannenberg and Moltmann could see syncretism as part of the Christian story, it was difficult for many to accept that not only was the presence or absence of syncretism an unreliable marker of Christian allegiance, but the process of religious mixing that the word described is simply the nature of the case. 

It is the legacy of such condemnation that perhaps led Peter Schineller, in 1992, to believe against his own sympathies that the redemption of syncretism as a useful term was a hopeless case.[13] A year later Robert Schreiter argued strongly for its retention.[14] Schreiter identifies the problem with antipathy towards syncretism as due to the discussion being centred on theology rather than the wider concerns associated with contextualisation. Contextualisation as a term has a date, coming into ecumenical circles after the end of Visser ’t Hooft’s term of service, and addressing a different era. The earlier discussion was “conscientious but ultimately misdirected.” It  

“obscures the cultural process while imposing theological criteria in a way unrelated to those cultural processes. To the extent that the criteria do not relate to the actual situation, they leave the resultant cultural formation largely unaffected by theological judgments. The consequence is that the syncretism discussion does not advance; instead, the processes of syncretism are largely obscured and thus allowed to develop without appropriate dialogue with the Christian tradition.”[15] 

Essentially he argues that the different situation the church is in now when it is dealing with contextualisation on a wide front demands that we own the process of syncretism, whatever the baggage which has accumulated from eras when all forms of religious mixing were portrayed in terms by which they could only be understood as a compromise of truth. Schreiter considers that there is no choice but to work towards better understanding of the word. There is no consensus about dropping it, and if it is left in the hands of those content with its previous associations it makes it difficult to maintain discussion of the nature of enculturation.  

It is important not to obscure the very point that syncretism raises “the relation between theological development and cultural processes.” Schreiter I think puts his finger on a key issues when he states:

Missiology has not yet recovered from Barth’s distinction between faith and religion, a distinction that can make some sense in a monoreligious situation but is less useful elsewhere.[16] 

A way forward needs the cooperation of theologians, missiologists and anthropologists. Only thus will concern for truth take due account of actual process in real cultures. 

References cited:

Chung, David, and Kang-nam Oh. Syncretism : The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea, Suny Series in Korean Studies. Albany, NY ; [Great Britain]: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Gort, Gerald D. "Syncretism and Dialogue: Christian Historical and Earlier Ecumenical Perception." Mission Studies VI-1, no. 11 (1989): 9-22.

Heideman, Eugene S. "Syncretism, Contextualization, Orthodoxy and Heresy." Missiology XXV, no. 1 (1997): 37-49.

Levinskaya, Irina A. "Syncretism - the Term and the Phenomenon." Tyndale Bulletin 44, no. 1 (1993): 117-28.

Moffatt, James. "Syncretism." In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, 155-57. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1921.

Newbigin, Lesslie. "The Legacy of W. A. Visser 'T Hooft." International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16, no. 2 (1992): 78-82.

Schineller, Peter. "Inculturation Adn Syncretism: What Is the Real Issue?" International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16, no. 2 (1992): 50-53.

Schreiter, Robert. "Defining Syncretism: An Interim Report." International Bulletin of Missionary Research 17, no. 2 (1993): 50-53.

Thomas, M M. "Syncretism." In Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, edited by Nicholas Lossky, 1085-87. Geneva: WCC, 2002.

Visser 't Hooft, Willem Adolph. No Other Name; the Choice between Syncretism and Christian Universalism. London,: SCM Press, 1963.

Greenfield, Sidney M., and A. F. Droogers. Reinventing Religions : Syncretism and Transformation in Africa and the Americas. Lanham, MD. ; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Stewart, Charles, and Rosalind Shaw. Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism : The Politics of Religious Synthesis, European Association of Social Anthropologists. London ; New York: Routledge, 1994.


[1] Gerald D Gort, "Syncretism and Dialogue: Christian Historical and Earlier Ecumenical Perception," Mission Studies VI-1, no. 11 (1989).

[2] Eugene S Heideman, "Syncretism, Contextualization, Orthodoxy and Heresy," Missiology XXV, no. 1 (1997).

[3] Ibid., p.37.

[4] James Moffatt, "Syncretism," in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1921).

[5] Irina A Levinskaya, "Syncretism - the Term and the Phenomenon," Tyndale Bulletin 44, no. 1 (1993)., p.119.

[6] Ibid., p.124.

[7] Ibid., p.124.

[8] Ibid., p.122.

[9] David Chung and Kang-nam Oh, Syncretism : The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea, Suny Series in Korean Studies. (Albany, NY ; [Great Britain]: State University of New York Press, 2001). review by Young-Chan Ro available from http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-11.htm, cited August 18, 2003

[10] M M Thomas, "Syncretism," in Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, ed. Nicholas Lossky (Geneva: WCC, 2002).

[11] Willem Adolph Visser 't Hooft, No Other Name; the Choice between Syncretism and Christian Universalism (London,: SCM Press, 1963). See also Lesslie Newbigin, "The Legacy of W. A. Visser 'T Hooft," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16, no. 2 (1992), which conveys the way in which syncretism for ’t Hooft had become a code word for betrayals of Christian faith which needed no further explanation.

[12] Visser 't Hooft, No Other Name; the Choice between Syncretism and Christian Universalism., p.11.

[13] Peter Schineller, "Inculturation Adn Syncretism: What Is the Real Issue?," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16, no. 2 (1992).

[14] Robert Schreiter, "Defining Syncretism: An Interim Report," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 17, no. 2 (1993).

[15] Ibid., p.50.

[16] Ibid., p.50.