Are you a secret syncretist?

Filed in Spirituality by on November 24, 2015 1 Comment

Are you a secret syncretist? A homily by Fr Stephen Wang

Here is the question: Are you a syncretist? Some of you are probably scratching your heads and wondering, “What on earth is that?” A syncretist is someone who believes that all religions, more or less, are saying the same thing. There may be different customs, different symbols, different emphases, but the core religious truths are fundamentally the same. So it doesn’t matter which one you follow, because they all go in roughly the same direction.

Many of us are subconscious syncretists. We say something that seems quite harmless like, “We all worship the same God”; but sometimes, hidden within this, perhaps unintentionally, is another suggestion:  “and it doesn’t matter how we worship him”. Or we say something very respectful like, “Everyone has to find their own way”, which is sort-of true, but we don’t go on to ask whether this particular way that someone is following is actually helpful or good or true, as if something becomes automatically worthwhile just because someone has chosen it.

The Catholic view, for the record, is that there can be much goodness and truth within other religions, as well as ambiguities and dangers; and to have the hope that this goodness and truth will lead people to the deepest goodness and the deepest truth, which is Christ himself.

At one level, there is something very attractive about syncretism. It’s about trying to create harmony; to avoid disagreement and conflict. It’s about trying to honour the sincere intentions of every believer, and recognising that there is a common search going on here – which there undoubtedly is. But at another level, syncretism is deeply dissatisfying, and it distorts the meaning of every religion. Because religions are making truth claims, and they want these claims to be taken seriously. If I say, “Don’t worry about your differences; they are not, ultimately, very important”, this is a way of dismissing the claims you are making; it’s patronising; and it doesn’t create harmony, it just smothers the differences.

Today’s feast is a challenge to syncretism. Note carefully the proper title of the feast. It’s not just the Solemnity of “Christ the King”, as we often say to save time; it’s the Solemnity of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe”. So this is not just one king among many, one religious leader among many, one prophet among many. This is Christ the Universal King – the king of every person and of all creation, the king of the whole cosmos, the Alpha and the Omega.

As the Prophet Daniel says, “on him was conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship, and men of all peoples, nations and languages became his servants”. And as St John says in the Book of Revelation, “everyone will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the races of the earth will mourn over him”. This is our faith, that Jesus Christ is the saviour of all people, and that his message of love and mercy is a gift for all people, not just for you or me.

Often, I think, we don’t really believe this. We think to ourselves, “Well, Christianity is true for me, but maybe it’s not true for my Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim or Sikh friend”. We think, “I’ve found my way, and they have found their way, and that’s fine”. Do you see the misguided theology that is hidden here? In effect you are saying: “Christ died for me, and for my Christian friends; but not really for you and for your non-Christian friends; he’s not interested in people from your background or culture. His love, his mercy, his peace, his healing; these divine gifts that have utterly transformed my life – they are not really important for you”.

Do you see how strange this is, and even how selfish? This is not Christianity. It’s the Feast of Christ as “One King Among Many”; it’s the Feast of “Christ the local Mayor” – who can help me out with my local problems but has no power or authority outside of my little world.

This is getting slightly theoretical, so let me give you two images: Imagine you are in a war, captured by your enemy, locked away in a prison camp. And you discover an escape tunnel that will take you to freedom, and one night you finally enter the tunnel – but without telling anyone.

Or imagine there is a terrible famine and people are starving to death, and you find a huge, hidden supply of food and drink, enough to feed people from miles around; and you eat the food and drink the water – but without telling anyone.

This is what we are like most of the time as Christians. We genuinely believe that Christ is King, but we are not really sure if he is King for All.

This feast is a wonderful celebration of our Christian faith, but it’s also a challenge. Ask yourself this question: Who is the real King, the Ruler, in your relationship with Christ? Do you spend more time in prayer asking him to do what you want, or asking him to help you do what he wants? Of course it is good to ask for things; and when we pray the Our Father we say, “Give us this day our daily bread”. But before that we say, “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done”. Lots of our prayer, if we are honest, is about asking Jesus to serve us, to carry out our plans.

We dethrone Christ. We expect him to be obedient to us. Intercession is an important part in prayer, but on its own intercession can become a form of idolatry if we are worshipping our own desires and not the will of God. What a difference it would make if we started our prayer by asking, “What is your will? What can I do for you?”

There is a simple test of whether we truly believe that Christ is the Universal King, or whether he is really just your own personal King, King of the Christians, like a tribal God. Here is the test: are you willing to share your faith and make it more visible? Are you willing to speak about him to others? Not necessarily to preach or to teach or to argue or to catechise, but simply to speak about who he is and what he means to you, and what he could mean to others? Of course, you feel very inadequate; and often you are not even sure yourself what he does mean to you; but sometimes we only discover this by speaking about it.

How could I not have the desire to share this knowledge if I really believe it? If he has touched my life so profoundly, how could I not want him to touch the lives of others? In the Book of Revelation Jesus is called the faithful witness; and in the Gospel he says to Pilate, “I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth”. Our task, the very meaning of our lives, if to bear witness to the truth. Not because we want to impose anything on others or to appear arrogant or superior, but simply because we are amazed at the gift that he has given us, and we know this gift is for others too. He is not just my King, or your King, he is Jesus Christ, King of the whole universe.

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About the Author ()

Fr Stephen Wang is a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Westminster. He is currently Senior University Chaplain for the Archdiocese. Some of his articles have previously been published on his personal blog, Bridges and Tangents. See:

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