It’s easy to assume that all religions teach them same thing: morality. In fact, according to Christian Smith’s sociological study Souls in Transition, this is what most college students assume. While I could give a list of things that distinguish Christianity from most other religions, I want to focus on one minor difference: transparency.
Rolling Stone editor, Janet Reitman, recently published a book on one of America’s most secretive religions: Scientology. (You can read her article, or listen to her on NPR). For Reitman, the most disturbing aspect of Scientology is the business mindset that drives the church. She describes how church members are forced to pay immense amounts of money to raise their ranks, and learn the deeper secrets of the religion. All theological reasons aside, it’s remarkable that members must spend years, and thousands of dollars to learn the central theological truths of Scientology. Reitman put it rightly, when she compared this to Christians hiding the truth that Jesus died for our sins.
Another, more popular, American religion that’s become notorious for hiding its theology is mormonism. Many Mormons are unaware of the more startling theological points about their religion (you check out kyle’s blog for more on this). Certain truths are revealed and exposited only to the most devout members.
The list of ostensibly secretive religions could go on for awhile. But I think there’s a different, less obvious secretiveness that functions in the undercurrent of many eastern religions. In Budhism for example, there is virtue in emptying yourself to recieve some mysterious existential, divine experience. The point is that experience cannot be explained or taught, because it is a mystery. In that sense it is a secret, and all the more devious because it requires something of us to work.
In other words, if I can’t tap into the secret it’s my fault. My mind, heart, soul, or whatever is in some way deficient. The method relies upon my works, and in that ways secretively excludes outsiders, so that insiders can say “They just don’t understand.”
Christianity stands apart from all of these religions, not only because it’s theology is open to the public, but because the central truth, the central experience, the central reality of Christianity has been proclaimed clearly throughout the centuries in the gospel: God sent his only son to die for our sins, so that whoever believes in him can have eternal life. The truth, that God subsituted himself for us so that he could be with us, sits in the heart of all faithful Christian teaching, preaching and writing.
It’s proclaimed to non-Christians, new converts, and elders. This is why Paul wrote, “as you received Christ Jesus, the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6). We received him through the gospel, and so we walk in it. It’s why Paul made his aim in life “to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1).
Moreover, the gospel is about God’s work to save mankind. There is no secret experience that I must have to know God. There is no secret work that I must do to become a son. I have no deficiency which God’s gospel cannot overcome. In fact, part of the gospel is that I can bring nothing to the table, and rely wholly on my savior’s efficacy!
Jesus said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:9). Christianity differs from all religions in this truth: Christ is the light of the world. He did not come to lose us in the darkness of secrets, but came to shed the light of his gospel into every corner of the Earth.