Group Topic: Manichaeism & Syncretism

The concept of syncretism is a major issue that requires some significant thought.  Syncretism is a fusion of already existing different cultures, thoughts, and ideas, into a new distinct entity.  One that completely alters set lineages and linkages to form an ideology that is completely distinct from the originals.  According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, “the term syncretism usually refers to connections of a special kind between languages, cultures, or religions. This term is most frequently used in the history of religions, where a special effort has been made to give it a more precise meaning”.

The prime example of a syncretic religion is Manichaeism.  Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, fused already existing Christian, Judaic, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, and even Zoroastrian principles, to found a completely new religion.  Therefore Mani borrowed a whole set of terminology from Abbasid Islam, western Christianity, and Central Asian Taoism and Buddhism.  Mani himself came from a Jewish Christian Baptist sect in southern Babylonia.  As it is stated in the Encylopedia of Religion, “syncretisms that were part Babylonian, part Iranian, part Christian Hellenism were presupposed by Manichaeism”, and continuing, “to a certain extent, therefore, Manichaeism was the supreme syncretism”.

Examples of syncretic traditions are Manichaeism and some pseudo-Islamic sects (such as Ahl i Haqq, the Druze, and the Yesids).

If one reads selected texts of the Mani codex, one can clearly observe the syncretism of cultures.  Jesus is referred to as the Messiah Buddha, and the coming Messiah as Maitreya.  Such as there will be a true or false Jesus, there will be a true or false Maitreya.  Furthermore Jesus is referred to as the son of god, while Satan as the son of demon.  Thus, one can clearly see the radical linkages that are made that are completely foreign to the religion at point.  It can be understood why at the same, anything heretical would be referred to as neo-manichaeism.

What scholars of religion have to come to terms with is how to distinguish Manichaeism as a distinct separate religion and not just regard it as something already existing and just plain heresy.  Our task is not to judge the validity of the religion itself, but how that religion came to affect peoples and societies, and how it molded the framework of logic and thought in its time.  Indeed one should acknowledge the syncretism present, but rather than simply dismissing all the syncretic components, one should acknowledge them and study the effects that they had in the contribution of a new religion.

Mani, the founder of Manichaeism

jesus “the messiah buddha”
the coming jesus “maitreya”
true vs false maitreya
son of god vs son of demon
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Official Blog Entry #6: Nestorian Christianity – Religious Tolerance in Chang’an China

After doing the readings on cosmopolitan Chang’an, one can really understand the diversity that flourished in Chang’an during the Tang Dynasty.  The Tang capital Chang’an was highly tolerant and different peoples lived openly celebrating their religions and customs of their homelands.  A Nestorian Church could be easily found next to a Buddhist temple.  During the time when Nestorian Christianity first came into China, there was also an influx of various other “exotic” peoples.  Armenian, Jacobite, and Byzantine Christians came into the area along with Zoroastrians, Manichaeans (Uighurs), and Jews.

It was immensely exciting to read the translation of the Nestorian tablet of the Syriac Church, and to visualize how Chinese characters along with Syriac script adorned the tablet with a cross at the top signifying its Christian origin.  Even though it is true that Nestorian Christianity has now been forgotten in China, the way the early Nestorian Christians infiltrated (positively) Chinese society is unique and deserves attention.  The Nestorian Antiochian Christians, after the divide from the Alexandrian Church, went into China and excelled in their knowledge of the Chinese script along with the Chinese culture and norms.  They preached Christianity from the viewpoint of a Chinese and not from a foreign westerner, so as to normalize the new religion and make it seem as already their own.  The foreign Christians wore Chinese garments and ate their food and lived like a regular Chinese, so as to create familiar bonds.  In the long run, this may have exactly been the reason why Nestorian Christianity disappeared from Chinese lands, but at the time, it allowed them the freedom to openly practice their religion without much opposition, and even to erect their own religious institutions (churches).  In Tang China, Assyrian churches were allowed to be built in every province in China!  But gradually, over time, Nestorian Christianity fell in a huge decline due to the lack of communication with centers in Mesopotamia, especially due to the rise of Islam and the Abbasid Caliphate between the two regions.  We can learn much from the history of religious tolerance in Chang’an, and a lot as well from the plight of Nestorian Christians in the Tang capital.

Assyrians in tradition garb in Arbil, Iraq

Present day Nestorians do not refer to themselves as such, but rather as Assyrians, belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East, or more officially to the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East (in Arabic: كنيسة المشرق الآشورية الرسولية الكاثوليكية المقدّسة).

The Assyrians refer to themselves as Christians, and maintain the theological difference with the Alexandrian Church, but at the same time, they completely dismiss the term Nestorianism, and anything to do with Nestorius, considering the term pejorative.

There are currently 4.5 million Assyrians in the world, and 1 million live in present-day Iraq.