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Syncretism and Coherence [1]

In addition to being hard to spell, I find the problem of syncretism and Pagan faith to be a complicated issue that is not easily disentangled from all the various questions about personal vs. collective beliefs, tradition vs. collective practices, and magical vs. religious orientations.  If we are going to think about the issue we need to break it down into digestible bits.  The first question has to be: what do we mean by syncretism?  Are there forms that work better than others?  If so, why?  If we understand what we mean, then the next set of questions relate to whether we should engage in syncretic practices:

Because of the complexities I mentioned in the first sentence I would claim that it would be rather cheeky for anyone to try and actually answer these questions.  After all, with so many different traditions, practices, and paths out there I’m sure I’d get the wrong answer for everyone except myself.  I’ll try to avoid this two ways, by keeping things general, and by trying to focus on the way of thinking about syncretism instead of focusing on the answers.  In other words:  I’m interested in the path and not the destination.

There must be different types of syncretism. Some Unitarian Universalist churches can be quite a syncretic bunch.  They seek insights and wisdom from Buddhist, Christian, Pagan, and Humanist traditions to help them find and define a uniquely UU path.  You can draw wisdom from all paths, while recognizing that various paths will speak to the individual more than others. 

I would refer to this as a “weak” syncretism in the sense that it is accumulating ideas, insight, and wisdom from the traditions as a way of building your own, rather unique, tradition.  Weak syncretism does not take the ritualistic, ceremonial, or theological elements from the faiths (with some general exceptions like meditation or candlelight services on Christmas); rather it purloins the insights from those faiths in an attempt to accumulate wisdom.  

Now, since I have characterized something as “weak” you’d suspect I’m probably going to say something is “strong”.  Well, you’re right.  I would define “strong” syncretism as a practice that seeks not ideas, insights, and wisdom, but other things.  It seeks to use what I would call the “practical” or “practice” elements of a tradition.   An example would be the calling on Shiva as a Goddess during a drawing down ritual.  In that case one would be mixing Hindu and Wiccan concepts, in a tone of practice and seriousness.  Another form might be for a Pagan group to engage in a Zoroastrian ritual that called on Ahura Mazda and other Zoroastrian Gods.  That I would call strong syncretism: the practice of a religious tradition by those not explicitly associated with that tradition.

A middle way, between a focus on ideas and a focus on practice, would be syncretism that draws on the symbols that a religious tradition provides, without taking the more concrete, practical elements.  The Goddess chant “Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hectate, Demeter, Kali, Innana” mixes deities from a whole range of pantheons, but in a form where they are seen as representing the various aspects of the Goddess in a more symbolic way than a ritual where Kali and Cernnunos are both called down together.

A common question that seems to come up when considering syncretic practices is whether it is ethical for one group to borrow, and mix, the traditions of another into your own system.  Often this is in the context of borrowing, or using, Native American traditions and rituals when those participating are not themselves of that ancestry.  Logically this question should apply to more than the appropriation of first peoples practices, if you are nominally in faith tradition “A” (Wiccan, lets say) and you take pieces, or whole components, of faith tradition “B” (Catholic, lets say) the ethical question still, in my opinion, applies. 

The ethical question can be mapped against the weak, medium, and strong syncretic framework I’ve outlined above to produce a whole spectrum of nuanced ethical questions regarding the appropriateness of “borrowing” from other traditions. 

In the case of first peoples traditions at least one argument contends that these peoples, and their traditions, are hard pressed by society (well slaughtered actually) and therefore borrowing is unethical.  In order to have any chance of meaning and survival after all they’ve been through they need to be respected and left alone.  Use of their traditions by those not of that ancestry not only dilutes their culture, it is stealing yet another piece of an already plundered society.   Comparing this argument to the “strong/weak” model suggests that weak syncretism, borrowing concepts, symbols, and insights may provide great enrichment, while not taking that which is most sacred in their ceremonies.  Strong syncretism, the borrowing of practice elements, would at least leave open the arguments made against appropriating Native American traditions. 

But what about the broader question?  Is it ethical for a liberal Christian tradition to incorporate Buddhist elements into its practices?  Should “eclectic” Pagans draw on Stregan, Celtic, or Norse symbols interchangeably regardless of what particular path they are on?  Could fundamentalist Protestants ethically borrow Wiccan ritual practices? 

Here two relevant questions might be: “who does it hurt?” and “are we respectful?”  These two questions, I believe,  work with the framework above to provide some cautionary guidelines.  When engaged in strong syncretic practices, those doing so should be careful to understand what they are doing well enough to both incorporate those practices respectfully, as well as ensure that they are not hurting that which they are borrowing.  Weak and medium syncretism risks less in terms of offense, but the mixing of ideas may be just as hurtful in some ways as the conduct of practice. 

Ok, assuming we’re not going to hurt anyone or any tradition (including our own) and we really want to engage in syncretism, then when does it pass the “make sense” test.  Clearly some examples I’ve used above don’t.  It’s unlikely that a fundamentalist minister drawing down the Moon will make sense to either his faithful, to the assembled Wiccans who just want to see him try it, or to the Southern Baptist convention.   The energies of Wiccan and Protestant traditional practices just don’t seem to mix, well for me at least. 

However, as is often discussed, the wisdom of Jesus and the Christian tradition has many powerful insights and ideas that all faith traditions can draw on.  Weak syncretism, the mixing of insights, may be appropriate between many different traditions. 

Whether strong syncretism makes sense may depend on the “temper” of the practices that are being mixed.  By temper I am referring to the process of acclimating one liquid to another during cooking.  Tempering eggs with a small amount of hot liquid will bring them close enough to the temperature of the liquid being added to allow them to be mixed without scrambling.  Same thing for chocolate.  One way of looking at the “sense” of mixing practices is how close they are in temper.  Mixing Druid, Norse, and Strega practices may introduce discordant elements into a single ritual, but not as much as calling on Jesus instead of the Dagda. 

Ultimately whether it makes sense will depend on whether the practice, philosophy, or concepts are effective.  If by a Pagan group engaging in a Zoroastrian ritual new aspects of the Gods can be explored, respectfully and deeply, then it will make sense.  If, on the other hand, random Gods and Goddesses are thrown together simply because their names appear side by side in a dictionary of the Gods, then the focus of the ritual, meditation, or discourse risks being lost, as do those participating.  That means it will not be as effective. 

Thus it seems when thinking about mixing elements from different traditions, or trying out traditions different from ones own, it may be important to consider the degree to which you are appropriating various elements.  Taking insights may be useful no matter what the tradition, but taking practical elements may need to be done carefully and with much insight.  Likewise when considering whether it makes sense, or will be effective, it may be important to consider the distance between that which is borrowed and that which it is borrowed into.  The closer the traditions the more sense it will make, and the more likely that whatever is planned will actually happen. 

Porphyry follows a Celtic (Irish) based Pagan path, and circles with an eclectic group of loving Pagans.  He finds Pagan theology and philosophy to be of excessive importance, probably because as an engineer he wants to take everything apart and put it back together differently. 


[1] This essay originally appeared on WitchVox.


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