I am not Irish, so won’t pretend to know more about St. Patrick than I do. In fact, I know very little about the man, other than what most of us have heard at one point or another: that he drove out all the snakes from Ireland, and taught the pagan Irish to worship God – using a three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity.
But the thing about Patrick that interests me most is the way in which he exemplifies the syncretic nature of our faith. Christians across the globe have historically gobbled up local pagan traditions and baptized them, incorporating them into Christian practice. Such is quite possily what happened with another of Ireland’s patron(ess) saints, Brigid of Kildare. Much as many Christians might hate to admit, Christianity is a syncretic religion.
Some argue that we should strive to purify the church and do our best to adhere to the original, unwavering truth taught by Jesus and the Apostles, yet that is not the arc of Christian history. And I think we can be quite thankful for that.
Patrick of Ireland made Christianity Irish, just as much as he made Ireland Christian. And that’s the case of every effective evangelist around the world; indeed, it is what separates good evangelism from domination and empire. Good News can be shared only if it is truly good; also, it must be able to be understood. Whenever faith in Jesus finds itself spreading from one culture to another, the two cultures must meet in dialogue; and it makes sense for Christian evangelists to take the kenotic step of emptying themselves of their culture to assume that of the other, in order to share the love of Christ.
In practice, we Christians have a lot to learn from Patrick’s Ireland. Unlike the Celtic Christians, who followed in Patrick’s footsteps and were able to bring much of their nature mysticism into Christianity, other recipients of the “good news” of Christianity found it to be much less “good”.
Our own tradition still needs to reconcile its history of indoctrination and domination of others by our forebears. The Native Americans in Anglican boarding schools were not allowed to bring any part of their self identity or culture with them into the new religion being forced upon them. Likewise, enslaved Africans brought across the Middle Passage were hard pressed to retain any part of their culture and identity, despite continued efforts of resistance.
The joy and love found in our faith in Jesus does not belong to any one culture, but can be found in any country and nation. As Anglicans, we are beginning to understand this in the way we not only lift up different worship styles, but also become more willing to listen deeply and learn from cultures and groups of people who are not the most dominant among us.
In the end, I love to read into the ambiguity of the phrase from the scripture reading for today’s feast, in which Jesus tells his disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations.” Do we understand him to have meant that the people of all nations should be made into his disciples? Or that his followers should become disciples, or students, of the peoples and cultures of all nations?
In the end, perhaps, the two go hand in hand.
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to explore the Christian tradition, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find more of his sermons at https://peterlevenstrong.wordpress.com/