Confessing to a Syncretic Faith

Syncretism is the amalgamation of things— like ideas, cultures, and religious thoughts and practices. We often see this in the blending of two distinct traditions into one that bears the marks of each of them.

We know this firsthand when considering our popular observances of religious/cultural holidays such as Christmas and Easter. What a mix those have become over time. Even tonight’s marking of Halloween draws on everything from candy preferences (I’ll take the Almond Joys) to a Catholic appropriation of a Celtic pagan festival. 

Also, All Hallows Eve, that precedes All Saints Day, has some similarities but is distinct from the Mexican observance of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)—with both involving remembrances of those relatives now deceased. “The similarities in dates [of those observances] can be traced back to ancient Catholic traditions that were mixed in with indigenous practices,” explains 

Latino kids in my neighborhood, based on yard décor and the pursuit of candy, have found a good way to incorporate these “mixed in” traditions into their lives. And our good town is formally hosting a Día de los Muertos celebration for the first time.

Syncretism has a long history as people, traditions and beliefs are merged through natural or sometimes oppressive means. 

Some of this blending is noted and appreciated by adopting something good from another’s way of life. At other times, syncretism occurs gradually and unnoticed. 

That word, syncretism, surfaced frequently when my colleague Bruce Gourley and I followed a good lead to explore some of the 19 pueblos (villages) in New Mexico. Those stories will appear in the upcoming issue of Nurturing Faith Journal— the last under my editorship. 

But I want to point to one observation that came to mind when preparing to return home from these experiences. Bruce, a historian, is writing about the melding of Roman Catholicism and Native American traditions. However, my broader observation—that is also a confession—is that we, who profess to be Christian, in our own ways syncretize the faith we practice. 

It is not pure gospel—no matter how much we might wish or claim.

In my writings over the last few years, I’ve employed the term “Americanized Christianity” to describe that which largely represents the amalgamation of at least two major systems of belief. 

One only needs to listen closely to grasp how the two are merged—often with American concepts being presented as divine. More than once, for example, I’ve heard references to “the God-given right to bear arms.”

The blending goes on. Capitalism, exceptionalism and even white supremacy get drawn into some versions of Americanized Christianity. 

Patriotism and Christian faithfulness often get rolled into a singular commitment. And where they conflict, the political ideology often overtakes the teachings of Jesus. 

The confusion of some comes from the false idea that to prioritize the following of Jesus makes one unpatriotic. Rather, it simply aligns one’s commitments in proper order in which any national identity or commitment is penultimate to the profession that Jesus is lord.

My conversation with a woman whose family has long lived in Acoma Pueblo—about 60 miles from Albuquerque—was very insightful. Her grandmother, she said, was a devout Roman Catholic.

Bruce will dig into how that dynamic has played out for centuries—and why understandably so few Acoma practice Catholicism today. 

Yet the tribe holds its largest annual feast celebration in the ancient cross-topped church—built with their forced labor. Both the feast and church bear the name of a Christian saint. Their other big celebration is the Christian observance of Jesus’ birth.

Those of us who make claims of being Christian—or, more specifically, followers of Jesus—would do well to take note of the ways our understanding and practice of faith are subjected to cultural influences.

My first inkling of this now clear reality came during my college years when reading James D. Smart’s book, The Cultural Subversion of the Biblical Faith. Within its pages were eye-opening words that allowed for separating some aspects of my inherited faith—considered truths for all times—from their cultural moorings.

Smart concludes his treatise with these important words: “We are much more comfortable with a civil religion that provides us with principles and ideals that point the way to success in both personal and national life. But comfort, success, or even national unity is hardly a first concern of any thoughtful Christian.”

Examining the syncretizing of our cultural values—including our religious beliefs and practices—is a matter of faithfulness in following the one whose incarnation was for all people.

It is insightful to discover the amalgamation of cultures and religion in other traditions. It is more beneficial to see how we do the same thing. 

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