There is a very tricky area of modern thinking that we have to look at, and that is what I hear said all the time: ‘We all worship the same God.’ The implication here is that the different understandings of God are purely external, like clothing, so to speak, and that underneath, God is the same. The same God for Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims.
There are two issues here. The first is respect. In our world we are increasingly mixed together with people of different cultures and religions. We have learned to respect one another, and that is an entirely good thing. None of us I hope would be hostile or aggressive towards another religion or culture. This is more than just good manners. I think that we recognize that goodness, holiness, generosity and kindness know no barriers of faith. There are good people (and bad) among the followers of every religion. May God preserve us from a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. But does this mean that every religion is, in fact, the same? That the differences are superficial? You have only to look at the different cultures and societies that arise from the various religions to see that all are not in fact the same.
With regard to the distinctiveness of Christianity, we find food for thought in the gospel today (Mk 8.27-35). Peter is glad to hail Jesus as the Messiah. You can sense in Peter’s words his excitement and delight. But when Jesus alludes to his forthcoming suffering and death on the cross, Peter moves into denial. No, he says, this cannot happen, must not happen. It is much easier for Peter to stay with the dream of an earthly kingdom, a glorious new reign of God. When you think of it, Peter’s reaction is natural. He identifies God with triumph, with power, with strength. He believes that God among us must be invulnerable, above all suffering.
But here is God in human flesh. Here is God coming to save us, and to do so in Christ he is entering into our life. To be human is to be vulnerable. You can be bullied. You can be a victim of others. You can get sick, be disabled and ultimately you will die. This is part of what it is to be human. To me part of the proof of God’s love is that God in Jesus Christ embraces all this. This is one of the criticisms of Christianity made by Muslims. How can God be God, they say, if he is made to suffer? On the contrary, we reply, it is part of the love of God’s love that he is prepared to come among us in this way. He leaps the limitations of time and space to come among us in Christ, so that we may have a wonderful bridge between God and people. In Christ we find the perfect communication from Go to us, because God comes among us to speak to us as one of us. In this stupendous act God seeks to overcome all the obstacles that would otherwise make God’s true nature beyond our understanding. In Christ we see God revealed. No wonder that the shortest way of expressing this is quite simply what St John tells us: ‘God is love.’ Here we have something unique to Christianity, something that is central to our faith. It makes us who we are.