Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Some Thoughts on Syncretism…..

I’ve recently been digging into the “Yogis, Heros and Poets” anthology on the Nath tradition that Phil recently reviewed. The article that I found most striking was reflection by David N. Lorenzen on the similarities between the perspectives of Gorakhnath and the mystical poet Kabir in relation to their perceptions of religious difference. For Lorenzen the inspired intellectualism of these two teacher/poets allowed them to express a sense of liberty from religious division that seemed in contrast to mere folksy syncretism.

Alongside this I’ve been reading quite a bit about of the Bauls of Bengal-both the rather romantic To Live Within by Lizelle Reymond and Jeanne Openshaw’s Seeking the Bauls of Bengal – although variation between Baul’s is inevitable, their music, poetry and spiritual praxis is often informed by a heady synthesis of traditions which includes Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Nath lore and Sufism. So it’s fair to say that I’ve had a lot of thoughts regarding syncretism and religious diversity on my mind!

It feels somewhat inevitable that I should be drawn to an exploration of this type of material given that my own spiritual journey has been concerned with the relationships that might exist between differing traditions and their potentially competing truth claims. As discussed in more detail here – Strange adventures in Tantra – my own inability to accept the exclusivist claims of Christian orthodoxy, drove me on to seek new perspectives that would allow me to nurture myself with a more diverse array of perspectives.

Eventually I found some answers by taking refuge behind the rusty punk rock bike-shed of Chaos Magick-its energy, irreverence and accelerated syncretism seemed at least to have the benefit of accurately reflecting the immediacy and jagged edges of the culture I experienced. But old habits die hard! As a somewhat errant child of the Postmodern age, part of me can’t help but long for a big shiny unifying truth. On one level this is hardly surprising given the degree to which contemporary occulture still leans heavily on perennialist perspectives such as theosophy and the reductionist application of the Qabalah as a classification system. The tempting metanarrative offered by the Perennial Philosophy can feel like a blessed relief when contrasted with the endless “cut-ups” and deconstructions of a more Chaotic approach.

Like the Perennial Philosophy before it, the Integral philosophy espoused by Ken Wilber also offers an alluring attempt at mapping cosmic holism. While providing many helpful insights, in my view it often confuses the concepts of similarity with sameness. While it may be helpful to pay attention to the trans-personal connections that exist in the mystical narratives of differing traditions, there is also a considerable risk of minimising difference and rich diversity in the pursuit of such a totalising vision. For me part of the problem with such approaches, is less about the sense of holism that might emerge from an encounter with the numinous, and more about any overly linear, reductionist attempt to tie the stages of such a process down.

If I’m unable or unwilling to take the leap of faith that feels necessary in embracing the “top-down” metaphysics of Integral and Perennial perspectives, I’m left wondering if there are other mechanisms via which I can construct some sort of spiritual meaning in a more emergent “bottom-up” fashion that enables me to move beyond the consumerism and rootlessness that often seems part and parcel of extreme relativism?

For many the concept of syncretism has something of a bad name, it speaks of blurred boundaries, conceptual overlap and a dilution of tradition. Personally I believe syncretism is all of these things and that it is inevitable. In thinking about an ideology-be it a political or religious one, even those that make claims to being revealed rather than emergent, are reliant on context and the adaptation of or reaction to existing ideas. As I have written about elsewhere – Slow Chaos – it may be that our discomfort with syncretism is more about the pace at which it occurs rather than it happening it all. In contrast to a more organic process whereby two or more differing perspectives interact over time, perhaps my own sense of psychic indigestion relates to the rate in which I’m bombarded by a plethora of competing worldviews day-in-day out.

Perhaps the beginnings of an answer to how the process of syncretism can be both slowed down and directed creatively can be found via the process of hybridisation. In trying to tease apart the possible differences between the process of syncretism and that of hybridisation, one of the primary differences seems to be the degree of consciousness brought to the activity. While syncretism often occurs unconsciously via proximity, hybridisation usually involves the deliberate splicing together to at least two differing perspectives in order to produce a new entity that functions more effectively within the context that it is developed. In reflecting on my own adventures in hybridising Zen sitting practice with Heathenry (see I have begun my own process of trying to identify some of the common traits that might be shared by those engaging in conscious hybridisation. Some of my suggestions are as follows:

    1.A sense of vision related to the hybrid being proposed- rather than it being just an amusing “mash-up” the individual or group involved feel that something important is being offered and that there is a sense of aesthetic coherence between the paths involved e.g. for me the combining of Zen and Heathenry related to ideas around personal responsibility and stoicism as well as my own perception of a more minimalist sensibility.

    2.A desire to engage as thoroughly as possible with the primary source material of which ever traditions or ideologies that are being combined.

    3.A high degree of transparency with regards both the sources being worked with and the process of combination itself.

Probably like any good art, the sacred technician seeking to work with these hybridising processes needs to combine both vision and discipline. Vision ensures that the endeavour itself is fuelled by the uprising of creative energy inspired by the need to contextualize spiritual ideals. Discipline hopefully reduces the likelihood of simply using religious buzz words in order to legitimise personal whim.

David N. Lorenzen and Adrian Munoz (Eds.) Yogi Heros and Poets (Suny Press 2011)
Jeanne Openshaw Seeking Bauls of Bengal (Cambridge University Press 2004)
Lizelle Reymond To Live Within (Doubleday 1971)
Ken Wilber A Brief History of Everything (Gill & Macmillan 1996)


  1. Jonathan
    Posted January 12th 2013 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    Hi Steve
    Perhaps Tibetan Buddhism is a good example of creating a hybrid(minus the probable abuse of the Bon tradition).
    The Perennial philosophy, or any philosophy, too often seems to take the place of magical work and personal experience I think : ideas before experience is what I often hear. Even at the local theosophy club I couldn’t get away from the ascended masters being talked about(but I don’t think anyone had met one that was ascended or otherwise).
    Thank you for your thoughts. It’s a good thing to think about I find.

    • steve davies
      Posted January 12th 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Thanks Jonathan, glad you found it thought provoking. I suppose some changing of traditions is inevitable in the process of hybridisation-for me being open about this feels important. In my own on-going experiments with this process, I’ve tended to work with Buddhist trads. plus native neo-pagan traditions-perhaps this makes it somewhat easier in that Buddhism is a bit more “deity neutral” and usually utilises the native gods and transforms them into buddha forms.

  2. Jonathan
    Posted January 16th 2013 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Yes I suppose I must do some hybridising myself. I usually take practices as they are presented to me and over time I get experience with them(as you do), and at some stage I get my own manner of working. Ganesha for me changed a great deal in my practice over the years. This occurred as I worked on aspects of myself; myself changing toward him I should suspect. From this, I would not say I wasn’t working “traditionally” anymore. The practice became a part of life which tends to have enough novelty in it to make us artistic. And that is where I observe hybrids: with the creative and unique human. Some however prefer to do practices that stay mostly traditional. I think that is good also as it might well let them avoid some of the ego tricks in being an artist perhaps.

    • Jonathan
      Posted January 16th 2013 at 12:56 am | Permalink

      “I would not say I was”(rather than wasn’t).

      • steve davies
        Posted January 16th 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

        I think that the balance offered by tradition and engagement with primary sources is vital in our creative synthesis-personally I think that this helps us cultivate depth rather than simply flitting around once things get challenging. But combining this approach with our own inspiration/innovation feels particularly exciting!