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).

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Psychologizing Spirit, or Spiritualizing Psychology?

8 02 2013

A reader of this blog wil surely notice that Carl Jung occupies a prominent place in my intellectual landscape. I discovered him in my youth and have returned to him again and again. It is a complicated relationship; every reading of him begins with pleasure and surprise but ends with frustration and disappointment. He was an astute observer, well-educated, a dedicated psychologist, a remarkably spiritual person. For all that, he is also deeply a man of his time, his writing caught between philology and scientism. Both of these are dessicative and, while that has its place in study, it leaves only traces of his subject matter’s vitality available to the reader. For an individual so caught up in spiritual matters, his accounts of spiritual life are startlingly abstract.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that so many who are actively engage in spiritual work disparage treating the spiritual world merely as a repository of archetypes. Psychologizing spirit is unsatisfying. However, in recoiling from it, we often overlook something quite important–spiritual matters are entangled with psychological matters. They aren’t identical with each other, but they aren’t disparate either. This is one reason why I keep coming back to Jung. While he didn’t get it quite right, he did get it. While I can’t simply rest intellectually within Jung’s work, I can wrest from it the means for getting at that entanglement more clearly.

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