Catholicism Confronts New Age Syncretism

Author: Bernard Green

To Dabble or To Decide?


The 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 nuns."

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 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 crucial.

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 encountered.

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 out.

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 divine.

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 Apostolic tradition.

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 even today.

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 News.

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 College.