The New Oxford American Dictionary defines syncretism as “the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.”
As a result, syncretism becomes one of the most dangerous words in the entire English language as it pertains to the community of faith, because the word portends the concept of mixture or the tainting of the truth with something else, and one drop of that something else is all that is needed to ruin the whole batch, irrevocably turning what was pure into a poisonous and toxic amalgamation. Syncretism is most dangerous then not because of the something else but because its practitioners erroneously believe that the truthful part of the mixture therein justifies and validates the rest, invariably leading to presumed righteous living while in reality promulgating a lie—the end result is spiritual pride and Phariseeism.
For clarification, syncretism does not refer to different means of implementing the divine truth in the Scriptures but to malignant interpretation and application of ironclad biblical doctrine. In his book On the New Testament, Mark Driscoll makes the point very clear: “Be careful not to confuse principles and methods. The principles of Scripture are timeless whereas the methods for obeying them are timely. The Bible allows both a closed hand of timeless truth and an open hand of timely methods. However, great error ensues when the two are confused.” He goes on to cite the example of Colossians 3:16, which gives the prescription to “with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (NRSV). Hence, the timeless principle is to praise and worship God through “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The timely method would refer to how that praise is conducted—whether it be with 10 songs or two; with an electric guitar, with a piano, or with no instruments; or worshiping for 60 or 15 minutes—and the particular cultural idiosyncrasies to worship. (I attend seminary with many Korean students, for example, and how they worship differs from how I do, but neither is wrong because the principle remains the same.)
Origen, one of the most important theologians of the first few hundred years of Christianity, expressed the foundation of the principle and method idea in his theological reflections (see On First Principles). For Origen, the Scriptures had three levels of meaning: the literal, the moral, and the allegorical. Furthermore, his understanding that the Bible was silent on many issues seemed to him an invitation contemplate the complex issues of life—the end result was an open method of theological reflection, always guided by the rule of faith, which sought to bring others into a relationship with Christ.
In modern America, syncretism has reached the point where, generally speaking, you can worship whomever or whatever you like, and for the most part, people will leave you alone. If, however, you adamantly say that my God is God, and everything else is a lie, then you’ll start getting into trouble.
In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah challenges the king of Israel (Ahab) to a showdown on Mount Carmel, which was a center of pagan worship at the time. At this point in the nation of Israel’s history, a severe drought existed (which God said would happen), and death and famine reigned supreme while the apostate people of the land turned away from God and praised false deities. Subsequently, Elijah asked the king to gather 850 false prophets of Baal and Asherah; he would face off against all of them on the mountain—whoever could have their god call down fire from heaven would be declared the winner, and that god would be the supreme and ultimate God. In essence, this was the Super Bowl of deities. God sent Elijah to the mountain basically to show everyone who is boss.
Let us also not forget the symbolism: in pagan religions, Baal and Asherah were the gods in charge of fertility and agriculture (so back then, this meant material things). This means that in the midst of death, starvation, and famine, the people of Israel were praying and worshipping to gods whose power to help them proved to be tangibly lacking, yet they still continued in their apostasy. Despite this, the people weren’t necessarily seeking bad things; all they wanted was food and water in order to live. This does not represent what C. S. Lewis would call “chronological snobbery” but represents an earnest desire for life’s necessities. The connection to present day is that many people may also seek seemingly good things, like security, love, sustenance, accomplishment, or recognition, but they turn toward the wrong source in order to get those things, and the end result is exactly opposite of what they need. So you may want to succeed in your business, but you resort to capitalism but not God to excel. You may want love, but you resort to harlotry in order to get it but not God. You may want acceptance and to be liked, but you prostitute yourself to people and institutions but don’t seek God.
The showdown on Mt. Carmel would ultimately prove the power of the Almighty while revealing Baal and Asherah for exactly what they are—frauds and imposters, whose lure is evident in their accessibility, tangibility (idols), and promise of short-term gratification (pray and sacrifice today and it will rain tomorrow). Ironically, what the disobedient Israelites ended up doing was sacrificing what they wanted most for what they wanted right now.
So when all the false prophets and the sons of Israel are gathered on Mt. Carmel, what did Elijah choose to say? This, I think, is the most powerful message of Elijah’s entire narrative. 1 Kings 18:21 states, “Elijah came near to all the people and said, ‘How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.’” The literal Hebrew translation of this verse means, “How long will you hop from branch to branch?”
Symbolically, the obvious danger in hopping is eventually leaping onto a branch not strong enough to bear the weight of a person, thus causing them to fall and having disastrous consequences. God is the one who made the tree in the first place and has sufficiently provided the strength and stability needed to support you. Historically, what this meant then is that the people had multiple opinions, but they wavered between them. They knew God and had an opinion of God, but they did not obey God because other opinions and ideologies competed for their attention—in other words, syncretism. Resultantly, God was allowed to reign supreme in some areas of life, but in others, he was put in a box, self-promoting the Israelites to deities who picked and chose when God was in charge and when He was not. Does any of this sound familiar?
Christ’s words in Matthew 6:24 resonate this same idea: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.”
Let us keep in mind that syncretism is not a new idea, and within the first century AD, many schools of thought emerged that attempted to merge pure Christianity with secular ideologies—gnosticism is one example. Diversity in and of itself is not evil, but one danger of living in pluralistic contemporary American society is that the truth can be mixed together with traces of nontruth, packaged as the real truth, and then declared to be the divine Word of God. The other danger is that so much is so accessible that it has become increasingly difficult not to waver between opinions and hop from branch to branch carelessly.
Thankfully, all theological truth can be found in the Logos, or the Word of God (the Bible), an entity that existed before all humanity, and that Logos became flesh in Jesus Christ. Accordingly, once we begin to diverge from that divinely inspired truth and ascribe to an alleged truth that contradicts the Logos, then we have tacitly admitted a rejection of God and the acceptance of multiple opinions. Yes, syncretism will often yield dividends in the now, gain acceptance and praise from the majority for its inclusiveness, and earn its practitioner gains through the Western ethos of merit and capitalism, but at what long-term spiritual cost? As Walter Brueggemann has said in The Prophetic Imagination, “this perverse consumptive ethos has made us numb to our own sin and given us all a sense of spiritual apathy where nothing—not even the threat of spiritual death—stirs us to action.”
How long will we waver between two opinions?
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal