Syncretism is a key missiological concept that refers to the all-too common practice of overlaying one set of beliefs with another, disparate one. People often go to great lengths to reconcile different, even opposing, belief systems in order to make sense of the world around them.
When African tribes were (forcibly) “converted” to Christianity by imperialist missionaries in the 18th century, tribal leaders responded by adding the Holy Spirit to the collection of spirits they depended on to keep them safe. As the “Holy” Roman Empire expanded, nations were assumed into it by renaming their pagan gods, saints, and feasts after Christian ones.
This kind of syncretism is bad because it ignores the transformative power of Christ. It creates a veneer of Christianity that is devoid of the character of the Most High. The result is a broad misunderstanding of what life in Christ truly ought to be. Jesus isn’t just another prophet. Mary isn’t analogous to “Mother Earth.”
Of course, it isn’t always the pagans adopting Christian language and imagery; syncretism works both ways. December 25 was the date of a Roman pagan festival having to do with stars long before it was selected by the Church for the celebration of Christmas. Easter wasn’t always a holiday of remembrance of Christ’s resurrection- it began as a celebration of Spring, fertility, and an Anglo-Saxon goddess called ?ostre.
The problem with this “reverse” syncretism is that changing the name of a holiday doesn’t necessarily replace the object of worship with Jesus the Christ. Equating freedom in Christ with political freedom grossly understates the true meaning of freedom and makes too much of the worldly version.
Adopting cultural forms and methodologies without retaining a prophetic voice is syncretistic mimicry. But interjecting the God narrative into the culture is different from syncretism. As Christians engage the cultures in which they live, they retell the culture’s stories back to it from God’s perspective.
The culture’s worship looks to the stars? We can’t say, “At least you’re looking up!” We can say, “Let me tell you about the star that led wise men from the East to worship a baby in a feed trough.”
The culture celebrates new beginnings? It isn’t enough to encourage that celebration- we must point people to Jesus, whose resurrection makes possible the ultimate new beginning for humanity and all of creation.
Our culture values freedom? The Bill of Rights can only get you so far (and can be amended!). Only Jesus can make you truly free.
Jesus did this with Jewish law in the “You have heard… but I say to you…” sayings of His Sermon on the Mount. Paul filled in the blanks of Athenian religion when he addressed the philosophers at the Aeropagus. It is the spiritual takeover of a worldly stronghold. This isn’t syncretism, it’s redemption; reclaiming the truth that can be found in all cultures as God’s truth.