When I first started studying religions, I expected to learn the least about Christianity. Having grown up with Christianity, I knew its basic stories and teachings. But a funny thing happened along the way.
When you spend enough time studying Indigenous religions, you start to see some things about Christianity you had not noticed before. And when you take Buddhist monks visiting from China and Muslim private school students to churches, they ask questions you had not anticipated. In all of this, I came to realize that Christianity has some really unique elements. Below is a list of some things that I think are unusual about Christianity. As Christians mark the birth of their founder this week….let’s look at some aspects of that religion that stand out.
Manger scene | Photo credit: Canva.com
When European Christians tried converting Indigenous peoples and other colonized people to accept Jesus, they often found these groups receptive to praying to Jesus. The hard part was the requirement to stop worshipping their other deities.
This idea of exclusive worship is quite unusual. When the Jewish scriptures reveal a God who says that he is a “jealous god” (examples 1, 2, 3) and that you must not worship any other, I think this is a real turning point in humanity’s religious history. Because Christianity and Islam (Judaism’s children, if you will) espouse this view and become the world’s two largest religions, this perspective seems normal to many. But it’s fairly uncommon. Chinese and Indian traditions are mostly not like this nor are most Indigenous traditions. In most cultures, just as befriending one neighbour did not preclude you from befriending another, you could worship this god and that one. Judaism goes in a different direction and Christianity (along with Islam) spread that idea globally.
Deuteronomy 4:24 | Photo credit: Canva.com
I believe the aspect of Christianity that is most puzzling to outsiders, be they Muslims and Buddhist monks, is the idea of “vicarious atonement.” What does this phrase mean? It refers to Jesus having to die to pay for (or atone) for your sins. You cannot sufficiently atone for your sins, so he does it for you (thus, “vicariously”).
I still remember my own sort of “aha” moment when I witnessed how puzzled the Buddhist monks were about this idea. The logic of it eluded them. Muslim students, despite sharing many similar elements with Christians, also find this teaching strange and ask many questions.
I pass no judgment here. It was just one of those moments where spending time with others opens your eyes in a new way.
Jesus on the cross Photo credit: Canva.com
The Centrality of Sin and Grace
The previous idea has a key implication. Why did Jesus have to die for your sins? Early Christians answered that sin is so grievous to God that your remorse or attempts to make amends are insufficient. Sin is so terrible it requires an extraordinary act of love – namely, a god who sacrifices his own son.
This leads Christian language to place a unique emphasis on sin. I have had Christian private school students ask me about what role sin plays in Hinduism. Wrongdoing plays a role. But the Christian concept of sin….it is distinct in some ways.
For example, Christians often say, “I am a sinner” or “we are all sinners.” In most traditions, people acknowledge their flaws, and sometimes the language of “sin” applies, but in Christianity, sinning becomes defining more often – one acknowledges that one is a sinner. It’s an identity.
Scholar Paula Fredriksen suggests that the apostle Paul makes sin far more central to personal identity than it had been for Jews. It is the profoundness of sin that necessitates the heroic sacrifice of god to atone for these errors. Atonement and centralizing sin are two sides of the same coin – one makes the other necessary.
Finally, these ideas are partnered with the positive Christian notions of grace and of a saviour. God loves you and his son dies for you so that his grace will wash away the stain of sin – an act of grace – that makes life beyond the grave a possibility. If you grasp these concepts, you have arguably the core of the Christian story.
Christians get baptized to wash away sin and to accept Jesus as a saviour who rescues them from the bondage of sin. | Photo credit: Canva.com
God Who Suffers
There are other examples of a god who suffers or dies, including in ancient Mediterranean traditions. But it is not that common, and, moreover, the Christian god not only dies, he suffers a gruesome death, being tortured and hung quasi-naked in a public execution. That execution of a god in a humiliating manner has no parallel I know of.
It has often led Christians to find real strength in situations of suffering or persecution. For many, they feel an intimacy with a god who knows suffering and can, therefore, empathize with their plight. It has been a powerful motif and a real source of courage and strength for African-American slaves, for the falsely imprisoned, and for those facing oppression.
Christians have found courage and comfort in a God who knows suffering as they do. | Photo credit: Canva.com
A final unique teaching is the Christian doctrine of the trinity. This teaching – that God has three persons but is nonetheless one – is one Christians understand must be taken on faith. The Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity revels in the idea of mystery, and that mystery is to be savored, not solved. Muslims and Jews find this teaching slightly heretical (along with the related idea that Jesus is God), but for Christians, this creates a God with multiple persons (or personalities) while nonetheless affirming monotheism. Many Christians find Jesus a friend, God a father figure, and the Holy Spirit as yet a third aspect of God they can appeal to.
The Holy Trinity | Photo credit: Canva.com
Christianity is the world’s largest religion. As a result, its assumptions can seem so obvious that many of us don’t even notice them, like the fish that is unaware it exists in water since it knows nothing else. But just as exploring other cultures makes us see our own in a new light, exploring other religions helped me to grasp some novel aspects of the Christian tradition that surrounded me growing up.
As the world’s largest religion celebrates the birth of its founder, we can ponder how arguably the most influential life in human history has shaped the way we all understand religion…and so much else.