Syncretism, Eclecticism, and other definitions

13 02 2013

When folks talk about certain sorts of spiritual practices, ranging from those of the African Diaspora to contemporary (neo)paganism, a few words tend to enter into the discussion pretty quickly. The most common is ‘syncretism,’ followed distantly by ‘eclecticism.’ The two words are often used in ways that make them nearly synonymous with each other. I’m not a big fan of legislating language, but I’m going to suggest that this habit isn’t particularly helpful in talking about these practices. What’s more, I’m going to suggest that the term ‘syncretism’ is used too often without specification, making it a term that means too little and too much all at once. In this post, I want to draw a distinction between eclecticism and syncretism and then proceed to discuss in detail some specific sorts of syncretisms in the hopes that it might nourish a more meaningful conversation about the way these religious practices originate and develop.

In making these sorts of distinctions, I’m drawing on discussions in psychology and philosophy. The distinctions aren’t entirely my own andthe issues raised in the religious discussion have parallels in other (lively) disciplinary discussions. That said, the specific strategies I’m employing to specify forms of syncretism are my own (though clearly owing more than a little to the sort of philosophical distinction-making pioneered by Plato and Aristotle).

So, first, I want to draw a distinction between eclecticism and syncretism in this philosophical and psychological sense. Eclecticism is a word best-suited to describing practices that have been formed by careful selection. An eclectic surveys different doctrines or practices and picks elements from them based on a criteria they have established. In classical philosophy, it most often refers to a philosopher who does not belong to a particular school of thought but endorses doctrines from several. Similarly, in psychology, it refers to a therapist who employs techniques derived from different schools of psychotherapy according to what they think will best serve their patient’s needs. Eclectics are often contrasted with systematics, individuals who believe that their school of thought’s doctrines (or their school of therapy’s practices) must be accepted in their entirety and that accepting one part of their doctrine logically requires you to accept other parts as well. Systematic thinkers often presume that schools of thought are mutually exclusive (e.g., behavioral therapy can’t employ psychoanalytic methods or a Stoic cannot endorse Hedonist doctrines).

Syncretism, on the other hand, refers to a practice of identifying different doctrines or practices with each other. This is less an issue in psychology, but in philosophy it was quite common for a student of one school to read the work of an unrelated philosopher as if that philosopher shared the assumptions of their school. Thus, you find Neoplatonists reading the works of Aristotle as if it were simply an elaboration and clarification of the Platonic system. Where eclectic and systematic tend to presume divergence, syncretic thinkers tend to presume convergence.

An important contrast case for syncretism is synthesis. This appears more often in psychological discussions, to refer to psychologists who attempt to articulate a common rationale for the practices of several different therapeutic practices. The use of the term, ‘synthetic,’ reflects an important difference from syncretic approaches. A synthesizer is aware that divergence exists, but is seeking to determine if and how that divergence can be overcome in a more encompassing systematic account. Synthesizers exist among classical philosophical schools as well, but they are more rare than the syncretics. I suspect there are good reasons for this, but I won’t pick up that line of thought here.

Now, I have made several distinctions here, between eclecticism and systematization, between eclecticism and syncretism, and between syncretism and synthesization. Because the world is messy, we often find a figure engaging in all of them. They may select and endorse doctrines from a diverse set of schools (eclecticism), identify their selection as having a systematic and rational order all its own (systematizing them), argue that it unites disparate schools x and y (synthesizing), and then proceed to read the work of an entirely different school z as if it were an extension of their own (syncretism). In general, I suspect this pattern tells us something about the limits of our human faculties and how many things we can hold distinct in our imagination; I won’t pursue that line of thought here, either.

A given individual or group tends to engage in one of these practices more intensely, though, thus allowing us to talk about it as more or less syncretic, more or less eclectic, and so on. This will be helpful to keep in mind as we turn these terms toward a religious context. Here, spiritual beings get added to the mix of doctrines and practices. Does this or that cult serve the same being as this other cult? Can one form of devotion be replaced with another? And so on.

It’s telling that of all these terms, syncretism gets the most use in a religious context. Even practitioners of these religions have tended to incorporate a certain modern bias toward religious sentiments that presumes they are irrational and amorphous, lending themselves more to the fusions that characterize syncretism than the distinctions that characterize the other terms. Moreover, the dominant modern Protestant Christianity tends to reinforce this pattern, defining a healthy spiritual life as having a connection to a single figure, Christ as God, and, if they talk about spiritual sickness at all,  locating unhealthy spiritual connections in the Devil. While exceptions to this pattern exist in contemporary Christianity, they are marginalized from the mainstream conceptions. The contemporary stereotype of the spiritual person who remains aloof from any specific practice in a vague ‘it’s all one’ is just the most recent and clear expression of this trend.

The first step away from this obscuring trend is to see more clearly how much diversity there is in syncretism. Syncretism doesn’t occur for just one reason, but may occur for several, sometimes mutually reinforcing, reasons. I see two broad motivations for syncretism, that of necessity and that of inspiration. Alongside that, I also want to make a distinction between two modes of syncretism, one of association and one of identity. Mode and motivation help shape the specific way in which syncretisms occur and within these categories there are subcategories to keep in mind.

Syncretisms motivated by necessity tend to be ones of political pressure or intellectual limitation. In cases of political pressure, such as where one group forbids another group from engaging in their religious practices, the pressured group may consciously resist by identifying elements of their practice with elements of their pressurer’s practice. This is a familiar and well-worn idea. Many posit, for example, that Jews who remained in 16th century Spain attempted to conceal their Jewish practices behind a veneer of Christian practice or that the saints entered African rituals in Cuba as a way to conceal the worship of African spirits. As we talk about political pressure, it’s important to make clear that it is not a monolithic thing. There are different sorts and degrees of it. The terms of an alliance can be viewed as the gentlest forms of political pressure, while conquest and enslavement define the harsher extreme.

From my own reading, though, I suspect this motivation is too often presumed and too rarely examined. During the height of the Inquisition’s power in the New World, for example, idolatry was often treated more leniently than heresy. The identification of orthodox figures with indigenous practices was seen as a greater danger because it threatened to pollute the purity of the faith. While we have records of Africans in the Americas talking about the saints of their homeland, it is not at all in evidence that they readily identified those saints with specific saints of the Catholic church. Those who did align their practices with those of the Church were far more likely to find themselves severely punished and shipped off to Spain or Portugal for careful interrogation.

Political pressure is likely to be most successful in producing syncretisms when the ritual worlds of the those involved are more closely aligned. Rivalries between kingdoms in Africa, for example, likely leave their syncretic traces. J. Lorand Matory’s discussion of Candomble communities in the late 20th centuries provides a good example of political syncretism. There you see the ascendance of Yoruba-aligned communities leading to Dahomean figures being absorbed into Yoruba figures (e.g., Sogbo initiates describing themselves as initiates of Xango).

Intellectual limitation is often overlooked. A given person has only so much time that they can devote to learning, clarifying, and preserving the distinctions between different spiritual practices. At a certain point, they will begin to abbreviate careful differentiation between practices with loose comparisons. Even ritual experts can only master so much and in the face of cultural diversity will likely resort to some such comparisons.The famed interpretatio romana likely served to facilitate these kinds of syncretisms. Once two figures share a common name, it becomes a little easier for lay worshipers to join and conflate practices associated with the figures.

Similar dynamics likely contributed to the Latin Americas world’s syncretizing during the early modern period. Few Africans had the luxury that would allow them to learn and preserve the complexities of their traditional religion, much less do so alongside the Catholic practices they were encouraged to mimic. Fusing the two would have been easier, though it exposed them to the accusations of heresy. There was also a tendency, especially among English-speakers, toward anti-Catholic propoganda by identifying Catholic saint veneration with polytheistic practices found among Africans. Such ideas, themselves partially influenced by the intellectual limits of the English speakers, could subtly nourish syncretisms over the course of centuries.

Not all syncretisms are best or fully described with the language of constraint. Alongside those syncretisms that occur under compulsion, there are those that occur under the aspect of spontaneity and inspiration. There is perhaps no clearer case of this than when a devotee affirms that they have been divinely inspired to identify otherwise disparate practices, but there are subtler expressions of this when someone sees, intellectually or intuitively, a connection between two practices that they are subsequently unable to ignore or deny. These sorts of syncretisms are the hardest to talk about because they are undetermined–they seem to occur as if by magic rather than on the basis of some external influence. While reasons may be given for why the syncretism works, its occurrence exceeds the reasons given for it. These are precisely the sorts of syncretisms that are likely to be most intensely contested.

I suspect that more than a few of the syncretisms that students of religion have tended to assign to necessity have much to do with inspiration. The association of saints and orisha in the diaspora, for example, seems difficult to explain fully by way of necessity, intellectual or political. Here we need to note that what is constraint under the rubric of necessity becomes opportunity under the rubric of inspiration. Here, too, we should contemplate the mystery by which constraint may become opportunity under the guidance of inspiration. I won’t presume to speculate on that particular form of grace here.

With these two motivations in mind, we can’t appreciate syncretism properly if we don’t consider, at least briefly, the ways in which the syncretism manifests, its modes. Syncretism is often thought of in terms of an identification of one practice, belief, or spirit with another. Cases like this (e.g., mentioned above where Sogbo becomes Xango) seem the rarer case. More often, the case is one of association, where elements of two practices are intertwined without being fully identified with each other. In the interpretatio romana, you would often see this expressed by identifying a god’s name with a place, occurrence, person, etc. Similarly, in some parts of the African diaspora, you find a specific spirit’s name becoming a moniker for a family of related spirits (e.g., many Haitian vodouisants identifying Shango as an Ogun). In the African diaspora, this often has further ritual ramifications, allowing diverse spirits to be served in relatively similar ways.

These syncretisms can be quite surprising and diverse. Kimpa Vita’s assumption of the identity of St. Anthony is deeply syncretic, identifying a Catholic spiritual figure and fusing elements of Catholic doctrine and Congolese spiritual practices under the rubric of inspiration. The complex system of initiation found in Cuban Ocha and Brazilian Candomble are another exemplar of syncretism, this time with a set of ritual practices being generalized from their application in the service of one spirit to their use with a whole family of spirits. Umbanda’s network of hierarchical associations linking saint, orisha, and the famed and anonymous dead is another striking example of inspired syncretism of association.

This is a long post and I am just about to wind it up, but there is one more important thing that I want to make clear. Arguably, it’s the very heart of this post. Even if all the practices just mentioned have their roots in inspired syncretisms, they aren’t *just* syncretisms. The syncretic inspiration provides the impetus, but the practices themselves take shape through a synthesis, in which the disparate elements are taken into  consideration as disparate and then accommodated. It is through the synthesis that inspiration and necessity acquire depth and structure. And it is precisely this synthetic dimension that is concealed when syncretism is over-emphasized.

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