Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Syncretism: Caution and Fear in Creative Contextualization and Theologizing

Evangelical fears of syncretism have surfaced in two separate instances in my experiences recently. In the first instance, a professor raised concerns about syncretism in connection with a cross-cultural missions approach by creative evangelicals in Australia who utilize tarot cards to share the gospel at Mind-Body-Spirit festivals.

In the second instance, a fellow seminary student shared concerns about syncretism in connection with class discussions on contextualizing the gospel in cultures, and in reassessing theologies in light of new historical and cultural considerations.

Syncretism is an important concern. Surely the gospel and expressions of Christianity have been compromised in cultures through inculturation that has been inappropriate. But contextualization and theologizing in cross-cultural contexts always runs the risk of syncretism. My concern is that evangelicals let their fears of syncretism prevent them from considering new approaches at contextualization in missions, and new theologizing, whether in cross-cultural contexts, or in reconsideration of cherished theological ssumptions in Western theology. Surely we need to consider the history of theology that has come before us, but has all the fresh thinking and activity already been done through creedal development and the Reformation? Or should the church in each generation be receptive to theologizing in light of cultural change, and fresh illumination by the Holy Spirit?


Anonymous said...

Could you give a specific, concrete example of an approach to contextualization in missions that involves theologizing in light of cultural change and fresh illumination by the Holy Spirit?

John W. Morehead said...

I can share more on the examples I referenced in my post.

In the first instance dealing with tarot in evangelism, evangelicals have reacted, in one case more thoughtfully by a professor at a leading divinity school, and in another case a knee-jerk reaction by some in the so-called "discernment community" who had not even read the book containing the ideas they deemed inappropriate. Before we relegate new approaches at contextualization in mission to syncretism we need to engage the ideas and approaches carefully.

In the second instance, the seminary student was reacting to concerns over the theological of N. T. Wright's ideas related to the ministry of Christ in relation primarily to Israel, and then secondarily to Gentiles and inviduals in application. The discussion then moved to further consideration on the reassessment of theology in light of new historical and cultural data, and contextualization of theology in differing cultural contexts. This raised flags of concer over syncretism, and the need to just proclaim the truth "as we have received it." But that's the problem. The theological truth as originally revealed was communicated through various cultures, we then interpret it through our culture, and need to communicate to others in different cultures. While syncretism must be guarded against in this process, the mere process of theologizing anew historically and culturally need not result in syncretism.

Anonymous said...


Why is it that evangelicals are typically more concerned about falling into the error of sycretism than the error of cultural imperialism, and more concerned with the error of licenciousness than the error of legalism? God makes no distinction. Its a curious blindness.

The bible warns us not to fall either to the left OR THE RIGHT, implying we have 3 paths to choose from, only one of which is faithful. Yet it seems to me most evangelicals think in terms of a right-wrong dichotomy as though there were only 2 choises, implying that the further you are away from one error the more faithful you are. This itself is erroneous thinking that is more Zoroastrian that Christian.

It seems bleeding obvious to me so I am at a loss some times as to why so many don't get it. I suspect the answer lies in the realm of emotion and the subconscious rather than the rational so I'm not sure whether blinkered perspectives can be shifted by logic alone.

Anonymous said...

PS. I loved the picture. WHere did you find it?

John W. Morehead said...

It is interesting to me that with all the conservative evangelical concern for syncretism when it comes to contextualization, there is little recognition that the gospel and Christianity as a "worldview" is often times already syncretized already with modernism and elements of it, such as consumerism. Yet we are often blind to these aspects since they are part of the cultural "air we breathe" and thus it is far easier not to recognize the existence of such syncretism.

I believe this will be a key issue in decades to come. One of the books I am reading is The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins. Jenkins notes the shift in the growth and vitality of Christianity from the Northern Hemisphere to the South. There the expression of Christianity is far more experiential, including ecstatic experiences, visions, dreams, prophetic utterances, and the like, as well as incorporation of aspects of indigeneous religious culture. How will the Western church in the Northern Hemisphere respond to such expressions in the future that it now labels syncretistic, perhaps even non-Christian? How will the Northern church respond to the new theologies birthed in this region? And how will the Northern church respond theologically and missiologically to its forthcoming minority role in world Christendom?

As to the picture for this post, I did a Google image search under "syncretism" and this fascinating picture came up. I think it fits the post perfectly.

Anonymous said...

So what you're basically saying here is that it's okay for Christians to use tarot cards?

John W. Morehead said...

This last anonymous post is a marvelous example of just how shallow our thinking can be in the areas of missiology, theology, and syncretism.

I must ask the poster, did you read the materials at the links I provided in the original post? Have you done any further background research on the history of the tarot, the biblical imagery of the Rider Waite deck, or related missiological and theological issues? And did you secure a copy of the book Beyond Prediction (Lion, 2001) by John Drane, Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson to see how they use this concept in New Spirituality circles? From the question you posed, my assumption is that the answer is a resounding "No" to all of these questions.

But this shallow engagement and casual dismissal of important theological and missiological issues has happened before, and among leading representatives of the countercult, the so-called "discernment" community. A few years ago, John Drane, an adjunct professor at Fuller, was speaking on this topic in southern California, and a Pentecostal publication picked up on it, devoting an article to the topic in their publications in print and online. The article included "sound bite" statements from two members of the countercult community who strongly denounced the concept of tarot in New Spirituality missions. In follow up I inquired of both of these individuals who acknowledged that they had not read the book in question, or engaged the issues with any (let alone sound) research prior to offering their "authoritative" comments on the issue. And these two individuals present themselves to the evangelical world as "experts" on the occult (an ambiguous and ill defined topic in evangelicalism if there ever was one)!

Folks, such simplistic, knee-jerk, reactionary, and defensive questions and comments simply do not do justice to complex theological and missiological issues of our day. To paraphrase the Scriptures, "Come on, let's really reason together!"

Anonymous said...

So are you saying that the principles in Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8-9 do not apply to tarot cards?

John W. Morehead said...

I'm sorry, but to seriously engage with these issues we'll need to do more than simply reference principles (unspecified and allegedly applicable) from Scripture that supposedly mitigate against this missions approach among New Spirituality adherents.

In my earlier response I spelled out some of what needs to be engaged with in order to arrive at sound conclusions on these matters. I hope you will be willing to do your homework, rather than continue to engage in vague proof-texting.

Anonymous said...

Even if we allow for the sake of argument that there might be a way to use tarot cards evangelistically that's legitimate under certain circumstances, is it not at least possible that the people responsible for "simplistic, knee-jerk, reactionary, and defensive" "flags of concern" against this approach should perhaps be viewed in terms similar to the "weaker brethren" Paul described in Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8-9? And if this is possible, then shouldn't Paul's prescription for dealing with such "weaker brethren" be applied here? In which case, wouldn't that mean that instead of heaping impatient scorn on these people, and forming our own little missional cliques, that we should take pains to go the extra mile with them to seek a biblical consensus, striving for the Christian love and unity that our Lord Himself taught would be our identifying badge? And is it possible that during the process of trying to achieve such a consensus that we might just have to lay aside our tarot cards for the time being out of love for the brethren? I'm all for cutting-edge evangelistic techniques that responsibly utilize the cultural context, but if I have the evangelistic techniques of angels and do not have love, have I not reduced myself to a banging gong and a clanging cymbal?

John W. Morehead said...

It's always interesting to see which posts get the comments. Usually it is the ones that push evangelical buttons, and this one is no exception!

Thank you for your continued interaction. You know who I am, and it would be nice to put a name with your comments, Mr. Anonymous.

I appreciate your question about weaker brethren, but believe the context mitigates against its application here. Paul is responding to a concern within a local Christian fellowship, not proscribing what is or is not appropriate in mission strategy. With your application in mind, Paul would be out of bounds for quoting Pagan poetry to Zeus and using it in his message at Mars Hill. Surely this is an inappropriate application of the text. Weaker brethren within the local church fellowship are to be considered lovingly, but this does not preclude missional methodologies outside the church.

I take exception to your characterization of my comments as heaping "impatient scorn" upon you and others who may share your concerns. I simply pointed out that complex theological and missiological questions resist the simplistic comments you offered up to this point. That point may be blunt, but it is not scorn, nor does it arise from impatience, but from loving concern that many evangelicals are not doing their theological and missiological homework as they engage an increasingly post-Christian culture in the West.

Anonymous said...
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Ron Henzel said...

In all my posts, have I said anything that completely rules out any possible use whatsoever of tarot cards in evangelism? Have I written anything that positively indicates a "casual dismissal" of the concept? Have I really done anything other than ask simple questions?

John W. Morehead said...

My concern in your posts has not necessarily come with your questions. Although you did raise questions about the "weaker brethren" passages in a way that can only be interpreted as mitigating against the use of tarot cards in New Spirituality venues. But again, my major concern is not necessarily with the questions, but whether the materials that put forward this methodology, and the related theological and missiological issues (as well as the broader issue of sycretism) have been properly engaged before raising such questions.

(I also note that you are still anonymous!)