As I’ve been preparing for the upcoming mission trip to Cuba, I have been thinking about some of the false religions that permeate the Caribbean, including voodoo and Santeria. There is no doubt that the evidence of these pagan practices will be seen during the time that we will be on the island nation, and the chances that we will encounter practitioners are pretty high. What makes this even sadder, especially in the case of a religion like Santeria, is that it is what we call syncretistic; that is, it is a blending of Christianity with the pagan religion of the indigenous peoples, where the central aspects of the faith are replaced by non-Christian elements.
Syncretism is a dangerous pitfall that threatens the faith, whether it is among unreached people groups or among peoples of what once was referred to as Christendom. In that first area, we often find syncretism where missionaries are reluctant to turn over control of the church to the indigenous people. The missionary instead is the source of authority and correction. Even when that missionary exerts such an influence based on the truth of Scripture, it remains problematic for that new church movement since they have not been trained how to go to the ultimate authority, God’s Word, to answer questions and challenges. As a result, once the missionary leaves, the elements of the former false religions flood the church, choking out the sprouts of faith (cf. the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1-9). Santeria provides us with a prime example of how syncretism will remove from the people the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, replacing it with a different gospel devoid of any power to save.
While it is easy to point to other places and see the syncretism that exists there, it can be harder to see how it has infiltrated our own thinking, beliefs, and actions. Indeed, there are elements of what we might term “folk religion” within American Christianity as a whole, as well as our own backyard right here in southcentral and southwest Michigan. If you have traveled past some of our cemeteries at night, particularly those that are out in the more rural areas, you’ve probably noticed some of these examples. Many of the graves have solar lights and what are essentially shrines to the deceased loved one, consisting of things that person may have loved in life (ranging from trinkets of all sorts to six packs of beer). What’s more, the deceased loved one is spoken of in terms as if they remain here on earth in some sort of ethereal form, either in the form of a guardian angel or just as a spirit who is constantly protecting or guiding the living. I’m sure you’ve seen or heard these examples even from people who are believers (or at least profess to be), but these examples reflect how elements of folk religions, often rooted in paganism, have infiltrated our language and our actions. The deceased have no need for solar lights and six packs, as if they are partying in the cemetery as soon as the sun goes down; the living have no need of these things in the cemetery, either, as it is illegal to be in there at that time! Yet in the act of leaving these things at a gravesite, those of us who are believers are expressing an understanding of death and the afterlife that stands in stark contrast to what Scripture says about those subjects – especially for those who have placed their faith in Christ alone.
I fully expect to see examples of syncretism in Cuba – conflations of Christianity and whatever else, where Christianity is always in an auxiliary role. However, I need to be far more cautious about the syncretism that always threatens to invade my own faith. Am I a Berean, always testing my beliefs against the pure standard of the Word of God, or am I content with believing whatever combination suits my fancy? Just something to think about…