I travelled in Latin America as a college student, returning to the States smitten by its history and culture – repeated listens to Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer my panacea of choice. A few years later while in seminary, I consequently made plans to do my internship in Peru. (Since my seminary was in Minnesota, there was a good chance I would have served internship in North Dakota. Enough said?)*
Part of my preparation for a two year internship in Peru included studying aspects of religious syncretism – the fusion of belief and practice systems – in Latin America. The most accessible example for North Americans is La Virgin de Guadalupe, a blending of Catholicism’s Virgin Mary and the mother-god of the Nahautl, Tonantzin. With her combination of features both European and indigenous, La Virgin is the representative first Mexican; her cult is both religious and cultural. There’s a danger, however, in labeling other systems overtly syncretistic: one can easily forgot that one’s own system is also syncretistic. Not all alleged purity is relative, but much of it is.
Syncretism has been a part of Christianity’s development and that of all major religious systems since their very beginnings. These systems could not have achieved worldwide status without being syncretistic. The church’s ability to adapt, thriving or surviving, in situations diverse such as the Roman empire (with emperor Constantine’s approval of the religion in 314) and communist Soviet Union (with its proposed eradication of organized religion), shows its vitality. Not all religious syncretism is bad; it is oftentimes necessary in order that an intended message be contextualized. Too much syncretism, however, can render the original message altered beyond recognition. Danger of another type ensues when religious leaders demand purity in belief and practice from adherents, acting as if their “true understanding” of the system is devoid of syncretism (and its supposed evils).
As the church in 21st century America continues on its downward trend, it has a great opportunity to differentiate itself from the dominant materialist-consumerist societal creed that has infected some of its quarters in the last thirty-five years. Money is a necessity, but Jesus turning over the money changers’ tables in the temple shows money’s supposed primacy as concocted. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy economy, but Jesus’s parable in Luke 12 of the rich fool who, thinking he was entirely “self-made,” considered all his gains for himself and no one else, is a blatant indictment of those who trust in the Market above all other things.
It’s a fine line between material blessings appreciated and properly utilized and those same objects venerated and pursued as life’s ultimate goal. Part of the church’s job in this society is to remind and teach: where you place your treasure, there you will also find your heart. There’s some purity in that understanding that shines like gold for numerous societies and cultures, past and present.
*No offense intended against the great state of North Dakota and its inhabitants! Peru was a much better option for internship – for me. And who knows? Maybe it was good for North Dakota that I didn’t make it there for internship . . .
Check out my book that covers this and similar themes. Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.