All the great religions emphasise this or that feature of the human predicament. Each claims to be better than the others in being able to respond to the relevant questions we might have about our plight. Not only positively: whatever each faith system most condemns thereby confirms what this unique selling point, or USP, really is in each case.
To me, an ordinary ‘man in the pew’ looking at all three of the Peoples of the Book, there seem to be many examples of this. Judaism for example, in its essence is all about the Law. It is the medium through which the contract with God is continuously validated, celebrated and complied with. Islam, as its very name proclaims, is all about ‘submission’ to the One. And Christianity? At its core, this third member of the Abrahamic family is focused on the individual, and her/his relationship with God, with others and with oneself.
Positive affirmations of each of these emphases throng the scriptures. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Write these words down, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27) or “The law of their God is in their hearts; their feet do not slip.” (Psalm 37:31) According to the Holy Qur’an, “The true religion with God is Islam… So if they dispute with thee, say ‘I have surrended my will to God…'” (Sura 3:19) “This was the true light that enlightens every person by his coming into the world” (John 1:19). This can only be a selection of all the texts available.
The relevant negatives work to reinforce all these first principles. Judaism’s scriptures set out a range of historical facts, exclamations and meditations upon the Law, and the perils of transgressing it, in an arc stretching from Exodus to Job. For Islam, the world is an arena of constant struggle against non-believers who do not submit to God: “As for those who disbelieve in God’s signs, for them awaits a terrible chastisement; God is All-mighty, Vengeful. (Sura 3:4).
To err is human
For Christians, it is the same, but worse. We want to be blessed, but we also want to continue being human. That doesn’t always work.
A key negative text must be John 8:1-11 where a mob is assembling to stone a woman to death, but whose individuals’ lynching spasms are highlighted and then stopped by Jesus’ invocation of individual responsibility over against the fatal human impulse to surrender it in favour of the collective.
Here, I think, is located the essential difference between Christianity and its sibling faiths. In meditating on the essential – and essentially difficult – requirement to relate to “God”, Judaism uses a contractual model of promises and reciprocal responsibilities summed up by the divine statement “But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you… ” (Jeremiah 7:23). Islam opts for submission, an extremity of obedience, conformity and trust.
Christianity is at once the most outré and the most insinuating of this range of I-Thou possibilities. It is also the most demanding. We Christians continuallycry out for divine recognition and ultimate acceptance of that core component of our relationship with all that is, seen and unseen: our consciousness of our own humanity, different in each case, each person, but in the end a shared predicament.
In seeking closer union with “God”, we nevertheless insist on preserving and restating our human condition as individuals even as we relate – always imperfectly – to the divine.
The genius of our founder St Paul was to perceive that Jesus came into our world, not as a prophet sent from “God” but as an archetype of the divine; at the same time, being so essentially human over against “God” that execution as a criminal comes to be seen as a tragic inevitability. God joined us, and we killed God.
The message of the Cross
This is the message of the cross. We cannot avoid seeing it as an extreme enactment of our propensity as humans to screw things up, as it were. The Death on the Cross is the ultimate demonstration of the cental charge against humans; that we don’t stop ourselves torturing and killing each other even when we come to see that we are thereby torturing and killing ourselves and, by the same token, “God” who inheres in us and whom we thus continuously betray.
This fatal tendency the church labels as “sin”. The only way out of it is through grace, freely given, and the Cross and Passion are the signs of this, present in our world even while we make it hell. Christianity’s uniqueness and special message is that we should accept that, rather than ‘finalising’ some sort of deal with “God”, contractual or submissive, this psychodrama has to play out every day of our lives, and in anything we do.
It is as if there is an ever-present mismatch, an abraisiveness, between how we strive to relate to the divine and our insistence on being human. We insist, because we want the human condition to be sanctified despite the hell, the sin, the betrayal of the God-given best in us.
Every time we say mass, we are pounding on God’s gates as it were and shouting about how much we need this. It is a state of permanent tension. “Love ” is the word we use to describe the possibility of getting out from under this. And this is what Christianity is all about.