One of the biggest modernist critiques of religion in general, and Christianity especially, is that despite the claims these religions make for themselves, there’s nothing particularly unique about them. They all have basically the same structure–indeed, most have borrowed them from each other–and all play the same role in basically the same way. And if they’re all the same, why pay attention to just one of them like Christianity? All the mythologies of divine sons, corn-kings, and so forth, are just superstitious attempts to understand the world. There’s nothing exclusively true about the gospel, so just pick something that works and quit going on about it. If we can find a different, “rational” system that plays the same function (eases guilt, explains the cosmos, etc.), then so much the better.
So, the move for the critics, the early modern anthropologists, and scholars of religion with an eye towards unseating Christianity’s intellectual or cultural dominance, was to find as many similarities between all the religions and myths as possible. The move was to pile up as many similarities so that they all blend into a hazy sea of myth. Even to the point of denying, explaining away, or misreading the actual differences that were there staring them in the face.
Nowadays, French anthropologist and literary theorist Rene Girard says that with the onset of the postmodern (so, like, the last 30 years), the tack is much different:
Unlike the old modern critics, postmodern opponents of Christianity don’t try to demonstrate that the Gospels and myths are similar, identical, or interchangeable. Differences don’t trouble them, and in fact they pile up differences with ease. It is rather the resemblances they suppress.
Instead of flattening stories in order to make them all sound the same, postmodern critics approach sameness precisely by playing up the differences between religious stories. How does that work?
If there are only differences between the religions, they make up just one big undifferentiated conglomerate. We can no more say that are true and false than we could say a story by Flaubert or by Maupassant is true or false. To regard one of these works of fiction as more true or false than the other would be absurd.
In other words, the fact that all of these religions are so different points up their falsity rather than their potential truth. Of course works of fiction would be different. They are united under the category of “false” or “equally true”, precisely by their differences. Girard continues to flesh out the appeal of this “doctrine of insignificant differences.”
This doctrine of insignificant differences has seduced the contemporary world. Differences are the object of a veneration more apparent than real. Those who discuss religions give the impression of taking them very seriously, but in reality they don’t attach the least importance to them. They view religions, all the religions, as completely mythical, but each in its own fashion. They praise them all in the same spirit we all praise kindergartners’ “paintings,” which are all masterpieces. The upshot of this attitude is that we are all free to buy what pleases us in the marketplace of religions, or better still to abstain from buying anything. —I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pg. 103
This actually reminds me in a section from the Tim Keller’s The Reason for God in which he deals with various objections to the unique truth of religion. He points out that 20 years ago, most objected that all the religions were equally true. Now, most will point out how uniquely, culturally-conditioned each of them is, in which case they must all be false. Of course, there are a number of problems with this sort of relativism that assumes a very Western, pluralist mindset that forgets its own particular, culturally-conditioned, social location. Still, these two kinds of criticisms point up an interesting theological truth about religion, human nature, and the apologetic task: there are moments when it is appropriate to appeal to both the uniqueness as well as the similarity between Christian doctrine and the truth claims of the philosophies, religions, and myths of the world.
Recently, Daniel Strange has argued in his work on the theology of religion Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock, that the relation of Christianity to other faiths is one of “subversive fulfillment.” In other words, the good news of Jesus both criticizes the claims of other systems as well as truly fulfilling their actual spiritual hopes. The reason it can do this is that most religions are rooted in our created-but-fallen nature as worshippers made in the Image of God. Without weighing in on whether these philosophies or religions are actually historical distortions and parodies of the truth of God, all them are rooted in universal concerns, problems, and cares across the whole race. So the religious stories humans have told, the salvations they offered, the moral paths they laid out, will unsurprisingly share some key, though more or less distorted and often inverted, similarities to the actual truth of our plight before God in the world.
There’s a danger in two directions in our apologetic encounters. One is the way of many progressives or liberalizing approaches to theology. Here you can so stress the similarity of Christian truth to every other myth or story, that the uniquely good news of Christ is lost in the (admittedly small) sea of COEXIST bumper stickers in the parking lot of the local Unitarian Universalist parking lot. The other way, though, is that of emphasizing the uniqueness of Christian truth that it is so radically different from any recognizable human concern across cultures that it’s rendered inaccessible to anyone not already singing in the choir. It’s reduced to the level of an inexplicably popular local, tribal faith. That’s the extreme way of putting it, of course, but hopefully that gives a spectrum to work with.
There are, then, (at least) two ways of trying to or accidentally rendering the gospel null and inaccessible: overemphasizing particularity or universality. The fact the matter is that the story of Jesus is both. On the one hand, it speaks to our universal concerns (peace, guilt, shame, social wholeness), and yet, its answer to these problems is unique in its scope, power, and the particular shape we find in the story of God’s gracious redemption accomplished in the Jesus life, death, and resurrection for us and our salvation.
Soli Deo Gloria