This was the question (or my summary of the question) posed at an online discussion group I have become involved in, for those who no longer find the church a safe space within which to wrestle with theological questions. I need to confess that I do believe there is a uniqueness to the gospel, and I am convinced that the only way to begin to understand God is through Jesus. But I do not mean by that what you might think I mean.
I do not believe that all religions lead to God simply because I do not believe that religion and God have much in common at all. I do not believe that any religion – including Christianity – can let us know God. And the reason is simply this: religion did not evolve in the first instance to address spiritual or theological needs. It evolved to address anthropological ones. Rene Girard’s studies suggest that religion evolved not as a response to metaphysical questioning on the part of early humans, but as a mechanism through which early humans could contain the threat of escalating rivalry and the ensuing violence generated through our biologically programmed mimetic desires. The discovery of scapegoating violence as a social pacifier, and the subsequent legitimization of the process through sacralising it, gave rise to religion and its concomitant prohibitions, taboos, rituals and myths: the beginnings of culture. All religion, and its child, culture, therefore, are born in blood. In short, religion meets a sociological need (not a theological one) and it meets it through violence. Its solution for bringing peace is always at heart a violent one: sacrifice. We have learnt to substitute actual physical violence with other, more palatable forms of violence, but at its core, that is what religion does.
Let us take a step back for a moment to look at the concept of God before we try to link the two – God and religion – again. God is the ultimate unknowable. God is, as far as we are concerned anyway, utterly unknowable. An infinite being must by very definition be incomprehensible to a (very) finite one. This is the foundation for the thinking of arguably the greatest theological mind of the last century: Karl Barth. But this idea is by no means new. If you look at the thinking of Clement of Alexandria (150 AD), one of the very first Apostolic church leaders, you will see the same idea. He taught that God could only be understood through revelation, not through knowledge and reasoning, which was what the Gnostics taught. Ironically, although the early Christians spent a good deal of their intellectual effort refuting Gnosticism, Gnostic principles remain today foundational to the Christian understanding of faith, which treats faith very much as an intellectual exercise. As we try to reason out who God is, God becomes a projection of ourselves. And this is unavoidable – we can only ever use as first principles for our reasoning that with which we are familiar. So God – as we understand God – becomes characterized by human love, or goodness, or justice extrapolated to the nth degree. Such a being may well end up being superior to us, but at the end of the day the foundations are still human. And so all of the pictures we have of God are wrong; we simply cannot comprehend a being beyond us.
Imagine that we were all two dimensional beings, possessing only breadth and length, but no height. The very idea of a cube or a sphere would be incomprehensible to us. Our realities would not permit us to conceive of such a thing. We could imagine a Two-dimensional god, but never anything more, because nothing in our experiences would permit us the kinds of thoughts that could take us there. In much the same way that we simply cannot picture a colour that does not exist. The only way we could know a spherical god would be if one day it touched on our two dimensional world. Even then, we would perceive it only as a dot. A very special dot that could give us confusing images of something beyond our world, but still a dot.
Let me connect this to the question of religion. All religion meets anthropological needs, and meets them through scapegoating violence. But the process only works if it is invisible; if we cannot see the fundamental injustices behind it. So religion projects god-images that endorse, mandate and legitimate the scapegoating processes by which religion controls mimetic violence. But these god-images are always human in their foundations, and are in reality simply amplified versions of the people themselves. The whole ugly mess becomes hidden behind a veil of commands and taboos that the gods have issued, and are therefore beyond reproach, but which function to control mimetic rivalry, and the scapegoat is cloaked in mythical narrative so that even the victim becomes complicit in their own scapegoating and there is consequently no threat of reprisal. Any true god could not be inferred from religion at all. A true God could only be known through revelation.
I see only one god-claim that locates its revelation – its sphere-in-a-two-dimensional-world incarnation – in an actual historical person. And that is Jesus. So when Jesus claims that nobody can come to the Father except through him, I believe him. Because only revelation can provide true access to a god beyond our dimensional constraints. And by “access” I do not mean – nor do I think that Jesus meant – that some get a free pass into Heaven while the rest go toasty-side. I simply mean ‘to gain insight into the nature of’. Religion cannot give us insight into the nature of God, only into the nature of ourselves (which admittedly has its own kind of value). Revelation alone gives us insight into the nature of God. I do not believe that you will ever understand the nature of God until you accept the revelation that is Jesus, because the god offered by every religion is at some point a violent, wrathful god, who requires appeasement by blood. Gods, to varying degrees, are tyrant kings. The God revealed in Jesus is a servant.
What Jesus reveals is not another religion. It is an anti-religion. The gospel makes complete nonsense of religion and culture and all notions of exclusivity. Jesus reveals that God brings rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, that we must love those who would call themselves our enemies because they are children of God too. The gospel message teaches that in Jesus there is no slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female – no social boundary markers at all. There is no us and them, no righteous and unrighteous. Religion needs those distinctions because it requires a basis on which to select its scapegoating victims. But the gospel message is that God alone – not us – gets to determine who is in right relationship with Hen. And in Christ, there is no condemnation, just a righteous ‘us’. We are freed from being slaves to the death that our religions and cultures – the powers and principalities –constantly threaten us with, use to control us; freed from thinking that we are powerless against the need to use violence to bring peace to the group. We are free to see that there is alternative way to structure reality, something other than the violence that we have dragged God’s name into. We are free to relate properly to the divine again, because we can come to understand that we are alienated from God not because God is angry and refusing to engage, but because our God-concepts have made us fearful and we have withdrawn. The cross exposes these mechanisms for the murderous lies that they are, and frees us: scapegoating violence only works if we can believe that there is an us and a them. That we are righteous and they are not. But now that there is only an us, we have to find a way to make it work without the violence.
And the gospel gives us that way: to see God in the Other. “Whatever you do for the least of these,” said Jesus, “you do for me”. In other words, faith is expressed in how we relate to those whom society would scapegoat, those on the margins. When you serve the sick, the poor, the prisoners, said Jesus, you serve me. In modern terms, where the socially constructed norm is heterosexual, patriarchal, white and Western, you serve Jesus when you support #Blacklivesmatter; when you stand alongside the teenage girl at the abortion clinic; when you support Gay Pride marches; when you refuse to tolerate hateful comments about Muslims; when you don’t blame poverty on the poor by arguing that they don’t work hard enough; when you are not content to simply throw a violent offender into prison and throw away the key but insist that true justice requires that we make genuine attempts to rehabilitate him; when you can stand up against the hatred of the liberal left towards the conservative right; when you can not only refuse to bully and marginalize and blame, but actively stand up for the victims of these forces. When you do not need either to demonise those you detest nor sacralise those you admire, when you can humanize everyone and see God in them all, then you are living by faith. Whatever you do for least of these, whomsoever a particular society may regard as the least, you do it for God. God is in the Other.
So I do not believe that any religion can bring us closer to God. Religion need scapegoats and needs us not to see that. Religion needs some form of violence to keep the peace. Religion validates itself through exclusivity and marginalization. The gospel does not. It achieves peace through inclusivity and self-giving love. That does not mean that religion does not have anything to offer of value. Far from it. Within human parameters, religions offer us a framework within which we can understand how to interact relatively peaceably with our communities. But ultimately they all – Christianity included – derive their power to do so from scapegoating, from placing the blame for the problems of the world onto those who are marginal to their respective communities, and they find ways to cast those scapegoats out. The gospel (as opposed to Christianity) does not.