“In Praise of Mixed Religion” by William H. Harrison: Valuable Insights into Faith and Culture

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. 

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6 Responses to “In Praise of Mixed Religion” by William H. Harrison: Valuable Insights into Faith and Culture

  1. Syncretism everywhere in the Bible is spoke off in the negative. All through the old testament God is dealing with the Jews and their propensity toward syncretism. Even some of the kings such as Solomon fell to this insidious cancer. God does not allow us to modify what he has established in his word. He does not allow us to have other gods (religions) on par with Him. If one does not like the “religion” that God has established we are free to find one the suits us or even make up our own. But it is offensive to God when we cut and paste religions together to modify what God has established. Those who embrace syncretism and pluralism should just be honest and not try to change Christianity and find or create a religion they are comfortable with but that comes with a price for as Jesus has stated many time, there is only one way to get to God. When we syncretize with other religions we elevate them to a place of equality with Christianity, a place that they do not have in truth. All religions fall short of the truth found in Christianity for they are man made, only one was founded by God. We must remember that whatever diminishes what God has clearly stated in His word is counter to True Christianity. “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; “
    Lets just stay true to what God has declared to us in his word

    • Tony. What can I say. You are missing the point. I admire your commitment to Scripture and to Christian faith, but your notion of “truth” mystifies me. For me, you don’t have a theologically workable definition of “truth” other than to say “truth” is some kind of absolute fixed entity — something that would be totally foreign to the God of the Bible. I suggest you read Harrison’s book to see the positive examples he provides from Scripture of the human phenomenon of syncretism in action. Harrison never suggests that we, as Christians, “elevate” other religions “to be equal” with Christianity. “Religions” are, after all, relative entities in the Great Mystery of God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ. Religions do not equate with “absolute truth” — or untruth — as you suggest. I must confess your method of reading Scripture is very different than that of most people I deal with — but that is your right. I can’t comprehend that the approach you take to epistemology and faith can lead us, as Christians, into the ongoing revelation of God in Jesus among us as we seek the leading of the Holy Spirit who “leads us into all truth”. As this Scriptural admonishment reminds us, “leading” implies an on-going rich journey as we interact with the greatest truth delivered to us – the revelation of God in Christ Jesus which I celebrate every time I read the Gospel as a deacon, assist at the Eucharist, teach the Bible, grow my human relationships or minister to my community in the name of Jesus. I hope you can discover this richness on your journey. I commend to you the wonderful hymn of Frederick Faber (1814-1863), “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” the central theme of which is that God leading us into all truth centres in the Love of God shed abroad in our hearts through Christ Jesus and not through the God of the Universe enforcing unchanging “rules” about this and that aspect of human life and existence. The tension between these two things – rules and grace – is the nexus of Scripture. So here’s some verses from Faber’s hymn.

      There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
      Like the wideness of the sea;
      There’s a kindness in His justice,
      Which is more than liberty.

      There is grace enough for thousands
      Of new worlds as great as this;
      There is room for fresh creations
      In that upper home of bliss.

      For the love of God is broader
      Than the measure of our mind;
      And the heart of the Eternal
      Is most wonderfully kind.

      If our love were but more simple,
      We should take Him at His word;
      And our lives would be all sunshine
      In the sweetness of our Lord.

      It is God: his love looks mighty
      But is mightier than it seems;
      ‘Tis our Father: and his fondness
      Goes far out beyond our dreams.

      But we make His love too narrow
      By false limits of our own;
      And we magnify His strictness
      With a zeal He will not own.

      Was there ver kinder shepherd
      Half so gentle, half so sweet,
      As the Saviour who would have us
      Come and gather at His feet?

      This beloved hymn captures the essence of Holy Scripture, of God’s love for us in Christ and reflects Harrison’s approach to the human phenomenon of syncretism which he analyses in his book. I’m truly concerned, as a Christian and as a clergy person that we are often tempted to “make His love too narrow/By false limits of our own/magnifying His strictness/with a zeal He will not own.”

      Thanks for engaging, Tony. I hope we continue to learn from one another.

  2. Here is a view of syncretism explained by R C Sproul ,he does a better job then I do. http://books.google.ca/books?id=0RWAhauCsEUC&pg=PA163&lpg=PA163&dq=syncretism+christianity+r+c+sproul&source=bl&ots=cSD3OGA_vO&sig=GtLA3tu8am_iH9hcgUXjHBbR-Us&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Z2b7U4m5DuK7igLpmICgAQ&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=syncretism%20christianity%20r%20c%20sproul&f=false
    Also do you believe in the immutability of God and absolute truth. Again I say nowhere in the bible is syncretism looked on as a favorable virtue.

    • Unfortunately, RC Sproul comes from a particularly unhelpful branch of American Christian Calvinist thought. I’ve studied him over the years. A good critique of Sproul’s approach is found here: http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2008/09/taking-calvinism-too-far-rc-sproul-jr’s-evil-creating-deity/ A better explanation of the view Harrison puts forward is summed up in Father Richard Longenecker’s (Roman Catholic priest and writer) definition of “gradualism” as the official view of the Roman Catholic church. Writes Longenecker, “Gradualism makes an exclusive truth claim for its religion, but acknowledges all that is beautiful, good, and true in other religions as a pointer or prophecy toward the fullness of truth in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The exclusive claim is there, as it must be, but this is not the radical exclusivism in which all others must convert or die. Instead gradualism allows not only for tolerance of other religions, but of real appreciation and a desire to learn and adopt elements of those religions that are beautiful, good, and true without falling into weakened syncretism or a flaccid, relativistic tolerance.” Precisely. This sums up a workable approach that can be used by the Holy Spirit in our relationships with other faith communities. It’s the basis of the Ecumenical and Multi-faith unit of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, of which I am a part, and the basis of our on-going dialogue with other faith communities — a dialogue that is absolutely necessary if we are to move forward as Jesus’ ‘salt and light’ in the world. That’s why I, personally, and the Anglican diocese, as an entity, belong to the Metro Vancouver Alliance, a coalition of diverse faith groups, labor organizations and community organizations working together, in the context of their difference, to improve the social safety networks and support to people in need in our community – our Christian mandate. I’ve written about Metro Vancouver Alliance elsewhere on NW Anglican Blog.

  3. That’s right Sproul does follow a Calvinist viewpoint, as well as a lot of Anglicans such as J I Packer, John Stott, Alister Mcgrath, etc, and there are quite a few pastors in this diocese that believe that viewpoint. I have not listened or read anything by R C Sproul Jr so I can not speak to what he has said. I wouldn’t be leaning to hard on the catholic church for any clarification of theology ,they are the epitome of what happen when you embrace syncritism ,they brought in a lot of beliefs and practices they had been doing and just morphed them into the practices and beliefs of Christianity even though they were contrary to biblical teaching. They still hold to a lot of them to this day. Christianity is exclusive, as with all religions if you dig deep. Ravi Zacharias once said ” But I am doing so because the one notion to which all religions subscribe (either explicitly or implicitly) is the notion of exclusive truth. Populists like to deny that premise, but all religions either make this claim or try to covertly smuggle it in. My premise is that the popular aphorism that “all religions are fundamentally the same and only superficially different” simply is not true. It is more correct to say that all religions are, at best, superficially similar but fundamentally different.” He has studied all religions and has debated with the leaders of those religions that has lead him to this conclusion. True Christianity is exclusive , you know the scriptures “I am the way ,the truth…no man comes to the father…”Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved”,”The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,”, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” and there are many others as you know. To know about what other religions believe is a very useful tool to lead them to the truth of the gospel. our aim should always be to lead people to the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ and in him alone and not dilute that message with other religions beliefs and practices

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