Christianity is radically different from every other religion in the world. I saw this illustrated clearly during a recent trip to India, where I found myself working in distinctly Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh communities on different days.
One day I was at the Ganges River. Hindus consider the Ganges to be a holy body of water, and every year millions travel to this river to bathe in it, stand beside its waters, or perform ceremonial rites over it. According to Vedic traditions (the virtual basis for Hindu belief and practice), Hindus believe that the Ganges is a source of spiritual purification, so they wash themselves in the river in order to cleanse their sins. They also believe that the Ganges is a passageway from death to life, so they cremate deceased loved ones at the base of the Ganges and then scatter their ashes in the river, ensuring instant salvation (some don’t even cremate the body of their loved one, but simply cast the body into the river). When men and women leave the Ganges, they take small amounts of water with them for use in rituals back in the villages or towns where they live. Hinduism prescribes a variety of different rituals to a variety of different gods, and Hindus believe that the path to remission of sins and liberation from the cycle of life and death is paved through homage to the Ganges (or more specifically, the goddess Ganga that is represented by the river).
On another day, in another part of the region, I heard calls to prayer resounding from loudspeakers at five separate times during the day. Muslims responded by filing into mosques and completing a series of prayers that involved bowing down with their hands on their knees, prostrating their faces to the ground, and then rising to stand. According to the words of Muhammad in the Koran, these times of prayer are required for Muslims to honor Allah, each occurring at prescribed times with prescribed procedures under prescribed conditions.
Yet another day, we visited a training center for Tibetan Buddhists. Over five hundred Buddhist monks live on this property, complete with a monastery, library, training school, and two large temples. Everywhere we looked, we saw worshipers bowing before statues of gold and stone. People walked in circles, reciting mantras and spinning prayer wheels. Following the teachings of the Buddha, these monks believe in following an eightfold path that consists of right views, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation. If a monk is willing to follow this slow, difficult road to salvation, he believes he will experience eventual nirvana, which includes freedom from all desire and suffering.
I asked one of the monks why he did what he did. He responded, “Because I want to find peace and rest.”
I asked, “How will you find peace and rest?”
He answered, “I don’t know; I’m still searching.”
During our final evening in India, we spent time in a Sikh community, where people were assembling to honor the traditional teaching of the ten gurus who together established and defined Sikhism. Forbidden to cut their hair, men wore turbans of different colors and women covered their heads. They entered the temple and bowed before the Sikh scriptures, known as the Guru Granth Sahib. This holy book describes the way to truth and life, and it is the center of Sikh worship. After bowing before the book, men and women then received a free meal in a small bowl, for sharing with others is a traditional sign of the Sikh religion.
Looking back on these four encounters with four major religions in the world, I realized that they all shared one common denominator: in every religion, a teacher (or a series of teachers) prescribes certain paths to follow in order to honor God (or different gods) and experience salvation (however that is described).
In Hinduism, ancient teachers have passed down Vedic traditions prescribing rites and rituals for Hindus to observe. In Islam, Muhammad pointed in the Koran to five pillars for Muslims to practice. In Buddhism, the Buddha’s eightfold path is just one of four noble truths that he taught, alongside hundreds of other rules for Buddhists to follow. In Sikhism, ten gurus have pointed to one body of teaching as the way to truth and life.
But this is where Christianity stands alone. When Jesus came on the scene in human history and began calling followers to himself, he did not say, “Follow certain rules. Observe specific regulations. Perform ritual duties. Pursue a particular path.” Instead, he said, “Follow me.”
With these two simple words, Jesus made clear that his primary purpose was not to instruct his disciples in a prescribed religion; his primary purpose was to invite his disciples into a personal relationship. He was not saying, “Go this way to find truth and life.” Instead, he was saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” The call of Jesus was, “Come to me. Find rest for your souls in me. Find joy in your heart from me. Find meaning in your life through me.”
This extremely shocking and utterly revolutionary call is the essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: we are not called to simply believe certain points or observe certain practices, but ultimately to cling to the person of Christ as life itself.
But we have missed this. In so many ways and in so many settings, we have relegated Christianity to just another choice in the cafeteria line of world religions. Slowly and subtly, we have let Christianity devolve into just another set of rules, regulations, practices, and principles to observe. Hindus bathe in the Ganges River; Christians get baptized in the church. Muslims go to worship on Friday; Christians go to worship on Sunday. Buddhists recite mantras; Christians sing choruses. Sikhs read their holy book and share with the needy; Christians read their Bibles and give to the poor. Now don’t get me wrong: I am definitely not saying that we should not be baptized, sing in worship, read our Bibles, or serve the poor. But I am saying that if we are not careful, any one of us can do all of these things completely apart from Jesus.
Platt, D., & Chan, F. (2013). Follow me: a call to die. a call to live. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale.