Paul Knitter defines syncretism as a distilling of "all historical differences between religions in order to institutionalize their common core." (No Other Name? p.9) I start with Knitter because I think if anyone flirts too much with syncretism it is he. Be that as it may, I think he understands the feared subject quite well. (I much prefer McDermott's approach.) I will start with an assumption that syncretism is not a desired response to religious pluralism. If you have religious commitments then why should/would anyone expect you to lay down your distinctives? To stand on religious ground is to claim that there is something distinct (even good) about your religion. Syncretism really cuts to the heart of that and leaves us only with a relativism. To take such a position really counters the claims of Christ and thousands of years of Christianity.
However, much of the distrust of pluralism (the reality we live in) has fostered a fear of syncretism in the contemporary North American evangelical church. Some blame Barth, but I think really this is a cultural phenomenon. I am more convinced that it is an evolution of any religion that adopts a combative stance towards culture. And some of that combative stance is the honest product of dealing with the tension of plurality. But I'll leave that to Charles Taylor - I want to zone in on how we have structured the gospel as warfare in a way that is guaranteed to never win.
We Blew Up the Bridges!
We love to use the bridge illustration, but we are convinced that the gospel is really only an escape route. This is only really good news for those who buy the bill of goods. In fact it really isn't that good of news for those folks either, because they have to tough it out in the "battle zone" until the final extraction. Moltmann points out that this sort of religion is unable to present any hope to the world (which is ironic because it is billed as hope).
This is the form of Christianity that I first encountered. It is the same form that had me burn my Peter Gabriel albums even though Peter is largely responsible for my turn to Christ. It says that there is nothing good in this world, especially in your life before you said that magic prayer. It tells you to isolate and settle into the cult of mediocrity (a play on Schaeffer), biding your time until the real show comes. It misses completely the whole point of the resurrection - that God is doing a new thing in God's object of love - the world.
So where are the Christians who bought into this gospel of battle? Outside not looking in. Actually they are looking up and desperate for anything that will dispel the hell they know the world is becoming - why? because they have turned their backs on the core call of the gospel - to be in this world (not of it) as agents of Christ, looking for what God is doing and partnering up with it in every way they can. That is not syncretism - that is bringing the full force of your Christian identity to the world that so desperately needs it.
We Dehumanized the So-Called Enemies
In order to get people to kill other people, we must first dehumanize the others we wish to eliminate. It is one of the saddest things about military structures. It might be necessary for the military to do its job - but I often wonder if we really need a military in the first place. But I am certain we do not need warfare mentality in the Church - at least not towards other people. Yet, over and over, I encounter a sense of willingness to trash the beliefs of others for the sake of the "gospel". Think about the absurdity of that. If you don't believe me go watch Ray Comfort's street preaching videos.
The fear of syncretism has become the fear of infection. If we listen to the other then we might catch what they have. There are two problems with that. First, if you are afraid of losing what you have got then maybe you haven't got what you think you have in the first place. If your faith is never challenged, then it isn't faith it is a desperate clinging to an ideology that makes you feel good and might not necessarily be true. The problem is we are addicted to surity in the West and not enamoured with God.
Second, what makes you think that you have the market on the truth? There is a real arrogance to any religion that writes off the spiritual journeys of others. Any God who is able to speak through an ass (I mean the animals, but this also applies to the Ray Comforts of the world) can also speak to and through any person regardless of his or her religion. Actually read the bible and note how often God works through the gentiles. Yet, the arrogance of modern evangelicalism is such that we would have nothing to do with these voices of God. We miss the strands of eternity that God has patiently woven in the lives of every man, woman and child. We devalue our brothers and sisters - so it should not surprise us that we easily kill them off (their voices anyway).
I think there is a caution to be made about sycretism. Relativism is not a helpful response to pluralism. In fact it is not even a necessary response. What I hope is becoming clear is that there is another way. We can value the journeys of everyone. We can realize that we are in this world together. We can look for common strategies. We can encourage the strands of God's grace when we see them, and in so doing even reveal to people the way to Christ. But we need to see that the cross is not an exit, but an entrance into our world. It is the event that changes everything. It is an event that is planted deep into the world and through resurrection hope brings transformation to everything. We aren't called to wait - we are called to love, that is give of ourselves until we bleed and share in the power and joy of that resurrected life both here and now. Something to think about.