- In Praise of Mixed Religion: The Syncretism Solution in a Multifaith World by William H. Harrison
William H. Harrison’s book depends on a premise and expounds a thesis. The premise is that religion is a topic of concern to all and should therefore be expounded in a manner accessible to all. His thesis is that syncretism in religion is for the most part beneficial to all. He proclaims that his approach to syncretism is neither deprecatory (as is often the case) nor objective in the scholarly sense. He advocates syncretism, and this intention informs the book.
Harrison, the principal of the Kootenay School of Ministry, espouses a syncretic Christianity, one fully open to learning from other faiths. He maps the different kinds of syncretism: “symmetrical,” as in the merger of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism that created Ch’an (or Zen) Buddhism; “asymmetrical,” as in the absorption by nascent Islam of the pagan Greek heritage transmitted by Byzantium (in which Islam, while [End Page 454] transformed, clearly prevailed); and “reflexive,” as in Latin Christianity’s adoption of significant Celtic elements, in which the synthesis inspires the dominant party to deeper reflection on imperilled elements of its own original outlook. Harrison argues that syncretism is both inevitable (as a necessary condition of religious adaptation) and more often beneficial than not. He concedes that there have been some “bad” syncretisms (such as the Prosperity Christianity of today) but argues that religions that reject syncretism must fail. (His eccentric example of a “religion” that thus failed is Soviet communism.) Harrison uses religion quite broadly to describe any world view implying “values and priorities.”
Friendliness to syncretism implies skepticism toward labels (since everything is a syncretism, all labels are necessarily misleading) and a stance of “critical openness” that seeks to preserve what is valuable in the old while embracing everything of value in the new. Examples of such openness include the Christology of the theologian John Cobb (which emancipates Christ from any association with Christianity as traditionally understood) and the highly eclectic Hinduism of Gandhi (rejected as such by zealots, including his assassin). A final example of critical openness or syncretism in action is the “Faith Club” project of three American women, one Christian, one Jewish, and one Muslim, which led each to a deeper grasp of her own faith commitment. A further chapter considers the implications of syncretism for education (which, given Harrison’s expansive definition of religion, cannot but be religious education). He promotes required instruction in comparative religion. A final chapter sketches the intellectual transformation implicit in a new world of “soft boundaries” between outlooks: it would see broader conversations but also deeper community than is present in academic life today.
Does syncretism offer (as the subtitle claims) a “solution in a multifaith world”? Only if those faiths submit to syncretism. I write this review in the shadow of the Paris massacres of 13 November 2015, the latest of a series of murderous outrages. The terrorism behind these is a cancerous mutation of Wahabi Islam, which, unimpressed by Harrison’s argument that Islam as such is deeply syncretic, deems openness to change a heresy punishable by death. Harrison mentions Wahabi’ah as a sect that rejects syncretism but doesn’t treat it as an urgent concern. The syncretism he offers seems awfully small beer in comparison with its global antagonists: are “soft” boundaries effective ones? Do they inspire staunch defenders? There are few syncretists in foxholes.
Syncretism in religion will continue to happen: Harrison is right about that. It can only accelerate with globalization and the ensuing proliferation of every kind of mishmash and crack-up. So, however, will the (globalized) reaction against syncretism, which is visible not only in [End Page 455] Islam. In Kootenay soft boundaries may well prevail: syncretism as a conscious creed supports pluralism or “multiculturalism.” While Harrison never quite says so, one wonders whether that’s not its point. Beyond such sheltered enclaves, however, the prospects for “mixed religion” seem dimmer. The religions that are gathering steam...