Presented at the Symposium “Distinctively Christian, Distinctly Mongolian” in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on March 11, 2003
By Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen
I have been honored by the invitation from the coordinating committee to make these presentations on the essence of Christianity and the nature of syncretism. I wish to thank the organizing committee, the translators of the manuscripts, and each of you as participants. I appreciate your wonderful hospitality.
I come to you with humility acknowledging that I know little about the ministry context of Mongolia. My goal is to provide understandings from the Scripture and from worldview analysis, which will enable you to make focused ministry decisions.
My goal in these presentations is to glorify God, to enthrone him as Lord of Lords, and to provide guidance concerning the transformations of people as they turn their lives to follow God.
“Waiting on the Lord”
I would like to begin these lectures with some reflection upon the biblical phrase “wait upon the Lord” in passages such as Isaiah 8:17-20. This phrase signifies that we must trust in the Lord. It illustrates that humans have a tendency to become impatient and to look for immediate answers from “mediums and spiritists” rather than “wait upon the Lord.”
In Isaiah 8 the prophet is predicting the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and their deportation into Assyrian captivity. This captivity was a result of their continual disobedience to God pursuing pagan gods and making sacrifices to them (2 Kings 17:14-18). Within this context Isaiah testified that he would “wait for the Lord” even though it appeared that God was hiding his face. Isaiah would “put his trust” in the Lord (vs. 17. Because of their deep distress, however, the Israelites consulted the traditional practitioners of the pagan religions, “the mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter” (vs. 19). In response Isaiah emotionally asked, “Should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” They were to rely on the “law and the testimony,” the Old Testament writings from God, rather than the mediums and spiritists. Then Isaiah comments that only through this word of God would they have the “light of dawn.” God’s light can only shine if we rely on the word of God rather than the divinations of traditional practitioners.
The emotion of the passage is indicated by the discontinuity of Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 8:19. He begins by saying “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter . . . .” but does not complete his thought. He is so emotionally consumed that he is unable to finish his sentence. Rather he asks, “Should not a people inquire of their God?”
This passage explains the distinctive nature of Christianity. Christians are called upon to walk personally with God and submit to his will, i.e., to “wait upon the Lord.” Christianity is, therefore, based on a relationship with God, and the Bible is largely a narrative describing how God has worked through history to bring people into relationship with him.
As illustrated in Isaiah 8:17-20, the way of the Lord provides a distinctive way of looking at the world. Throughout the world people who grow up in Christian families accept certain perceptions of reality that are different from non-Christian people. When Jesus called Paul to be a minister to the Gentiles, he described the transformation that would take place. Jesus said, “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith” (Acts 26:17-18). These words infer that there is a distinctive worldview change that occurs when one turns to God and follows the way of Jesus Christ.
Worldviews are learned as people grow up and absorb the culture around them. We call this processenculturation, or “the process by which children become functioning members of their own society.” Each person is born into a culture and molded and shaped by it.
Over a period of time a worldview is formed in the mind of the child. This worldview is a distinctive way in which a people define reality which shapes their cultural allegiances and provides interpretations of the world. This worldview forms basic assumptions about reality which form cultural beliefs and behavior. Michael Kearney says, “The worldview of a people is their way of looking at reality. It consists of basic assumptions and images which provide a more or less coherent, though not necessarily accurate, way of thinking about the world” (Kearney 1982, 51). It is their “set of images and assumptions about the world” (Kearney, 1984, 10).
At least four different worldview types are present in world cultures. Stated succinctly, a secularworldview divides the world into natural and supernatural realms and focuses almost exclusively on the natural realm. God is considered to be either non-existent or irrelevant to human affairs. Secularists tend to be resistant until they realize, usually during times of trauma, that humans are unable to “direct their own steps” (Jere. 10:23), that the divine and the human are interrelated. An animistic perspective of reality believes that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs. During times of disease, death, and drought, they use divination to discover which beings and forces are impacting them in order to ward them off or to employ their power. Animists must learn that creator God is approachable and concerned about human life, and unlike the gods, “majestic in holiness” (Ex. 15:11). Through the death and resurrection of his son God has defeated all the principalities and powers (Col. 2:15). A pantheistic worldview perceives that an impersonal, all-pervading essence, sometimes defined as “god,” fills the universe. As droplets of water merge to become a stream, then a river, and finally an ocean, so individuals can become one with the essence of the world through meditation, thus achieving a change of consciousness called enlightenment. The pantheist, through living illustrations of Christian meditation, must experience God to be living and personal, full of compassion and having a distinctive holiness. A theistic plausibility system presupposes that God created the heavens and the earth and continues to care for that universe. Some theists follow God’s distinctive way of salvation through Jesus Christ while others focus on submission to and honoring of Allah.
Based on these typologies, missionaries and ministers can diagram the intertwining influences of secularism, animism, pantheism, and theism within their host culture. While most cultures emphasize one or two of these types, influences from all four types may be syncretized in various configurations. Understanding the various influences in the culture enables missionaries and ministers to encode the gospel in theological metaphors appropriate to the culture.
To concretely illustrate these worldview types, let us suppose that a man was recently struck by lightning not once but twice in the same day, yet he lives. People holding to various worldview will all ask the causal question: “Why?” or “How come he still lives?” People will interpret this event differently depending on their worldview. Each interpretation makes sense only when viewed from their particular worldview. For example, a theist might say, “God spared him for some purpose.” A secularist would say, “He was always lucky. The probabilities of being struck by lightning twice are fantastic, and to live through both‑‑well, this is one for the record books!” or “A careful examination of all conditions (weather, location, his clothing, etc.) will probably explain both why he was struck twice and at the same time explain why he was not killed.” The animist could conclude, “The gods or spirits have empowered him. He must now be a man of immeasurable spiritual powers.” Others (animists, theists, even pantheists holding to karma) might conclude, “The man was punished for his sins.” In other words, our worldview has a great bearing on how we perceive reality.
As we have noted in this presentation, Christians can readily accommodate to the worldviews of its age. Such accommodation is called syncretism. What is meant by this word? What happens within a Christian community which allows syncretism to develop and continue? What are some scriptural examples of it?
Syncretism is the reshaping of Christian beliefs and practices through cultural accommodation so that they consciously or unconsciously blend with those of the dominant culture. It is the blending of Christian beliefs and practices with those of the dominant culture so that Christianity looses it distinctive nature and speaks with a voice reflective of its culture.
Syncretism develops because the Christian community attempts to make its message and life attractive, alluring, and appealing to those outside the fellowship. Over a period of years the accommodations become routinized, integrated into the narrative story of the Christian community and inseparable from its life. When major worldview changes occur within the dominant culture, the church has difficulty separating the eternals from the temporals. The church tends to loose her moorings because she has for too long been swept along with the ebb and flow of cultural currents. Syncretism thus occurs when Christianity opts into the major cultural assumptions of its society (Van Rheenen 1997).
For example, in my home country there have been two vastly different worldview types, theism and secularism, intertwined in the souls of the average Christians and competing for their allegiance. North American Christians acknowledge God and desire to be faithful to him. They believe that God sent Jesus to die for them and live with hope that they will ultimately live with God in heaven. At the same time they have a great belief in human abilities through science to solve all human problems. They tend to divide the world into two large slices, the natural and the supernatural. Only natural powers, which can be empirically analyzed, are thought to operate in the natural world. Thus Christians often seek medicine and therapy for illness without relying on the Great Physician. In other words, prayer and healing are divorced as if God has little to do with life. Many study the sciences without reflecting on the Creator who sustains the universe. Science and religion are thus disconnected. This can lead to the belief that humanity, with its scientific understanding, is self-sufficient, able to handle all obstacles in life, and does not need God.
I have lived for many years in Africa and have empathized with Christians who also struggled with completing worldviews. Like their North American brothers and sisters in Christ, they believe that this is God’s world because He is its creator, that by the blood of Jesus Christ we are reconciled to God, and that the Holy Spirit helps us to overcome the sins of the body so that we might live. However, when a child becomes sick, a family member dies unexpectedly, or there is drought in the land, they tend to seek immediate answers in the spirit realm rather than to wait on the Lord.
While North American Christians tend to merge theism and secularism, African Christians syncretize theism and animism.
Biblical Illustrations of Syncretism
The theme of syncretism occurs so frequently in Scripture that it is like a threat interwoven through the fabric of Scripture’s kingdom narrative. In a very real sense, the Ten Commandments are injunctions against syncretism. The first three commandments charge the Israelites to follow Yahweh exclusively–to distinctively stand before God without reliance on any other gods (Read Exod. 20:1-7). The oft-quoted and memorized Shema likewise exhorts Israel to hear that Yahweh is one and to love Him with all her heart, soul, and strength (Read Deut. 6:4-5). Moses exhorted the Israelites not to listen to the animistic practitioners prevalent in the land of Canaan but to listen to the prophet like Moses, whom God would raise up (Read Deut. 18:9-15). In other words, Israel was to live distinctively, not fusing the way of God with that of surrounding nations.
Israel, however, did not always listen to Yahweh. God’s chosen people incessantly accommodated to the dominant cultures around her and blended their beliefs with hers. For example Jereboam I, the first king of North Israel, built two golden calves because he feared that his followers might go to the Southern Kingdom and worship Yahweh in the temple. Ahab and Jezebel introduced the Phoenician cult of Baalism into Israel. Manasseh of Judah rebuilt the high places torn down by his father Hezekiah, erected altars of Baal, practiced astrology, and burned his son in the fire as a sacrifice to Molech. Because of this idolatrous syncretism, North Israel was banished into Assyrian captivity (2 Kings 17:16-18) and Judah was exiled for 70 years to Babylon (Jer. 11:9-13).
Certain classic statements in the Old Testament describe the nature of syncretism. The Samaritans were a mixed-breed people who also blended their allegiance: “They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought” (2 Kings 17:33). The pre-exilic Jews partially followed Yahweh but also created for themselves idols out of wood and stone. God, through the prophet Jeremiah said, “They have turned their backs to me but not their faces, yet when they are in trouble, they say, ‘Come and save us!'” (Jer. 2:27). Zephaniah spoke of the dual allegiance of the people of Judah, who “bow down and swear by the Lord and who also swear by Molech” (Zeph. 1:5).
Early Christians also came to Christ from animistic heritages and were tempted to borrow from these traditional practices even after becoming Christians. Paul in writing to the Colossians clearly describes the supremacy of Christ (Read 1:15-20). By Christ, “all things,” both “visible and invisible” were created. They were “created by him and for him.” All of God’s “fullness dwell(s) in him.” Although the Colossian Christians had received Christ, they were tempted to follow the elementary principles of the powers along with Christ (Col. 2:6-8). Paul wrote that Christ was to have “all the fullness of the Deity” (Col. 2:9); that is, all things were to be brought under his authority (1:19-20; 2:9) because only he is “the head over every power and authority” (Col. 2:10). As with the Israelites of the Old Testament, some contemporary Christians worship God while paying homage and making sacrifices to propitiate other gods and spirits.
Factors Creating Syncretism
In this brief introduction to worldview and syncretism I think it wise to introduce some factors creating syncretism.
First, the gospel has frequently been presented in segmented, partial ways and has not actively intersected with the dominant themes of the local culture. Using the words of Christ to Paul (Acts 26:18), there has been all too frequently only a partial “opening of eyes” to perceive God’s wondrous work in Jesus Christ. There has been an incomplete turning “from darkness to light” and “from the power of Satan to God.” Understandings of “forgiveness” and “sanctified communities” are inadequately grasped. The full dimensions of the Gospel have inadequately intersected culture. Evangelists have focused on certain topics of the Christian faith and have not sufficiently taught Christians a thematically integrated narrative of God’s working in history from creation until current times.
Second, following Western modes of thought Christianity is too frequently communicated on the cosmological level without dealing with everyday issues of daily life. Western Christianity is greatly concerned with questions concerning origins (From where have we come? How have we become what we are?), destiny (Where are we heading?), and the ultimate meaning of life (What is the ultimate purpose of existing?). In most of the rest of the world, however, people are more concerned with such practical, everyday issues as illness, death, drought, financial success, and romance. According to the Seoul Declaration, “Western theology is by and large nationalistic, molded by Western philosophies, preoccupied with intellectual concerns, especially those having to do with faith and reason. . . . We urgently need an Evangelical Theology which is faithful to Scripture and relevant to the varied situations in the Third World” (Ro and Eshenaur 1984, p. 23).
The end result is too frequently a split-level Christianity. New Christians follow the way of Christ on the cosmological level but use traditional ways of thinking when dealing with every day problems. For example, Dal Congdon has found that the nominally Christian Zulu of South Africa are still largely animistic at heart. Fully 69.6 percent of all professing Christians continue to believe that ancestral spirits “protect” them and “bring them good fortune.” Congdon’s study found that “fewer professing Christians affirmed the deity of Christ than expressed dependence upon the ancestral spirits for problems connected with daily living” (Congdon 1985, 297). This layered Christianity with a superficial cosmic theology superimposed over animistic assumptions and lifestyles is the reason that David Barrett says that the church in Africa is like a big river, one kilometer in width but only one inch in depth (In “Towards a 21stCentury Africa,” Global Church Growth Bulletin (Jan.-Feb.-Mar. 1991, p. 2). As I will discuss in a later lecture, the Gospel must be communicated holistically in such a way that cosmic answers influence everyday life.
Third, syncretism frequently occurs when forms of Christianity are accepted but are given traditional meanings. People hold to the cross, not as symbolic of the sacrifice of Christ, but as a power design. They therefore wear crosses or put crosses on their houses to protect themselves and their families from evil influences. They believe in the Bible but consider it as a power object.
Fourth, syncretism occurs when the assumptions of traditional culture are not adequately critiqued based upon biblical theology. Of all the missionary tasks, the most significant is that of working with developing national leaders in theological formation. It is my experience that this theological formation does not take place primarily in the classroom but in local churches when Christians struggle cultural issues. These deal with foundational issues: What is Christian marriage within this culture? What is the relationship between the living and the death? What is the nature of the church?
Without the ability to reflect theologically the new church will almost always be a replica of the church in the sending culture, a transplanted rather than a contextualized church. It will be like a potted plant transferred to a new culture. It is expected to grow and reproduce exactly as it did in the original culture. A contextualized church is like planting “God’s seed” in new soil and allowing the seed to grow naturally adapting to the language, thought processes, and rituals of the new culture without losing its eternal meanings. These eternal meanings include a biblical perspective of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, humanity, time and eternity, and salvation.
A transplanted church could be compared to a banana plant in Mongolia. To survive winter, it has to be taken into the house and given special care. Because it is unable to adapt to the new climate, the plant will never be able to reproduce itself. Contextualized churches, on the other hand, are like banana plants in the Indonesia. They thrive in their environment and produce much fruit. Many mission churches, like potted plants or banana plants in a cold climate, are unable to reproduce and need special care just to survive.
Finally, syncretism occurs when churches are not equipped to become the nurturing communities. Nurturing is most effectively done in the context of a loving, caring community of believers. Roberta Hesetenes writes, “The Christian life is not a solitary journey. It is a pilgrimage made in the company of the committed” (1983, 11). A recurrent theme of early Christian writings is that spiritual nurturing took place within the context of Christian fellowship. It was not an individual endeavor.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . . . Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.
(Acts 2:42, 46-47a)
Many tendencies toward syncretism are overcome when Christians study issues of culture with open Bibles in the context of Christian community.
A case study will enable us to understand these principles within a specific cultural context.
Case Study: Marriage Among the Kipsigis
During its initial years, the church among the Kipsigis of Kenya struggled with how Christians marry. According to African traditional religion, marriage was sealed through a ceremony called katunisietab segutiet (“the wedding of the grass band”). In this ceremony the bride and groom stood before an elder of the village dressed in traditional robes make of cow skins. They bound each others hands with a braided band made from crabgrass. The elder would invoke the blessings of the ancestors on the marriage by words of blessing and spitting of traditional beer. Would Christians follow such customs? The African Inland Church introduced katunisietab peteit (“the wedding of the ring”), a Western ceremony introduced into Kipsigis and called “Christian.” Should Kipsigis Christians borrow Western customs and make them their own? The Church of Christ at various times practiced forms of both of the above marriage ceremonies, but after extensive dialogue and reflection, has introduced an innovated form calledkatunisietab kayanet (“the wedding of faith”). This form is both Christian and Kipsigis. Marriage is not based on any physical item, like a grass band or a ring, but on faith in sovereign God. The community is called together to witness a special union of people under God. This ceremony is so powerful that frequently I meet new Christians who testify that they first heard the gospel at a Christian wedding.
The creation of katunisietab kayanet did not occur in one day but in a process of dialogue and discussion over a long period of time. The first churches requested that missionaries performkatunisietab peteit when their young people were getting married. We refrained and suggested, according to the missiological fad of the day, that old forms be taken and given new Christian meaning. We did not yet know the most significant strategical question, “How does God desire that we get married within this culture?” In any case a community of Christian leaders decided, with our urging, to take the traditional segutiet (the “grass band”), subtract the cow-skin apparel and ancestral rites, and substitute prayer in their place. To my surprise no one felt that this adapted wedding functioned to glorify God. Christians from the African Inland Church heritage considered the wedding “pagan” and the traditionalists felt that traditional items were both openly and inappropriately employed. Members of these young churches also concluded that they had made a mistake. They concluded that the rituals were too close to the traditional rite for their comfort and that it would be better to follow the Western tradition ofkatunisietab peteit. For some time katunisietab petiet and katunisietab segutiet coexisted with the former practiced in more Westernized areas and the latter in more traditional areas.
I remember one particular elders’ meeting about seven years into our work in Kipsigis. After all the topics of the day were concluded, several urgently suggested that we discuss how people of God get married. It was a joyous yet hilarious evening. It was a joy to see how a developing community of faith used scripture to determine the will of God. It was also a joy to see the extensive reflection that various maturing Christians had given to the topic. The evening was hilarious when a group of men began to spontaneously role-play various ways of getting married with some of the men assuming female roles. At the end of the meeting a new type of wedding ceremony developed that strives to be both faithful to God and communicative of God’s will within the culture. The new ceremony was called katunisietab kayanet(“the wedding of faith”) because marriage is a spiritual bond that cannot be illustrated by physical items that wither and corrode. It is rather a spiritual bond in which husband and wife are tied together in a loving relationship in Christ. With this form the Christian community presents a radically different kind of marriage in sharp contrast to traditional marriage. The essence of Christian marriage (love, holiness, relationship) defines the major difference between Christians and non-Christians.
In this situation innovated forms, developed by a community of faith through biblical and cultural reflection over an extended period of time, effectively brought meanings of Christianity into contemporary culture.
Missionaries should not only be master teachers of the word of God but also effective cultural listeners. Instead of making cultural decisions unilaterally because of their life experiences as Christians and training as missionaries, they should serve as partners within the body of Christ and collaboratively work with the developing Christian community to develop church patterns that are both theologically responsible and culturally impactful.
Barrett, David. 1991. Towards a 21st century Africa. Global Church Growth Bulletin (Jan.-Feb.-Mar.)
Congdon, G. Dal. 1985. An investigation into the current Zulu worldview and its relevance to missionary work. Evangelical missions Quarterly 21 (July): 296-99.
Hestenes, Roberta. 1983. Using the Bible in Groups. Philadelphia: Westminister.
Kearney, Michael. 1984. World View. Novato, CA: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, Inc.
Ro, B.R. and R Eshenaur (eds). 1984. The Seoul declaration: Toward an evangelical theology for the third world in The Bible and Theology in Asian Contexts. Tarchung: Asian Theological Association.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1997. Modern and postmodern syncretism in theology and missions. In The Holy Spirit and Mission Dynamics, ed. C. Douglas McConnell, 164-207. Pasadena, CA: Wm. Carey Library.