In Praise of Syncretism

A Message to Jesuits Involved in Muslim-Christian Relations

Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, SJ

This paper, originally delivered in Italian, was translated by Thomas Michel, SJ, a Jesuit from the Indonesian Province.


Ambiguous Syncretism and syncretistic ambiguity

In official documents of the Church or in articles by Catholic theologians, we run into the same old story every time the question of dialogue comes up: “dialogue, yes, but without ambiguous syncretism.” We find parallel statements in similar contexts. It’s unclear whether every form of syncretism is being rejected because it is ambiguous or only those forms deemed ambiguous.

Syncretism is rarely defined, and its condemnation often seems to serve the function of protecting one’s identity. Sometimes there’s even reason to doubt the motives behind the widespread consensus against syncretism held by religious leaders, who appear to be mainly preoccupied about not seeing their respective flocks disperse or about not losing position. It remains that the definition of syncretism (whether ambiguous or unambiguous) is not obvious; it is, in any case, less obvious than one might think.

Could one ever find a culture that is wholly original rather than the result of fermentation, torment, prodding, grafting, and fertilization by outside elements? Apart from the rare, and never absolute, cases of populations that have remained isolated for a long period because of geographical reasons, thus where the culture and systems of self-identification are superimposed, one can affirm that human culture is in its nature syncretistic. Human religiosity, as a part and essential dimension of cultural life, is itself syncretistic, as any study of comparative religions amply demonstrates.

I can’t fully describe the historical and psycho-social processes by which identity systems are formed that want to keep themselves pure, uncontaminated, different, original, autonomous and, above all, the truest and only authentically legitimate truths. As an example, let’s take the Roman Empire. It was culturally, symbolically, and religiously syncretistic, even finding in the imperial institution and Roman legislation certain foundational myths as well as the mechanisms for combining the cultural-symbolic necessities for safeguarding the system. The great cupola of the Roman Pantheon constitutes a strong expression of syncretism and the syncretistic system. It is interesting that that syncretism would turn out to be sufficiently ideological to refute violently the birth of Christianity.

Syncretism and Christianity

The root of Christianity’s rejection of syncretism should probably be sought in that process of Jewish identity crystallization to which the Bible is witness, as both a document and as a galvanizing element. And that happened even though the Jewish religious system did not stop being open to external influences and thus it too is syncretistic by definition.

It has taken all of the work of modern Biblical criticism to get away from an a priori affirmation that the Bible is uncontaminated by any external influence (for example, it is sufficient to recall the Mesopotamian myths of creation, the great flood, and the persecution of the just, as well as the Egyptian influence and the ancient traditional foundations of oral culture by nomadic Semites.)

It’s useful to make a distinction between a particular religious culture that is historically, geographically, and linguistically defined and the self-conscious identity constituted in a system. One can say about religious culture that, in general, the syncretistic element can be perceived as present and constituent and not necessarily perverted, deviant, or depersonalized. Instead, for an awareness of identity bound to a system of membership, syncretism becomes a fearful agent that corrupts the identity system.  One can say simply that, as cultural subjects, we are the products and the authors of syncretism while as subjects belonging to a more or less coherent system of identity identification, we all fear the corrupting, deviant, and - even against our will - dynamizing influence of syncretism.

There certainly exists a syncretism immediately colored, for many people and also for us, of negativity because it is synonymous with the fragility and superficiality of a subordinate culture, of a non-critical receptivity as well as bad aesthetic taste. This would be an omnivorous syncretism bordering on the pseudo-mystical delirium of schizophrenia, kitsch syncretism, without noble roots or the possibility of fertile prospects. The fact that global television culture, like the decor of large international hotels, is the expression of a generalized, superficial, and impoverished syncretism, is not surprising, though it is displeasing. Just to take one example, the concept of reincarnation ends up being a vulgar expedient consoling for the religion of horoscopes on the last page of a great part of the world. From this point of view - and one could find countless examples of such phenomena - we agree with those who regard syncretism as an ambiguous and harmful phenomenon.

In fact, from the first centuries onwards, the Church recognized the danger of Gnostic, initiatory, Manichean, and esoteric syncretism. It is necessary, as Christians, to be aware that this is a question of defending the originality of the faith-experience of the Church in Christ truly dead and risen and truly divine and human. From this one finds the possibility of dynamically pinpointing a method for discerning orthodoxy that could be usefully employed by analogy to identify the original deviation of the human spirit and religious culture even in other religious traditions (for example, Arian thought and the Mu’tazila are analogous, and similar magical, mystery-filled, and instrumentalist tendencies can be found in esoteric Buddhist, Hindu, voodoo, cabalistic, and clown-like Sufi popularizations and miracle-mongering devotions that employ Christian symbolism…not to mention Satanism and moral subjugation directed toward immoral purposes).

The fact is that, in my opinion, global syncretism, like popular piety, is similar to globalization, that is, a phenomenon to rationalize, convey and correct rather than something to condemn a priori. A thousand times have we had to bend our heads to recognize the humility of the Spirit of God who comes in person to meet us in the mud of the most ambiguous religious perversion, and we have been asked to understand without condemnation in order to favor a gradual move toward a clearer vision. How many times have we ourselves had the experience of encountering the humble Lord who comes to take us from the darkness and dirt of our condition.

Inculturation and faithfulness to one’s identity

From a Christian point of view, one can honestly say that the history of ecclesiastical thought is living in a see-saw movement or pendulum between two poles: on the one hand, there is broad intercultural openness and on the other hand primitive Christianity, with its relative risks of “syncretistic ambiguities,” and that has permitted a Christian experience, to Christ and Church, to continue to be incarnated, inculturating itself, one could say, assuming and unifying, transfiguring, the widest, most complex, symbolic differences. The other pole is that of a faithfulness to one’s identity that often shows itself in the absolutizing of the identity system of reference, by way of cultural crystallization and the consecration and fixation of tradition.

The effort of the western Church in the 20th Century to free itself from its ancient inculturalization in the Hellenic context and in the Neoplatonic system of thought, together with the desire to return to Biblical purity, as desired by some Judeo-Christian and philo-Judaic contemporaries, is surely an operation dictated by good intentions, but sometimes reveals an irresolute anguish in the relationship between the Church and the contemporary world, which is so intercultural and irreligious. (It should be noted that the historical influence of Hellenism on Judaism was immense.)

What remains is the liberty of each human group, and also the need, to create a “corpus” of more or less traditional or doctrinal elements more or less systematized, by which one can guarantee the homogeneity of the group and the stability and originality of identity: “We are this and we are not that.”

Today’s world seems to be cut up and torn between two tendencies. The first is generalized, and apparently winning, and the other is one that is progressively forming an empty consumeristic syncretism, built definitively on the economic and technological superiority of the west, where the west itself, in extreme contradictoriness, ends up synthesizing the omnivorous syncretism by consecrating the superiority of the Jewish and Christian cultural roots.

The second tendency is that of a reaction against cultural globalization, by means of revindicating both originality of identity and cultural particularity; it is a matter of the internal fortification of doctrinal systems that are closed, self-protective, prone to fundamentalism, often on the defensive and often on the attack.

Jesuits and Syncretism

In addressing a group of Jesuits on an occasion like this, one can not help but see that Ignatian spirituality, starting from the dynamic of the Exercises, intends to re-propose the great spiritual and cultural dynamism linked to the experience of a personal relationship to the person of Jesus, the cornerstone on which the whole living - and therefore dynamic - edifice is built, constituted and ordained. It’s no wonder that the first generations of Jesuits, disciples of Jesus and of His Body that is the Church, are capable of ardent attempts at new inculturalizations as profound renewals of inherited and hallowed traditions.

In the case of Christians, and perhaps most particularly Jesuits, the constituting element at the level of identity is above all that of the mystical relationship with Jesus, risen and living in the community that celebrates the mystery of the relationship of Jesus to God the Father in the Holy Spirit. This celebration implies and leads toward a continuous, vast, articulated incarnation that can appear, and in a certain sense is, syncretistic.

How many times have I found myself explaining to Muslims that there is no specific Christian way of fasting and that, apart from the universal value of fasting on the ascetic and spiritual plane, it would be “Christian” to fast “as others do”: when in a Jewish context “like Jews and with Jews, ” in a Muslim context, “like Muslims and with Muslims,” in a Hindu context, “like Hindus and with Hindus,” in a new age context, “like the new age and with the new age” but always safeguarding Christian liberty and the law of charity.

Just as in the case of fasting, so also for all other elements of religion, where, with discernment, everything in Jesus belongs to us and, as the Arabs say: laysa harâman illa al-harâm “there is nothing forbidden but that which is immoral.” With that we do not wish to take away anything from the value, significance, and right of self-preservation of constituted and traditional Christian groups, the most diverse and dispersed in the world, either in the form of rites, schools, orders, or the most modern of movements; an agreement by which everybody can recognize himself in the constituency of “Catholicism,” that is the capacity of recognizing each other as brothers in Christ constituted in one, living, mystical and historical community by way of, and not despite, multiform diversity.

The Petrine munus, service to the Pope, to which we are constitutionally linked as Jesuits, results in being the operative corollary and not the source of this founding element of Catholicism, which is the element by which we Catholics believe that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, which does not impede it from subsisting in various ways even outside the signs visible in it.

After having spoken about inculturation for twenty years, Jesuits today seem more interested in talking about dialogue. This is partly because inculturation seems to be sweeping the globe (which exceeds the limits of local cultural divisions), and partly because it can seem to some people a last expedient of refined proselytism, or on the contrary, a giving up Christian uniqueness in the face of the “temptation of syncretism.”

Inculturation in the Muslim World

In confronting Islam, we have experienced, perhaps particularly in the west, during the last twenty-five years, a strong ecclesiastical resistance toward the legitimacy of a courageous inculturation of the Christian faith in an Arab-Muslim context that almost constitutes a danger for local Christianity of Greek, Coptic, Syriac, or Armenian roots.

We are so inexperienced that we do not see the methodological, dogmatic, and social difficulties of radical inculturation of the Christian faith in a Muslim context. Here we mean by radical something that goes beyond folklore, clothing, carpets on the floor, naked feet in church and a fluent use of the Muslim religious language. Here we are dealing with, as Massignon said, “putting ourselves as the trump card of the destiny of those we love.” Here we are trying to be a seed tossed, that permits the earth to give fruit, a yeast that permits the dough to rise for the nourishment of many. Here we are trying to wed Islam to the Jesus of Nazareth living in the Church, in today’s dramatic, contradictory, and painful Muslim world. Here we are attempting to actualize the benedictions obtained by Abraham for his son Isma’il, benedictions reproposed and newly announced and realized in Muhammad, the Arab Prophet, of the lineage of Isma’il, the lineage of nature, in the relationship with God in a creaturely relationship.

What should be done, one will ask for the umpteenth time, about the dogmatic refutation of the mystery of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Cross? How can we liberate Islam from the legal and legalistic plaster cast, how can we overcome the institutional attitude of Islam as polemical, aggressive, and competing, sick as well as victimizing, and with superiority in its confrontation with others? Christian love, the Christian heart has reasons that human logic does not know and foretells changes that historians and exegetes cannot predict.

The great mystery of Islam, which has scandalized the Church for fourteen centuries and which places a series of dramatic questions on the providential development of history, cannot be interpreted simply in the logic of contradiction, but only on the principle of love, which alone is capable of overcoming the contradictions by way of transfiguration, not suppression. For example, what can be done about a Muslim’s denial of the Cross? Sterile polemics? Or the occasion for legitimate interpretation of the Qur’an by way of witness, of martyrdom? In a faith understanding of such a mystery, it would seem proper to discern the soteriological opportunity of the denial of Isma’il as in some way analogous to Israel’s denial.

Penetrating into the Holy of Holies of the sacramental presence of Christ, beyond the iconostasis, the worshiping Church celebrates a transcendence of which it is both a vehicle and a stumbling block because of its discriminating absolutizing of itself, because of which it regards itself as having a polemical and prophetic role, demanding justice for those “left outside,” whether they be women, the poor, or Muslims.

Fidelity and the Future

In the world since 11 September, it is no longer permissible for anymore to remain unchanged in himself, neither in the Muslim world nor in the western world: a courageous and eschatological interpretation of sacred texts has become imperative. It is not necessary to imagine a homogeneous and coherent synthesis. In fact, even the fortifying of identities takes on a role that is not always negative in global logic: a role that balances and conserves values. But certainly today’s youth, and I’m thinking of the pilgrims seeking truth, of young wayfarers all over the world who drop in on a monastery like Mar Musa [in Syria], the great majority pose the same question as traditional religious people do: “What is the capacity of your tradition to participate in the construction of a global spiritual culture, faithful to itself and at the same time affirming genuine respect and appreciation of other religions?”

The answer to the question depends on the credibility of the interlocutor. The fidelity, from the Christian point of view, is not something fixed. Spiritual interpretation of the texts and the capacity of prophecy is the fidelity that the Sacred Scripture of Jesus requires. Many Muslims already practice that, driven by that same Spirit that descended on Cornelius. How marvelous is the imagination of the Spirit in confusing the mechanistic possessiveness of our minds to draw us on to ever new horizons, like Peter walking trustfully on the waves of the vast sea of the future.

A Double Belonging?

It’s a fact that not a few Muslims feel at home in the Christian community and monastery of Deir Mar Musa and who ask themselves about the degree of Islam of their founder. This does not occur through mimicry or camouflage or conflicts with the Christian faith, to which we want to be orthodox, whole, and each faithful to one’s own dynamics, but by feeling at home culturally, linguistically, and symbolically in the world of Islam, we desire to take part in and devote ourselves to loving that world, starting with Muhammad, on him and his community be the peace and benediction of God!

Do I consider myself personally a Muslim? I think so, through evangelical grace and obedience. I am a Muslim because of the love of God for Muslims and Islam. I cannot but be a Muslim by way of the Spirit and not the letter. In the same way, like Jesus and the apostles, I am Jewish by way of the Spirit.

Is such a double membership legitimate? Is it possible? Indeed I do not hide my convictions from my Muslim friends nor do I deny them with Christians. That does not mean that one can speak openly with everybody everywhere. Indeed, I do not think it is admissible, even with the best intentions, to unite oneself to the public practice of Islamic prayer. Islam wants to be itself without letting itself absorb from others by means of deft theological contortions. I am also convinced of the providence of the indomitable polemic of Islam, resolvable only in an eschatological prospective, in carrying out the mission of criticism and reminder that is its own proper task. The analogy, we repeat, is with the refusal of a great part of historical Israel to accept Jesus as the Messiah, a refusal in which St. Paul recognizes a role in the mysterious design of providence, from the moment in which that refusal resembles the veil placed over the face of Moses.

In anycase, I believe that the moment has arrived when people of Christian or Muslim origins can have access in Arabic, and on the basis of Qur’anic categories and symbols, to the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth witnessed in all the holy Scriptures, that analog (in the Christ-centered dialectic of the Old and New Testament) and those analogates. I sense the existence of a joint spiritual path with the Muslim world and that begins with the Mystical Body of Christ.

From Today to the Eschaton

This “Islamo-Christian” Church, prefigured by the Egyptian Hagar, is already a reality destined to manifest itself from the moment of final fulfillment of divine benediction for the children of Isma’il. For the time being we suffer the wound of separation, the wall of hostility as yet not totally demolished…and thus often reconstructed also starting from the Christian misconception of Jesus in his desire to unite us to all men, a desire that we have rediscovered in the radical evangelical attitude of Charles de Foucauld. This wall is not reducible to protecting Islam from a premature assimilation that could extinguish the charisma, and to protecting the Church from imperialist temptations. Thus also the separation saves both from the temptation to possess the world and impose a dialogue between people.

I do not hide my desire to go on pilgrimage to Mecca and to return from there to Jerusalem, together with the sons of Isma’il, the community of Muhammad. Let’s be clear, I do not desire any mimicry, nor certainly any defection, a secret and infiltrated Christianity… I recognize the mystery of the living God already effective in the religious world of Islam with Mary as its mother, and I see that the Muslims are in fact able to accept me this way, a monk, a disciple of Jesus who is in love with Islam. Not that it’s easy for them, but they recognize it as an announcement of a final harmony in God.

And I note that a certain evolution has appeared in our thought and in our relations with those Muslims with which we are in contact. How much have we changed! It does not seem to us that we have lost Christ but rather that we are lost for Him and in Him.

And the Ancient Eastern Church?

Eastern Christians look at us perplexed, and our very being as Eastern Christians challenges us. Even our ecumenism at Deir Mar Musa is a bit syncretistic, I admit. But it is very difficult for most to make the leap that demands the vocational choice to commit oneself to a life project of this type, and it is also true that Christians of all the Rites of the East visit us and appreciate us. This monastic Community, restoring, restored, and renovating a symbol of the absolute priority of the mystical experience of this Orient, as Christian as it is Muslim, desires to reinvent the positive relationship that existed between the first Muslims and the monks on the borders of the Arabian deserts. The traditional Muslim world has progressively ossified over the centuries into a fixity and impermeability that have rendered life in common with Jews and Christians surely profitable on a cultural and social plane, but not able to offer today plausible answers to the global questions posed by young people. Thus, Islam tends either to hurl itself backwards once again into its hereditary fixity or to pour itself out of the large container of the melting-pot. Meanwhile, Eastern Christians do not succeed in saving themselves from the logic of identity defense because of opposition and separation, which leads today, statistically, to emigration or balkanization. The attempts to protect themselves, by means of a national, multi-cultural, and lay society, do not succeed in overcoming the tendency, at least not for now. In my opinion the attempts fail to the extent that they deny Islam’s original contribution to projecting a common society and because they are based on an artificial separation between the sacred and the profane where there is finally no space for the recognition of the theological definition of otherness.

In Conclusion

The contradictions of Christianity do not appear less flagrant than those of the Muslim world, with the aggravating circumstance of the use of Christianity and Judaism as tools of the imperial predominance of the west, with the risk of perverting and betraying Jesus of Nazareth, a thousand times crucified again in the very exclusion of Islam.

Islam should be able to be reinvented in its fidelity to itself and in its global openness, and the Church should also! Perhaps both, each helping the other, will finally understand that the boundaries are not that clear, and they are not the will of God, in perspective, that we keep having borders and walls on which to fortify ourselves.

As Jesuits we are witnesses inside the Society not in any theoretical way of the depth constituted in being an apostolic body in no way separable from the missionary body of the Church of Jesus, even while we undergo together the challenges of the globalizing process and represent in many ways the capacity of the Church to absorb, receive, appreciate, evaluate the many traditions in this world into which we are sent. In this sense we are all “Chinese Jesuits”. Whoever accuses us of not overcoming syncretism is complimenting us, a compliment of which we have been proud since the time of Matteo Ricci, even if sometimes the price has been high.

The scandalous situation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, a tormenting phenomenon of the tension between Muslims and the West, cannot, and should not, lead our collective unconscious to look with satisfaction as Islam groans under the blows of its own contradictions and the superior military strategy of the West. We cannot give in, we must not give in, to the temptation to watch “victoriously” the final agony of our most significant historical “enemy,” because we will be seeing at that same moment our death and betrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. The victory of the West is the defeat of the Gospel. What a tragedy! And poor Jerusalem!

This year of terrorism, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Sudan, and also Iraq, and above all, this year of the scandal of Israel-Palestine, resounds with the trumpets of the final judgment. What will the assembled Jesuits say? What prophecy will they express? What road will they know how open, other than prudent arguments of a sterile intellectualism, intelligent skepticism, or a realistic defeatism?

I think it is time that our sector of the apostolic body of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits of the Muslim world for the Muslim world, should finally know how to help the Catholic Church to look at Islam and Muslims with the eyes of the Son of Mary, until the day when Isaac and Isma’il will be reunited at the tomb of Abraham, the Friend of God, to thank God for the blessing that unites them.

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