As we were wrapping up our discussion on the second half of Ecclesiastes yesterday, I inadvertently ignited a bit of a firestorm. We were talking about how none of us knows the day that we will die, and a student offered that his grandfather, at the age of 112, one day announced that he would sleep (die) at 2:00, and requested to be bathed, and to have his favorite meal prepared. He enjoyed his favorite meal, and at 2:00, he slept. While I was processing this, another student offered that the ancestors must have told him that he would die. I asked if he was a Christian – why is he giving credit to the ancestors?
This prompted quite a discussion on whether one can separate culture from pagan beliefs, in this case, African Traditional Religion (ATR). The class was divided about 50/50 on the issue. Those who said no argued that African culture and ATR are inextricably linked. Those who said yes said it is possible to extract the pagan rites and rituals, yet keep the culture.
This brought us to the issue of syncretism: merging differing belief systems. Not long ago, a member of Parliament also ignited a firestorm when she, a Christian, went to the shrine to thank the ancestors for giving her victory in the February elections. When the public reacted poorly to this, noting that she is a Christian, she backpedalled and said that the visit to the shrine was purely cultural, and that she was trying to boost tourism.
As you can imagine, that explanation did not go far, but it does highlight how prevalent syncretism is in the church. I pointed out to the class that Americans have syncretistic beliefs too; they’re just different (“God helps those who help themselves,” anyone? Christian rugged individualism?).
My point to my class was that I wasn’t trying to throw stones: all our worldview have to be brought to the Cross. As the church, we need to be modeling this.