We had an interesting discussion over at DruidJournal the other day; I have edited together my responses from that thread into this post. This says a lot of what I originally wanted to say in the previous post, but apparently couldn’t get out without having the question posed explicitly.
How does one prevent the “gathering of religions like wildflowers” from sooner or later turning into a “Religion-of-the-Month Club” whose participants pick and choose and patch together various fragments of equally various faiths purely to serve themselves: to please their whim, or to follow the current fashion or to ensure their own convenience while persuading themselves that they thereby have the approval of whatever gods they have conveniently selected and trimmed to gratify their own picky palates? … How can one distinguish “true syncretism” (which you advocate) from the pick-and-mix “cafeteria” kind?
A lot of it has to do with the coherence of one’s base religion, the starting point, and how open it is to incorporating other influences. For instance, as a Hindu friend pointed out recently, there is an existing structure in Hindu philosophy that allows some to accept Jesus as an avatar of one of their Gods, and legitimately (from their perspective, anyway! :) include Him in their worship. As someone coming from a Christian background, with its presumption of sole command of the Truth, I could not in good conscience include Him in my religious life, even if I felt inclined to do so… although as a polytheist I feel I have to allow for the possibility that He is a God – just not the only one, and not mine.
Syncretism when done well harmonizes elements of the different traditions that resonate, rather than just sticking them together; and it is respectful of the integrity of both traditions in the process… and, I believe, is generally only appropriate as a response to a deep personal calling, rather than simply an interest.
As an example, I have been fascinated by Shinto for years – I have studied about it, written about it, and some Shinto ideas have influenced my thinking about the nature of the spiritual world. However, I don’t do any kind of Shinto practice. Even though I do honor spirits of Nature and my Ancestors, which is done in Shinto as well, I don’t try to do it in a Shinto way because their practice is so tied to Japanese culture that it would be a violation of the integrity of the tradition. (Although there is a guardian kami for America, enshrined at Tsubaki Shrine in Washington… it might be acceptable to include Him, but I haven’t and probably won’t.)
On the other hand, as part of my journey I spent some time practicing Buddhism in college; and while I don’t take refuge or cultivate now, Buddhism’s teachings on metta (deep compassion or lovingkindness) have altered my worldview, and I still maintain a shrine to Guanyin Bodhisattva. I do this in parallel to my Hellenic worship, never in conjunction with it, because there is no harmony there; but it does fit with my background and life experience, and She is such a universalizing Presence (and so considered by all the cultures where She (or He) is known) that the question of cultural appropriateness doesn’t really arise.
As a final example, consider the online group I belong to, Neos Alexandria. NA is an explicitly syncretist group, centered around reviving Greco-Egyptian syncretic religion as practiced in Hellenistic Alexandria. There is a great deal of harmony between these two traditions – not only were they thrown together and mutually influential in Alexandria, but the influence of Egypt on Greek culture, philosophy and religion stretches back centuries before. This strikes me as a natural fit. Personally, I don’t worship the Egyptian Netjeru (I’m in NA mostly for the conversation and because I like the way the group is actively working to spread the revival of traditional pagan worship through their publishing arm), but I see that the two traditions can blend together with no violence being done to either side.
I see three levels of learning when it comes to other religions – “learning about”, “learning from”, and “becoming”. The first level, “learning about”, is the realm of facts, of history and explanations of theology and belief. This is (at best!) what most people do.
The second level, “learning from”, comes only after more extended study – reading not just what is said about the tradition by outsiders, or insiders writing for a general audience, but what insiders are saying to each other about the tradition, and in cases where there are scriptures, reading those and seeing what they say to you. At this level your worldview can actually be changed in some respects by the encounter with the tradition (as mine has been by my studies of Shinto and Buddhism), but likely not your core religious identity.
The third level, the level of internalization and becoming the “other”, of changing one’s core identity in some fundamental way, comes only with time and immersion into the actual tradition itself, its community and practices and ways of thinking. I have been permanently changed by the years I spent immersed in the Jewish community, my practice and deep study there, even though I did not end up converting; and likewise changed again by my current life and study as a practicing Hellenic polytheist. I do not syncretize these two traditions, but you could say that in a sense they have syncretized me.
It has been my observation that “Religion-of-the-Month Club” folks are almost always operating at the first level; syncretism when done well operates at the second level and can (very occasionally) reach down into the third. Therefore, I propose that the remedy to the problem you pose is: serious study.