The unique claims of Christianity have often caused consternation for those outside the faith—and at times produced an unnecessary condescending attitude within those of the Christian faith. Perhaps it would be wise to sort some of this out to the benefit of both Christians and those of other faiths. I will attempt to do this by clarifying what can be shared by all faiths and then taking note of the one thing that sets Christianity apart.
Common Beliefs Shared by All Great World Religions
C. S. Lewis noted that just because a person is a Christian he or she does not have to believe that everything in all the other religions is necessarily wrong.1 The sociological fact of religion is noteworthy; that is, all cultures have religion. All societies seem to embrace the idea that human beings are fundamentally religious or spiritual beings. Perhaps the materialistic Western nations might be seen as an exception to this generalization; and yet, individuals in the West seem to pursue their materialistic interests with religious devotion. As was once observed, human beings were made by their creator to worship; they cannot help but worship. If they will not worship God, they will worship something in God’s place. All religions have their mystics; people who devote themselves to seeking God with their whole heart—this is not a phenomenon peculiar to any one particular religion.
Furthermore, taking a lead from German philosopher of religion Rudolph Otto, Lewis marks the things all of the great world religions have in common2:
- Belief in a divine essence of some sort. Lewis calls this the numious. Religions have variations in their understanding of the divine and describe it differently if they are animistic, pantheistic, polytheistic, dualistic, monotheistic or Trinitarian monotheistic.
Nevertheless, they all believe in some sort of divine.
- Belief in a moral law. However, everyone tends to break this moral law.
- Belief that the divine is the keeper of the moral law. Violations of the law are an offense against the divine. All of the religions believe that human beings stand in a precarious place before the divine and this has shattering consequences. At this point Christians would stand in relative agreement with a host of other religions.
The religious dilemma for all is, can the offense stated in this last point be corrected; and if so, how? Here it is that Christians distinguish themselves from the other religions. All of the other religions say that human beings must fix the problem by performing an additional set of rituals and abiding by a secondary code. Sadly, some Christians can fall into such a pattern when their interpretation of the Christian faith drifts toward a form of works righteousness—that is, they believe they can earn their way back into God’s good graces by means of human merit. Seldom is such a program for repairing the alienation between the person and the divine able to give assurances to the follower of the religion. If the first code was so easily violated, what confidence does one have that he or she will do better with a second code? These religions are fraught with the fears and insecurities which attend themselves to human weakness and moral lapse.
Distinguishing Characteristics of Christianity
1. The Doctrine of the Trinity
It is at this point that Christianity stands apart in distinction from the religions of the world. The Christian faith asserts that human beings cannot fix what is broken in themselves; only God, in his mercy, can do such a thing and reconcile estranged human beings back into proper relationship with the divine. Christians believe that God is one, but he is a Trinity of persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is fundamentally a being who exists in relationship; in other words, that is he is a relational being. This sets Christianity apart from all other religious monotheisms at that very place where the theology of the other religions becomes illogical and flawed due to a contradiction embedded in their doctrine of God. No amount of appeal to divine mysteries can fix this flaw.
The Christian faith asserts that human beings cannot fix what is broken in themselves; only God can do such a thing and reconcile estranged human beings back into proper relationship with the divine.
Only Christians assert with confidence that relational attributes in a non-contingent being presupposes that relationship is necessary in that being. On the other hand, non-Trinitarian monotheisms are quick to claim that God is a non-contingent being; in other words, he is uncaused and self-existent. Furthermore, most non-Trinitarians would assert that God is a God of love; however, the question these people must ask is, “Who is the object of God’s love?” As soon as someone answers, “Creation,” they have denied God’s capacity to love except by means of his creation, thus suggesting that he must be contingent upon his creation to fulfill his nature. Therein lies the contradiction embedded in this particular false notion of God; God cannot be both contingent and non-contingent at the same time.
2. The Incarnation of Christ
Christians must also distinguish themselves by virtue of the fact that they believe that the second person of the Godhead, God the Son, became a man and walked on this earth to communicate God’s love and forgiveness to his creatures. Before his conversion from atheism to Christianity, Lewis speculated that if there was a personal God, he could no more know God personally than Hamlet could know Shakespeare. Two years later when Lewis finally became a Christian he revisited his Hamlet-Shakespeare analogy. Certainly Hamlet, the character of the play, could never break out of the play to get to know Shakespeare, the author of the play. Nevertheless, Lewis speculated that it could be possible for Shakespeare the author of the play to write himself into the play as a character, and this way an introduction between Hamlet and Shakespeare could be possible. Lewis also believed that something like this actually did occur when God the Son became a man in the Incarnation. And it is this coming of God the Son into the world to mend what was broken in humanity. He died sacrificially for humanity’s sin, reconciling men and women to himself.
3. The Exclusive Claims of Christ
Some may suggest that there are many ways to God; however, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, made exclusive claims to be the only way to God. This exclusivity is offensive to some because of its narrowness. At this point it is necessary to be reminded that all truth claims are narrow and limited by the reality they seek to describe. Truth is always narrow. To jump off the Empire State Building (New York City, USA) will result in grave consequences; being open about this does not make the consequences less severe. Neglecting a fire alarm in a burning building is not to be justified because the alarm signals a very intolerant warning. Heeding the warning, although it is narrow, is the better part of wisdom. Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God may or may not be true, but it is not false because it is narrow. Further investigation will reveal the merit behind the claim. Those who dismiss Jesus' claim by virtue of the narrowness of them may need to remind themselves of the very nature of truth. Why should some disregard the claims of Christ because others who cannot discern the very nature of truth want us to believe Jesus is wrong because he is narrow?
Some may suggest that there are many ways to God; however, Jesus Christ made exclusive claims to be the only way to God. This exclusivity is offensive to some because of its narrowness.
4. The Uniqueness of the Love of God
Christians assert that God loves those he has created and those to whom he has given life in this world. The great world religions developing systems of works and efforts to merit favor from God vector away from anything resembling the love of God as it is presented in the Bible. God’s love, as proclaimed by Christians, is a love which is without condition. The scriptures say, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). A corollary of this might be that imperfect love breeds anxiety, fear and insecurity. We have all received the liabilities of imperfect love—and we have produced anxiety in the lives of the very people we say we love, for none of us loves perfectly. Pride, especially religious pride—and the kind of religious “group think” which comes from it—is predicated on fear.
Christians believe that the only antidote is the love of God who knows us completely, and because of the death and resurrection of Christ, has the power to forgive us thoroughly. We are likely to struggle with besetting sins all of our lives; the gospel allows us to look honestly at these things and find victory. It is good news. Furthermore, a person on the mend in Jesus will become more empathetic of others and able to see others at their point of deepest need and tell them about Jesus. The claims of Christ and the benefits of the gospel are exclusive and narrow because only Christ can love us perfectly and save us from our sins.
(1) Lewis, C. S. 1948. The Case for Christianity. New York: Macmillan. 31.
(2) Lewis, C. S. 1977. The Problem of Pain. London: Fount. 14-20.