A dissident Catholic screed once ran a story about the possibility that the Catholic feminist movement known as Women-Church was losing all connection with Catholic tradition. Their concern was that Women-Church, in its attempts to be inclusive of all women, was
becoming syncretistic, i.e., willing to regard many different spiritual traditions on an equal level with Catholic faith. The report said that an upcoming Women-Church conference would have, in addition to rituals by witches, rituals led by "Buddhists, American Indians, Quakers and Jewish leaders--as well as by Catholic nuns." (Women-Church discussed at length in the 5th chapter of The Smoke of Satan in the Temple of God).
I have observed that this syncretistic mentality is widespread in the Church today. Consider the following description of the program of a respected Midwestern Catholic center for spirituality:
Readings are selected every day from the sacred texts of
Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Islam, as well as Christianity.
On occasion, ancient festivals of the Celts or Saxons are
remembered, and members dance around a maypole or fire-pit in
the fields or forest.... The Chapel is visually stimulating and
instructive.... Icons of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Risen
Christ are placed side by side with statues of Buddha, Lord
Vishnu and Moses.
This widespread spiritual attitude challenges the foundations of the Body of Christ. At the same time, however, it offers us an opportunity to re-examine those foundations and ask ourselves just what it is that anchors our identity as Catholics.
As I argued in my book, the syncretistic tendency can be understood as the attempt to appropriate
ideas and practices from a variety of spiritual traditions without any attempt to discriminate their truth or value in light of Catholic faith. One way in which the equality and compatibility of various religions is justified is by incorporating their various dimensions under basic categories. So, the writings of different religions are all put on the same level by being labeled "sacred writings." Similarly, different gods are included under the general category of the Transcendent, and various rituals are all considered to serve the same function of contacting and establishing unity with the Transcendent.
Some see religion itself as the unifying concept, though only known through the various "religions." As David Steindl-Rast has said, "Religion, as I use the term, should be written with a capital R to distinguish it from various religions." All "religions" find their source in "Religion." When "Religion" is institutionalized, it becomes merely "a religion." For Steindl-Rast, the content of "Religion" is revealed through "our peak experiences." There "we discover...what we mean by God, if we want to use that term. We experience that we belong to God. Our true self is the divine self."
Since the authentic content of "Religion" can be derived from that common experience, the various "religions" are considered essentially compatible. Hence, for Steindl-Rast, it is possible to have a baptismal ceremony which is totally Buddhist and totally Christian. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity adds anything unique to the ritual. The rite is able to express a prioi commonality of meaning, which was there before the two "religions" were formed. Thus, syncretism assumes common content and, on that basis, is open to incorporating beliefs and practices from a potpourri of spiritual traditions.
If this is so, what are we to make of the Resurrection of Our Lord? Does the fact that we can know of the physical Resurrection only because of the witness of the Apostolic Church, for whom it was a unique and unrepeatable experience, mean that it is an obstacle to spirituality? As I pointed out in Smoke, many today would answer in the affirmative. Following Rudolf Bultmann, who understands the Resurrection as a myth without basis in history, they see it as having relevance only insofar as it evokes the experience of "new life" in us, i.e., illumines our psychological condition and comforts us.
This is becoming an attractive position for many today. As an example, John Crossan says that there is no biblical basis for belief in the Resurrection. It merely records the apostles' belief that a person of Jesus' character could not have been totally destroyed. If this is correct, then Christianity becomes just one of many sources for "spiritual" ideas. The Resurrection merely opens up realms of personal experience for insestigation. But it is no more than a religious idea on par with others, such as the Hindu belief in reincarnation. The hope for a universal spirituality will then rest on the possibility of integrating all the "best" beliefs and practices of the various religions, however mutually contradictory they often are.
Ramification for Catholics? Either we are a community whose teachings and practices are based on our faith in the truth of the original witnesses, or we are one that draws its beliefs and practices from a hodge-podge of ideas and personal experiences....
How we answer this question is bound up with how we see the relation between spirituality and community. A living spiritual tradition is always rooted in the historical experience of a particular community. To be a Catholic means to be a committed member of a community of faith with its own specific beliefs, practices, and institutional disciplines. As Vatican II teaches, these may take on a particular bent depending on the local culture, but the community is universal, Catholic. Its center is in Rome and its core beliefs, practices, and disciplines transcend any particular form of it.
As I document in Smoke, those Catholics seduced by neomodernism are open to the syncretistic tendency precisely because they they no longer see commitment to the historical Church as being of any particular importance. They may have a certain preference for the Catholic form of religion because of its ritual, but nothing more. Just as they are physically and socially mobile, so they are religiously mobile. They dabble in various spiritualities.
Thus, the notion of the "searcher;"— those who have freed themselves from the limitations that commitment to a historical tradition involves, in order to search for the "eternally true" which transcends all historical religions. But what value is there to the "search" unless, at some point, it can be brought to a successful conclusion? For the notion of the "search" to be spiritually nourishing, it must include the capacity to commit oneself to specific truths which answer the search when they are encountered. The prince of this world will keep the search-without-the-find ongoing, for He does not want the searcher to find Truth.
It is difficult to see how being an endless "searcher" is compatible with Catholic faith. To be Catholic is to believe that one has found the core truth about human life in Jesus Christ as He is presented to us through the life and teaching of the Church. One thereby enters into a very distinctive, countercultural way of life. For a Catholic the "search" is over. Once the decision for the Church has been made, the Catholic stands committed to a body of religious truth to which he or she must give witness, though an important dimension of "search" remains—the search to understand more fully the content of the faith and how to live it out. Such a belief is highly offensive to a neomodernost syncretist. For him or her this reeks of a triumphalism at odds with openness to other spiritual traditions.
Theologians like Ron Miller are prepared to say that is ecumenically inappropriate to insist on the unique status of Jesus. He complains of orthodox Christians that, in their "particularism," they cannot "entertain the possibility that, just as Jesus is the name for that Word of the divine which characterizes Christian experience, Krishna is the name for that same reality among
Hindus." Christ and Krishna, then, are merely two different ways of doing the same human thing--breaking through to the divine.
Such a radical parting of the doctrinal ways here! For the Catholic, Jesus is not just one of many names for the divine drawn from experience. For Catholics, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life—the person through whom we truly come to know what the divine is, insofar as that is capable of being revealed to human beings. There is no neutral experience of the divine against
which we can compare Christian and Hindu experiences, such that we can say they are both equally valid experiences of the divine. For Christians Jesus Christ is "The Word of God" which judges all other words. All other religious experiences are judged by the standard of the historical person of Jesus the Christ, in whom the Church proclaims God was incarnate.