Haiti: Interfaith Syncretism, Symbiosis
Today, in the “On Religion” column in the New York Times, Samuel G. Freedman finally points out that Haitian Vodou is a legitimate, important and much-misunderstood religion. And yet, Freedman’s copy editors persist in using the spelling “voodoo,” not only refusing to recognize it with the capitalization they give to any other world religion (Buddhism, Hinduism), but maintaining the Americanized spelling associated with Hollywood horror movies, rather than one of the more phonetically-accurate spellings (Vodou, or Vodun) more true to the French-inflected pronunciation in Haitian Creole.
But returning, as I always do, to the subject of celebrating two religions: Freedman explains that “between 50 and 95 percent of Haitians practice at least elements of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism.” He does not clarify that this wide range reflects a shift in recent decades. Haiti was once nearly 100 percent Catholic, with the majority also practicing Vodou. But Protestant churches have made inroads in Haiti (and throughout the Catholic world), and Protestant clergy are less willing to tolerate the involvement of their adherents with Vodou. When I lived in northeastern Brazil in the 1990s, I saw the same shift occurring: “believers” (fundamentalist Protestants) did not participate in the Catholic and African celebration of Carnaval (and did not drink, dance, or wear pants if they were women). This fact had a felicitous personal consequence for me when we lived in northeastern Brazil: our Protestant babysitter was available and willing to work for us while my husband and I went out and “played” throughout Carnaval.
American news reports on Haiti have almost always focused on misery, and Americans may not realize that in Haiti, Catholics celebrate Carnival in the days before Lent, just as Catholics in Brazil, New Orleans and Europe do. In Europe, Carnival evolved when the Catholic church absorbed Ancient Roman festivals, and those European pre-Christian elements followed colonists to the Americas, mixing with African and indigenous American rituals to create New World Carnivals.
In my recent essay on celebrating both Catholicism and Vodou, I referred to the intertwining of the African and Catholic pantheon of saints and spirits as “syncretism.” Freedman avoids using this word, perhaps because the Catholic church discourages syncretism, with its implication of two religions in dynamic equilibrium. On the other hand, the Catholic church has envisioned and encouraged a dance between Catholicism and local cultures, a process referred to as “inculturation,” in order to deliver Catholic teachings in diverse settings. Inculturation signals respect for cultural differences but also for the boundaries between them. Syncretism threatens those boundaries.
Freedman evades the dangerous implications of the word “syncretism” by referring instead to a “Catholicism in symbiosis with voodoo, a Catholicism in which saints are conflated with African deities.” The word “conflates” implies that the superimposition, the equation of saints and African spirits is mistaken, or negative. Symbiosis, again, implies that two entities remain separate. But I suspect that for many Haitians, Catholicism and Vodou coexist in a marriage so intimate that they are “as one.” Freedman interviewed Vodou priest and religion professor Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, who compared Haitians to those Japanese who perform both Shinto and Buddhist rituals and “see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.”
Meanwhile, those of us practicing both Christian and Jewish rituals await recognition of our much-misunderstood pathway. Judaism and Christianity have different cultures and rituals, worth highlighting, specifying, preserving. But at the same time, I do not fear allowing the two religions to coexist in my community, my family, my brain and body: personally, after a lifetime of contemplating this conundrum, I see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.