There are many commonalities between the various world religions, born from a wide range of shared human experiences and reflection on those experiences, which have to some extent overlapped. There are also great differences, and these are, despite what some might say, significant – it matters as to whether or not God is to be identified with the world or that He is separate from it, for if the former, He is bound to the laws He has created, and thus cannot effect any change in it; it matters as to whether God loves some because they are righteous, or is Love, for the latter is not only more morally excellent, but gives us greater hope, and greater foundation for loving those we might see as unloveable.
However, despite the great wealth of shared experience of the divine, and those subtle but important differences that separate the great religious traditions, there is only one religion that claims God has actually stooped down and revealed His true nature to us, instead of leaving us to discern it for ourselves – Christianity. Yes, God revealed Himself to His people, Israel, and spoke to His prophets, but even then there we do not have the fullness and immediacy of revelation that we see in Christ*. In the Incarnation, God comes down to meet us, speaks to us not from afar but in our own situation, our own environment of materiality and change.
It is all well and good to be able to talk of God’s existence, and to be confident of it, in terms of the inferences we can make from the world around us, and our shared experience, as well as from particular instances of encounters with the numinous. But if God does not speak to us, can we ever be truly sure that these are not just rumours from a far off land, and from Someone who, if they are real, does not actually take an interest in us, or care about us? The revelation we see in Christ gives us a real assurance that these intimations of ours – of God’s existence, that He is good, that He cares for us – are valid, and that furthermore, He is not just loving, but Love itself; that the ground of all our existence is Love. Without Christ, we would not know this for sure.
At this point, it could be pointed out that there are claims to people having been visited by God in other world religions, and that Christianity is not unique in this regard. This is true, but in very few of these cases are these visitations articulated in anything other than mythical or metaphorical terms; and when genuine claims to historical entries of the divine into our world are made, the evidence is sorely lacking. Christianity on the other hand makes the bold claim that God really did take human nature upon Himself, and became united with it in Jesus of Nazareth, a man whose life can be dated and whose existence is fully open to historical enquiry. The evidence surrounding these claims is also widespread, very well attested, and stands up to examination.
This being the case then, what is it that is new in Christ – what does God show us that we didn’t, or couldn’t know before? He shows us two things – the true nature of God, and the true nature (and so the true goal) of Man. Both these things He shows us in Jesus Christ, who being fully human and fully divine, is able to express clearly the essence of both natures. In Christ we see that God is not just Good, but Love; not just steadfast in His goodness, but compassionate – willing to suffer alongside us; and that He is not just the source of all Truth, but ultimately that the heart of Truth is Love. We also see that Man is to, in summary, ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and…love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39).
But not only this, as we know Our Lord is quoting the Pentateuch here, and what He says, though something that we all need reminding of frequently, would not have been wholly unfamiliar to the Jews of His time. We also learn that we are to be ‘perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48) – we are not called, as I have argued before, to do the bare minimum, but to a higher way, the way of true, sacrificial love. Our true end is perfect harmony with God’s law, to be completely pure in heart, that me way see God (c.f.; Matthew 5:8); our standard is not majority rule or received opinion, but the very life of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As well as God showing us the true standard by which we are to judge our actions, and thus giving us a proper sense of how far we have fallen short of that standard (i.e.; of how much we have sinned) we are also shown that God has borne the weight of those sins upon Himself – that the just Judge is also infinitely merciful, and in Christ’s perfect Sacrifice on the Cross, has effected a transcendent act of reconciliation which heals the divide between God and man caused by our sins, frees us of their consequences, and enables us to live, in the Spirit, so that we are no longer enslaved to our sinful ways in the future. Most world religions know of the problem of sin, also of the need for reparation for them and reconciliation with God, but only in Christ are God and man brought together in such a way that true atonement could be made.
And yet, this is not all. For it could be argued that the above knowledge is still but a confirmation and perfection of what can already be known by our own lights – that, although we may not all live as we should, deep down we know these things we see revealed in Christ, especially those about our own nature. To some extent this is true also (except for the case of the dogma of the Holy Trinity, which tells us that God is an eternal community of love), although I still see God’s showing us these things in Jesus as a necessary part of His special revelation, especially as what we know in part always needs bringing out to its full potential, that we always need a more polished mirror in which to see our failings, and most importantly of all, that we know we need an act of salvation which we cannot effect by our own lights.
The thing that, taken in tandem with the above, really makes the Christian revelation unique though, is the fact that not only did God tell us these things, He showed them to us, in His very self. It is that humbling of the divine that we see in Christ, and which Saint Paul writes about in Philippians – that God took ‘the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (2:7-8). Not only this, but it is precisely in and through this act of humility that God shows us His true nature. As Paul continues in Philippians, it is because of this that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth’ (v.10).
God, in Christ, comes down into the innermost depths of our experience, uniting the historical and the spiritual, and in doing so shows us what it is to be truly God (to love completely, without qualification) and to be truly human (to love completely, even unto death). The humble descent is the revelation, and this is what makes Christianity different – we don’t just know about God, we know Him, because He comes to meet us. There are many gods, many versions of what the divine might be like, and many valid insights into the divine nature that have been reached by different cultures. All that is good and true in these is confirmed in Jesus Christ, who alone gives them their true fulfilment, and it is only in Him that God speaks clearly to us. There are many ‘gods’, but only one God, and it is only in Christ that He meets us face to face.
*This is by no means to devalue the revelations of God’s nature in the Old Covenant, which are utterly genuine and which Christian revelation presupposes for its own claims about God, but simply to affirm that even these were but partial revelations of God’s character, and that it is only in Christ that they receive their true fulfilment (c.f.; Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 1:1-4).