Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others is another inspiring book by Barbara Brown Taylor. You may recall, she is an Episcopal priest who, after years as a pastor, moved into the world of Academia beginning with Piedmont University in Demorest, Georgia. There for years she taught a course in world religions. She reminded her students that by taking them on field trips to other places of worship, she was not trying to convert them from their own religious beliefs. On the contrary, by studying other believers she hoped they might come to a new understanding of their own faith.
She reminded her students that the United States is a pluralistic society. She added that it always has been. Muslims were in this country by 1528, Jews in 1654, Hindus by 1851, and Buddhists in the mid 1880s. In 1860, for example, 10% of the population of California was Chinese. The restrictive immigration law of 1924 was an attempt by Congress to limit or deny immigration to certain groups of people “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity” (which didn’t really exist!) American homogeneity in 1924 usually meant white, Christian, and of northern or western European descent . This law, based on the 1890 census, established a quota system for immigration. It also essentially excluded immigrants from Asia (except from the Philippines) and severely limited immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (where my grandparents came from in about 1905). The 1924 law was modified over the years and dramatically changed by the Immigration Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon Johnson at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Currently, the U.S. (and, indeed, many other countries in the world) are more pluralistic than ever. Taylor says, “Religious illiteracy is a luxury we cannot afford.”
The phrase “holy envy” can be traced back to a Biblical scholar named Krister Stendahl, a Swede who taught at Yale and eventually became Bishop of Stockholm. In 1985 he became aware of the mounting opposition to a new Mormon temple being built in his diocese. He attempted to defuse this tension by proposing three rules of religious understanding:
- When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
- Don’t compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for holy envy. (In other words, is there anything you envy about this other religion—something its adherents believe, have, or do that you would wish for your own faith? Or, can you find God in the faith of others?)
Sometimes this holy envy changed the way students viewed the practice of their own religion. For example, when the class learned that Muslims pray five times a day, many of her students were impressed. One Protestant student said she wanted to incorporate more regular “talking with God” into her daily life. When they learned about the Muslim Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer, and community, one student said he never paid much attention to the observance of Lent in his Catholic tradition, but now he wanted to.
Taylor shares some of the things she herself envies in other religions. She envies Buddhism’s stress on “human ability and responsibility.” Buddhism does not talk about God. And Buddha himself is not God. As he lay dying, his followers asked how they could possibly go on without him? Buddha replied, “Be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp.” This reminded Taylor of Jesus’ words: “You are the light of the world.”
She also found it intriguing that neither Judaism nor Islam has a doctrine of original sin. She pondered how the absence of this doctrine impacted Judaism and Islam—and how the presence of this doctrine impacted her own Christian faith. She also found it striking that Judaism is not interested in making converts. What a contrast to some other faiths. For even a cursory reading of history is filled with so-called “religious wars” where one religious group resorted to violence to convert (or destroy!) those who did not share their religious beliefs.
I found chapter 7, “The Shadow-Bearers” to be one of the best. As you may recall, 9-11 occurred on a Tuesday. Taylor had already lined up her class field trip to a local mosque for Friday. Sixteen students had signed up to go. But after 9-11, eight dropped out. One said her father told her to drop the course “before you get recruited to ISIS.” Taylor quotes from Jonathan Sacks book, Not in My Name, who says it is not our religion that makes us violent. “It is our penchant toward violence that gives rise to our religious impulse.” He believes humans are born with two sets of instincts: “altruism toward those in our own group and aggression toward others.” We develop psychological mechanisms such as projection and scapegoating that allows us to assign goodness to our group and badness to the other group. Says Taylor, “This relieves us from having to deal with the badness in our group; it also frees us to believe that our violence against the other group is essentially altruistic.”
I agree with Fr. James Martin’s assessment of Taylor’s book: “By turns inspiring, enchanting, and provocative, Taylor reminds us that God is bigger than any one religion. Prepare to be surprised and, best of all, come to know God in a new way.” Let me conclude with Taylor’s description of what happened during one the her class field trips to a local Mosque:
The imam ended his meeting with the students by saying, “Our deepest desire is not that you become Muslim, but that you become the best Christian, the best Jew, the best person you can be. In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Thank you for coming.” Says Taylor, “Then he was gone, leaving me with a fresh case of holy envy.”
Did anything in this reflection stand out for you? Do you know why?
Have you ever had a conversation with someone not of your faith to learn more about their faith? If so, describe that experience.
Have you taken a course, read books, attended talks, or listened to podcasts on world religions? If so, what did you learn?
Have you ever visited a place of worship other than that of your own faith? What was that experience like for you?
PS: As I’ve mentioned before, I realize many of you are no longer receiving my blog even though you are subscribers. I’ve been told that I have too many subscribers for the current system to deal with. The IT people are looking for a solution. Meanwhile, my blog is being updated with a new design. In fact, this week I am zooming with the artist who is offering me several designs to choose from. If you are no longer receiving my blog automatically every Monday, just search “Melannie Svoboda blog” and my blog should come up for you. Thank you for your patience.
For our video today, I chose a reading of Psalm 23 in Hebrew with an English translation. Most scholars say Jesus spoke Aramaic and Hebrew and perhaps some Greek. I love listening to the reciting of this beautiful psalm in perhaps the very words Jesus would have prayed. The pictures that accompany this reading are lovely too.
I invite you to respond below to anything in today’s reflection: words, pictures, video, reflection questions. I always enjoy hearing from you! (And my readers do too!)