Saturday, November 30, 2019

What People Don't Understand About Syncretism

One of the most pertinent facts that emerged from the recent Amazon Synod is the sad truth that a vast number of Catholics don't understand what syncretism is. This is true not only of the dissimulating organizers of the shameful Pachamama rites in the Vatican, but also of the legion of papolatrous Twitterati who defended them, as well as the ignoramuses and faux intellegensia among the sloppy laity who argued "bUt iS JuST tEh VirgUn MAry!" until their faces turned blue.  

One thing all of these folks share in common is apparent unfamiliarity with the concept of syncretism, which was so perfectly exemplified in the Pachamama episodes. Religious syncretism is characterized by blending or "syncretizing" of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated—and often contradictory—beliefs or traditions.

The entire point of syncretism is that religious belief and imagery are blended together, such that they are difficult for the average worshiper to distinguish. A classic example of this is the ancient Romans, who held a fundamentally syncretist view of non-Roman religions. The Romans were masters of adaptation; when encountering a new religion among their conquered peoples, they essentially tried to identify the new deities with the existing deities in their own pantheon. Once such an identification was made, the new god would be worshiped under the rites and name of the old god. This connection having been made, both the Roman gods and the gods of the conquered peoples could be worshiped in unity by the mixed populace. 

For example, when the Romans encountered the Celtic god Lugus in Gaul, they associated him with Mercury. Lugus was referred to as Mercury by the Romans, and Romanized Celts might offer him sacrifices under either name. He was not Lugus or Mercury, but both, depending on the identity, culture, and preferences of the worshiper. He was worshiped under both names by both peoples in a single temple.

Another interesting example is the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, a popular cult of the early 3rd century AD. Centered in the Syrian city of Doliche, the Jupiter Dolichenus cult was essentially a Roman re-imagination of the older Baal-Teshub-Hadad cults of the region, which went all the way back to the Hittites and the Sumerians. Because Baal, Teshub et al. were storm gods, the Romans shrugged and said, "Oh, okay, that's sorta like Jupiter." The popular cult of Jupiter Dolichenus fused the official worship of Rome's supreme patron deity with the exotic mystery cults of the east. Again, his cultus was the assimilation of pre-Roman Canaanite paganism into the official Roman pantheon such that worshipers of Baal, Hadad, Jupiter, or whomever could worship Jupiter Dolichenus with a sense of cultural unity. The Roman merchant Marcus might worship Jupiter, and the Syrian peasant Yassib might worship Baal, two objectively distinct gods—but in the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, both might worship one divinity together while simultaneously adoring their own regional gods.

Syncretism is ultimately a manner of thinking found among spiritual people who don't care about truth, for syncretism is not about truth but rather vague, often emotional, concepts. It did not matter whether Baal and Jupiter were objectively different deities. It was not relevant that Baal was killed and spends part of the year in the underworld before being resurrected while Jupiter never underwent such an ordeal and indeed could not be killed or even wounded by anyone. It is of no consequence that Jupiter overthrew his father Saturn while Baal remained on good terms with his father Dagan. It's neither here nor there that Baal overcame and slew the god of the sea (a hideous monster) while the Roman sea god was Jupiter's own brother, Neptune. The contradictions and divergences between the various tales don't matter. All that matters is that the powers of the sky were a very mysterious thing, the forces of which inspired in the ancients a sense of terror and superstitious reverence. It did not matter to whom one was addressing when one worshiped the sky god; all that mattered was the worshiper's emotional needs to venerate this particular force were gratified.

To return to Pachamama, what we saw in the arguments of the defenders of the Pachamama rites was an essential ignorance of how syncretism worked. These folks did not seem to realize that syncretism essentially suspends or ignores the principle of non-contradiction, namely, that two contradictory things cannot be predicated of the same subject simultaneously. Steeped in the assumptions of western thought, the Pachamama defenders assumed that the image we saw in the Vatican gardens was supposed to be either Pachamama, or a representation of Gaia, or the Virgin Mary. And that settling the question was simply a matter of looking at the evidence and determining which of these three possibilities is correct.

Ah, the lingering influence of western rationality! Even when these folks are helping demolish the western tradition, they can't escape the western intellectual paradigms they have been raised with. They don't understand that in a syncretist context, the image can be the goddess Pachamama, and a personification of Gaia, and the Blessed Virgin Mary simultaneously. To try to make an argument that such an image is not Pachamama but the Virgin Mary would be as useless as standing outside the Temple of Jupiter Dolichenus and trying to insist to a befuddled Syrian crowd that the image inside was not Jupiter but Baal, or not Teshub but Hadad. The whole purpose of a syncretist approach is to create a cultural situation where such an image is Mary to the Catholic and also Pachamama to the pagans, so that everybody can worship under one big happy tent without anybody having to change or do anything difficult—Catholics don't have to evangelize, and pagans don't have to convert. Syncretism is the ultimate baptism of the boring status quo.

And the insidious thing about syncretism is how difficult it can be for the uninformed to spot or understand. For example, consider these candles:

The design and images of the saints look perfectly orthodox. There's St. George, the Virgin and Child, St. Martin, St, Lazarus, and others. The unaware might assume that the names at the bottom are merely the saint names in some other language.

However, these innocuous looking candles are in fact Santeria candles used for Voodoo ritual—the titles at the bottom are not appellations for the saints, but are in fact the names of Voodoo demons. If you don't believe me, just do some searching for Papa Legba, Ogou Feray, or Ezili Danto. Haitian Voodoo-Santeria is an excellent example of what a syncretist religious tradition looks like. No two things could be more contradictory than the purity of the Catholic faith and the dark magic of Voodoo; and yet, here we see the traditional imagery of Catholicism and Santeria blended together.

We can imagine the erstwhile defenders of Pachamama belligerently insisting that these candles are perfectly orthodox. "Look at it! It's obviously the Virgin Mary and Christ child. You are being hypocritical. The only reason you are attacking this is because they have BROWN SKIN!"

There's much more that can be said here, but I think the essential point is this: the entire rationale behind syncretism is to blend religious traditions such that people from various cultures can continue to worship their own customary deities under one big tent. It's not a matter of sorting out whether an image is Pachamama or the Virgin Mary; when something is syncretist one can make convincing arguments for either. And that is the whole point.


Irenaeus said...

Thank you, Boniface.

Michael Dowd said...

What is going on under "Pope" Francis is a denial of true Catholic faith. Here is an excerpt from Fr. Rutler's message for today, the first Sunday of Advent:
"If thought is not deep, there will be no real joy when the mysteries of God are disclosed. The bane of our times, and possibly of all times, is superficiality. This was illustrated at a synod of bishops in Rome in 2015, when papers of a politically correct nature were read, one after another repeating clich├ęs to address the world’s problems. One consultant broke through the soporific jargon. Dr. Anca Maria Cernea, a prominent Romanian physician, whose father had been imprisoned by Communists for seventeen years, said:

“The Church’s mission is to save souls. Evil, in this world, comes from sin. Not from income disparity or “climate change.” The solution is: Evangelization. Conversion. Not an ever-increasing government control. Not a world government. These are nowadays the main agents imposing cultural Marxism on our nations, under the form of population control, reproductive health, gay rights, gender education, and so on. What the world needs nowadays is not limitation of freedom, but real freedom, liberation from sin. Salvation.”

Fr. VF said...

One need not imagine what the katholyk Left might say. That's EXACTLY what they (e.g., Mark Shea) say: "You Trump-worshipers object to Pachamama because you hate Pope Francis. Besides, the statues are Our Lady of the Amazon. You call the statues Pachamama only because you hate people with brown skin."

Mr. Baxter said...

That's very poignant and well-observed about the lingering effects of Western rationality, Boniface. I thought exactly as you write in an either-or fashion while I considered it syncretism. What an interesting contradiction and failure within me. You live and you learn. I would've wished you left out the racial point. However ridicilous Catholic infighting becomes, I still consider it to be somewhat of a safe haven from the ridicilous racial politics.

On another note, quite a few of your last posts have had quite a bitter undercurrent, if you will. That's only natural given the state of things, but I hope you're doing well and haven't forgotten your own advice from just about a year ago on November 30th, 2018, or January 25, this year.

All you have to do is pull that plug otherwise. You have no obligation to any of us.

Son of Ya'Kov said...

Or you can think Pope Francis is a heretic and a bad man like Eric Giunta or like me you can think Pope Francis has a lot of problems and it not a very good Pope.

But both of us think this Pachamama nonsense is fake news.

It is not all black and white. Our side vs Yer side.