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).
(and now for something completely different)
I wouldn’t be surprised if someone already caught this, but it’s novel to me right now. I was watching the season finale of Dexter on CBS and it dawned on me all of a sudden why, for all of the gore and sociopathy, Dexter seemed so familiar. The plot, the character, are modeled on superhero comics. In fact, not just any superhero, but an iconic and powerful one–Spiderman. There are significant variations, of course, but the structural parallels are strong.
So there is this beautiful passage in Plato’s Phaedrus in which he describes the orbits of the gods about the Good, each accompanied in train by the souls they have chosen for their retinue. It’s a beautiful passage and, sadly, I don’t have a copy of the work ready to hand to quote.
But I was always struck by how that seemed to parallel the notion in many African diaspora faiths that the orisha or loa chose heads. The metaphor seemed nearly identical, right up to the notion that the orsha/loa were in turn oriented toward Olodumare or Bon Dieu, the greater Good.
So, let me share this little bit I came across in Simone Weil’s Intimation of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks:
The image of the man as a plant whose root penetrates heaven is linked in the Timaeus to a theory of chastity….This plant is sprinkled by celestial water, a divine semen, which enters the head. In that man who continually exercises the spiritual and the intellectual part of himself…in him the whole contents of the head, including the divine semen, is propelled by circular movements like those which govern the rotation of the heavens, the stars and sun. This divine semen is what Plato calls the divine being lodged with us, in us, and whom we must serve. (98-99)
How well this parallels the whole notion of initiation and worship in many of the African diaspora faiths! It’s interesting to think of that in evolutionary terms, as indication perhaps that the two share a common ancestor. If naught else, it’s interesting to consider in terms of parallel development.
In Straw Dogs, Gray quotes Schopenhauer from On the Basis of Morality:
“I should liken Kant to a man at a ball, who all evening has been carrying on a love affair with a masked beauty in the vain hope of making a conquest, when at last she throws off her mask and reveals herself to be his wife” (37)
It’s a good quote, I would say a ‘true’ fable. But both Schopenhauer and Gray seem unable to crack open its hard outer shell to enjoy the meaty nut contained within. They think Kant laughable, worthy of derision, for being so foolish as to spend so much time chasing after what was already his.
But imagine that this story is not in the mouth, the pen of bitter Schopenhauer, sitting, lonely, in his study with his dog Atman at his feet. Strip away the cynical laugh he is having at the ‘old fool.’ Instead, imagine Kant telling this story, his wife at his side, in a warm drawing room, with an old friend fresh from the dusty road to Konigsberg.
I’ve been reading fiction, a bit of a rarity for me. In this case, it’s the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. It’s well-written and, for the most part, well-executed. But it’s not really the fiction per se that has me thinking.
What I like most about the story is not the trappings of the fantasy genre, the great magical powers, the encounters with big, powerful beings. It’s the smaller descriptions, the way she dwells on the magic that seems real to me.
Like the making of the Greenwitch. She discusses the women coming together, constructing it, the sense of awe and power that is bound up with its creation and its sacrifice. The construction, not the later appearance of it in full monster mode, touches on what is real and true to me in many so-called ‘polytheistic’ faiths.
It’s the magic of time, of repetition, of an event that draws its past to itself, not revealing it as one great history of details, but as an affective charge, mysterious and true.
Which gets me to the question of unity, of the One. I have a tendency to think of it in very material terms, like the unity of a brick, solid and unmoving. Not just me, either. The work of Parmenides, with its play of Being and Becoming, is very much about the struggle to come to terms with what the One is, along with a sense that what is one does not change.
Like the brick: it may be broken apart into the many, losing its unity.
But there are other unities that I want to remind myself of, through which I might ward away a too quick notion of unity.
Unities of fire, of water. The way flames flicker dance, remain one even as they are in constant contact with each other. The way water flows, in constant, moving, relation to itself, the way it is taken up in a greater movement. Shore and ocean, air and ocean, in constant codetermination. One and changing.
Then there are unities of time, of the fire’s spark. The fires born of the sparks are ‘one’ through time with the parent fire, a unity of family and effect.
And there is that unity of repetition, of the dense allegiance between events repeated over time, of the Greenwitch sort, where the unity is like a needle and thread through folds of fabric, a tugging that pulls moments into contact.
That’s a very difficult and often inchoate unity, where the One and the Many pull close and stumble apart. There is no easy categorical description to be had, only an unsure naming.
This is what makes sense and fills out a caution of blurring together a spirt under a single name. The experience is too blurred to give any name full purchase, yet too personal for us not to struggle toward a name.
It is a naming of prayer that does not reduce to the naming of a catalog. It’s amorphous, one, many, like shadows moving on a wall, blending and separating. A different notion, too, of truth, a truth of the calling, a truth judged by what it calls forth, by what responds to it.