. . . the symbolism of death to the profane condition is always present; but, as we have seen, this is characteristic of every genuine religious experience.
Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, p. 52.
The other night I was chatting with a dear friend about Christianity’s history of appropriating elements of religions which preceded it. This subject is, of course, popular with the New Atheist Club and has flooded cyberspace in recent years in a pretty negative way. In Religious Studies and History of Religions circles, this sort of appropriation, which, of course, happens in all religions, often goes by the name “syncretism”. By whatever name, religious syncretism can be a two way street.
In our conversation I mentioned Pope Gregory the Great’s instruction sent by messenger to (later St.) Augustine of Canterbury on his mission to the Britons at the end of the 6th Century. Here it is, as the Venerable Bede recalled it:
. . . dicite ei, quid diu mecum de causa Anglorum cogitans tractaui; uidelicet, quia fana idolorum destrui in eadem gente minime debeant; sed ipsa, quae in eis sunt, idola destruantur; aqua benedicta fiat, in eisdem fanis aspergatur, altaria construantur, reliquiae ponantur. Quia, si fana eadem bene constructa sunt, necesse est, ut a cultu daemonum in obsequio ueri Dei debeant commutari; ut dum gens ipsa eadem fana sua non uidet destrui, de corde errorem deponat, et Deum uerum cognoscens ac adorans, ad loca, quae consueuit, familiarius concurrat. Et quia boues solent in sacrificio daemonum multos occidere, debet eis etiam hac de re aliqua sollemnitas immutari; ut die dedicationis, uel natalicii sanctorum martyrum, quorum illic reliquiae ponuntur, tabernacula sibi circa easdem ecclesias, quae ex fanis commutatae sunt, de ramis arborum faciant, et religiosis conuiuiis sollemnitatem celebrent; nec diabolo iam animalia immolent, et ad laudem Dei in esu suo animalia occidant, et donatori omnium de satietate sua gratias referant; ut dum eis aliqua exterius gaudia reseruantur, ad interiora gaudia consentire facilius ualeant. . . . Ecclesiastical History, I, 30
. . . tell him that I have long wrestled with the cause of the English: clearly, the destruction of the temples of idols among that people must be minimized; but those idols within must be destroyed; holy water is to be sprinkled on them, altars constructed, relics deposited. For, if they are well constructed, it is necessary that they be converted from a demonic cult and be given unto the worship of the true God; that when the people see that their temples are not destroyed, they will turn their hearts from error and, may more easily come to know the true God by gathering in that familiar place. And since they’re used to killing many cattle in sacrifice to demons, let another solemnity take its place, such as a Day of Dedication, or the Nativities of the Sainted Martyrs, whose relics are deposited there. Let them make shelters for themselves of tree branches around the church that once was a temple, and celebrate religious feasts with solemnity; but not offering animals to the devil but killing animals to be eaten in the praise of God and offering thanks for their satiety to the Giver of All Things. So, while some exterior physical joys are granted them they more readily consent to the inward spiritual joys. . . .
Far from being the forced conversion practised in so much of later Christianity and in early Islam, Gregory’s advice was to (somewhat) gently encourage a syncretism between Christianity and the Old Religion of the people.
The chapel-in-the-sacred-grove method of proselytizing, also used in places other than 6th Century Kent, likely contributed to the surprising number of Saints and folk-saints with similar names to pagan gods.
As my friend and I chatted, a beautiful place came to my mind. Twenty-five or so years ago I visited Chamula, a Maya town in the Highlands of Chiapas. A number of years before my visit, the story went, the people of the town drove out the priest and reclaimed the church, converting it into a temple that suited their deeper, pre-Conquest religious traditions. At the time of my visit, the people were very protective of their sacred building. The old church and the town office were guarded by grim men bearing nasty looking metre-long black clubs. Outsiders wishing to visit the interior of the church had to have their identity papers scrutinized in the town office, and, if deemed acceptable, were issued a pass allowing entrance. Photography was absolutely forbidden. Rumour had it that in a previous season some tourists had broken that one rule and had paid with their lives.
After my pass had been scrutinized by one of the armed men at the church door, I entered the dim interior.
I took no pictures.
My memory of the interior of the church at Chamula is vivid still. The old statues of saints and apostles, given new clothing, lined up along the wall to my left. No pews, the floor instead strewn with straw. A few elderly people sitting on the floor with lighted candles. The sound of quiet chanting and the smoke of copal filling the space. There was a chiaroscuro of incense smoke and candle light glittering from the lacquered cheeks and eyes of wooden saints.
I don’t know how long I stood silently or tiptoed through that magical space before stepping back into the overcast zocalo, rain threatening.
I told my dear friend about this visit and then said sadly, “now there are probably photos of the interior all over the internet.” She wisely chose not to look. Fool that I am, I did a Google image search and let myself glance for a moment at the thumbnails, then turned quickly away. Although the elements seemed to all be in the photos — even the elderly people sitting cross-legged on the floor — the pictures were not pictures of the place I had been, of the place I remembered. The photos seemed pornographic, the Chamulan sacred space brutally stripped naked and harshly lit for perverse voyeurs’ jaded eyes.
I wish I hadn’t looked. I had been party to sacrilege.
The Internet is a wonderful tool, with powerful possibilities to educate and connect people. It provides marvellous opportunities to lead people out of darkness, to heal cultural rifts. But there is always the danger that we will be reduced to the lowest common denominator, and lower.
We have the greatest poetry, the finest art, the most sublime music, the deepest learning at our fingertips. And we also have goatse, snuff videos, and various numbers of girls with cups. There are no boundaries between the sacred and the profane, no distinctions between the beautiful and the hideous, between the fundamental and the fundament. I fear that, for many people, there are no value differences either.
The experience of travelling by plane and car to Chamula, the fearful frisson of being an outsider in that zocalo, in that town office, of being scrutinized by men willing to kill, the wonder of standing in the heart of that Mystery, and the vivid memories still held after a quarter century — all of these feelings and memories have a sacred value for me. The photos in cyberspace have no reality. They have no relationship of any value to the Old Church in Chamula which I experienced one overcast afternoon decades ago. A google search will never be a pilgrimage. One does not simply click into Mordor.
I don’t want a brave new world in which nothing is sacred. One doesn’t have to believe to respect the sacred. One doesn’t have to be Muslim to remove one’s shoes at the doors of a mosque. A man need not be Catholic to remove his hat when entering St. Peter’s. Only the rude or the ignorant would take photos during a Bar Mitzvah. When we respect a sacred place, even if we think absurd the faith that holds that place sacred, we are respecting the people who have struggled to find meaning in that place. When we honour the boundaries set by the people of Chamula, we honour the mysterious syncretism they have created out of the troubled history of Chiapas. And if we do the honouring and respecting correctly and well, if we enter with honesty into our own particular human struggle, each of us creates a deeply meaningful personal syncretism.