Homogenization of religions is rife. Who has not heard the mantra that “all religions are the same”? This judgment comes from both theists and atheists – but with different connotations. Liberal theists who maintain that all religions are good and healthy are even joined (according to the Medjugorje accounts) by the Madonna herself, who assures the “seers” that “Before God all the faiths are identical. God governs them like a king in his kingdom.”
Numerous atheists mean something quite different by that judgment: they agree with author Christopher Hitchens that “religion poisons everything” – i.e., religions are all equally pernicious.
But both sides are mistaken.
In a previous column, I discussed Thomas Aquinas’ theory of a “faith-instinct,” and the multiple misdirections and improper objects to which it could be directed – e.g., “faith in oneself,” faith in science, faith in ideologies that will “save the world,” etc. But as we get closer to the proper objects of religion, we can discern important distinctions between Christianity and other religions – the profound difference of Christianity, and the difference it makes.
1) God as the object of religion: In the Old Testament, Yahweh is represented as a personal God, concerned about individuals, with whom individuals could enter into personal relationships. He makes clothing for Adam and Eve after their disobedience in Eden, and puts a special mark on Cain to keep him from being murdered. He answers the prayers of Abraham and Sarah for offspring, negotiates with Abraham about the fate of Sodom, deals with Moses “face to face,” hears the prayers of Judith, Samson, Tobit and multiple other Hebrews, postpones his contemplated punishment of Solomon because of the memory of his beloved David, and deals firmly but patiently with the various tribes of Israel, and even with recalcitrant prophets like Jonah.
As Christianity emerges from Judaism, God’s preeminently personal relationship to His creation rises to its greatest height. God takes on human flesh, establishes friendship and brotherhood with us, sacrifices Himself for all, and makes provision for Jews and Gentiles everywhere to be able to communicate in His body and blood.
This personal relationship depicted in the Old and New Testaments contrasts sharply with other major religions. In Hinduism, not the slightest personal relationship, by even the holiest Hindu, could be envisioned with the supreme deity, Brahman – although Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and numerous other “personal” gods, make up for the impersonality of Brahman. In Islam, Allah is an absolute, transcendent unity, completely beyond all understanding. He does not communicate personally with anyone, but (allegedly) sends an angel to Muhammad to dictate the Qur’an. He is said to be “merciful and forgiving” to those who submit to his orders through his “messenger,” but fierce and vengeful to “unbelievers.”
2) The reign of God as the object of religion: In the Hebrew religion, a commonwealth under Yahweh, and ruled by “judges,” was established among the twelve tribes. This commonwealth eventually, in spite of objections from the prophet Samuel, was transformed into a kingdom under Saul, David, and their successors
In Christianity, “The Kingdom of God” (or cognates such as the “kingdom of heaven”) is an absolutely important theme, mentioned over a hundred times in the Gospels. Jesus announces that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” And the constant message of the New Testament is that this will be a kingdom of peace and love, though it will face intense contradiction and persecution from those who oppose its establishment.
In Buddhism, a “religion” which is generally agnostic about the existence of God, the emphasis is on spreading compassion, but no universal “kingdom.”
In Islam, Mahdism is the counterpart of the Christian idea of the Kingdom of God. A messianic figure, the Mahdi, will establish a final caliphate, which will spread Islamic sharia law throughout the world, subduing those who refuse to convert – by force, if necessary.
3) Eternal life as the object of religion: In the Hebrew religion, the concept of eternal life after death is clearly formulated at several points in the Book of Job (“I know that my Redeemer lives, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth.”), though not as explicitly as in Christianity. But if David Blumenthal, Jon Levenson, and other Hebrew scholars are correct, the belief in life after death pervades the Old Testament.
In Christianity, we are told that eternal life consists in the vision of God face-to-face, and, at the end of time, the resurrection of the body.
In Hinduism, multiple and possibly endless reincarnations are promised, with various theories about release from these cycles, and doubts about what (if any) elements of personality would remain.
Mormons look forward to achieving the status of gods through celestial marriage, possibly polygamous, which will create glorious extended families in the afterlife.
In the Qur’an, the afterlife for Muslims is described as a place of unmitigated sensuous delights – fruits, drinks, luxurious clothing, and for faithful male Muslims, especially warriors, the bounty of numerous beautiful young girls and “handsome boys.”
In Hinduism or Buddhism, there is no Savior promising resurrection and eternal life. In the Qur’an “Isa” (Jesus) is mentioned 97 times, and his name in Arabic is synonymous with “savior” – in contrast with Muhammad, who is only mentioned 4 times, and who is designated as only a “messenger.” Thus, even in the Qur’an, the promise of salvation is distinctively Christian.
Most importantly, as regards the means to salvation, and ultimate salvation from sin and death, with the aid of an omnipotent Savior, Christianity is the one and only religion that offers this possibility.
The distinction of Christianity from other religions, then, is very clear-cut. A Christian looks forward to spreading a kingdom of love, culminating in an individual relationship with a personal God, seen face-to-face in a perfected and glorified body – no reincarnation, no sex or sensual orgies, but literal divinization as adopted children of God.
No other religion comes close to that expectation.