In his book, Introduction to the Great Religions, Jean Danielou, S.J. offers three categories that can be used to distinguish world religions: the concept of God, the mode of access to God, and the relationship of God to history. The latter two categories are specific developments of the first, and as they are more fully defined so are men’s interactions with God refined. The “science” of religious systems has advanced through the ages, from cosmic religions, to Biblical religions, to the Christian religions, and any who claim that the three are merely syncretistic expressions of the same truth have failed to aptly explore the differences in their respective contents. Nothing expresses the qualitative difference in religions more clearly than the development of Christian theology. In the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries after the death of Christ, Christian theologians passionately devoted themselves to the process of explicating the mystery of Jesus' incarnation. The Christological obsession of the Holy Roman and Byzantine empires at that time represented a gradual, but decisive, shift in the human religious experience. Hints of philosophical sophistication can be found in the religious traditions preceding it, but after Christianity’s development of the theology of Christ, all other concepts of the sacred and holy became primitive in comparison.
A pioneer in the field of comparative religion, Mircea Eliade expounds on the basic nature of religion in his book, The Sacred and Profane. The experience of the sacred hierophany and of the divine theophany designate similar encounters with “the wholly other,” the spiritual, or the Absolute, within the natural world:
It is impossible to over emphasize the paradox represented by every hierophany, even the most elementary. By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding milieu. A sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or, more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguishes it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into a supernatural reality. In other words, for those who have a religious experience all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.
The first and most universal religion is, simply, the conscious insight of a supernatural reality. Rudolf Otto famously referred to this as the numinous experience, an encounter with the “non-rational,” or super-rational as opposed to the irrational. Otto gave the numinous experience certain characteristic features. The mysterium tremendum et fascinans confronts one with the sense of the awful power and unworldly majesty of God. It is bigger than any natural fear of harm or punishment, this is a religious fear like that given to the “hallowed” God of the ancient Jews. “Holy and terrible is his name! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalms 111:9-10). This experience is more like reverence than cowardice, for the fear is accompanied by a great and indescribable fascinans, a divine allure. The majesty of the numinous reaches beyond the feeling of causal dependence into a mysterious sense of providential care. It is the force and source of life, the only object worthy of worship, and the “location” of the mystical state. It is the supremely good, the most illustrious, the highest royalty. These common descriptions are understood to be analogous because the numinous is revealed a priori as “absolute other,” having some kind of being all its own and of the highest conceivable quality. Although Otto is ambiguous about this at times, all the marks of the numinous also imply moral perfection.
A material-reductionist explanation will not sufficiently account for Eliade’s “homo religiosus,” the religious man, or for Otto’s “idea of the holy.” The poetic personification of natural forces is not religion; it may be an art-form or a strong sentiment, but it is not the numinous experience. No psychological stresses alone would inspire man to create God in the word’s full meaning, for the numinous God offers no comfort from the forces of nature or the fear of death. The kind of god that might have arisen as a reaction to extreme anxiety would be a genie-like or occult-type god, not an omnipotent Absolute whose power and grandeur surpass the cycles of earth and sky in every possible way. There is no reason to think that fear alone could compel genuine worship. Neither does ignorance resolve the question of religion’s origins so easily. The move from curiosity about natural phenomenon to presuming a Holy and August Almighty is not obvious or logical. Anthropomorphizing a thunder storm is very different from predicating an Uncaused Cause. For most of recorded history, science and religion progressed on parallel planes, sometimes overlapping, but usually analyzing separate datum. “The rhythm of natural life constitutes [cosmic religions’] fundamental source,” and therefore, biological and physical laws have rightly supplanted them. Today, the cosmic mythologies have been displaced by a scientific narrative, while the numinous experience remains pervasive. The break from natural religion comes when man believes he has been touched by God.
Even fraudulent cases of the “sacred” or “holy” would have to rely on a previously lived reality, either personally or through tradition. One of the well-springs of ancient religion, an authentic expression of the numinous, Eliade calls “sacred space.” Sacred space transforms the profane space around it, creating a habitation which is specially human: “the irruption of the scared does not only project a fixed point into the formless fluidity of profane space, a center into chaos; it also effects a break in plane, that is, it opens communication between the cosmic planes (between earth and heaven) and makes possible ontological passage from one mode of being to another.” Because man has an intuitive sense of himself as greater than death and connected with the divine, the world cannot be his home if it is not first made sacred. Thus, ancient man sees the universe recreated within a sacred place. The microcosm threads humanity to divinity, the earth with paradise, and space-time to eternity.
Though obscure before the birth of Christ, the Israelite people represent a specific advancement of the hierophany. A historical sacred-event, and a record of it, becomes the central focus of religion. Thus began the celebration of “sacred time.” “Remember thy congregation, which thou hast gotten of old, which thou hast redeemed to be the tribe of thy heritage! Remember Mount Zion, where thou hast dwelt” (Psalms 74:2). This new religious man must remember what God has accomplished for him, by His own initiative, in a real historical moment, and his sacred places are now holy places of remembrance. But sacred time for the Jews, as opposed to the other ancients, was not merely cyclical (restarting the sacred event of creation), but a dynamic re-creating and re-sacralizing of time in a progressive way: anamnesis. Time is assumed to have a beginning and an end, and God is personally involved in seeing it to fulfillment. Time realigns creation toward sanctification. The theophany of God in Jewish history transformed hierophany by introducing personhood to the Absolute: “I Am” (Exodus 3:14). The prophetic message of the Old Testament, which ultimately prepared the way for Jesus, shifted the focus of sacredness from many sources to one; it redefined power from natural goods to supernatural election:
“And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel’” (Exodus 19:3-6).
The seeds of cosmic religion grew into historic religion which came to fruition in Christianity. Sacred time and sacred space found their logical termination in the climax of Incarnation. The relationship of God to humanity and of God to each individual matured to a degree of intimacy analogous to marriage. The penetration of God into man has become so deep that it inseminates a “new creation.” God associates Himself so closely with his bride that they become one Mystical Body. The Christological controversy of the early Church reveals how the ideas of sacred time and space have now been surpassed. Jesus Christ is the totally human and totally divine point of intersection, one divine person with two natures, untied consubstantially to a communitarian God – a monotheistic Trinity of Divine Persons each identifiable not by intellect or will or energy or being, but by Their irreplaceable relationship to each Other. Human persons are hereby empowered, by faith in the Trinity, to believe in their own dignity as testified to by God Himself. The concrete realization of a universal quest for immortality was satisfied in historical witness of the New Testament, and its rational consequences are the twin doctrines of Original Sin and Inerrant Revelation, atoned in the dual natures but single person of Jesus. “Christianity arrives, not at a philosophy but at a theology of history. For God’s interventions in history, and above all his Incarnation in the historical purpose of Jesus Christ, have a transhistorical purpose – the salvation of man.”
 Daniélou, Jean. Introduction to the Great Religions. Notre Dame, Ind: Fides, 1964. 9-10.
 Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959. 12.
 Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. 1.
 Ibid. 63-65.
 Eliade. 15,18, 201-213.
 Danielou. 17.
 Eliade. 63.
 Ibid. 112.