Have you ever come across this sort of scenario? Someone has a staple like coffee and then begins to add some type of condiment, like sugar. They add more…and more…and more. You can’t help but notice and joke, “Hey, have some coffee with that sugar!” The person smirks, but doesn’t laugh because they probably had heard the joke before (or in my case because I’m not funny). The joke reveals the observation that so much sugar was added to the coffee that the sugar, not the coffee, becomes the defining feature of the drink.
All of this is a perfect analogy for what I’ve been thinking about culture and religion lately. When so many cultural “condiments” are added to a religion, the religion then becomes defined by those elements rather than its pure form. What is the point where a religion stops being itself? Does coffee with a ton of sugar ever turn into something other than coffee at some point, or is it just coffee with a lot of sugar?
In Haiti, there are many cases in which Voodoo has mixed with Roman Catholicism. People call this religious syncretism. I had even heard of cases where a Catholic priest will serve the duties of the church during the day, and serve as a Voodoo witch doctor at night! Is this mixture a form of Catholicism? Voodoo? Or something else?
I think you would be surprised at all of the syncretistic elements in your faith…particularly if you are an American Christian. Ever wonder where the Christmas tree tradition came from? Do you have an American flag in your sanctuary? I’m not suggesting that these things are inherently wrong, but I think it’s helpful to recognize what is original and what is cultural.
If I ever pursue a PhD, I think this topic will be my dissertation. There are so many more questions with regard to this topic. What is original Christianity? What is the interaction of culture and faith? What is the point where a mixture of faiths creates a new brand?
I’d love to hear your ideas about this topic.