What makes the story of Jesus exceptional is the way that it has been experienced as a profound reconciliation between God and humankind. To understand Christianity is, then, to understand what Jesus was saying about God. It is also to understand how others experienced Jesus as offering not just a way to God, but also the way.
God is a symbol, a symbol with many meanings. Within the Christian faith tradition itself, there are many meanings. However, for Jesus, one meaning was all-important. For Jesus, God is not some impersonal force or power that set the universe in motion and then stepped back to simply watch. For Jesus, God is intensely personal, as evidenced in his referring to God as "Father." Furthermore, for Jesus, God is compassionate and loving-so much so that it would not be a distortion to say that, for Jesus, God is love. Finally, for Jesus, the love of God is powerful. It is a love that can bring about the seemingly impossible, including the saving of lost souls.
To understand Christianity, then, requires understanding what Jesus meant by salvation. Christianity has been so successful not because it has been aligned with political power, but because its followers have found in Jesus' life and words something profoundly true about the human condition.
The first truth is that, hard as we may try, we cannot save ourselves. Most of us backslide and fall short of living as we should. Most of us are anxious and doubting when we feel we should be calm and sure. Most of us never quite free ourselves of the tyranny of selfish desires, and of the one, great desire to promote, serve, and save ourselves. Most of us, then, have feelings that collectively add up to our feeling we are less than we should be, or, to use the Christian's metaphor, that we are less than what we were intended to be, namely, images of God. This widespread, if not universal, experience of being less than we should be is also the experience of being cut off or separated from God-an experience that leads us to the second truth revealed in the Jesus story. Try as we might to connect to God, we are doomed to failure if we assume that we can take control. The essence of Christianity is, in a way, a terrifying essence, or at least one that creates anxiety when one fully realizes what is required.
What is required of the Christian is nothing less than giving oneself and one's control to God or, as the Quakers put it, "Let go and let God." This is terrifying, in part, because giving up control to another can in and of itself be terrifying. But for those realizing the true nature of the Christian call, it is terrifying mainly because the call is to a way of life so radically different from ordinary life as to seem, at times, otherworldly. Here we come to perhaps the most important concept in Jesus' teaching, namely, the concept of the "Kingdom of God." Jesus' "Good News" for others was that the Kingdom of God is not some far away place or some afterlife residence. Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God is "among you," even if we cannot see or measure it.
In essence, Jesus was saying that the spirit and tangible worlds are connecting again, and that it is possible for each individual to be transformed or saved by reconnecting to that which He called the Kingdom of God. This spirit world is not a world of primitive magic, although to the outsider, Christianity has always seemed to have magic at its core. This spirit world is where (the word where functions here simply as a metaphor) God's will is done, where God and human unite, and where the community of humankind is itself united as members of a single spiritual body. Salvation, then, is not from this or that individual sin, for sin is not to be thought of in the plural only or mainly (i.e., as a collection of sins). Sin is the one, great, original sin defined in the Adam and Eve myth, the sin of eternal separation between God and humankind. To Christians, Jesus has returned to us that state of being known before Adam and Eve's fall, that state of being in total communion with God, which gives power and contentment so great that we no longer fear anything, death included.
This brief summary suggests, then, that Christianity is, at its core, a radical faith, one calling for a renunciation of the old, this-world way of living, in order to live life as if in a spiritual world. Furthermore, it is radical in its emphasis on giving up control, on letting go and giving up the pretense that we can save ourselves. The story of Christianity's essence might end here were it not for the fact that in so ending, we still would have no satisfying explanation of how the tradition spread so quickly to eventually take over the Western world. We need, then, to say a few words about the development of Christianity following Jesus' crucifixion.