Worldview and Syncretism

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 [Read]. 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.

Defining Worldview

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 process enculturation, 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).

Worldview Types

At least four different worldview types are present in world cultures. Stated succinctly, a secular worldview 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.

Defining Syncretism

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, and able to handle all objections.

Copyright © by Gailyn Van Rheenen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.