In Praise of Mixed Religion

In Praise of Mixed Religion: The Syncretism Solution in a Multifaith World

Copyright Date: 2014
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  • Book Info
    In Praise of Mixed Religion
    Book Description:

    When asked "What religion do you follow?" the typical answer is to name a specific group, or to respond "None." An increasing number of people, however, are intentionally combining elements from various religious heritages, demonstrating that religions do not have firm boundaries, nor are they purely distinct. In Praise of Mixed Religion discusses the concept of syncretism, the term for the mixing of religious perspectives. The religious studies discipline has traditionally distinguished between two responses to syncretism: a subjective view, which treats syncretism as morally reprehensible, and an objective view, which treats it as a morally neutral phenomenon. William Harrison adopts a third perspective, the advocacy view, which claims that mixing religions is a good and necessary process. He cites countless examples - such as Islam's transformative encounter with Greek thought - from both history and recent years to show how religious traditions have gained theological and practical wisdom by borrowing key ideas, beliefs, and practices from outside their own movements. By encouraging syncretism, In Praise of Mixed Religion contests the hard boundaries between religious worldviews and presents a dramatic alternative for thinking and talking about religion.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-9202-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Why I Wrote This Book
    (pp. ix-2)
    William H. Harrison

    This is a “forest” book. I like to distinguish between forest books and tree books. There’s an old line – I’m sure you’ve heard it – that goes, “They can’t see the forest for the trees.” The line is a warning about the danger of getting so caught up in details that overall patterns get lost. As it happens, books about details are really very important because we need to know a lot of basic information in order to think about the big picture. This, however, is a big-picture book. The information that it contains is meant to help in...

  4. 1 Syncretism Happens
    (pp. 3-33)

    In 2008, aNational Geographicreporter, Marguerite Del Giudice, visited Iran, one of the most strictly and clearly defined Muslim countries in the world today, looking for signs of ancient Persian identity. To her astonishment, she found a culture that is Islamic indeed, but still shows signs of Zoroastrianism in the midst of a society run largely by Shia Muslim religious thinkers (ulama).

    Giudice observed the New Year’s festival, called “Nowruz”(also spelt “Naurûz” or “No Ruz”). She described it as “a thirteen-day extravaganza during which everything shuts down and the people eat a lot, dance, recite poetry, and build fires...

  5. 2 What Is Religion?
    (pp. 34-73)

    In the modern West, that which is officially called “religion” tends to get sidelined; it is kept on a tight leash, and it can be very difficult to find in public spaces. Yes, there are plenty of churches, temples, mosques, and other places of worship around. Yes, anyone who wants to be President of the United States must give evidence of a deep and abiding Christian commitment, and use strong Christian rhetoric. In the end, however, very few people really want to see religion associated with politics. Billy Graham, the most famous American minister and a man who has hobnobbed...

  6. 3 Soft Boundaries
    (pp. 74-90)

    Where do religions begin and end? This is not just an academic question. It haunts every faithful believer. It is part of why the US presidential election in 2008 included a fierce debate over whether Barack Obama is really a Christian or a secret Muslim and whether he is a capitalist or a socialist in disguise. When we are attached to a particular religion, we genuinely care about whether we are being faithful or changing tracks, perhaps unawares. We are always engaged in debates about traditions and the degree to which they change or may be changed. The who’s in/who’s...

  7. 4 When Syncretism Is a Good Thing
    (pp. 91-129)

    Syncretism is a good thing when it results in an improvement to one’s existing religion. How is that for stating the obvious in a wholly unhelpful way? Progress is, by definition, change for the better. The problem with such a simple statement has to do with two questions: (1) Who makes the judgement about what constitutes an improvement? and (2) According to what criteria does that judgement get made? The answer to the first question is, I am pleased to say, quite easy: ultimately, you do. In the final analysis, you make the decisions about how to understand and live...

  8. 5 … And When It’s Not So Good
    (pp. 130-149)

    Unfortunately, syncretism does not always result in beneficial development. It can make a religion worse. This is one reason that some people hold so tightly to the principle of preservation of insights. The insight originally resulted in progress and its adherents do not want that progress to be lost. They do not want to see mutuality, the sharing of wisdom that occurs in syncretism, to have priority over the good that they see in their own religion. Such people are aware that choosing real progress can be difficult, if they are even willing to admit that it is possible; other...

  9. 6 When It Should Have Happened, But Didn’t
    (pp. 150-159)

    The world suffers no shortage of a refusal to be open. Too often, we commit to our own paths and reject the possibility that someone else may have a better answer to the challenges we face. Or, the principle of preservation of insights can make us reluctant to listen and slow to change. Often, we come home from work angry at someone in the office who simply will not listen, who is simply determined to do things the way that they have always been done. The possibility of mutuality, of learning from others, never emerges.

    Religions face the same challenge....

  10. 7 The Problem of Labels: What Is It Now?
    (pp. 160-173)

    A major lesson from the dead-end encountered by Soviet Marxism-Leninism is that religions need to engage in syncretism. One inevitable consequence of syncretism is change. When Islam learns from Greeks and Christians it ceases to be what Islam had been before. Something has shifted. Any change means an evolution, certainly, but a syncretistic evolution causes an important kind of change. If a Muslim is balancing the Qur’an and Aristotle, is that person a Muslim, a Greek, or something else entirely? The same question arises for a Jewish Freudian psychologist, or a Protestant Reformationera Christian trying to balance the insights of...

  11. 8 Critical Openness
    (pp. 174-205)

    The central challenge that comes with living honestly and in full awareness in a syncretistic world is attitude. Finding and sustaining the right attitude can be difficult because attitudes touch both emotional and intellectual parts of us. They call forth “gut” responses that may not agree with what we hope to feel and think. Moreover, attitudes are often a product of deep training, going back to the earliest days of childhood. They are not easily understood, and to recalibrate them can be the effort of a lifetime.

    Recognizing that each of us is a syncretist of some, usually indefinable, sort...

  12. 9 The Last Taboo: Education about Religion
    (pp. 206-226)

    Syncretistic critical openness is impossible without some sort of intellectual preparation. The question is: If religion is an important and inevitable part of human existence, and if we all learn from other religions, then should there be some explicitly religious component to the education of our children? Must it be the last taboo in a world where all other topics are discussed? The simplest answer is that there will be religion in education, public or private, whether we admit it or not. Education completely without values and priorities is simply impossible; even if our children’s education is defined solely by...

  13. 10 An Intellectual Transformation
    (pp. 227-236)

    This book is built around three insights: (1) religion is everywhere; (2) everyone’s religion is a syncretism; and (3) on the whole, though not inevitably, that is a good thing. I have discovered that these insights, once fully digested, are inescapable. They have transformed the way that I think, the way that I solve problems, and the way that I approach the world. Syncretism really is ubiquitous. It is at the heart of the way that I think about politics, economics, and even literature. Syncretism is that important because questions that seem small are often about major principles. Our attitudes...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 237-254)
  15. Index
    (pp. 255-262)