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Many Christians emphasize the importance of having an actual relationship with God/Jesus as opposed to merely being religious. The previously asked question What is the origin of the "religion vs. relationship" dichotomy? attests very well to this fact. But what about when people from other religions claim to have similar personal relationship experiences with their deities? For example, a Muslim claiming to have a personal relationship with Allah, a Hindu claiming to have a personal relationship with Brahman, a Hare Krishna claiming to have a personal relationship with Lord Krishna, a New Ager claiming to have a personal relationship with the Universe, their spirit guides, their higher self, etc.

Qualitatively speaking, what sets the Christian relationship with God apart from relationship experiences that people claim to have in other religions? What makes the Christian relationship with God special and unique? Are people in other religions just having counterfeit, deceitful experiences?


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What makes the Christian relationship with God special and unique?

Only Christianity understands God as Trinity. A short answer is that Christian relationship with God is participating in the Trinitarian love within the Godhead, re-produced in our relationship with our neighbors, thus imitating Christ's love to the Father and the Father's love to Christ. We are able to love because we have the Holy Spirit (God himself) dwells in our heart, enabling us to grow in our love disposition. I think only Christianity teaches "God is love", which has a lot of content to unpack from God's revelation of himself in the Bible, through both teaching and works. Works which culminate in Jesus's sacrifice on the cross to heal us out of love and mercy for His creation.

God's love in Christianity is unique in that God himself, who as creator of the universe is powerful and glorious, doesn't find it beneath Him to

  • love in weakness that moves the heart, instead of impressing us through force (fire and brimstone). Example: Jesus as lamb of God sacrificed for us on the cross.
  • love that searches the lost one sheep in the gutter, instead of requiring us to come to his throne. Example: Jesus brought dignity, not shame, to the repentant regardless of the crime, including the worst offender in 1st century Jewish culture: tax collector (crime against other Jews in colluding with the Romans)

Are people in other religions just having counterfeit, deceitful experiences?

No. Other religions teach love too, but without a model of the perfect love described above, the adherents eventually either idealize a deficient kind of love (such as self-renunciation in Buddhism) or feel something is missing (which hopefully move them to consider Christianity). Other examples of the former:

  • In Islam, relationship with God is more characterized as submission
  • In Judaism, relationship with God is more of worship and repentance
  • In New Age, relationship with God is a personal quest (rather self-centered) where self-giving to others are in the periphery

What about spiritual experience?

In Christianity, spiritual experience is a means to form love in a Christian's heart. It's optional. The primary goal of Christian spiritual experience (while on earth) is not enlightenment, receiving prophecy/knowledge, or seeing the glory of God, but as an aid to help us grow in faith (trust God more) and love (serve God and others out of gratitude in response to God's love for us). Therefore, although other religions have their spiritual experience (genuine or not), if that spiritual experience doesn't lead to Christian love, it does not help one to grow the true relationship with God.

CONCLUSION

For those Christians who emphasize the "religion vs. relationship" dichotomy, "religion" distracts a person from the true "relationship" with God through Christ, whether it's a Christian religion or other religions. At best, religion should be done only to grow relationship, OR as a response flowing from a true relationship.

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  • Only Christianity understands God as Trinity - in Hinduism there is the Trimurti though: " [...] Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer". Oct 12 at 14:23
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator I added links to clarify that I meant Christian Trinity, which is obviously different than the Trimurti. The underlying premise of my answer is that just by comparing how different religions define relationship with God one can see the different practical implications, which in turn show that each religion is truly different from another. The question of which one is better is beyond the scope of this answer, but of course Christians will argue that Christian's understanding is the true one leading to the perfect love. Oct 12 at 14:46
  • [...] or feel something is missing (which hopefully move them to consider Christianity) - do you know concrete examples in support of this statement? Oct 12 at 16:40
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator Not personally, but I'm sure it's easy enough to find seemingly genuine conversions by googling. In a few minutes I was able to find this one from Islam to Christianity, although it's a teenage conversion. The conversion of Mortimer Adler is famous (I read many of his books) but he wasn't pious Jew to begin with. More Islam to Christianity here. Oct 12 at 17:19
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    St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) would be an example of a Jew who felt something was missing and became a Christian. There's a movie about her that might be up your alley as a Spirit Realm Investigator
    – Peter Turner
    Oct 12 at 19:01
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Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

Deus Caritas Est - Pope Benedict XVI

As a sinful person, I entirely understand this "encounter" mentality that Pope Benedict was getting at, the encounter is so very important. As I find myself asymptotically drawn to these encounters, that's religion - it's just calculus applied to the soul's need for a relationship with Christ.

Christianity (or at least Catholicism) is often takes flack for being a "both/and" sort of religion. She takes things that by themselves would be heresies and makes them kiss (like Justice and Mercy).

So with all dichotomies of good things (especially alliterative things, like relationship and religion) the Church bundles them together.

The response to the encounter is religion. Like Mary Marsden says to her skeptical gentleman friend in George MacDonald's eponymous book, organized religion is like an orchestra making more beautiful music because it's done together.

It's not surprising that all religions would respond in the same way, Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy the about all religions expecting to have a priesthood and an altar (Which he says is denied by the modern). If the desire for religion is natural and it lifts the soul up to God it's probably written in our hearts, where it comes from doesn't much matter. Only very foolish people would think it's there because of biology, even if it's there because of biology it was put there by the Creator. Biology (i.e. human physiology), being made good is a mediator of grace; that you get more grace from certain postures of prayer, that when two or more are gathered so is Jesus, these are all religious attitudes that affect the only relationship we have with God (the channel of Grace; don't touch that dial or you'll have to go to confession!).

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Matthew 7:21-23 (NIV): Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

People may believe they have a relationship with the divine, they may even believe they have a relationship with the Christian God, with Jesus. They can believe that, and be wrong. If we do not approach God in truth and repentance, then we cannot have a true relationship with him.

People of other religions may have an experience of a relationship with the divine based on nothing, or it's possible that they are relating to a demon. From the perspective of Christianity, neither amounts to anything.

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