Despite variations in methods and models, there is one common idea found in the various books and articles on contextualization—beware of syncretism. The discussion always leads to the proverbial slippery slope of going too far with contextualization. The argument typically goes something like the following.
Missionaries must utilize appropriate cultural forms and practices so that the audience can understand the gospel in its own terms. Although it is advantageous to use “cultural” symbols, missionaries should avoid using “religious” symbols. The result would be a syncretistic, thus an invalid, expression of Christian faith. Therefore, the role of the missionary, and other church leaders, is to safeguard against the church losing its distinctiveness by incorporating religious forms and practices from the surrounding context.
Although I am sympathetic to the motivation for this common argument, I believe this train of thought stems from a misunderstanding of culture/religion and, ironically, produces the very thing—that is, a distorted gospel— it seeks to avoid. Let me explain.
The notion that a clear boundary between cultural and religious symbols exists is incontrovertibly false. This distinction assumes a narrow understanding of religion and falsely purports that the missionary, or any person, has the ability to designate forms and practices that do not have “religious” significance. Therefore, contextual theology is not about deciding whether the Christian community should engage in “religious” practices in an effort to uphold its distinct boundaries. The crux of the matter is how the community uses and negotiates the meaning of the relevant symbols and forms in light of its faith in the triune God. Kathryn Tanner explains:
“Differences between ways of life are often therefore established by differences of use and not by the distribution of entirely discrete cultural forms to one side or the other of a cultural boundary. . . The distinctiveness of a way of life emerges out of tension-filled relations with what other ways of life do with much the same cultural stuff.”
The fact that the community is in a culture means that it will employ symbols and practices that are loaded with previously constructed cultural-religious meanings. Therefore,
“The distinctiveness of a Christian way of life is not so much formed by the boundary as at it; Christian distinctiveness is something that emerges in the very cultural processes occurring at the boundary, processes that construct a distinctive identity for Christian social practices through the distinctive use of cultural materials shared with others.”
Another way to frame this is that the issue is not so much if the church should use a particular symbol or practice but to whom the symbol or practice is in service. The truth is that syncretism (defined as the blending of symbols from more than one religious domain) is inevitable. Therefore, the potential threat is less a matter of which symbols and practices we utilize in worshiping, loving and serving God and more about whether it is the God revealed in Jesus Christ who is the object of those symbols and practices.
It undoubtedly takes wisdom, diligence and humility when discerning which specific symbols and practices to actually employ in each particular community of faith. Not every form or ritual is well suited or appropriate for the local church to re-appropriate. For example, a young church might not have the resources to incorporate some symbols. Or, more significantly, some practices must be avoided because of their ethical implications. (I will hopefully say more about the process and criteria for choosing specific symbols and practices in a future post.) However, the point here is that the fear of using symbols from the “religious” sphere is misplaced. And, in fact, the real danger comes when any “sphere” (i.e., religious, political, economic, etc.) within the culture remains outside the purview of the Christian community.
I think an example from the American context will help illustrate this.
The Enlightenment produced numerous ideas that affect our understanding of religion. There was an emphasis on the separation of church and state. There was the tendency to segregate religious affairs to one’s private life. And, the separation of the body and soul became the accepted view of biological anthropology, especially in the church. These ideas produced a fascinating effect on the church in America. The gospel was relegated to the realm of securing the destination of one’s soul after death. The church was concerned with getting people saved. This meant that the church did not have much to say about political affairs or concerns of the nation-state. (I realize there are exceptions to this like Christian abolitionists, the Social Gospel, and the Civil Rights Movement, but I do think it is generally true, particularly in non-mainline churches.)
The result of this was that the church eagerly incorporated numerous cultural symbols and practices (i.e., Christmas traditions, new music styles in worship, etc.), re-appropriating them in light of the gospel, while simultaneously avoiding the symbols and practices of the nation-state because such things were not related to saving souls. This trajectory has come to a head in recent decades. Because churches did not feel the need to bring the gospel into direct contact with the symbols and practices of the nation-state, many Christians were able to develop a robust Christian identity alongside a robust national identity without much conflict or tension. Therefore, it is not problematic for churches in recent years to have an American flag next to the pulpit, sing the national anthem after “Amazing Grace”, or recite the Pledge of Allegiance before the Eucharist. They feel it is appropriate because some practices are “Christian” while others are “patriotic.”
This example illustrates what happens when the church decides, whether consciously or unconsciously, to leave some spheres of life, and their related symbols and practices, unchecked and unchallenged by the gospel. The issue here is that the rituals of the nation-state are extremely formative and highly emotive. Engaging in these practices and behaviors, such as reciting the Pledge every day at school, creates a sense of devotion and solidarity. If the Christian community is not intentional with how it negotiates these symbols and practices, then the church can easily experience a bifurcation in its mission and identity. The same is true if the church fails to contest the significance of “religious” symbols as well. Those forms and practices, if left untouched, will continue to have power and value for the larger community and will be used in devotion for something other than the One who deserves all devotion.
Therefore, the danger of syncretism is not due to the use of “religious” forms and practices. In fact, there is no way, even if one desires it, to avoid such symbols. Ironically, a distortion of the gospel (or should I say idolatry) is more likely when religious (or political or economic or . . .) symbols and practices are left unchecked.
I will conclude with an example from our community. Our church has borrowed practices from the surrounding culture for the sake of worshiping God. On Sundays we light incense (which is done at Buddhist temples, at spirit houses, and in various ceremonies), and we all bow down (grapwai) to the ground (which is done before monks, idols, and the king). We have had a few (I do mean only a few) people express concern that we are treading close to syncretism, particularly because of the practices that resemble “Buddhist” practices. I understand their concern. But, our concern is that churches in Thailand, in an effort to avoid “non-Christian” forms and practices, have failed to sufficiently connect all parts of the Thai psyche and identity to the life of the triune God. For example, there is something deep and formative, in a way a foreigner cannot fully comprehend, that happens when a Thai bows down. If the Thai church does not have the opportunity to bow before Jesus Christ, then there is a deep part of its devotional life that never gets expressed in relation to its lord and king. The potential danger, at this point, for the Christian community is that the emotions and values connected to bowing down, which are at the core of their identity, will either stay connected to another object or fail to be fully realized in relation to Jesus Christ, thus establishing an unnecessary obstacle in their love and devotion to God.
Thus, our belief is that missionaries and church leaders are called to reorient symbols and practices towards the triune God. The issue is not whether lighting incense is an acceptable Christian action. It is, instead, whether or not that action is done in submission to God and God alone. Therefore, utilizing “religious” symbols and practices is actually beneficial because it puts the emphasis in the right place. It forces people to choose not which practice they will engage in but which god they will call “Lord.” And thus the gospel will be proclaimed.
 Tanner, Theories of Culture, 112.