The Difference


The religious tradition that begins with Judaism focuses more than most religions on things to come. The attention is often on what God will do in the future. A promise is made to Abraham, another to Moses, about what will happen-the people, the promised land-and (since Hebrew has no present tense in the Indo-European sense) the name of God can be translated as “I will be what I will be.” This yearning for the “not yet” led to the expectation of a messiah, whose coming would mean peace and universal reconciliation.

Christians said that Jesus was this messiah, but since the world we live in is plainly not reconciled, Christians believe in a second coming, when with Christ’s return the world will finally know reconciliation and peace.

And of course this expectation of something yet to come led to Islam, with Muhammad as the final prophet. But it didn’t stop there: Shi’a Islam expects the return of the “hidden Imam,” and Baha’is claim that Bahaullah is the prophet who succeeded all others.

There are examples of this concern for future deliverance in other religions-Mahayana Buddhism speaks of the Maitreya, the Buddha who is to come-but the expectation that new prophets and messiahs will arise is especially prominent in the Judeo-Christian tradition, leading, for Jews, to Sabbatai Zevi in the seventeenth century, and, among Christians, to Joseph Smith and Mormonism, and to Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church. Once this mechanism comes into play, there seems to be no end to it. New prophets and messiahs arise, some claiming to be final, and the claim is rejected by believers in the previous final revelation.

The Christian claim, in this apparently unending chain, is radically different, and the radicalism heads in two directions. On the one hand, Christians alone claim that Jesus not only points to the divine, but is divine, of one nature with God. On the other, there is the thorough self-emptying and the complete humanity of Jesus Christ (see Phi¬lip¬¬pians 2:5-11). A total identification with both the human and the divine raises some uncomfortable questions about Christianity’s relationship with other religions, including the other Abrahamic ones.

Jews and Muslims find the Christian claim that Jesus is divine impossible. It seems blasphemous to claim that divinity could be so intimately implicated in human flesh and blood, which, after all, is created and therefore radically inferior to the creator. That the one the world waited for, the reason for the world’s being, would die a shameful death, says much about the evil into which the world has fallen. It also says much about God’s way of confounding our expectations. Christianity says that God is not what you think he is, that divine power is not what you expect it to be, that triumph is not at all what the world says it is.

Which brings up an awkward but essential point: Many people reject religious belief because religions differ so deeply. But in fact in many ways religions, including nontheistic ones like Buddhism, have much in common, especially where ethics and meditative practice are concerned. The great monotheistic religions all emphasize God’s compassion, God’s unity, and God’s responsibility for creation. And there is the mechanism mentioned above, which keeps producing new prophets.

But here is where the awkwardness comes in. The Christian claim is radically different from all the others, including the other monotheisms, in several respects. Where most religions try to reconcile us to death, Christianity alone, with its emphasis on resurrection, says that death is an outrage, that flesh is meant to be alive in ways we cannot now imagine. Where in one sense we worship the same God Jews and Muslims worship, we also say that to see what God is really like you must look at the human being who was, and is, Jesus Christ.

This insistence on the difference is essential to orthodox Christianity (wherever it occurs) and makes many Christians uncomfortable. The discomfort is understandable. With the exception of militant Islamists, the Tamil Tigers, and Hindu fundamentalists (notable exceptions, to be sure), most people would be happy to put all wars of religion behind them and respect the differing beliefs of their friends and neighbors. This tolerance is one of secularism’s gifts to religion.

But we are left with a discomfort about saying anything that might imply that one religion alone is true. This is not, in fact, what Christianity says. What it does say is that in Christianity-in Christ-all of what is human and true, wherever truth occurs, finds its fulfillment in a way that can be found nowhere else. We may believe that our discomfort with this claim is unique to our time, but what may be unique is that Christians are uncomfortable making it. It has been a scandalous claim from the beginning, but it is essential that we make it.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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