The in-laws have headed off to Easter Sunday services, leaving the Pagan and her agnostic husband to a quiet morning. My niece is jealous that I don't have to get dressed up and sit for Mass today. Instead, I'm writing my Full Moon post (late, again!) and thinking about how syncretism works.
I'm a big supporter of interfaith activity. My time at the Pluralism Project and my participation in the Progressive Faith Bloggers Convention both emphasize that. And I understand that borrowing from other traditions is common: it's both a hard fact of religious existence and a factor in my own ceremonies and ritual tools such as my Tarot deck. At the same time, I want to draw a sharp line between cooperation, borrowing, and synthesis. I am not a proponent of the idea that "all religions are one, really."
Why not? First of all, it is not necessary for cooperation. The idea that we have to agree on a list of basic tenets has some truth; a kind of social contract is necessary for interfaith work, whether it's dialogue, mutual education, or acting for a shared goal. But agreeing on these 'rules of conduct' does not mean we have to agree on their grounds. We don't have to believe in one god in order to build a house together. We just have to agree not to hammer each other's fingers. The idea that religions, in order to cooperate, have to have some kind of vast underlying agreement, leads either to a stalemate (we'd have to agree on the nature of God in order to work, and we don't agree, so clearly we can't work together) or to an ecumenical reductionism (we'd have to agree on the nature of God in order to work, and we do work together, so clearly we must agree on the nature of God).
That reduction strips traditions of all the things that make them tradition, all the stories about who we are and why we do this. Instead, you end up in search of the "real, true religion" that is supposedly at the heart of every tradition, and you toss all the differences out the window, discarding them as crap that's just been added on to what really matters.
But those differences are what make the rich diversity of humanity. Without them life is a monotone hum; with them, it's occasionally cacophony or chaos, but it's also harmony, polyphony, multivocality.
In addition, there's a kind of subtle imperialism at work when we claim that all religions are one. It turns differences into costuming and places them on the market, so to speak. If you and I really are celebrating the same thing, then why could you possibly be upset when I start using your stories, traditions, symbols, language, etc. as my own? Or when I claim to understand them better than you do?
Instead of respectfully asking, or borrowing symbols while remaining aware of the web of connections and history in which they originally rest, this kind of syncretism dismisses any protest by claiming a better understanding of the "real, true religion." I don't think we can, or should, avoid the borrowing and sharing that goes on between traditions. But sharing between two groups is different from claiming that the two groups are really one, so what's mine is yours, and what's yours is mine.
(My strong feelings about this are probably related to me being a twin. I constantly have to emphasize that yes, we are very alike; and no, I'm not her, and she's not me. Similarity is not identity.)
This line of thought is particularly close to me at the holidays. For example, my thoughts on the Equinox--that it is a return to life, when what we thought was dead shows life--is pretty close to the Resurrection. Stretch it a bit and you might be able to harmonize it with Passover, too. And there are lots of similarities between my celebration of returning light at Yule and a host of other celebrations. But to reduce them to some single ur-Holiday is lazy thinking, and it misses the point.
The point is that we are different, and that these differences don't keep us from working together. They make it possible.