Syncretism was a major force that transformed the ancient world. In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great conquered all the lands from Greece to northern India, he put in contact many different religions: Greek, Egyptian, Jewish, Mesopotamian, Persian, Indian… This paved the way for the most intense and rich cultural exchange human civilization has ever witnessed. The trend only intensified around the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, when the nascent Roman Empire added another layer, bringing to the melting pot Roman, Celtic and Germanic religions.
The combination of different religions and ideas came in conjunction with the rising of a multitude of Greek philosophical schools that expanded from Spain to India: Stoic, Epicurean, Cynics, Skeptics... The result from this pluralistic environment was Christianity—a combination of Jewish messianism with Greek philosophies and Roman pagan customs. Even though Christianity ended up becoming the religious monopoly in the Roman Empire, it was just one of the many cults born in that syncretic milieu: Mithras, Serapis, Isis and Cybele—to mention just a few.
Throughout history, syncretism has never stopped being a force behind new religions and ideas. Its tremendous plasticity created or helped to create the Kabbalah, Islam, the Renaissance, Santería, Voodoo, Mormonism, Bahá’í, Advaita Vedanta and, more recently, the New Age movement. Indeed, since the advent of the Theosophical Society in the late 19th century, syncretism has become again a major force for idea exchanges and for new and exciting religions and philosophies.
The trend today is accelerating at a fast pace. Syncretism is going to be the predominant understanding of how religion and spirituality work. The idea of closed systems of beliefs is over. Traditional, mainstream religions are slowly dying. New religions are emerging from the ashes. It is not what New Age expected — a new paradigm based upon Aquarian consciousness — but a mosaic of different religions born through combination and recombination. Our 21st century resembles more the 1st century AD than anything else: we are creating new religions, spiritualities and philosophies. Like the 1st century AD, the idea of belonging to one single religion will also perish very soon.
In this lecture, we will explore the main historical tenets of syncretism and how they shaped the rich melting pot of the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. We will also closely study some examples of syncretic religions, mainly early Christianity, Roman Paganism, Mormonism and Theosophy. Finally, we will offer a broad portrait and closing remarks on our current spiritual moment and advance how our syncretic future looks like.
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