The Syncretism Solution in a Multi-faith World: In Praise of Mixed Religion

William Harrison (2014), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Harrison probes two questions:  What is religion?  How do, and how should, different religions relate to each other, and presents a cogent answer to the first question.  A religion needs to have five ‘things’:  form of organization, overarching explanation of reality, an account of human predicaments, faith commitment, identification of values (p 39).  (One of his forms of religion is consumerism! P 68).

Harrison points out that religious boundaries may be soft or hard—or both; eg some forms of Judaism (Orthodox) have firmer boundaries than does the Sikh religion, while some Jewish forms (Reform) have softer boundaries.  When changes in a religion (syncretism) are advocated, Harrison suggests three criteria for what constitutes an improvement:  the new answer must appear to be more accurate, more consistent with information we have. The new answer must be genuinely helpful in the world in which we live. The new answer sustains and even expands upon some important part of the religion as previously held (p 92,93).

Harrison identifies several favourable syncretistic acts in the history of religion:  Christianity and the Celtic tradition, where each shaped the other; Buddhism and Taoism; ancient and medieval Islam and Greek philosophy.  Sometimes syncretism results in negative formulations: violence (the Roman empire and the early church), and today’s prosperity gospel (material self-interest) (p 132).  Two favourable examples of syncretism are Cobb and Whitehead (process theology), and Gandhi (whose syncretism is counter cultural and hence dangerous! p 205).  ‘Soft boundaries allow for the possibility of mutual commitment to a common project….  Working together we can be more creative…The universal mixing of religions is a good thing’ (p 235).

A provocative book for our Christian culture to see the possibilities of close dialogue, and perhaps even syncretistic outcomes.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.