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Religious Syncretism

Posted: January 11th. 2004
Times Viewed: 3,378

The definition of syncretism states "the reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief, as in philosophy or religion, especially when the success is partial or the result heterogeneous." (It's almost like what the word "synthesis" means: "the combining of separate elements to form a coherent whole.")

Syncretism is one of those words that fancy book-learning people use to describe something that people all over the world and all through time do and have done since the beginning of time - as a function of their possession of living capricious human minds, and interacting with others who have views and attitudes and stories different from their own.

A really obvious example of this happened when the Romans invaded Greece, and ultimately adopted a modified version of the Greek mythos. Take a look at a chart of Greek versus Roman Gods and Goddesses. The Romans were masters of syncretism, actually. There's a nice passage in "The History of Hell" by Alice K. Turner that addresses the practices of conquering Roman armies:

"Romans, though pious, were not much for myth-making. Their native religion was a form of animism quite similar to Japanese Shintoism: groves, streams, even single trees had their own Gods, and so did households and courtyards, and each function or aspect of daily life... For their important gods... they adopted Greek myths wholesale, efficiently filling in their own God's names as protagonists of the stories. Soldiering in foreign parts, they did exactly the same thing as they marched up to local shrines. A statue of a maiden thus marked the shrine as that of Diana, no matter who the resident Gauls might think she was, and she would be honored accordingly. The practice worked well: since the armies displayed respect and piety, they managed to avoid religious conflict." (pg. 35)

NeoPaganism is a mosaic of Pagan backgrounds that have been strongly influenced by other countries and indigenous worship and beliefs. Due to this diversity, some syncretism is to be expected. While often viewed as uniformly Pagan, there has been an increase in the diversity, expression, and syncretism of religious belief systems. Throughout history a sect's inability to meet the people's needs and the mixing of cultures caused by war and treaties has led to the conversion of individuals to alternative practices. These conversions are one way that different religions meet and influence each other. The influences cause key variations that are displayed through beliefs regarding sickness and healing, imagery and representation of The One Source, and religious expression through ritual and practice.

While the believers of other monotheistic faiths now consider their holy books as divinely inspired and the direct word from God, there lies the problem. That is the reason when any believer in these faiths loosens his/her belief system, he or she can no longer remain under its fold. In short, either take it one hundred percent or leave it. There is no scope for a weak belief system in the strict rhetoric of these faiths. It is this mindless literalness that keeps a religion stagnant, and that religious stagnation fuels a much larger cultural and intellectual stagnation.

The liberalization process of certain religions has not occurred in a few short years. Present construction of other monotheistic or polytheistic religions depends on a softer ground. It has taken hundreds of years of inner struggle to make religions more pragmatic, humane, and open. The inherent problem of religious segregation is the tendency of keeping it within the fold of an assumed 'finality' premise which is more than merely rhetoric. Labels define 'things' so that others understand them, yet it seems that many don't understand just what the label they've applied to themselves means and then they tend to argue with others about this definition and that, what's 'true' and what's not. This is getting a bit 'nit-picky', don't you think? It turns into a coercion based upon threat instead of a choice based upon personal spirituality.

When we find ourselves holding the minority perspective on an issue we become acutely aware of discrimination and insults, and when we are in the majority perspective tend to lose our objectivity. Pagans, who definitely hold a growing but still minority perspective on religious matters, tend to be keenly aware of issues of religious freedom and freedom of speech. The very definition of Eclectic (often used when referring to Paganism) is simply a mixing of Pagan beliefs from various traditions. This is widely accepted. Why wouldn't it be accepted for religion in general?

Now that 'tradition' has been mentioned, let's take a look at the other side of the coin. It is quite understandable that members of certain traditions (especially ancient ones) would want to keep their faith anti-syncretic. After all, it's safe to assume that the whole purpose for the tradition is to continue practicing rituals and beliefs that were held by one's ancestors (cultural or familial). The obvious question would then be how do these traditions prevent stagnation?

I have spent the last 14 years studying Theology and Religion as a hobby. The thing I have noticed most is the congruity in beliefs and practices that span the earth and time with seemingly little intercultural contact. Which brings me to the idea of the collective unconscious.

The following is from the "Definition" portion of Jung's lecture in 1936 on "The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, " Collected Works, Vol. 9.i, pars. 87-110.

"The collective unconscious is a part of the psyche which can be negatively distinguished from a personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition. While the personal unconscious is made up essentially of contents which have at one time been conscious, but which have disappeared from consciousness through having been forgotten or repressed, the contents of the collective unconscious have never been in consciousness, and therefore have never been individually acquired but owe their existence exclusively to heredity. Whereas the personal unconscious consists for the most part of complexes, the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of archetypes.

"The concept of the archetype, which is an indispensable correlate to the idea of the collective unconscious, indicates the existence of definite forms in the psyche which seem to be present always and everywhere.

"Mythological research calls them "motifs;" in the psychology of primitives they correspond to Levy-Bruhl's concept of "representations collectives, " and in the field of comparative religion they have been defined by Hubert and Mauss as "categories of the imagination." Adolf Bastian long ago called them "elementary" or "primordial thoughts." From these references, it should be clear enough that my idea of the archetype -- literally a pre-existent form -- does not stand alone, but is something that is recognized and named in other fields of knowledge.

"My thesis, then, is as follows: In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually, but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents."

If the collective unconscious owes its existence exclusively to heredity, then where did the heredity come from? Was the idea of religion existent in the primordial ooze that some believe created life? How did it get there? Did all of those little amoebas practice the same religion? The questions could go on and on.

I personally believe that the theory of collective unconscious has merit. I believe we were all created by the same source (no matter what we choose to call it). I believe that source is responsible for the ideas found in the collective unconscious and that culture and outside influences are the source of religious diversity.

All of this was a great big, fancy, long-winded way of saying that I believe religious syncretism is natural and necessary. I believe that this is one of the premiere practices that are going to allow us to reach the ultimate dream of world peace.

Rev. Mary A Duclos, DD (Twylyght)


Location: , USA

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