The Distinctiveness of Christianity

Attention TCT readers in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania:  Tomorrow Robert Royal will deliver the Third Annual Archbishop John J. Myers Lecture on Law, Society and Faith at Seton Hall University in Orange, NJ. Dr. Royal’s talk, “The Grand Tradition of Faith and Reason,” will begin at 5:00 P.M. in Jubilee Hall Auditorium. All are welcome and admission is free, however guests are encouraged to R.S.V.P. online or via email to Gloria Aroneo:  Gloria.Aroneo@shu.edu or (973) 275-2808.

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.”

Christ Pantocrator by John Singer Sargent, 1897
Christ Pantocrator by John Singer Sargent, 1897

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.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz is emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent publications include Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), Five Metaphysical Paradoxes (The 2006 Marquette Aquinas Lecture), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

  • Rich in MN

    In the mid-1960s, there was a Catholic theologian who pointed out a radical difference between Christianity and all other religions regarding expiation. In discussing the Cross, he notes that, due to a “much-coarsened version of St Anselm’s theology of atonement, … to many, many Christians… it looks as if the Cross is to be understood as part of a mechanism of injured and restored right… in which the infinitely offended righteousness of God was propitiated again by means of an infinite expiation…. This picture is as false as it is widespread…. [T]he Cross is quite the reverse: it is the expression of the radical nature of the love that gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others” (pp. 281-282, J. Ratzinger “Introduction to Christianity”).

    Ratzinger’s entire discussion of the issue of expiation — and, in fact, his entire “introduction” — is well worth anyone’s time to read. I’m not sure whatever happened to this Joseph Ratzinger guy. I sure hope he kept up with his theological studies and was noticed by his superiors. He has a lot to offer.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    As G K Chesterton pointed out:-

    “The things said most confidently by advanced persons to crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact; it is actually our truisms that are untrue. Here is a case. There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: “the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach.” It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach…. So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught”

    • Fr. Peter Morello

      Excellent pointed quotes from Chesterton Michael. So many academics misconstrue religiosity with truth.

      • RosaryVictory

        The Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth. There is no Truth without Christ, Who is innocence and Truth.

  • HeartwornHighways

    Islam—it’s a guy thing.

  • Fr. Peter Morello

    Howard an excellent article. I add this. Today, at this moment, Catholicism has become two very different religions, the true faith given by Christ, contained in the Apostolic Tradition, and the new revelation the world and Christianity has waited for after 2000 years. This new Catholicism promoted by Pope Francis, Cardinals Kasper, Marx, Schonborn, Archbishop Kurtz Pres of the USCC who fully supports Amoris Laetitia, et Al who hold that the teachings of Christ in the Gospels are idiomatic cultural expressions of time and place. They perceive themselves as far more expansive, intellectually sophisticated and morally perceptive than Jesus Christ.

    • Dave

      Fr. Peter: there is no new Catholicism. There is Catholicism, and there is heresy and apostasy.

      Henry VIII would have been delighted with AL: every person his own judge — just find a priest who agrees with you. But then again, how would he have stolen the monasteries and convents?

      We are in the brave new world, and it’s not going to be easy for us.

      • Fr. Peter Morello

        Ditto.

    • Francis Miller

      I enjoy good intellectual expansion as much as the next guy but I can lose my place and then references (anchor points) get vague. I do feel at odds with building off decades of poor catechesis with beautiful sentiment that that obscures the first principles of
      reason.

      • Fr. Peter Morello

        Francis you are correct. The current divisive trend that Dr Royal pointed out goes back a way. I’m fortunate in growing up in Brooklyn long before the trend began, taught catechism by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart who I thought then were hard and mean. I can still feel a slap I received. But they taught us the truth, instilled notions of God’s infinite goodness, heaven and hell, and the reward of a good life. Heaven was a beautiful goal. Holiness, the sense of it, the mystery of God’s spiritual, real presence in the sacraments and through prayer stayed with me all my life. The beautiful sentiment we receive now from those mentioned, and in Amoris, stops at sentiment. Its Nirvana. Heaven without the Cross. My point is that it is Christianity as Flannery O’Connor put it in Wise Blood, the unbalanced minister Hazel Motes’ Church of the Truth without Christ.

    • Bobo Fett

      That is extremely accurate. Every word of it. Couldn’t agree more, Father.

    • Fr. Peter I believe you’re being a little extreme. In AL Pope Francis says (3) “Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (Jn 16:13) until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does.” This has been going on for 2000 years and you often quote from the great writers of our Catholic faith in your posts. Pope Francis uses the teachings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict in many of his writings and one is a saint and the other will probably be canonized as well in the future. Yet many people will blame the last 50 years since Vatican II as the beginning of a decline in our church. How is that possible if we revere the lives of these popes including John XXIII? Commenters on here will often say they are the faithful Catholics or Traditionalists and you do the same above. We are Catholics who follow Christ and nobody benefits by trying to divide the flock because we are continuously searching on this journey with our Lord.
      Maybe what would really help all of us is if God spoke directly to one of us the way He use to in the Old Testament, once in awhile at least, maybe on a quarterly basis. Pope Francis could be first.

      • Fr. Peter Morello

        Patrick I’m not one of the critics of the previous pontificates. Vat II [the actual documents Lumen Gentium et AL] was not the problem. It was misinterpretation and belief in an evolutionary approach to revelation, that continues to reveal the truth. This specific point is at issue today in a more sophisticated form setting divine mercy as the catalyst for compassionate practice v rules. Rules as Pope Francis refers to in Amoris are actually the Word of God revealed in the Gospels. That is what is at issue. Nothing else. Example. The Apostle says “in the past God revealed Himself in fragmentary ways, today we have the fullness of revelation in Christ. We need not look further for any other revelation.” Distancing the matter of practice from moral form found in the specifics of revelation by Christ in the Gospels and Apostolic Tradition counters the definition of revelation which always augments and strengthens truth. Revelation cannot provide a product that contradicts itself. What is occurring is precisely mitigation of Truth of which Christ says “Heaven and earth may pass away but my words will never pass away.” The reason is the words revealed by Christ are perennial Truth. Supposed newly revealed interpretation claimed to be from God that changes the essence of God’s words is from another source, the Evil One. If we follow the summary proscriptions of Amoris we have a Christianity that loses its definitive character mentioned by Kainz leaving us with practice of the faith that is indistinguishable from Mormonism, Buddhism, and especially Secular Humanism, the brand taught by Prof Paul Kurtz Pres of that Org. It is going to be challenging for the faithful Patrick and I’m compelled in conscience to speak out and address the Truth of Christ, not fantasy that radically distances truth from fiction.

  • Mike Albertone

    This was a very good article. I do need to clear up one mistake though. Our Lady did not tell the Medjugorje seers that all religions are equal. In fact, it was quite the opposite and was right in line with what this article points out. She told them that all PEOPLE are equal, regardless of their religion, but that NOT all faiths were equal.

    • Stephen David Joseph

      Humm. Crucial distinction; thanks for pointing it out.

      • Mike Albertone

        This was her exact message: “Members of all faiths are equal before God. God rules over each faith just like a sovereign over his kingdom. In the world, all religions are not the same because all people have not complied with the commandments of God. They reject and disparage them.”

        • Stephen David Joseph

          Thanks Mike. I guess then what she is saying is that each of us has equal dignity and value to God, but not every idea has equal dignity before God: some are correct, and some are not. That actually makes good sense. I can believe that Our Lady might have said that…

          • Mike Albertone

            Thanks Dave. Yes, that is what I too believe she was saying.

        • Howard Kainz

          You may be using an altered translation. Questions were posed by Fr. Vlasic thus: “Are all the faiths good? Are all the faiths identical?” And the answer was: “Before God all
          the faiths are identical. God governs them like a king in his kingdom…
          In the world all the faiths are not identical, because the people do
          not observe the commandments of God, but reject and corrupt them.” The mention of “the commandments” is a “red herring”; it has nothing to do with the question about whether all faiths are good.

          • Mike Albertone

            Actually, the translation I am using is one in which the translators are very careful not to add or subtract anything from what Our Lady says.

          • Howard Kainz

            The translation I am using is from Bishop Perić. For comparison purposes, here is the Italian translation of the question and answer: “Tutte le fedi sono buone? Tutte le fedi
            sono identiche? „Davanti a Dio tutte le fedi sono identiche. Iddio le
            regge come un re nel suo regno… Nel mondo tutte le fedi non sono
            identiche, poiché la gente non osserva i comandamenti di Dio, ma li
            respinge e corrompe.“

          • Mike Albertone

            This may seem like a minor thing to some, but it is actually quite an important distinction, so I want to get it right. If your translation is from Bishop Peric, it is from someone who has professed to not believing in the apparitions of Our Lady in Medjugorje. The translation I used is from a group who clearly does believe in the authenticity of the apparitions of Our Lady in Medjugorje. I would like to get a few other translations to compare before coming to any conclusion on the exact message.

          • Howard Kainz

            Both Pavao Zanic and Ratko Perić, the bishops who have had jurisdiction
            over Medjugorje since 1981, have concluded that the apparitions are not
            of supernatural origin. Nineteen out of 20 bishops in the Yugoslav
            Episcopal Conference in 1991 issued the Zadar declaration: “On the basis
            of investigation up till now, it cannot be established that one is
            dealing with supernatural apparitions and revelations.” They know the language, and had no need to “fudge” the translations.

          • Donna Kerrigan

            Psalm 119:97-104
            XIII (Mem)

            A meditation on God’s law

            I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34).

            Lord, how I love your law! *
            It is ever in my mind.
            Your command makes me wiser than my foes; *
            for it is mine for ever.

            I have more insight than all who teach me *
            for I ponder your will.
            I have more understanding than the old *
            for I keep your precepts.

            I turn my feet from evil paths *
            to obey your word.
            I have not turned from your decrees; *
            you yourself have taught me.

            Your promise is sweeter to my taste *
            than honey in the mouth.
            I gain understanding from your precepts; *
            I hate the ways of falsehood.

            Glory to the Father, and to the Son, *
            and to the Holy Spirit:
            as it was in the beginning, is now, *
            and will be for ever.

    • Howard Kainz

      This is a quote from Oct. 1, 1981, from the Chronicle of the Medjugorje visions, edited by Fr. Tomislav Vlasic. When challenged about this by the Mariologist, Fr. Laurentin, the “seer,” Vicka modified the message, and answered, “that is to say, that all men are equal before God.” Fr. Laurentin later mentioned that there were “ambiguities” in the Chronicles.

      • Thomas Warner

        Yes, and don’t forget the problems encountered with first or even second translations: Croatian to German to French to English in some order or combinations. Thomas Warner.

      • RosaryVictory

        Malachi Martin, Vatican exorcist, called Medjugorje a “Satanic Hoax” Our Lady’s feet are hidden by clouds. Rather, Satan’s hooves are hidden by clouds. Not so during any other apparition of the Mother of God.

        • Mike Albertone

          For every Church leader that calls Medjugorje a hoax, there is another who believes in it. Saint Pope John Paul II, while not officially endorsing it, said at one point that if he were not Pope, he would be in Medjugorje. The Bishop at the time that the apparitions started has both believed and not believed over the course of time. There are many good people on both sides.

          • Howard Kainz

            The only official statement by John Paul II relevant to Medjugorje was published in L’Osservatore Romano, September 18th, 1996 edition: “Some members of the People of God are not rooted firmly enough in the
            faith so that the sects, with their deceptive proselytism, mislead them
            to separate themselves from true communion in Christ. Within the Church community, the multiplication of supposed ‘apparitions’ or ‘visions’ is sowing confusion and reveals a certain lack of a solid basis to the faith and Christian life among her members.”

  • David

    We live in a time of “fake radicalism”, which ultimately like all other movements in our era are pseudo-religious cults of self-absorption and justifications for licentiousness.
    True radicalism is faith that flows from the Holy Cross of Christ. The Cross allows us to confront honestly our sinfulness, our weakness, and our need that can only be healed by “He who knew no sin, and became sin for us”.
    The faith that flows from the Holy Cross bestows upon us not a new set of laws, or a correct form of meditation, or super-knowledge of the cosmos. Rather it unites us in a bond of love with the Ground, Source, and Cause of all that is real – the Holy Trinity. From there Jesus says, “follow me” …

    • RosaryVictory

      If Jesus were not the sinless, innocent Son of God, Jesus would have had to die for His own sins and salvation would not be ours.

  • Stephen David Joseph

    “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…”

    This is about as good a description of the heart and soul of Christianity as I have ever read. I have one concern, though: the passage seems to be oriented entirely to a future state, when in reality I am convinced that it is already in existence inside each of us who has, or seeks, a personal friendship with God right now.

    Overall, though, an excellent article. Thank you for writing it.

  • Fr. Peter Morello

    If I may post an addendum to my original post. “The Eastern masters urge us to expand our consciousness lest we be imprisoned by limited experience” (Amoris Laetitia 149). Is Pope Francis talking to you and I? Does it include the Christ of the Gospels? The new Catholicism sounds more like Baha’ i, an Eastern religion incorporating all religions.

    • Dave

      Or Hinduism or Buddhism. John Senior and his masterpieces never seemed more needed than they do now.

      • Fr. Peter Morello

        Catholic thinkers like John Senior led people, especially the young which is so difficult today to Christ. Ad astera per aspira is said by commentator Patrick Martin to have been his motto. Toil and effort to reach the stars. These thinkers, prelates named above, and many others apparently including Dolan of NY, who I knew in Rome as gregarious and kind, Baldisseri Secr Gen of the Synod of Bishops, take the first compassionate step toward the reconciliation of those disenfranchised from the Church, then drift off into an intellectualism that neutralizes good and evil convincing themselves this ultimately was the message of Christ. The Gospels are seen as an ideal that should not inhibit the greater value of belonging and mutual acceptance. Christianity loses its distinctive character, and power to draw us to reach for the stars, which as Senior believed requires toil, sacrifice, suffering the narrow gateway of the Cross,

        • RosaryVictory

          Jesus Christ and Him crucified…St. Paul

    • Bobo Fett

      Be ye either hot or cold. For the lukewarm…

    • veritasetgratia

      “expand our consciousness”! huh!

  • olhg1

    IMO, God (Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit) gives EVERYONE, the opportunity both to know the truth and to live a correct moral life. Roman Catholics call this “the grace of God.” If anyone refuses this opportunity, and usually it’s more than a “one-time” shot, then their choices-and the consequences-of not doing the right thing is on them. No blaming God or other people. Yeah, I know, that’s a hard saying, and “who am I to judge.”

    • RosaryVictory

      Principles must be judged. Persons must be proselytized and tolerated.

  • Francis Miller

    Very good and helpful essay. You identify the cloudiness that is offered broadly now regarding all religions alike either as equally bad or equally as good. I will keep if for my RCIA classes.

  • Beautiful Mr. Kainz. That is all so true. Every person should read this.

  • rick

    CS Lewis’ idea of “the Tao” is relevant here. In his great critique of relativism, “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis talks of “men without chests,” who deny truths that are obvious in natural law. To support this idea he develops the idea of “Tao,” of principles held in common by all the great religions. He argues that the common ground between faiths is evidence of natural law. My problem with people who say that all religions are the same is that they don’t believe their own words. They believe all religions are relative, or, to be more honest, that all religions are false. Their agenda is a society that lacks any natural law moorings. I think that the dissolution of orthodoxy into the secularist solvent is the bigger problem.

    • RosaryVictory

      Infinite Perfection cannot change. to what? Religion is man’s relationship with God. A person must ask God for Faith and welcome Faith to have religion. All else is pride.

  • Fr. Kloster

    What ever happened to the 6 precepts of the Church? The faith is not complicated except for those wanting to obfuscate and equivocate. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. He is forever new and forever ancient. He does no change, nor does the One religion he founded. It is we fallible humans who constantly try to re-invent the wheel. There is absolutely no reason to discuss long held doctrinal beliefs as if they were open questions! To do so is to imitate the so called “enlightened ilk” instead of Rome’s head falling in line with an enduring magisterium.

  • Bobo Fett

    Outstanding. Such a good article. Reading this one at dinner tonight!

  • Chip Murray

    How does such a truthful mind survive the Marquette PC mosh pit?

  • RosaryVictory

    Our God is a triune Sovereign Supreme Being, Who loves His Son, Jesus Christ and Whose Son loves the Father. Their love is the Holy Spirit. Three sovereign Persons in one Trinity Who endow mankind with sovereign personhood.