Learning about other faiths? Make room for ‘holy envy,’ says this Episcopal priest
According to Barbara Brown Taylor, learning about other faiths can only deepen our own.
When author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor began teaching comparative religion at a small liberal arts college in Georgia, her “only credentials were a master’s degree in divinity, deep immersion in one Christian denomination, and a lifelong curiosity about religion,” she writes in the introduction to her new book, Holy Envy (HarperOne). Taylor entered the classroom with a plan: to teach students the difference between the world’s major religions and encourage them to think more deeply about their own beliefs.
What actually happened was far more profound.
Over the course of the next 20 years, Taylor took groups of students on field trips to puja rituals at Hindu temples, Friday Jummah prayers at an Atlanta mosque, and lectures at Buddhist monasteries. As she and her students were welcomed into unfamiliar sacred spaces and prayed alongside these communities, in looking at their own religious beliefs through the lens of others, they also came to a deeper appreciation and understanding of their own faith.
Taylor says that she wrote the book after hearing her students and others wrestle with what it means to be a person of faith in an increasingly multireligious world. “More people are talking about what it’s like to live in a smaller world where they know people of other faiths,” she says. “Most of [my students] were Christian, so their questions had to do with how to maintain Christian identity. For those who were fearful, the questions were about how not to put their own faith at risk.”
What is holy envy?
Krister Stendahl invented the phrase holy envy at a 1985 press conference in Stockholm, where he was the bishop of the Church of Sweden. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was opening a new temple, and there was some local consternation about these newcomers from Utah. So Stendahl held a press conference to assuage people’s fears.
He offered three rules for religious understanding. Number one, if you want to learn about another religion, ask its adherents and not its enemies. Number two, don’t compare your best to their worst. Number three, leave room for holy envy.
The minute I heard the phrase holy envy I loved it, because it is an oxymoron. It takes one of the seven deadly sins and puts “holy” in front of it.
For a teacher of comparative religion, holy envy seemed like an intriguing way to handle students’ desires to learn more about other faiths without feeling guilty or condemned. It was a way of sanctifying their deep desire to learn more about other faith traditions without losing their own.
When was a time you saw holy envy at work among your students?
I saw it at a mosque on a Friday afternoon during the Jummah prayer. Students who knew nothing about Islam and had never been in a mosque listened to a sermon that made a great deal of sense to them about being the change they wanted to see in the world and treating others as they wanted to be treated.
They watched 600 people, including moms bending over their kids, grandmas in wheelchairs, and ordinary people bending to say their prayers. Those students came back to the classroom and wrote papers about how they needed to take their own prayer lives more seriously. They were so touched by what they saw.
I saw holy envy when we went to a Buddhist monastery for a Tuesday night public lecture. Students went armed against people trying to convert them and discovered instead that they were welcomed exactly as they were and encouraged to pay more attention to the way their minds worked, to cultivate more happiness, and to bring more peace into the world. These students wrote papers about how instantly relaxed they felt by the welcome and that they wanted to know more about meditation and silent prayer.
Holy envy isn’t about jumping ship or trashing one religion for another. It is looking over the fence into your neighbor’s yard and seeing something lovely and then looking around your own yard and saying, “I bet I could do my own lovelier thing in that regard.”
Is learning about other faiths ever disloyal to your own?
As a teacher, I don’t try to change people’s minds. I offer them some experiences on the page, in person, in documentary footage that gives them room to move around, to breathe and make up their own minds about whether they are enriched or endangered by learning more about other people’s faiths.
If they are Christians, I remind them of the central teachings of their own faith: loving the neighbor as the self, with no fine print about the neighbor’s religion. Some invariably interpret that as meaning the most loving thing to do is to try to convert someone. Others glimpse the possibility it means learning more about what the neighbor holds sacred.
Usually, all it took for my students to feel comfortable was one friendly welcome from one warm human being at a place we visited. Then whatever was strange in the setting became less threatening as the warm welcome and hospitality continued. In some cases, tea was poured and food was offered. Chairs were set out for us. Gifts were given to us.
The strangeness of the surroundings faded in the warmth of the welcome we received. Out of all the field trip reports I read over 20 years, I can’t think of three that said, “That was horrible. I’ll never go back.” What I read over and over again is, “I’m going back and taking my friends.”
Is it possible to visit the worship space of a different tradition and stay an observer, or do you necessarily become a participant in that worship?
I needed to think about that carefully in class. I made all field trips optional. Students who elected to go were carefully prepared about how worship took place in that space. We had a clear invitation to come as observers with no expectation that we were participants.
With that kind of preparation, I encouraged any student who felt uneasy about being there to go wait in the lobby or the college van. Only one student ever did that.
There were other places I decided to go on an off day when we could have what was clearly a guided tour and there was nothing going on in that community. That was also a good idea during high holidays in some places where the community was busy using the space and didn’t have time to entertain a bunch of clueless college students and their teacher, who was equally clueless.
How can we learn from other religions while respecting their differences?
My book is called Holy Envy because there are certainly some ways that envy of other religious traditions goes wrong even when it’s well-intentioned. There are a couple ways this happens. First is assimilation: “Let me eat up these other traditions and make them just like mine. Let me take their language, their way of seeing things, and translate it into my own terms so they get to be just like me.” This happens when we assume that Buddhist meditation is just like centering prayer, for example.
Appropriation is another way envy goes wrong. When I decide that I’ll go get a dream catcher and borrow a little bit of Native American tradition. I might do a little drumming. I’ll try some Buddhist meditation. I’ll get a statue of Ganesha for my bureau.
I don’t want to belittle that approach, since inter-spirituality can be done in a serious way, but it’s important to think twice before collecting religious bits and pieces that didn’t ask to be on your souvenir shelf.
In my classes, I worked hard to stress similarities between religions, such as how to treat your neighbor, how to deal with your negative emotions, and how to respond to the transcendent in your life, whether you call that a god or not. At the same time, I pointed out irreconcilable differences, especially around the relationship between divinity and humanity.
How can we respectfully interact with these symbols—the dream catcher, the statue of Ganesha—without appropriating them?
First of all, people of other faiths are just as diverse as Christians. I can ask one question of three Jews and get three different answers. Some Hindus will say, “Help yourself to Ganesha.
He’s a door opener, and he will bless you.” Others will say, “Don’t put his decal on your athletic shoes. That’s insulting.” The most respectful way forward, I have found, is to make a friend in a tradition. Make two friends. Make three friends. Say, “How does this seem to you?” and “I’m drawn to this, but tell me how this seems to you.”
It’s a great way of letting dialogue enliven the things I’m drawn to, whether it’s yoga, Ganesha, meditation, prayer beads, or increasing my own prayer life to approximate the five times daily prayer in Islam. It seems to me the only way to learn how to be in better relationship is to enter into relationships, to say, “I’m doing the best I can here, and I hope you’ll help me out.”
I’m in a dominant tradition in the United States; everyone knows about my religious faith. You can’t go to the grocery store without knowing when Easter is. My stuff’s all over the windows, all over the greeting card counters. It’s all over the landscape when Christmas comes.
The other traditions don’t have that luxury. It puts me in a beginner position with them, while they are already familiar with my tradition by virtue of living in a predominantly Christian culture.
You can also flip it around. What if someone came to communion in my church and saved the bread, put it on a shelf, and said, “This is so cool. They gave me bread at this thing, and I keep it up here right next to the service bulletin they gave me.” I would find that very strange.
Do you remember what happened when Madonna first began wearing rhinestone crosses as part of her stage act? People criticized her pretty severely for wearing the sacred symbol of a religious tradition as jewelry.
At the same time, there’s a way in which Christianity in the United States is so commercialized it’s hard not to appropriate religious symbols. Jesus is on coffee cups. Jesus is on T-shirts. Jesus is on tea towels. Jesus is on key chains.
How did teaching comparative religion affect your own faith?
Let’s use the present participle: My faith is still changing in wonderful ways. Chief among these is how richly I have discovered that what I have most in common with other people is not religion but humanity.
In our equally authentic humanity, we experience so many of the same things: birth, death, love, grief, joy, the wish to be generous, and the wish to be more fully realized. Our religions give us different ways of expressing that. What we have most in common are not our religions but our humanity. We start there. I would never have realized that as deeply or richly if I hadn’t become a student of other religions.
The second great benefit for me is that I’ve had to reexamine the teachings of my own religion and put them to the test as I never would have if I’d stayed comfortably in my own community and safety zone.
When people of other faiths ask me in genuine curiosity about things like the doctrine of the Trinity, how there can be one God in heaven and one God dying on a cross on earth, or how eating somebody’s body and blood would bring me into closer communion with this junior deity, I go, “Wait, wait, wait. That’s not the way I ever think of this.”
These questions come from a place that’s genuine curiosity. I’ve had to rethink my own beliefs, my own practices by viewing them through the eyes of others. That has been a sometimes upsetting and finally very rewarding thing to do: to see my own faith through the eyes of others and question myself more deeply about what I believe and why I do what I do.
How can individuals or congregations start building relationships with people of other faiths?
I did an event recently with an imam at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. He talked about two programs he’s involved with. One is World Pilgrims, which takes Christians, Jews, and Muslims—also people of other faiths, but predominantly those—on pilgrimages to shared holy lands. In the second, he works with police, firefighters, and other people who serve diverse communities by taking them to different houses of worship where they can learn about different religions and cultures firsthand.
There are more and more churches offering immersion experiences for parishioners. There are more and more high school and college classes making these kinds of visits. This kind of dialogue and relationship building is happening, but it’s also a work in progress, and people are inventing the answer as they go along. Each program is set in a specific locale and within a specific diversity.
The main thing is to prepare to be challenged. Prepare not only to receive warm welcomes but also to realize that other people are just as complex, clueless, and sometimes cranky as you are.
I’m eager to see how the curiosity among people of good faith develops in the years to come and counteracts some of the dreadful things we see in the headlines.
This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 9, pages 18–22).
Image: Courtesy of Barbara Brown Taylor