This was actually the first question I answered when I began my series of Frank Answers on the Immanuel Lutheran Church website during my last year as pastor. I began this series of Frank-Answers to salvage and maybe expand the previous answers. For some reason I did not salvage and re-post this Q & A. But it was a relevant Q & A in 2012, and I think it is still a question a lot of people have at the end of 2017.

Question: How is Christianity different from other religions?  Aren’t all religions equally valid ways of believing in God?

Frank answers: The assumption in the question is that all religions believe in “God.”  They don’t.  Many Buddhists believe in no god and Hindus believe in thousands.  Confucianism is more a philosophy of life than a religion.  Shintoism and many tribal religions are devoted to ancestors.  The “Big Three” monotheistic religions that do believe in “God” as a personal being (and not just as a concept) are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

It is true that the world’s great religions all teach the “good life,” that is, the moral life.  But two things must be said about this.  First, no religion sees ethics alone as the reason for its existence.  Most religions inculcate practices of worship, devotion, or meditation as well as moral behavior.  Second, religions differ in their prescriptions on how to attain the good life.  The fact that the good life is something that needs to be attained means that we aren’t all practicing it.  Why is that?

Well, depending on what you think the problem is with humanity, you will be interested in different solutions to the problem.  If you think the problem is ignorance, then the answer is enlightenment.  But if the problem is perceived as something deeper than that, then a different kind of solution is called for. Christianity thinks of the root issue as “sin” — a fundamental unwillingness to obey God’s intention.  Sin results in alienation from God, from other people, from creation itself, and even from oneself.

The three great monotheistic religions all have an understanding of the human problem as sin, but differ in their proposals for how to deal with it.  Judaism prescribes adherence to the Law of God given specifically through Moses in the Torah and lived out in the covenant between God and Israel.  Islam teaches the way of submission to the will of God (Allah) as taught by God’s final prophet Mohammed.  Christianity teaches salvation through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus the Son of God.  God does for us in his Son what we can’t do for ourselves.  The Holy Spirit, the spirit of the risen Lord Jesus, sent by the Father, empowers us to do God’s will.  For Christianity, then, God is Trinitarian.  The Christian God is at the same time Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Part of the question posed here is: How is Christianity different from other religions?  The doctrine of the Trinity is certainly part of the answer. Yes, “God is “One,” just as our Jewish roots taught Christianity (Deuteronomy 6:4). But the revelation that Christians derive from the interaction of the God of the Bible with God’s people is that God is known in three persons. Upon further theological reflection we discerned that God’s oneness is, in fact, the radical love union between three completely distinct “persons” of the Trinity. The three members of the Trinity are not uniform—but quite distinct—and yet one in total outpouring! In the doctrine of the Trinity there is unity within diversity. This is a concept that we can explore in our relationships with those who have other religious beliefs than our own.

But I suggest that we think about the Trinity not only from the standpoint of the nature of God (God as a community of persons), but also from the standpoint of how the Trinitarian God addresses the human problem of sin and the need for salvation. Mahatma Ghandi’s famous quote is that “The essence of all religions is one. Only their approaches are different.” But their different approaches to the human situation is absolutely crucial to our beliefs.  And if that is the essence of each religion, then it is difficult to see how they can all be one.

When we ask whether all religions equally valid, it depends on what you think the problem is.  That’s the starting point.  You’re not likely to regard someone else’s solution as valid if you think they have misdiagnosed the problem. So we must not only dialogue about God but also about the human situation.

Pastor Frank C. Senn