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  Syncretism (Greek, ‘binding together’) is the process of mingling different philosophies, religions or traditions of belief and practice, resulting in hybrid forms. (It is distinct from eclecticism: choosing elements from different philosophical and religious systems and combining them in a new system, usually with the personality of the founder strongly imprinted upon it: for example Sikhism, in which Guruk Nanak combined elements from Hinduism and Islam with his own powerful vision.) Syncretism can be seen as a process of osmosis, such as occurred in the Mediterranean civilization of the Hellenistic or Roman periods, or as a more formal event, such as the establishment of the ‘syncretic’ churches in colonial Africa, a fusion of Christian and indigenous traditions. In the religious context, the word is also used when a thinker attempts to unite two systems or to explain one system in terms of another: in Roman Catholic theology, for example, it describes attempts to combine Thomist and Molinist teaching.

Anthropologists also use the word syncretism to describe the general cultural changes which result when different cultural traditions appear to be blended together. In the 19th century, examination of such matters was known as ‘acculturation studies’. But in the first half of this century, the term ‘acculturation’ began to be used in a negative way, to describe what was considered as cultural decline. The anthropological method here was to establish a picture of two cultures before they came into contact with one another—‘the cultural baseline’—and then to draw out the processes of change. Usually, such scholars emphasized only the influence of industrial societies on non-industrial communities, failing to recognize both influences from elsewhere and processes of change within the community. Their models were static and too dependent on the idea that there exist discrete units of culture which were fixed and static before coming into contact with each other. When this view was tied up with that of ‘native’ culture, it affirmed the ‘myth of the primitive’ (in which so-called ‘primitive’ societies were thought to live in a timeless, uncontaminated state before Western contact). For this reason, modern anthropologists studying social and cultural change have tended to replace the word ‘acculturation’ with such terms as syncretism, hybridization or creolization, which seem more adequate descriptions of the continuous and diverse merging of social and cultural processes. (Creolization also has a specific linguistic meaning: the development of a pidgin language formed from communication between two different communities but subsequently adopted as the mother-tongue of a particular speech community, for example in modern Jamaican and Haiti.)

In theological systems where salvation depends on faith alone, and/or on holding the ‘right’ beliefs, syncretism is seen as a particularly insidious factor, one which undermines the uniqueness of the faith. Lutheran Christians, for example, are particularly wary of the process, as reine Lehre (‘pure doctrine’) is essential to their theology, and syncretism is too close to relativism (the view that all religions are equally true). For all that, it could be argued that early Christianity, and the Judaism from which it arose, are themselves in part the results of syncretic processes. Hindus say that all religions are rivers which flow into the same sea, and their beliefs are quintessentially syncretic, drawing on and welcoming elements from many traditions. RK KDS

See also culture; diffusionism; evolutionism; modernization; primitivism; Westernization.Further reading Bede Griffiths, The Marriage of East and West; , Felix M. Keesing, Cultural Anthropology: the Science of Custom; , I.M. Lewis, Syncretism and the Survival of African Islam.



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