Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Further Thoughts on Syncretism: Future Battles Between North and South?

I received a lot of comments on the last post touching on syncretism. This is an ongoing issue of consideration for me, and I believe it will be an item of continuing concern over time with the global developments in Christendom.

As I mentioned in a comment in the previous post, Philip Jenkins, in his book, The Next Christendom (Oxford, 2002) discusses a shift in the number of adherents to Christianity globally from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere. There are a number of important ramifications associated with this. Not only will Northern expressions of Christianity will be increasingly less influential in the global faith, but Northern Christianity will be challenged by the different expressions of the faith in the South, particularly in Africa, where independent churches "accept prophetic visionary ideas that have long since fallen out of fashion in the West" (p. 120). With the West's increasing awareness of Christianity in the South, the charge will likely be made with increasing frequency that "many Southern churches are syncretisitc, they represent a thinly disguised paganism, and all in all they make for a 'very superstitious kind of Christianity,' even 'post-Christianity'" (p. 121).

Jenkins goes on to point out that a more gracious assessment of this situation is possible, and that what is likely going on is the development of contextualized forms of the Christian faith, and a return to a more biblical worldview that does not entail the sacred-secular split found in Enlightenment-influenced Western Christianity. If for no other reason than to respond to increasing charges of syncretism by Northern Christianity aimed at the Southern Hemisphere, the issue of syncretism, and its relationship to contextualization and missiology, is a topic that needs to be put on a front burner and addressed in fresh ways in light of changing cultural circumstances. My hope is that if the Northern expressions of Christianity, including American evangelicalism, continue to decline in growth and influence, we can still resist a knee-jerk boundary maintenance response to the situation in the South, and instead, can assess the situation fairly and soberly in light of all the relevant data.

As I thought about the topic of syncretism lately I pulled a file on the topic and was reminded of my conversations with my Australian friend and colleague Philip Johnson. In his research that he passed along in 2004, he noted a few items worthy of our reflection, and hopefully, further spade work in research as well. I pass it along in the hopes of keeping the conversation, and our thinking, moving forward.

1. Etymology. Philip dug a little and noted that the term "syncretism" may have gone back to the Greek, and then later into French, and then into English. Key to our analysis here is how the term originated, and how its meanings and usages have changed over time in differing contexts.

2. Positive and negative. We might differentiate between constructive and destructive, or positive and negative syncretism. Although we usually think of the term in wholly negative ways in Western evangelicallism, some have recognized that all efforts at contextualization are in a sense syncretic. Indeed, the noted Scottish missiologist Andrew Walls has stated that Christianity is potentially the most syncretistic religion of all because of its willingness historically to engage its truth claims with indigenous cultures in terms of communication and inculturation.

3. Alternative terminology. The late New Zealand missiologist, Harold Turner, specialized in new religions in Africa and primal societies. He was associated with Leslie Newbigin, and was interested in missions in connection with "deep culture" rather than superficial cultural observances. He suggested that since "syncretism" has accrued such negative baggage in the West that alternative terminology might be considered. He proposed the term "synthetism."

4. Relationship to contextualization. The relationship between gospel and culture, ecclesiology and its expression in culture, is extremely important, particularly in light of changing global demographics between North and South. The ways in which the faith is expressed in and through local cultures, the dangers of the contextualization pendulum swinging too far into syncretism, and the opposite error of confusing genuine inculturation with syncretism, are key issues that must be considered in missiology.

5. Third World theologies. How will Christendom in the North respond to new theologies that will develop in the South? Will we recognize and accept our changing global and historical role and come alongside our Southern brothers and sisters in exploration and development of new theologies, or will be attempt to impose Western theologies and uncritically label new efforts as heresies?

A little poking around the Internet will also reveal some interesting gems that might provide some additional considerations, including the following:

Gerald Gort (ed), Dialogue and Syncretism: An Interdisciplinary Aproach (Eerdmans, 1989)

Andrew Walls (ed), Exploring New Religious Movements: Essays in Honour of Harold W. Turner (Mennonite Board of Mission, 1990)

1 comment:

Matt Stone said...

I would like to fan the flames even more.

With the advent of globalisation, neotribalism and reverse-colonisation, how robust is the North-South distinction anyway?

I live in Australia, which is geographically south but culturally north. But to complicate matters further, my neighbourhood has a HUGE Sudanese Christian population living in the midst of many Pagan and 'whateverism' orientated Anglos. Oh and I must mention the HUGE population of Sri Lankan Hindus. So is 'Northern' or 'Southern' a cultural identity, geographical identity or what?

The interesting thing is, when I attended a local festival the other weekend, the only Christians with any evangelical presence were Asian (Korean I think).

So a question that arises is: are culturally 'Southern' Christians up to the task of cross-cultural evangelising culturally 'Northern' non-Christians in our geographically southern but culturally northern land! My head swims. If they are experiencing challenges with syncretism in integrating Christianity into their own cultural mileu, how prepared are they for the task of re-evangelising Australia as they traditional church continues to crumble. Or maybe, just maybe, is a does of cross-cultural mission experience just what the Southern Churches need to work through their own issues?