As an educator, I found Chapter 9, “The Last Taboo: Education about Religion” of In Praise of Mixed Religion worth the price of admission into William Harrison’s insightful journey that explores the inter-relationships among the constantly changing dynamics of individual faith, cultural realities and the ways in which religions work.
Harrison is right in his articulation of the need for education about religion as a basic human right and necessity. Current cultural views that take the ‘pretend religion is not there’ approach are dead ends: “A syncretistic world requires that we know something about what religion is, about the nature of our own religious heritages, and about other religious traditions” (p. 207). This statement is a good expression of my rationale for developing and teaching a course in comparative religions at the secondary school level, and helping others to design similar courses. Unfortunately, we were voices in the wilderness, but Harrison gives occasion for new hope. This chapter should be read and digested by every school trustee, curriculum committee and parent group in the country. It’s all to obvious: “We need to know about the complex world in which we live. We need the information that will make possible the basic decisions of our lives. Religious education is a necessity, not merely an option” (p.226).
Harrison calls for nothing less than an “Intellectual Transformation”, the title of the book’s final chapter. That transformation involves our understanding and acceptance of syncretism as a human phenomenon at work, not only in religion, but in our very humanity itself. A Syncretistic approach recognizes that faith systems constantly change under the influence of one another and that we can consciously use these processes to enhance the Reign of God among us. Writes Harrison, “…the notion of syncretism is not merely a tool for interpreting the world. Instead, it is a call to action. I have adopted an “advocacy” view of syncretism because it is a call to change the world. I am asking us to recognize the complex syncretisms that we compose, in addition to those that others create and follow. This way of thinking about the world means that the “other” is less other and more of a conversation partner. We can begin to think in terms of what others have to offer us and what we have to offer them. This removes some of the win/lose-us/them dynamic from religious conversation” (p. 233).
It’s a challenge worth embracing. I brought, with great enthusiasm, a copy of Harrison’s book to a recent meeting of the diocesan Ecumenical and Multi-Faith Unit. It’s become recommended reading and I know that there are already parish and diocesan groups who have taken it on as a study focus. Each chapter analyses different aspects of syncretism as a human phenomenon and explores when syncretism is positive or negative. This analysis leads Harrison to an advocacy for what he calls “critical openness”, a much needed entity in a world which often operates on the basis of superficial thinking on a wide range of human issues.
In Praise of Mixed Religion: The Syncretism Solution in a Multifaith World is published by McGill-Queens University Press and was financially supported by funds from the University of British Columbia. Rev. Dr. Bill Harrison is an Anglican priest who was, until recently, the principal of the Kootenay School of Ministry in Kelowna. He will take up a position as the Director of Mission and Ministry for the Diocese of Huron on September 1, 2014. He will implement the diocese’s strategic plan and begin work around alternate models for ministry.
The book is dedicated to the Rev. Keith Gilbert, priest in the Diocese of New Westminster who has most recently served at St. Laurence. It’s nice to see a scholar of Harrison’s depth acknowledging his past mentors.
Rev. Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and a blogmaster at NW Anglican Blog. Your comments and submissions are most welcome. As Harrison points out, the life is in the conversation.