In a world of religions, it is not surprising that some people have decided the best approach to spiritual issues is simply to take the parts they like from different religions and create their own. Perhaps the religion that best exemplifies this philosophy is Baha’i.
Begun in nineteenth-century Persia, Baha’i declares that all religions teach the same truth and that its prophet, Bahaullah, was but the latest in an ever-continuing series of revelations from God. In Baha’i, there is room for the teachings of all religions, since they are all one.
Hinduism, too, is syncretistic. Hindus can easily “accept” Christ as another of their multitude of gods.
But perhaps most surprising is how those who claim to follow Christ sometimes incorporate pagan ideas into their faith. One of the most famous symbols of Mexico is the Virgin of Guadalupe. A church is built over the site where Mary is said to have appeared in 1531, and thousands of Catholics make pilgrimages there every year.
But who are they holding in such reverence? Mary? Or an Aztec goddess?
Historians say that a temple to an Aztec goddess had stood on the site before it was destroyed by the local Catholic bishop. That goddess was known by the same title Catholics use for Mary, “Our Holy Mother.” The goddess—Tonantzin was associated with the moon. The Virgin of Guadalupe is pictured standing on a crescent moon and is not shown with baby Jesus.
In Africa and Asia, new Christians often struggle with the proper place of cultural traditions that have their source in pagan religions. Even the modern celebration of Christmas, for instance, was set on an ancient Roman celebration of the winter solstice.
Of course, in today’s world, one of the most pervasive forms of syncretism is universalism. This doctrine contends that through Christ’s death, all people will ultimately be saved. If everyone is going to be saved, there is no need for missions. And if all are to be redeemed, regardless of what they believe or do, the door is then open for each individual to “create his or her own religion.”
The only answer to syncretism — and to all other world religions — Is to hold fast to God’s Word. Keeping alert to syncretistic tendencies is a challenge to all of us.