You will sometimes hear the common refrain, “all religions basically teach the same thing”. The other one which is even more baseless is “the God of all religions is the same God.” The people who make these claims, you will find, often could not tell you the basic tenets of any of these religions, but the platitude is one they are comfortable with. It makes people easier to organize: religious and non-religious.
As a concession I would admit that there is in fact only “one God,” or philosophically, I admit there could be no God, but there is not several ideas of what we want God to be who is mashed into a single entity. God is exactly what God is like and the way we organize our thoughts about Him obviously can’t affect that meta-reality. Moreover, the ways different religions talk the idea of God/the all powerful/the universe are totally incompatible and couldn’t not just be different views of the elephant so to speak.
As for the idea that all religions basically teach the same thing, this is of course wrong too, but people will point to the throughline being the “Golden Rule”. More or less, this rule boils down to “you should treat other people well”. It is true that most religions, somewhere in their thought system, will likely espouse some sort of idea of niceness and fair treatment. This is not to say they all teach the same thing. The Bible, for instance, gives Jesus’ command (if I may give a modern rendering), “treat others the way you would like them to treat you, totally without reference to how they actually treat you or any other convenient clauses”.
This got me thinking, what are the major differences between the Christian faith and other religions? Three things come to mind. I’m sure there are others, but as I hope is clear by now, despite being fairly well educated, these are not heavily researched, totally exhaustive blog posts. I have no interest in being exhausted. These are the things that are top of mind and I think represent the major content of our faith.
First, the way God interacts with human history. God is the Creator. That is not particularly unique; many religious systems have this. God sends messages to and speaks with His people directly – this is getting slightly more unique. But paramountly, this omnipotent God, who created the universe and all the things in it, us included, entered into human history. Not that He only interfered from the heavens or gave wisdom to or left the imprints of His design. God came down to live with us on the earth as One who was totally God and totally human. This is completely unique.
Second, we can’t win God over with good behaviour. If you take stock of most religious systems, at the core of them are how you must live your life to please the deity. It’s not that as Christians. We can’t live a lifestyle that God is pleased or displeased with; the difference is, our goodness is not what gets us in the club. Likewise, our poor performance isn’t what disqualifies us. God love us. All of us. And that love is totally based on Him and His disposition towards us. He made us and He likes us – we have a few problems, but He’s working on those. That idea that God loves us, wants what’s good for us, and actively works towards that good, even though as a race and as individuals we seem inclined towards evil, is totally unique. We call it grace.
Thirdly, the one that’s the hardest for most reasonable people, is that we have to love our enemies. To be clear, this is the hardest to put into practice, but it’s actually the easiest to understand: love your enemies. Our first instinct is to pretend we don’t understand the full parameters of the command. What enemies? Love them how, and to what extent? What level of evil do we have to suffer before we are let off the hook for this? The line goes, God loved us when we were aligned as enemies against Him, therefore, as recipients of this love, we in turn must give that debt of love to others, especially our enemies.
When other Christians talk to me about how they are being mistreated by their telecom company or their in-laws or another student, I remind them that one of the special markers of our faith is that we love our enemies. There is no provision, as in other religious systems to seek vengeance, wage war against, totally detach ourselves from, or meet force with force. We are those who love our enemies and pray for those who go out of their way to harm us.
This is what I tell them, so imagine my total lack of surprise that God recently decided, as He always does when I talk a big game, to put the sincerity of my words to the test. After our recent move we discovered that we have a perpetually disgruntled neighbour with whom we share a wall with. Rude, abrasive, aggressive, trouble-making, petty, and the worst of all sins, mean to the people I care about the most. I chatted with a few other Christians about the situation. The advice came: record everything she does, take her to court for harassment, demand your rights be upheld by the property manager. These are all reasonable options to reasonable people, but I’m not one of those. I am in a different category. I am one of those who takes Jesus’ words and tries to put them into practice, especially the things I have been talking a big game about. So I am resolving to love my enemy. In lieu of knowing when her birthday is, I think I’ll start with a Christmas card.