The famous writer and Oxford don C. S. Lewis once walked in on a debate on comparative religions. The conferees were discussing whether or not there are any beliefs that are unique to Christianity. It seemed like incarnation and resurrection, as well as all the other Christian doctrines that debaters proposed, were in some fashion shared by other religions.
Then Lewis walked in and, in his inimitable fashion, asked, “What’s the rumpus about?”
His fellow-academics answered that they were debating whether or not Christianity offered anything unique among world religions.
Hearing that, Lewis responded: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
Lewis hit the proverbial nail on the head. Islam has Sharia law, which adherents must carefully follow. Buddhism has the eight-fold path. Hinduism has Karma. World religions offer God’s love with strings attached. Christianity cuts the strings.
This is so unexpected that it is difficult for people to accept. Grace may be the thing that is unique to Christianity, but because it is so utterly unique, we don’t really know what to do with it.
I have been an alpine skier for most of my life, but it was many years before I ever tried waterskiing. When I did, I failed miserably. My friend and driver told me how to position myself in the water in order to “get up,” and I attempted to follow his instructions.
As the boat accelerated, everything was fine. I could feel my ski tips rise and then dip to the surface as I popped up. But when my skis planed on the surface and the friction eased, it felt to me as if the rope had gone slack. So I – trying to maintain control– pulled hard on the rope. When I did, my skis shot out from under me and I tumbled backwards.
This didn’t happen once, but again and again. My friend could see what I was doing wrong, and he warned me to stop pulling on the rope when the resistance eased. He wanted me to relax and just ride the surface. But I couldn’t help myself. The absence of friction didn’t feel right – in fact, it felt all wrong – because I was no longer controlling the situation by my own strength. Of course whenever I tried to assert control, I fell.
When a skier is doing well – that is, when he is actually enjoying the ride – it is the driver and the boat that are introducing all the energy into the situation. The skier does not “get up” by his own strength, but by the power of the boat and motor. It is not his job to create that power, but to respond to it. He positions himself to receive and use a power that originates outside himself.
Christianity teaches us to do something similar: to position ourselves to receive and use a power that originates outside ourselves. We cannot produce the power that brings forgiveness, everlasting life and personal fulfillment by any of the means that religions commonly propose, like keeping rules or being self-disciplined. We merely position ourselves to receive it.
The position in which a person is capable of receiving the power that brings forgiveness, fulfillment and life is one of faith. This is what St. Paul taught when he wrote, “If people trust in [God], their faith is accepted even though they do not work. Their faith makes them right with God” (Romans 4:5).
We find this kind of grace hard to accept precisely because it takes control out of our hands. We prefer to trust ourselves rather than anyone else, including God. So we try to reattach the strings God has cut, once again tying our forgiveness and happiness to our own efforts.
But Christianity is not a do-it-yourself project. It finds the power we need outside ourselves, in what God has done through Jesus Christ and is doing by his Spirit. Our role is simply to be in a position (one of faith) to receive that power and put it to use in daily life.
(First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/25/14)
While there is undoubtedly a direct tie to God’s grace in Christianity, I hardly believe that Lewis hit the proverbial nail on the head, so to speak. Many religions offer a direct connection to God’s love, and to deny this is a grievous injustice. Consider a branch of Hinduism, for example. The process of rebirth associated with Bhakti Marga can only be broken by the true grace of God, and grace is integral to achieving unity with God. Also involving the deep understanding of God’s grace, Sikhs cannot be united with God without both a human effort and the divine grace of God–no strings attached. To state that grace is utterly unique to Christianity steals away the very essence of many religions and bolsters an inaccurate worldview, which is both unfortunate and unfair.
Thanks for your comments. I stand corrected. (And I think you could probably add Judaism to your list as well.) The unique contribution of Christianity is Jesus Christ, who is the epitome of grace “in its various forms.”
May I have your permission to use this essay as a writing prompt on my Introduction to World Religions exam? In the past, I have had to fabricate a scenario in which a pastor makes this claim about Christianity being the only religion in the world that teaches salvation by grace rather than works. Of course there is much evidence from the religions that we study that would support that. But there is also ample evidence that refutes this . . . so I want the students to search through what we have learned to find what supports this claim and what refutes it (Bhakti Marga Hinduism, Sikhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Jodo Shu Buddhism, Jodo Shin Shu Buddhism (especially Jodo Shin Shu Buddhism)).
I would like to have a real life example rather than a fabricated, hypothetical example.
Dr. Boyd H. Wilson
Professor of Religion
Yes, you may. Others have disagreed with the Lewis quote I used and the idea that Christianity’s unique contribution is grace. And perhaps they are right. The thing that is unique to Christianity is not a thing, but a person: Jesus. Nevertheless, free to use me as an example, for good or ill.