Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Because We Can: Syncretism from a Pagan perspective

"African Traditional Religion Allows Syncretism"

While looking for information on the indigenous religious traditions of Tanzania I ran across a fascinating and revealing paper written by Richard Cox, a missionary who works for the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Tanzania is a nation of about 40 million people (the seventh most populous in Africa), and is one of the places in which African Traditional Religion (ATR) has been the most resilient. The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) is one of the most active and aggressive Christian missionary groups in the world. SIL has faced persistent accusations of working closely with US based multinational corporations, American right-wing politicians, and even the CIA, especially in Latin America.

The paper in question is titled "Why Rangi Christians Continue to Practice Traditional African Religions". (The Rangi people are an ethnic/linguistic group in central Tanzania with a total population numbering about 350,000.) Richard Cox, an American based missionary who, as per SIL protocol, conducts his missionary work in the guise of "linguistic field work" wrote this article (which is available online here) after an incident which he describes as follows:
The Uganda/Tanzania Branch of SIL conducts an orientation course for new members coming to work in East Africa. One of the components of the course is a scheduled lecture about African Traditional Religion (ATR). In 2006, ten expatriates attended the course. There were also five Tanzanian nationals present. The Tanzanians fulfilled various roles such as interpreters, Swahili language teachers and cultural guides. I was asked by the branch administrators to present a lecture concerning ATR. During the course of the lecture, I emphasized the fact that most Tanzanian Christians were still involved at some level in ATR. After mentioning some of the ATR practices I was aware of, I asked the Tanzanians if they could verify my assertions. One of the Swahili language teachers, a man in is mid-thirties, stated that my assertions were true. Then to everyone’s surprise, he stated that after returning to his home village the previous year for the first time after being in the capital city for more than ten years, he and his relatives sacrificed a goat to the ancestral spirits. Why did the young man admit this and feel that, even though he was a Christian, it was necessary to make such a sacrifice?
Please note that Cox cannot help himself from wondering aloud not only how a Christian could participate in a Traditional/Pagan religious ceremony, but why he would admit to it! Everything that needs to be said about how monotheists and Pagans approach syncretism in completely different ways is packed, if very densely, into this question.

The obvious answer to Cox's question is that obviously his African associate saw nothing wrong with what he did, and, therefore, it did not occur to him to not "admit" to it. And it is equally obvious from Cox's question itself just how taboo syncretism is to the average superstitious Christian savage.

(I guess Christians, with their pathetically impoverished theology of only one lousy god, view participation in Pagan rituals the same way they view receiving daily nude massages from the Rentboy they brought with them on vacation: even if you are found out, at least have the Christian decency to deny it! I mean act like you have some shame, for chrissake.)

Cox then proceeds to provide a long list of reasons why "Rangi Christians" continue to practice African Traditional Religions. Predictably, many of the reasons that Cox gives are just standard issue pot-shots at the Catholics, who were the first cultural imperialists to stake a claim on the Rangi's immortal souls. You see, the way the Wycliffeans see things, if the Rangi had ever been properly dunked for Jeebus, instead of merely being sprinkled with the holy water of the Papists, they would have severed all ties with Devil Worship from the get-go.

Anyway, Cox eventually gets around to the real reason "Rangi Christians" still sacrifice goats to their ancestors, utilize traditional healers, refuse to cut down their ancient sacred groves where the old initiation rituals are still held, and so forth: because "African Traditional Religion allows syncretism":
Finally, ATR allows a person to ‘be a Christian’ while still practicing ATR. ATR, which is not a systematic system as practiced by the Rangi, doesn’t have to exclude Christians. In ATR, one can attend church services, be baptized, partake of the sacraments, and still practice ATR. It is not necessary for people to hold a tightly structured and logical belief system in order to function in their everyday life. A person’s theology is what they act out, not what they profess to believe. Many Rangi do not see a problem with holding on to both ATR and Christian beliefs. For many in the West this is a logical inconsistency, but for the Rangi this is a practical outworking of their lives and cultures. This syncretistic mixture is what has been modeled for them in the past and it seems to work for them practically. Indeed, it could be said about most believers in a particular religious tradition that the belief espoused and the practices adhered to are not logically consistent. Therefore this syncretistic amalgamation is acceptable among the Rangi. It is simply a matter of fact that Rangi Christians do not understand the majority of the implications that Biblical teaching has for their daily lives; thus the reason for the continued syncretism.
The arrogance really is breathtaking. Africans only "hold a tightly structured and logical belief system" to the extent that they are Christian! And their traditional religion is not "systematic". Why? Because it "doesn't have to exclude" other religions. This bullshit is only to be expected from Christians, especially missionaries, and most especially the disarmingly uncomplicated Christian soldier types of the SIL. All too often, though, one finds the same crap being spewed by supposedly objective scholars, and even supposedly Pagan scholars.

Bottom line: Syncretism is what people naturally do when left to their own devices: when it is allowed. All genuine religions, that is, religions that are legitimate expressions of the inherent spiritual impulses of homo religiosus, not only allow, but thrive on and naturally express themselves through syncretism. Any "religion" that is incompatible with syncretism, as Protestant Christianity is, at least when properly understood, is something else again.

[If you are interested in African Traditional Religion, then check out this other post, and links found therein: "What exactly is it about traditional religion that we fear?"]

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SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

This is excellent. There may be a question of what practices are allowable from one's native stance. The Romans were widely religiously tolerant, but they outlawed the practice of human sacrifice. The Germanic tribes (originally) didn't practice usury. It is logical that commitment to a particular belief might cancel out certain practices.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Thank you for your comment, Siegfried.

These are relevant points that you make. Syncretism does not have to mean "anything goes".

In fact the whole point of what I mean by "syncretism from a Pagan approach" is that Heathens, Pagans, poltheists, etc, (everyone except the monotheists) have a great deal of freedom in deciding for themselves on these matters.

But as you rightly point out, some things will be forbidden in any given society, or will be so truly "foreign" that it will simply be avoided.

And I think that both of the examples that you raise show that this is far from a random process. Human sacrifice (obviously) and usury (somewhat less obviously) have inherent ethical issues associated with them.