The Syncretism of Tradition: Reappraising Cultural Mixture in Christianity

Kane, Ross, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Mathewes, Charles, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Jones, Paul, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation probes use of the term syncretism in Christian theology, with an eye toward constructing a pneumatology for an increasingly global and plural church. First, I show that present-day usage of syncretism demonstrates latent colonial legacies in the academy that continue to inhibit appreciation of new theological insights emerging beyond the West. Engaging history of religions and anthropological literature on syncretism as well as Kathryn Tanner’s work on culture, I reframe syncretism to highlight ways in which Christianity constantly mixes with its surrounding culture in contested ways, such that syncretism becomes an aspect of Western Christianity as much as anywhere else. To say that syncretism is ubiquitous in Christianity is not to say that it lacks normative self-understanding, however. Thus I offer a defense of the term “tradition”, understood not as a static edifice of doctrine but as a moving continuity.

In order to provide a theological account of the pervasiveness of such contested Christian mixture with culture, as well as tools for discerning when to incorporate such syncretism and when to challenge it, I employ Rowan Williams’ account of the Holy Spirit incorporating newness and strangeness into the Logos across the vicissitudes of history. Whether in 4th century debates between Arius and Athanasius or in contemporary Africa, contested mixture of religion and culture has continually shaped the identity of Christianity. My concluding theological claim is that the Holy Spirit often builds knowledge of Christ by way of Christianity’s contested transmission, a claim that I display through accounts of new theological insights emerging from places like South Sudan and Zimbabwe.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Syncretism, Culture, Tradition, Rowan Williams, Christian Theology, World Christianity
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