To Dabble or To Decide?
CATHOLICISM CONFRONTS NEW AGE SYNCRETISM
by Bernard D. Green
The National Catholic Reporter recently ran a story about the
possibility that the Catholic feminist movement known as
Women-Church was losing all connection with Catholic tradition.
The underlying concern was that Women-Church, in its attempts to
be inclusive of all women, was becoming syncretistic. That is, it
was willing to accommodate many different spiritual traditions on
an equal level with Catholic faith and practice. The report said
that an upcoming Women-Church conference would have, in addition
to rituals by witches, rituals led by "Buddhists, American
Indians, Quakers and Jewish leaders--as well as by Catholic
This syncretistic mentality is widespread in the Church today.
Witness the following description of the program of a respected
Midwestern Catholic center for spirituality:
Readings are selected every day from the sacred texts of
Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Islam, as well as Christianity.
On occasion, ancient festivals of the Celts or Saxons are
remembered, and members dance around a maypole or fire-pit in the
fields or forest.... The Chapel is visually stimulating and
instructive.... Icons of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Risen
Christ are placed side by side with statues of Buddha, Lord
Vishnu and Moses.
The pervasiveness of this spiritual attitude, much influenced by
New Age trendiness, challenges the foundations of our Church. At
the same time, however, it offers us an opportunity to re-examine
those foundations and ask ourselves just what it is that anchors
our identity as Catholics.
The syncretistic tendency can be defined as the attempt to
appropriate ideas and practices from a variety of spiritual
traditions without any attempt to discriminate their truth or
value on the basis of Catholic faith. One way in which the
equality and compatibility of various religions is justified is
by subsuming their various dimensions under generic categories.
So, the writings of different religions are all put on the same
level by being labeled "sacred." Similarly, different deities are
subsumed under the general category of the Transcendent, and
various rituals are all considered to serve the same function of
contacting and establishing unity with the Transcendent.
Some see religion itself as the unifying concept, though only
known through the various "religions." Thus, David Steindl-Rast
says, "Religion, as I use the term, should be written with a
capital R to distinguish it from various religions." All
"religions" find their source in "Religion." When "Religion" is
institutionalized, it becomes merely "a religion." For
Steindl-Rast, the content of "Religion" is revealed through "our
peak experiences." There "we discover...what we mean by God, if
we want to use that term. We experience that we belong to God.
Our true self is the divine self."
Since the authentic content of "Religion" can be read off from
that common experience, the various "religions" are considered
essentially compatible with one another. Hence, for Steindl-Rast,
it is possible to have a baptismal ceremony which is totally
Buddhist and totally Christian. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity
adds anything distinctive to the ceremony. The rite is able to
express a prioi commonality of meaning, which was there before
the two "religions" were formed. Thus, syncretism assumes common
content and, on that basis, is open to incorporating beliefs and
practices from any and every spiritual tradition.
If this is so, what then can be made of the Resurrection of
Jesus? Does the fact that we can know of the physical
Resurrection only because of the witness of the Apostolic Church,
for whom it was a unique and unrepeatable experience, mean that
it is an obstacle to spirituality? Many today would say yes.
Following in Rudolf Bultmann's footsteps, in which the
Resurrection is seen as a myth without basis in history, they see
it as having relevance only insofar as it evokes the experience
of "new life" in us--illuminates our psychological condition and
helps us improve it.
This is becoming an attractive position for many today, such as
biblical scholar John Crossan, who says quite categorically that
there is no biblical basis for belief in the Resurrection. It
merely records the apostles' belief that a person of Jesus'
character could not have been totally destroyed. If this is
correct, then Christianity becomes just one of many sources for
"spiritual" ideas. At best, the Resurrection opens up realms of
personal experience for exploration. But it is simply a religious
idea on par with others, such as the Hindu belief in
reincarnation. The hope for a universal spirituality will then
rest on the possibility of integrating all the "best" beliefs and
practices of the various religions, however mutually
contradictory they often are.
What we are faced with here is a fundamental question about our
identity as Catholics. Are we a community whose teachings and
practices are based on our faith in the veracity of the original
witnesses, or one that draws its beliefs and practices from a
smorgasbord of ideas and personal experiences? The issue is
How we answer this question is bound up with how we see the
relation between spirituality and community. A living spiritual
tradition is always rooted in the historical experience of a
particular community. To be a Catholic means to be a committed
member of a community of faith with its own specific beliefs,
practices, and institutional disciplines. Although these take on
particular color depending on the local culture, the community is
universal. Its center is in Rome and its core beliefs, practices,
and disciplines transcend any particular form of it.
Many Catholics today are open to the syncretistic tendency
precisely because they are unable to appreciate the link between
spirituality and community. They no longer see commitment to the
historical Church as being of any particular importance. They may
have a certain preference for the Catholic form of religion
because of its ritual, but nothing more. Just as they are
physically and socially mobile, so they are religiously mobile.
They dabble in various spiritualities. They want to be free; they
don't want to be "tied down," to take a definite stand.
Thus, the notion of the "searcher" is so popular today.
"Searchers" are those who have freed themselves from the
limitations that commitment to a historical tradition involves,
in order to be free to search for the "eternally true" which
transcends all historical religions. But what value is there to
the "search" unless, at some point, it can be brought to a
successful conclusion? For the notion of the "search" to be
spiritually nourishing, it must include the capacity to commit
oneself to specific truths which answer the search when they are
It is difficult to see how being an endless "searcher" is
compatible with Catholic faith. To be Catholic is to believe that
one has found the core truth about human life in Jesus Christ as
He is presented to us through the life and teaching of the
Church. One thereby enters into a very distinctive view of life.
In an important sense, for a Catholic the "search" is over. Once
the decision for the Church has been made, the Catholic stands
committed to a body of religious truth to which he is even
willing to witness. While an important dimension of "search"
remains, it has a different character. It is the search to
understand more fully the content of the faith and how to live it
To take such a stand, however, is highly offensive to a
syncretist. Is this not a triumphalism radically at odds with
openness to other spiritual traditions? Does it not run counter
to the democratic ideal of religious pluralism?
Theologians like Ron Miller of Loyola University are prepared to
say: Yes, definitely! It is ecumenically inappropriate to insist
on the unique status of Jesus. Hence he complains of orthodox
Christians that, in their "particularism," they cannot "entertain
the possibility that, just as Jesus is the name for that
embodiment of the divine which characterizes Christian
experience, Krishna is the name for that same reality among
Hindus." Christ and Krishna, then, are merely two different ways
of doing the same human thing--breaking through to the
Is there not a radical parting of the doctrinal ways here? For
the Catholic, Jesus is not just one of many names for the divine
drawn from experience. For Catholics, Jesus is the person through
whom we truly come to know what the divine is, insofar as that is
capable of being revealed to human beings. There is no neutral
experience of the divine against which we can compare Christian
and Hindu experiences, such that we can say they are both equally
valid experiences of the divine. For Christians Jesus Christ is
"The Word of God": He is the one by whom a truly religious
experience of the divine is defined. He is not one of many words
about God, but the Word of God which judges all other words. All
other religious experiences are judged by the standard of the
historical person of Jesus the Christ, in whom the Church
proclaims God was incarnate.
Jesus' unique status was attested to precisely by the Incarnation
and Resurrection. Our salvation is God's gift, not the result of
human effort. The Church's role is to proclaim this Good News and
to challenge the world to respond.
Theologians like Miller see this claim to a definitive role in
salvation as "scandalous." They claim that to accord such a pre-
eminent position to Jesus is a major stumbling-block in dialogue
with other faiths. It prejudices the outcome of such talks by
relegating other spiritualities to an inferior position. They
would say that it must be given up. Similarly, Leonard Swidler
seems to be trying to avoid this scandalous element in Catholic
faith when he says: "there is a deeper reality which goes beyond
the empirical surface experiences of our lives, and for us Jesus
is the bond-bursting means of becoming aware of that deeper
reality (as for Buddhists it is Gautama)." He suggests that,
while for Christians the way to the transcendent is through
Jesus, for others it is through their own revered figures.
Undoubtedly, from an empirical point of view, there is some truth
to this. However, there seems to be much more implied here.
Theologians like Swidler seem reluctant to ascribe any uniqueness
to the revelation in Jesus Christ that could put it on a
different level from that which comes from any other person.
Others would explicitly deny that in Jesus anything unique
happened in the relationship between God and humanity or that
this has universal significance in a way that no other event
does. It is the reluctance to assert this distinctiveness that
opens the way for syncretistic thinking: Christianity becomes
only one way among many in which humanity has sought to make
contact with the divine. Christianity is no longer the definitive
way in which God made contact with humanity.
The New Testament clearly indicates that, from the beginning, the
Church rejected the syncretistic approach. The Epistle to the
Colossians is the first clear indication of the Church's early
battle with syncretism. For the writer, Christian spirituality
was built on the risen Christ. It was not drawn from any other
sources. It was not created by amalgamating ideas and practices.
So he tells Christians not to be captivated by "an empty,
seductive philosophy according to human tradition, according to
the elemental powers of the world and not according to Christ"
(Col. 2:8). As early as A.D. 70, then, the Church was aware that
it had a distinct identity that governed its relationships with
other spiritual traditions. It was on this basis that it dealt
with the Judaism from which it emerged, the mystery religions
which abounded at the time, and emperor worship which anchored
the Roman social and political order.
We can trace the development of Catholic identity through the
various controversies that confronted the Church. The history of
the early Church is the history of the gradual articulation of
its identity. First, there was the controversy over the admission
of the gentiles. Eventually the Ebionites, who wished to keep
Christianity tightly bound to Jewish law and custom, had to
depart; their outlook was incompatible with that of the new
faith. Next came the battle with the Gnostics over the primacy of
love over knowledge. Then the Marcionites and Valentinians
dropped away--they tried to drive a wedge between the God of
Jesus and the God of the Old Testament, between creation and
redemption, between personal religion and the public,
institutional life of the Church. And so it continued down
through the Christological controversies around Docetism,
Monarchianism, and Arianism, in which the uniquely Christian
understanding of God as Trinitarian finally emerged.
From the beginning, because of the factual dimension of the
Resurrection, Catholic spirituality was under the discipline and
guidance of Apostolic tradition and authority. Frederick Weisse
highlights this when he suggests that, in the second century,
heresy was the teaching of someone "who was either unauthorized
by the leadership or who for some reason or other was considered
unworthy and unacceptable." In the early Church, adherence to the
witness of those whose unique experience authorized them to set
the tradition was of paramount importance. The truth was what
they said it was because they were the authoritative witnesses to
the whole drama. It was not a new philosophy up for debate, but a
teaching which had to be received. The New Testament is replete
with concern for unity of faith and life based on receiving this
At the same time, an important characteristic of Catholicism was
its desire and ability to assimilate people of vastly different
backgrounds and to absorb what is best in their spiritual
cultures. The Church very quickly, though not without difficulty,
realized that it had a universal mission. It was to erect no
unnecessary barriers to peoples of different cultures and
spiritual traditions from joining it. This was at the heart of
its initial, world-changing decision as to the grounds for
admitting the gentiles to the Church.
Catholicism is not a syncretistic religion, but a synthetic one,
always seeking to bring forth something new as it learns from its
interactions with every culture and religion. Because it is
Catholic, it does not wish to overlook anything in other
traditions which is good and touched by grace. It enters into
cultures and seeks to preach the Good News to all peoples through
their own language and cultural forms.
While it thus extends its inner self to incorporate every people
and culture, yet it discriminates what it assimilates in accord
with its own identity. It has a critical function vis-a-vis the
cultures it encounters. It learns from and also reforms and
develops the cultures it encounters. Its whole history reflects
this. The Church assimilated Roman law, Barbarian feasts and
mythologies, and Arabic philosophy--but transformed them. It was
the Church's synthesizing dynamic that led it into dialogue with
Hellenistic thought and thereby added to the development of its
moral thinking. St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius absorbed
Neo-Platonic spirituality, and produced a Christian understanding
of mysticism. Thomas Aquinas engaged Aristotelian philosophy, and
developed that great synthesis of theology which continues to be
a major source of spiritual and theological insight and practice
Because of the Church's synthesizing thrust, syncretism is always
a potential problem. But synthesizing and syncretism are
radically different. A syncretistic religion has virtually no
identity of its own, whereas a synthetic religion does have a
clear identity. Thus, what Catholicism absorbs, it transforms,
and that transformed element enhances rather than dilutes its own
identity. Synthetic Catholicism does not put its own identity and
self-understanding in question or see itself as on par with other
traditions. Catholicism does not see itself as being capable of
absorption into something higher in the future, but sees itself
as that which can absorb the best in other traditions.
At Vatican II the Church recommitted itself to learning from all
that is good in other religions, notably the great religions of
the East. Undoubtedly in the future, in the Church's dialogue
with peoples of the East and with Native Americans in this
country, yet new syntheses of Christian life will be born.
However, they will not develop via syncretism. They will come
about as those who seek to evangelize people of other cultures do
so with a deep desire truly to understand those traditions,
recognizing the distinct value of those traditions, and utilizing
the culture's own symbolic expressions to convey the Good
As the Church enters this dialogue, it will not be absorbed by
those traditions. It possesses a distinctive understanding of the
human situation and of how it can be healed, which enables it to
discriminate the truth or value of other ideas and practices, and
select from them. It is this distinctive understanding that
prevents the Church from being syncretistic.
That which guards the Church's identity is commitment to the
risen Christ as the definitive Savior of the world, as He is made
known to us through Apostolic witness, Catholic doctrine, and the
sacramental life. Lose this, as many seem to be doing today, and
all that is left is mushy syncretism.
The Rev. Bernard D. Green, who was born and raised in England, is
Associate Pastor of St. Odilia's Catholic Church in Tucson,
Arizona. He also teaches New Testament at Pima Community
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