Syncretism is on the rise. Or so says a new Pew Forum survey on Religion and Public Life released yesterday. According to USA TODAY, syncretism is the “mashing up of contradictory beliefs.” This is like a person taking some ideas from Judaism, and others from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, the Romantics, the Transcendentalists, the Existentialists, Science, the Matrix, Star Wars, and Star Trek, and mixing them all together to create a personal sense of wonder, meaning, and purpose.
Oh. That “person” would be me.
Religious leaders are not happy with mashing. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, said in the USA TODAY piece, “This is a failure of the pulpit as much as of the pew to be clear about what is and is not compatible with Christianity and belief in salvation only through Christ.”
I can imagine any number of clergy from any number of religions agreeing in principle with Dr. Mohler. Clergy work hard to define what is in and what is out of their respective religions, and syncretism undermines all that effort. What is worse it undermines the exclusivist theology behind it.
For most people salvation means getting your name on Heaven’s Guest List, and for exclusivists that list is restricted to people who believe as they believe. But it is hard to live in an open, democratic, pluralistic society and cling to the notion of exclusivist salvation. Like it or not, more and more people are adopting the Jewish view of salvation: all good people get to go to Heaven regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof. While Judaism may be vague about what Heaven is, and most Jews may be doubtful that it is at all, we all agree that good deeds rather than right belief is the key to entry.
But if that is true, then why stick to one understanding of God and religion at all? Why not learn about other faiths? Why not test out other practices? Why not customize your spiritual life the way you customize your Facebook page?
Once these questions are asked seriously, exclusivist religious claims fall away. If deeds not creeds is the way to God and salvation, and we can pretty much agree on what deeds are good and what deeds are evil (loving your neighbor—good; killing your neighbor—bad; the jury is still out on dancing, cheeseburgers, and zippers), why worry about creeds at all?
I love the emerging syncretism. I don’t see it as a mashing up of differences; I see it as an exploration of possibilities. True, around one fifth of Americans believe in astrology and the evil eye, but around the same number believes that a Kenyan is President of the United States.
I see syncretism as a first step in moving beyond religion toward spiritual practice. Eventually we will realize that God is unknowable, so creed is untenable. What matters is how compassionate and just we are. Those religious ideas and practices that enhance or capacity for compassion and justice will become part of our lives, regardless of the religion from which they come. And to that I say, Amen.