January 28, 2022

Syncretism and Listening to What They do not Say

I read an article this week reflecting on an incident so thick with irony it was almost impossible to believe: the University of Northampton’s woke faculty in England has placed a content warning on George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.[1] Western culture has become a context in which people are increasingly obsessed with positivity. Many today have come to regard every difference of opinion as endangering the ‘safe space’ of fragile individuals in need of trigger warnings on everything from books to television programs to social media posts. This is perhaps most clearly displayed in the increasing unwillingness of people to be challenged on their perspective, choosing instead to block, ignore, and otherwise shut down discussion and disagreement. Those who do not fall in line with the socio-political narrative are frequently seen as hindering historical progress toward the realisation of a total egalitarian order, free from divisions, hierarchies, and oppression – a liberation from the constraints of the past so that all can be themselves, live by their own code, and encounter their own truth.

The trouble with this perspective is that it is inherently intolerant and socially destructive, eroding the liberation it claims to be advancing. Having denied a divine law for creation, all normative structures, relationships and institutions are assaulted and undermined, undercutting the possibility of a shared discourse through which conflicts might be resolved. As a result, a revolutionary subculture which begins by yelling and agitating about rights, turns inexorably toward coercion and total power as it gains influence in order to progress toward its goal. People must be forced to embrace the new freedom. Dissent is disallowed on pain of excommunication from the society of perfect social justice.

The only serious counter-narrative to this neo-pagan vision of reality is found in orthodox Christianity, which posits neither the autonomous individual nor the political community (power-state) as the answer to human divisions, but the gospel of the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Scripturally speaking, the true root of creation is Christ Himself and His kingdom is the only valid totalizing reality (Dan. 2:20-22; 4:34-37; Col. 1:15-23; Rev. 11:15). This biblical fact sets up an uncomfortable antithesis for many Christians in facing apostate cultures. There is an unremitting pressure on believers to compromise the clarity of the biblical witness to avoid the ire of a rebellious society. A synthesis with pagan culture, a path of minimal resistance, is a route often chosen – both in the past and today.

The late medieval church made an attempt at synthesis by welding the Greek religious tradition, embodied primarily in the work of Aristotle, with the biblical vision. Scripture teaches creation out of nothing, a Fall into sin and ruin radically affecting every part of human existence (including human reasoning), and the redemption of all creation in and through Christ (paradise lost to paradise regained), by the consummating power of the Holy Spirit – pagan Greek religion was radically different. As a consequence, the synthesis was ultimately unsuccessful because Greek thought had no room for creation ex-nihilo; any ‘Fall’ conceivable could only be from the immaterial (souls) or ideal into material bodies; redemption was found only in the Greek polis (political utopianism), whilst the vision of paradise was one of a disembodied state of eternal contemplation through participation in a deified reason.

The result of this attempted synthesis was a philosophical Christianity and natural theology that was at odds with the clear teaching of Scripture. It was ambiguous regarding creation out of nothing, in denial about the radical effect of the Fall on human understanding, and confused around the function of state – viewing it as the highest temporal institution (of nature) under the spiritual supervision of the church (grace). Moreover, this understanding of Christianity was conflicted over the character of the kingdom of God and the future state, as exemplified by developing doctrines of purgatory (1274) and otherworldly mystical hopes of a beatific vision rather than the total restoration of this fallen creation (Rom. 8:19-25).

Modernism in the church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries likewise tried to effect a synthesis, this time with various streams of Enlightenment humanism (including rationalism), and so set about hunting for an imaginary ‘historical Jesus,’ stripped of the ‘mythical’ elements of miracles, resurrections and wonders. So-called ‘science’ was now to dictate the interpretation of the Bible. Origins were re-interpreted in evolutionary terms. Christ’s work was no longer one of atonement and redemption from the Fall, because the Fall was in fact a vital and fortuitous moment of self-realisation. Christ’s death was not that of the sin-bearer, but a martyr pointing the way toward human solidarity. The Bible was not to be regarded as an authority to stand under, but merely a piece of literature, a great myth to be judged, demythologized and humanized, denuded of its transcendent root in the triune God. Morality was also relativized as an entirely evolving thing in terms of the zeitgeist of the time. Justice could not be grounded in God’s law-Word but was reimagined in terms of Marxist and then neo-Marxist categories. The kingdom of God ceased to be understood as the mighty work of Christ in history by the power of the Holy Spirit through His people, and became the political project of man, remaking all things in terms of social planning and controls.

In our contemporary cultural moment, efforts are increasingly made, even amongst professing evangelicals, to synthesize Christianity with the spirit of the age by offering our faith as one spiritual experience amongst many on the buffet of relativized religion. The doctrine and meaning of God’s creation-Word and law has faded from view because man now creates and defines himself, believing the original lie that ye shall be as God. There is no ‘Fall’ except from being your authentic self. Consequently, the biblical message of repentance, faith, and total surrender to Christ’s Lordship over all things is amended to being one centred on an elastic principle of ‘love’ capable of embracing every lifestyle choice where Christ just wants you to be happy living your own truth. Righteousness is modified to mean an egalitarian order of social justice where the new great sins are homophobia, whiteness, possessing hard-earned wealth, emitting carbon, and any form of judgment rooted in the law of God.

All these attempts to synthesize Christianity with the cultural motive of the age – in our own, the proclivity to wed the absolute freedom of the human personality with Christianity – obfuscate the radical confrontation of the scriptural worldview with its antithesis in religious apostasy. The kingdoms of darkness and light no longer then stand in clear distinction to each other, rather the sacred pole is set up next to the altar of the Lord (Deut. 17:21-22). The sin of syncretism is one that the prophets in the Old Testament are most frequently engaged in addressing. Solomon’s polygamy led him into syncretism and others followed suit. Famously, King Jeroboam set up false centers of worship in Bethel and Dan, erecting golden calves and instructing the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt†(1 Kings 12:28). Note especially here the attempt to marry paganism with the message of redemption in the Exodus. Notably, the scholar Ezra had to call the Hebrews away from both their syncretistic thinking and practices, teaching the people to read and obey God’s law (Ezra 9-10). The apostle Paul echoes this same concern, highlighting the threat of syncretism in the churches in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18:

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? And what agreement does God’s sanctuary have with idols? For we are the sanctuary of the living God…

The ever-present temptation to entertain a partnership between righteousness and lawlessness, Christ and Belial, the sanctuary of God (the people of God) with idolatry is powerful because it offers a path of least resistance. It holds out the hope of an irenic and nuanced compromise with other lords, laws, and gods. It advocates a third way; the sacred pillar need not replace, but can stand next to the altar of the Lord. This recommends itself because it seems to offer the possibility of avoiding confrontation, rejection, and persecution.

This brings us to the central importance of being clear about what we stand against, not just what we stand for. For the covenant people in both the wilderness and in exile, it was quite possible to say they were for Yahweh, but not actually be clear that they were against the false gods and lawlessness – the idols were next to the altar, so it was possible to imagine it could be both-and. This is the seduction of syncretism. It can often be detected by listening to what a person does not say about an issue. Failure amongst Christians to clearly and graciously identify what we are truly against, not just what we are for, often belies the early stages of the growth of syncretism.

God is never remiss in making clear what He is against. The Ten Commandments themselves are largely framed in the negative: “you shall not.†When Christ takes issue with the seven churches in the book of Revelation, He is clear not just what He is for in their conduct and witness, but what He is opposed to: “I have this against you.†In the case of Thyatira, syncretism is condemned with regard to the toleration of Jezebel (Rev. 2:18 ff). Scripture always presses the antithesis between faithfulness and apostasy, true worship and idolatry, and entertains no compromise. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth:

For I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy, because I have promised you in marriage to one husband—to present a pure virgin to Christ. But I fear that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your minds may be seduced from a complete and pure devotion to Christ. For if a person comes and preaches another Jesus, whom we did not preach, or you receive a different spirit, which you had not received, or a different gospel, which you had not accepted, you put up with it splendidly! (2 Cor.11:2-4).

The effect of the syncretistic urge on much contemporary evangelicalism has been to create a culture of weak leaders frequently unwilling to stand unequivocally upon the fullness of the Word of God; happy to speak in general terms about what they are for, but reluctant to stand clearly against that which is opposed to God. Many are ready to speak of the importance of love and justice but remain silent about the clear requirements of God’s law-Word (Rom. 13:8-10). Others are all for going into the world and being “good witnesses,†but neglect the reality that our witness involves a comprehensive teaching mandate and therefore a stern rebuke of anti-Christian public education (Deut. 11:18-21; Matt. 28:18-20). Still others are glad to emphasize the importance of honoring civil governments but refuse to assert the lordship of Christ and His Word over all authority and power in both church and state (Eph. 1:20-23; Col. 1:15-20; Rev. 1:5). Here Pharoah (the state) gets to tell God’s people how they will worship under his jurisdiction. But this was unacceptable to God and to Moses. The pot does not get to dictate to the Potter how His people will worship and serve Him (Ex. 8:25-32). Still others say they are for creation-care but are silent about the pinnacle of that creation – human life in the womb, or the elderly and infirm at the end of life (Ps. 139). How common now to hear Christian leaders say they are for marriage and the family, but for the most part, one listens in vain for a clear and unequivocal public stand against homosexuality, the redefining of marriage and the assault on human identity (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26-32; 1 Cor. 6:9-11).

In short, the powerful temptation is to shy away from the scriptural antithesis and to imagine there are neutral domains in God’s world, a possible common culture or neutral secular space unaffected by religious presuppositions. But this is an illusion. You cannot run with the hare and hold with the hounds; Jesus was clear, ‘Anyone who is not with Me is against Me, and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters’ (Matt. 12:30). So, as you tell people what you are for, do not neglect to stand faithfully and speak up for what you are against. God will not tolerate the sacred pillars of state, sex, self, money, or mother nature next to His throne or altar. Dagon will fall and be broken in the presence of the living God.

[1] Jennifer Kabbany, ‘University puts a trigger warning on George Orwell’s ‘1984’,’ The College Fix, January 25, 2022

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