Monday, November 18, 2013

On the overemphasis of commonalities

by Dorcas Chung

Theology of religions is a branch of theology that attempts to make sense of other religions in the light of one’s own, by seeking a meaningful, authentic, and proper approach of one’s own religion towards others. For example, Joe may take an exclusivist approach to Religion X by emphasizing X’s distinctive and privileged access to Truth. Joe’s aim may be to show how other systems are false and misguided, with the intention of convincing other religious believers to replace their worldviews with Joe’s own. Jane, on the other hand, may view Religion X from the perspective of an inclusivist. While Jane recognizes X’s distinctive claims toward Truth, she does not completely reject the claims of other religions. Other religions may not access Truth with the kind of accuracy and privilege that X does; but they can nevertheless access some important aspects of it.

My interest is to explore yet another approach, called syncretism. Unlike exclusivism and inclusivism, syncretism makes no claim to a religion’s privilege or distinction. For example, as a syncretist Johanna may believe Religion X is only one among many religions with access to Truth. Johanna would thus make no attempt to convert those who belong to other religions, since no sincere religious worldview can be false or misguided. In effect, while other models narrow the scope of privileged access by varying levels, syncretism widens the scope.

Syncretism does seem attractive. Exclusivists can appear to be  imperialistic, dogmatic, and/or disrespectful. Inclusivists, perhaps ironically, turn out to be open to the same charge. The syncretic model, on the other hand, claims to avoid the aforementioned defects by de-emphasizing differences, emphasizing commonalities, and asserting that the commonalities are most essential and therefore most fundamental to any religious outlook. In this way, it appears to treat all faiths, and persons of all faiths, with equal respect and consideration, and to facilitate meaningful dialogue and solidarity to the greatest possible degree.

Syncretists typically argue that, while religions make divergent ideological claims, these claims have similar purposes and produce similar outcomes. Religious stories and concepts should therefore be understood only as meaningful metaphors rather than literal events. This is done to acknowledge the symbolic values and virtues of the metaphor, which can in turn be applied universally to other religious worldviews. There is an expressivist rather than a realist tendency here, in the sense that the syncretist wishes to discuss not what is true but what we all feel to be true. The syncretist believes that divergent religious claims are still taken seriously in this way, since the symbols and metaphors can point to common themes found in various respective religions. The syncretist believes these claims ought not be taken literally, because the differences between religions are actually insignificant and that placing undue emphasis on them can lead to unnecessary conflict.

But syncretism has a serious problem: an inordinate focus on commonalities can actually strip a religious belief system of its most distinctive, essential and robust elements. This is just because common characteristics may not be the most important or most fundamental aspects of a belief system. In referring to a position held by Hendrik Kraemer, Velli-Matti Kärkkäinen writes, “one cannot take individual features out of the context of a particular religion and, on the basis of these individual common features, posit a fundamental sameness of two (or more) religions.”[1] 

The point is easily seen if we think about different ethical systems. Consider the action of helping an old lady  to cross the street – found to be ethical from various theoretical positions. An egoist who believes fundamentally in self-interest may help the old lady because she believes a positive image of herself will help contribute to some future success. A utilitarian may take the same action; but do so because the action contributes to yielding the greatest happiness for the greatest number. A deontologist likewise acts the very same way, but out of a motive of duty for the old lady. Based on this, a moral syncretist might infer that there is a deep commonality between these ethical theories. But clearly it is wrong to claim that egoists, utilitarians, and deontologists all believe basically the same thing. If the foundations are differently rooted, they can and will inevitably lead towards divergent paths.

The syncretist also fails to recognize the importance of evaluating the roots from which symbolic values and virtues flow. She cannot say that a Christian, Hindu, and Daoist are all basically the same because they happen to endorse similar virtues or causes. Buddhism is not very Buddhist if it does not value impermanence and interdependency above all. Christianity is not very Christian if it does not insist that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.  Islam does not seem very Islamic if Muhammad is not necessarily Allah’s Prophet.

A further problem for syncretism is that some observed commonalities are in fact deeply problematic. The oppression of women, for example, is a phenomenon that is unfortunately found in most cultures and religions. Some religious sects even argue that these positions are rooted firmly in their faith.  The syncretist that chooses to disavow repugnant commonalities at least owes us an account of the basis upon which she chooses to do so. The syncretist who simply ignores the embarrassing commonalities is not ...well ...very syncretic.

It's interesting to note in closing that the problems of syncretism are similar to those of  the melting pot and salad bowl metaphors employed in multiculturalism. Opponents to the melting pot analogy argue that engaging with diversity means valuing, in addition to the commonalities, the differences between backgrounds, as well as the distinctiveness of respective backgrounds. A melting pot construal overemphasizes apparent commonalities; but underlying these commonalities are often the implicit predominant worldviews of a society. Thus, the overemphasis on commonalities can actually lead to less meaningful dialogue and undermine attempts at real cross-cultural understanding.

Dorcas Chung
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[1] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 183.


  1. Dorcas, it seems to me that syncretism has both pragmatic and philosophical manifestations, both of which aim at some kind of unification.

    You are focusing, quite appropriately, on the philosophical, in which the syncretist tries to show that what appears to be a multiplicity of distinct religions are really different manifestations of one. This, does strike me as philosophically problematic for the reasons you suggest.

    But I can see compelling reasons for being a pragmatic syncretist, i.e., someone who tries to achieve peace and unity between people by synthesizing what amounts to a new religion from what is common to several antagonistic ones. In the context of such a project, one might also choose to preserve distinctive doctrines from each of the previous religions for face-saving purposes.

    Of course, you would still be right to point out that no practical syncretist can take religion seriously insofar at it purports to make knowledge claims, and this puts her in a pretty awkward position as an advocate of the syncretic vision. My hunch is that most syncretics are actually practical syncretics. But they realize they have to defend the position philosophically in order to be taken seriously by the believers they are trying to serve.

    1. I like this suggested distinction, Randy. What seems interesting to me in this position is something like Rawls's concet of overlapping consensus in the area of political philosophy. There's a real practical value to a syncretic approach to religious belief in societies which are religiously diverse in an era where religious intolerance is also rampant. This approach could prove promising practically to spur individuals of divergent and conflicting faiths to see in each other something common and worthy or recognition. The result need not be a religious melting pot, just a less turbulent religious fruit salad.

  2. Randy and Chris - sorry for the late reply. I believe what you are suggesting is not syncretism, but perhaps something closer to two possibilities: pluralism, or inclusivism.

    From what I little know, there is a newer emerging model in the theology of religions called pluralism. Some have called it by names other than pluralism - Paul Knitter refers to it as the Acceptance Model (Knitter also calls syncretism the Mutuality model).

    There's probably a little confusion here by the differing names, as Pluralism is said to include two schools: Mutuality (AKA syncretism), as well as Acceptance (AKA pluralism). I speak of pluralism as the synonym for Acceptance.

    Acceptance arose as a reaction to syncretism's attempts to de-emphasize differences for the sake of commonalities, by asserting that differences are just as significant and deserve attention. I think one of the main aims from the Acceptance people is to avoid the claim from the syncretist that says, "well, we're really just talking about the same thing here." This kind of judgment is criticized as "imperialistic," since a Sycretist S tells a Religious Person P that whatever P believes is, in fact, not what P believes at all; but rather what S believes.

    To avoid this kind of criticism, pluralism seeks to engage in dialogue by focusing on both commonalities and differences. This approach could be construed as closer to a "salad bowl" model rather than "melting pot." However, whether this "salad bowl" construal is turbulent, I'm not sure.

    In any case, if your pragmatic syncretist position wants to preserve distinctive doctrines while simultaneously emphasizing commonalities, perhaps "pluralism" may be what you are thinking of.

    A second possibility is perhaps to say that syncretists (or pragmatic syncretists) are really inclusivists (pragmatic inclusivists?). In other words, if the pragmatic syncretist believes that distinct religions are different manifestations of one, then that "one" could be viewed by the pragmatic syncretist as Truth. If that "one" is Truth, then, the pragmatic syncretist is making a distinctive claim towards Truth, and, while she does not completely reject the claims of other non-pragmatic-syncretic approaches, she does believe that non-pragmatic-syncretic approaches do not access Truth with the kind of privelege and accuracy that the pragmatic syncretist does. If this description could be said true of the pragmatic syncretist, it seems she is really an inclusivist.

    I'm sure I have something wrong here, so I'm interested to see whether you think your pragmatic syncretist could really be any of the two aforementioned, or something different.