Organised by Professor Johannes A Smit and Dr Sibusiso Masondo, it involved participants from the University of Bayreuth in Germany, UNISA and UKZN.
Professor Ulrich Berner from the Department of Religionswissenschaft/ Science of Religion at the University of Bayreuth delivered the keynote address, titled, Aspects of Syncretism.
He discussed how humans blend culture by either transgressing borders within one cultural system or by cooperating across borders between cultural systems. In terms of the first approach, he noted that the Greek author, Plutarch, introduced the notion of “syncretism” by referring to the inhabitants of Crete who settled their internal strife and cooperated when threatened by a common enemy.
Based on its original meaning, Berner defined one aspect of syncretism as the transgression of borders within a cultural system, when different subsystems are drifting apart and seem to be incompatible, endangering its stability and unity. Another aspect is cooperation that transgresses the boundaries between different cultural systems.
‘In both instances, we have forms of cultural interaction, cooperation, and blending. An example of the first form of cultural blending comes from the conflict between science and religion which occurred several times in European history: the Copernican Revolution in the 16th/ 17th century and the rise of Darwinism in the 19th/ 20th century, the latter having been discussed controversially up to the present time,’ explained Berner.
Starting from Bishop JW Colenso’s First Lessons in Science (1861), Berner overviewed various efforts to resolve this conflict. He drew historical examples from the theological controversies on Copernicanism in early modern Europe, and on Darwinism in 19th century Europe and India. He also showed how the hermeneutics of religious texts played a central role in these controversies.
Turning to cooperation that transgresses the boundaries between different cultural systems, Berner drew on the history of colonialism. He cited examples of intrareligious and intracultural cooperation, highlighting that power relationships can only be maintained if the border between the systems is not transgressed.
He also discussed some counter examples, viz., missionaries who challenged the colonial systems of Spain or England (Pedro de Cordoba, Roger Williams) and defended the rights and the culture, including the religion of the colonised peoples. He then compared these anticolonial discourses from the 16th/ 17th centuries to the “syncretic“ or blending approaches of missionaries in 19th century South Africa, for instance, Johannes Th. v.d. Kemp (since 1799). Referring to theories on religion and cooperation, Berner also raised the question of how to define and assess the role of those missionaries who deviated from the colonial mainstream.
UKZN academic Professor Johannes Smit said that this ‘was the first colloquium in a series that is being planned, focusing on aspects of cultural interaction, blending, development, and related cultural and social aspects.’
The series is interdisciplinary in nature, involving academics, doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, from the three universities as well as programmes in Religion and Social Transformation, Gender and Religion, Media and Cultural Studies, Drama, Ethics Studies, African Theology, Biblical Studies, and the University Language Planning and Development Office (ULPDO), under the Directorship of Professor Langa Khumalo.
The papers will be published in a book, and an abridged version will be published in isiZulu.