The danger of (post)modern syncretism

The Puritans are (and always were) misunderstood as believing that they were morally or spiritually purer than their fellows. But in fact their basic tenet was rather that there is such a thing as “pure religion,” in the sense of the original gospel of Christ and the apostles untrammeled by syncretistic additions from other religions. This, of course, was the basis for the Protestant Reformation. It is (as the first of Martin Luther’s Wittenberg theses stressed) a religion of repeated repentance leading to constant assurance of salvation.

On the spiritual side the Puritans’ problems with Roman Catholicism, and hence with what Anglicanism tended to become, included its adoption, from the time of Constantine primarily, of pagan (or perhaps Jewish) sacerdotalism. They saw no New Testament basis for a mediating priesthood ministering a repeated, even if “bloodless,” sacrifice of Christ upon an altar (see Hebrews 9:24-28). They considered that the other ecclesiastical abuses from the sale of indulgences to a monarchical Pope stemmed from this.

There was a social dimension as well, in that “Christendom” had somehow subordinated the egalitarian nature of primitive Christianity to the world’s system of power:

What [William] Perkins, and the whole Puritan movement after him, sought was to replace the personal pride of birth and status with the professional’s or craftsman’s pride of doing one’s best in one’s particular calling. The good Christian society needs the best of kings, magistrates, and citizens. Perkins most emphasized the work ethic from Genesis: “In the swaete of thy browe shalt thou eate thy breade.” [E. Digby Baltzell, “Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia,” 1979]

Needless to say, the study of the Bible was a strong stimulus for the recognition of the need for this “pure religion.” It was the failure of Israel to keep its religion free from the pagan cults surrounding it that led to trouble even at Mount Sinai, when they made themselves the famous golden calf. The Book of Judges recounts the constant threats to their very existence resulting from their incorporation of alien beliefs, primarily Baal worship. The same tendency led to the syncretistic religion of the northern kings at Samaria, with its bull-idol, and to Judah’s fatal adoption of foreign practices, from King Ahaz’s altar copied from that in Damascus to the passing of children through the fire adopted from the cult of Moloch. Eventually it led to the Exile and the abrogation by Yahweh of the Mosaic Covenant.

In other words the Puritans could see both from the biblical record and from experience that adding fashionable religious ideas to biblical faith seldom works out well. Given human nature statues would almost inevitably result in idolatry, and a communion table in the midst of the congregation would easily (under Archbishop Laud) lose its legs and become once more a sacrificial altar behind rails which only special priests could traverse.

That is why it is important now to understand how nearly all the fashionable and controversial issues of our time are actually religious in nature. This point has often been made with respect to the intolerance and independence from evidence of so many issues that we come across in the world. It has even become widely recognised that space has been created for many of these things by the eclipse of Christianity over the last century or so, which was largely the result of the Modernism percolating through society since the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment thinking – perhaps best seen as a Cult of Reason – has affected nearly every manifestation of Christianity in the West. Critical thinking is not a bad thing at all, but nearly all of us are tainted by the false belief underlying rationalism, which is essentially atheistic Epicureanism. In my youth it was normal for churchmen to explain away biblical miracles on the spurious basis that science had disproved them. Even now, as we know, many Christians are happy to believe in a kind of demiurge called “Chance,” largely independent of God, that is somehow the organising principle behind the living world around us. There is not space here to spell out how this creates an entirely different kind of religion from biblical Theism, nor how reactions against it have produced their own heresies like the extreme subjectivism of much Charismatic Christianity.

When a new idea appears in academic garb, it is relatively easy for it to circumvent the Christian’s defences against false religion.

For example, simple patriotism is not only, it seems to me, compatible with the “pure gospel, ” but is something to be celebrated. To that majority of us not convinced that Christ demands total pacifism, even the defence of one’s country by force of arms may be a necessary evil. But when that love of nation, kinsmen and culture becomes an ideological exceptionalism, then the dangers of departing from true faith are very great indeed.

“American exceptionalism,” sadly, is the most tragic current example, which seems to be based on the idea that a decent constitution entitles one to rule the world, even if the constitution is ignored at home. To be frank, this belief has thrown the world into turmoil and brought the name of Christ, so associated with America, into disrepute among the nations. But Britain too, in its day, had its “white man’s burden,” which all too frequently blurred the lines between sharing the gospel and reinforcing British power. As I have mentioned before, Russian readers too need to beware lest the justifiable sense of being God’s instrument for the present hour slides into a sense of messianic mission. There is only one Messiah, and he has already conquered evil through the path of suffering, which he calls us to follow until he returns.

A florid example of religious syncretism is the capitulation of not only historic denominations, but the so-called “Big Eva” Evangelicals, both here and in America, to critical theory. Earlier generations falsely assumed that Freudian psychoanalytic theory was “science” and so could be used to clarify matters of faith. Similarly, in our generation, the belief that Critical Race Theory and the various sexuality and gender issues rest on “science” leads whole denominations to prioritise it over biblical teaching, even labelling it “a gospel issue” as it undermines the gospel.

But the whole “Woke” movement is fundamentally religious, supplying an alternative meaning to reality based on feeling (like other misguided over-reactions against rationalism) and denying truths clearly taught in the pure religion founded on biblical revelation. It may seem that the weak spot of Christians in this is compassion for the suffering trumping “inflexible” Bible teaching. But behind that lies the tacit assumption that “lived experience” reflects reality, because The Science says so (when in fact it doesn’t).

A second example is the religious environmentalism that expresses itself in climate alarmism and obsession with Net Zero. Those holding such views are impervious to evidence like this, and even to IPCC documents decrying terms like “climate emergency” and denying any increase in extreme weather events. Now it’s true that a big factor in the prevalence of climate catastrophism is pervasive propaganda. Even the more moderate statements of the IPCC never get aired in public, let alone alternative expert views.

But it is open to us all to do a bit of research, and it seems that manyChristians are happy to get enthusiastic about saving the planet without considering what Christianity teaches about the Lord’s sovereignty over nature, let alone researching the science. That prejudice is quickly buried beneath the claim that the Bible teaches us to be stewards of nature.

But that claim is only a half-truth. We are not told in Scripture that the welfare of the world depends on us, but that it depends on God. In fact, our own “creation ordinance” in Genesis 1, after telling us to be fruitful and increase (rather than reverse “overpopulation”), requires us to “replenish the earth,” which may have something to do with conservation, but has much more to do with farming than banning livestock and rewilding.

But the next command is surprising, because so unfashionable in environmentalist times. We are told to “subdue” the earth, a verb which has clear connotations of suppressing opposition. It is the language of taming a wild beast, or even of subjecting an enemy by force. When did you last hear that expressed in a sermon? Since this is God’s command to mankind, we can expect him to have created the world to bless, not penalise, such activity. Here’s an example: raw nature is of such a character that it yields its fruits only by hard (often animal) labour, which in some years won’t stave off famine, destroying human families. But the hard labour of mining for the fossil fuels God put in the earth for us can create fertilizers that minimise famine, and provide reliable heat and transport that lead to greater human flourishing, and ease the necessity for animal or slave labour.

You see, the idea that industrialisation is an unmitigated evil hated by God and injurious to a fragile world is a religious idea, and one that is directly opposite to the Christian teaching that the world was created for mankind, and that God has therefore made it suitably resilient. When Christians adopt it, they are in effect blinding themselves to the true nature of the world. And by repeating the lie that prosperity equates to “selfish exploitation of the planet” they also blind themselves to the human suffering caused by such a lie. They divest from oil, enthuse for Net Zero, and persuade themselves, contrary to the evidence, that climate change is causing all the problems.

So look out for the modern religions competing for your soul, and I don’t mean New Age or Islam. Look out for the unevidenced zeal for “safe and effective” mRNA shots; the crusading against institutional racism that, being unconscious, needs no proof; the strange religious pejoratives of “far-right,” “homophobic” and so on that people try so hard to avoid that they deny their faith.

In the matter of syncretism, the Puritans were quite right.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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