In Cholula, Mexico, stands the Church of Our Lady of Remedies. It sits atop the largest archaeological site in the Americas — a pyramid laced with catacombs and filled with artifacts from pre-colonial days.
According to some accounts, the natives of Cholula refused to welcome Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes in the 16th century. So to teach them a lesson, Cortes massacred thousands and ordered the people to build 365 Catholic Churches, one for each day of the year.
They never reached their goal, but Cortes made his point: The Aztecs were a conquered people, and their religion was subjugated to Roman Catholicism.
The Aztecs understood this — or should have. Previously, they were the conquerors and had built their sacred sites atop those of other indigenous peoples.
An interesting side effect is that none of the religions remained pure. Rather, each incorporated some of the beliefs and practices of the previous peoples into their religious life.
As a result, in many parts of Latin America today Roman Catholicism is a skin stretched over the ancient bones of animistic and pagan practices that find open expression outside the Catholic Church in religions like Santeria and Voodoo.
The trend toward syncretism
This illustrates a modern tendency toward syncretism – the melding of many religious views. And this mindset affects the church.
Pastor, author and syndicated radio host John MacArthur once received a letter from a Christian broadcasting network, providing new guidelines for ministries wishing to continue buying time on its station
The letter said, in part:
“[This] broadcasting network wants to be a good neighbor…. Therefore when you are preparing your program for these stations, please avoid using the following: criticism of other religions, conversion, missionaries, believers, unbelievers, old covenant, new covenant, church, the cross, crucifixion, Calvary, Christ, the blood of Christ, salvation through Christ, redemption through Christ, the Son of God, Jehovah or the Christian life.”
The letter continued, “These people listening are hungering for words of comfort. We ask you to adhere to these restrictions so that God’s Word can continue to go forth. Please help us maintain our position of bringing comfort to this suffering people.”
That’s not comfort, remarked MacArthur. It’s false comfort.
God is Not One
The idea that all beliefs are equally valid isn’t new, but it has come into sharper focus in more recent times.
Religious studies scholar Hutson Smith writes, “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge. At base, in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct…. But beyond these differences, the same goal beckons.”
Fortunately, not everyone buys this. Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, has written a best-selling book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.
Prothero is not an evangelical Christian by any means, but in some respects evangelicals owe him a debt of gratitude for venturing into the Thunderdome where political correctness meets the truth in a battle to the death.
Prothero writes that the tendency today is to say that all religions are true … that we all worship the same God. But that view, says Prothero, is neither workable nor correct. A simple review of the world’s great religions shows that there are distinctions that cannot be reconciled.
He writes, “One purpose of the ‘all religions are one’ mantra is to stop this fighting and this killing. And it is comforting to pretend that the great religions make up one big, happy family. But this sentiment, however well-intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. God is not one. Faith in the unity of religions is just that – faith. And the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination.”
In Mexico, by the time Cortes built a Catholic Church atop the pyramid at Cholula, people in the community barely knew the significance of the pyramid. It had become overgrown.
Archaeologists today, combing the ruins, are getting a clearer picture of the ancient peoples who first inhabited that part of Mexico, as well as who and how they worshiped.
In a sense, you and I must act as doctrinal archaeologists. We must strip away the overgrowth of biblical neglect, and dig deeply through the layers of tradition, philosophy, and man-made rules.
When we do, we will rediscover the bedrock of true religion. As the apostle Paul writes, “No one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid – that is, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).
This column first appeared April 8, 2013, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.