This is very like starting a new blog. I am coming back to this changed and changing, with a much clearer sense of my personal, communal, and political commitments. Looking back over these archives, I notice my too-great intellectual proximity to discourse communities marked by their active self-isolation from the vibrant global cultural diversity that characterizes this and almost every moment in recent centuries. I have regularly mistaken these communities’ love of exoticism for genuine cultural interest and modulated myself to be in dialogue with them. Push comes to shove, though, what most of these communities seem to value most is a capacity to interact with other cultures as a free consumer, a relationship that doesn’t make them more than superficially responsible for the shape their interactions with other peoples and their cultures take.
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 and the issues raised in the religious discussion have parallels in other (lively) disciplinary discussions. That said, the 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).
If we take the dangers of peak oil (and gas, and coal, and water) seriously, we face a difficult challenge of imagining life through it. While we have an easy time imagining worlds that are like out own or fantastic expressions of our own, it is much more difficult to imagine worlds unlike it. A world without the easy energy of petrochemicals, though, cannot look much like our own. The easiest way to imagine it, then, is to look backward toward the past when such fuels were unavailable. This past often has the advantage of being more familiar, rooted at least in part in our shared history, but it can be misleading.
[4/2/2012: Heavily revised to articulate the argument of this short essay in a more general fashion. Previous version relied over-much on a very narrow discussion of witch hunts going on in the online pagan community.]
One of the difficulties in making sense of the reports of Nigerian witch hunting rests not just on our inability to access the ‘life on the ground,’ but also on the presuppositions we bring to terms like ‘witch hunt.’ For those of us with roots in the European world, we have the cultural baggage of the Enlightenment to deal with as well.
I have a handful of posts in various stages of completion, but then this Wild Hunt post comes up in regards to Nigerian witch hunts. I’m going to put the other posts on hold for a moment and just talk a little about this one. I don’t have anything strong to say, just some thoughts about how the picture is more complicated than it appears.
So, I’ve been enjoying reading and thinking about things kind of historically lately. You know one of the things I enjoy most about reading history? Because it helps me remain intellectually humble. When you read good historical accounts of religious movements, you discover how diverse they are, how much variation lies between and within them.
Better yet, you start to get a sense that those movements and what they serve aren’t all that stable. They change, in relation to other movements (religious and otherwise) and in relation to the life experience of their members, especially of their clergy. The variation isn’t alien to devotion, but proper to it, the natural result of each person, each group, living the truth of their encounters with the divine.
[Edited and reposted 2/9/2011 to strip away chatter and foreground the quote itself]
This is a quote from Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. While I am taking it out of the rich context, I do so because it has bearing on the relationship between religious communities outside a region that honor their ‘traditional’ religions and the societies that gave birth to them:
In the same way the stylization of the human face, which according to sociologists is typical of clearly defined regions, becomes suddenly completely relative….On the whole such changes are condemned in the name of a rigid code of artistic style and of a cultural life which grows up at the heart of the colonial system. The colonialist specialists do not recognize these new forms and rush to the help of indigenous society. It is the colonialists who become the defenders of the native style.