All gods and all religions and all magical traditions get cobbled together out of bits and pieces of previous traditions. All theology and all revelation look suspiciously like syncretism, and scholarship confirms this. Chaos magic adopts it as a guiding principle without apology or evasion.
This sort of thing strikes me as somewhat banal these days, true in a breezy sort of way that doesn’t mean a lot. I can agree wholeheartedly with the statement without necessarily agreeing with Carroll or anyone else who affirms it. I’ll probably have to actually read this book at some point, but for the sake of a post, I’m just going to talk about how I would cash out the statement. My main concern with discussions of syncretism revolves around how the term gets defined. Too often (and I’m not accusing Carroll of this–I haven’t even read the book!), syncretism begins with shallow notions of contingency and necessity, abstraction and specificity, spirit and matter, relate to each other.
To get syncretism right, we need to make sure that we aren’t confusing it with certain forms of eclecticism. One of the lazy tactics that frustrates me involves using the existence and necessity of syncretism to justify a somewhat solipsistic eclecticism. Syncretism occurs under pressure, at a point of compromise between the nature of a spiritual force and the available materials for its manifestation. Eclecticism largely happens because individuals have aesthetic preferences, tastes (Again, the list problem).
Syncretism as I care about it, isn’t mixing and matching. To equate mixing and matching with syncretism is to conflate a concrete cultural process in which an individual, spiritual forces, and the historical moment struggle to come together with an individual’s preference for red shoes. Syncretism is an event more than it is a decision.
This isn’t meant to deny that there is a dose of opportunism in syncretism. Spirits often have to be opportunistic, because spirit and matter, while not disparate, are oddly matched. Syncretism clings close to the opportunity because it is the opening to the revelation and finds someway to ride it deeper and deeper into the material world. The messiness of syncretism is a function of the mismatch between the different dimensions of creation.
With apologies to Philip K. Dick, syncretism entails jumping into the trash heap and making it dance. There is a significant qualification, though. While the encounter begins in opportunism (wait your turn, Mercury, I have a post for you, too), the most profound opportunities lie in stable ground (oh, hey, Jupiter, nice to see you again, though let’s remember Saturn, too).
That stable ground emerges within the opportunistic moment, through the intensification and broadening of the relationship between particulars (spirit, individual, history). It is taking the messiness and specificity of revelation and discovering the scope proper to it, from the inside. It entails all manner of awkward and jagged interactions as the revelation weighs itself against the world.
The syncretic nature of revelation is necessary and central, but not in and of itself. The weight of spirit entering into the world depends upon syncretism but does not rest with it. The syncretism is the expressive and communicative face of a force otherwise invisible, and it is to that invisible force that revelation owes its fealty.
This is important for spiritualism, because it helps to make sense of the seeming banality through which some spirits manifest and the grandeur of their potency.