Hagia Sophia–Is American Christianity Syncretistic?

Hagia Sophia, originally uploaded by papalars.

Syncretism: the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion.

Leslie Newbigin made an important observation after returning from missionary service in India about his own cultural form of Christianity in England back in the 70’s. Europe in general is ahead of American culture in many of these kinds of trends, the relation of Christianity to culture, immigration patterns, the role of Islam in society, etc. Anyway, Newbigin observed that instead of confronting the culture with the Gospel, he found Christianity in the West, especially in its Protestant form, perpetually trying to fit the gospel into his native post Enlightenment culture. This was characterized by Newbigin as an advanced form of syncretism. Our form of Christianity may not in fact be genuine, let alone Biblical. In my opinion, we have, ironically, advanced the idea of a cultural form of faith even further. It has a different feel in America, my native culture, but it is there if you really want to see it. In common terms, what does this mean? I posted a photo here of the Hagia Sophia church to help us think about the premise. Is it a church? Wait…no, a mosque! Well no actually, today it’s a museum. What is this building? What was it in time past? Can we still tell? To me, it is a metaphor for the topic of syncretistic Christianity. What are the layers and identities that others see in our expression of Christianity? Don't worry, I don't think our churches will become mosques in the future. I'm just using the idea as a metaphor for the concept of layers of identity and perception.

Well, that is the same set of questions many have of Christianity today in America, especially my focus friends. Is our faith about attending the most hip church with contemporary music? Is salvation about guaranteed entrance into heaven? Is our faith about a conservative political agenda, or a liberal one for that matter? What is the Gospel all about and are we living it? I’d love to ask my blog readers some of these questions? Someone has already gotten the ball rolling in responding to my last post. They began to wonder about the notion of syncretism in Western Christianity when I made a reference to my dissertation. We normally reserve that epitaph for situations on the mission field but I’d like to turn this one around on us. So, here are my questions: 1) Is American Christianity syncretistic? 2) If so, in what ways do you see that to be the case? Maybe we can work on the follow-up suggestions to these questions later on.

Here is some interesting information about the Hagia Sophia that I got from Wikipedia. It might help in understanding the basic assessment about syncretism. This building (Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία; Holy Wisdom) is now known as the Ayasofya Museum, but was an early Christian Church and later an Eastern Orthodox church which was transformed into a mosque in 1453 by the Turks, and converted into a museum in 1935. Get the point? It is located in Istanbul, Turkey, on the Turkish Thrace. It is regularly considered one of the greatest and most beautiful buildings in history. Its conquest by the Ottomans at the fall of Constantinople is considered one of the great tragedies of Christianity by the Greek Orthodox faithful. The name comes from the Greek name Ἁγία Σοφία, a contraction of ΝαÏŒς τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, meaning "Church of the Holy Wisdom of God". It is also known as Sancta Sophia in Latin and Ayasofya in Turkish. Although it is sometimes called "Saint Sophia" in English, it is not named after a saint named Sophia — the Greek word sophia means "wisdom."

It was constructed in five years, from 532 to 537, at the orders of Emperor Justinian I and designed by Isidore of Miletus.

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  1. Author

    I don’t see the word you mention. The word I’m using is sycretism and is defined at the top of the post. I’m not trying to say synergistically at all. That is a totally different word and concept.

  2. Hey, Andy. I was trying to make a pun because synergy and syncretism both start with syn. Sorry for the confusion. I hope I didn’t annoy you with that.

    There was a link on Scot McNight’s blog today to a site called Gender Genie. It analyzes your writing and guesses if you’re male or female. I submitted three samples and the alogorithm guessed I was male all three times.

    I wonder if they have a pun algorithm genie. I would probably confuse that program, too…

  3. Hi

    Looks good! Very useful, good stuff. Good resources here. Thanks much!


  4. Are you interested in modern syncretism, or any and all syncretism from the beginning when God commanded his people to be separate, and not indoctrinated from/by the surrounding pagan cultures?

    As I began to realize that my Christian beliefs and practices were not all Biblical (from studying the Scriptures), I began to search for the truth. It has been a very revealing study. I have been surprised to find that many of my Christian friends see no problem with the syncretistic “Christianity” as taught and practiced today.

    I would be glad to share some of these syncretisms that have crept into Christianity, if you would be interested.

  5. I have been frustrated about this concept for a long time now. Although I did not know there was a word for it, I have seen its influence. I am not a minister, missionary, or scholar and I have grown up in Christian America.

    I believe this idea is a symptom of a biblically illiterate culture who want to hear sermons that apply to their lives but don’t challenge their own walk. Preachers and even some translations of the Word have become soft on issues that are explicitly condemned by God.

    I also see Christians that wear the American Dream as part of their God given right and faith. We have become like Pharisees and Sadducees who look at the Word of God from their own wishful perspective instead of truly seeking God through His message to us.

    Shame on us. May God wake us up to the lies we are living.

    Sorry for the rant.

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