Theology, Thoughts & Coffee
Reading and Class Schedule:
Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others
- April 11: Introduction and Chapter 1, pp. 1-26
- April 18: Chapters 2-3, pp. 27-60
- April 25: Chapters 4-5, pp. 61-98
- May 2: Chapters 6-7, pp. 101-138
- May 9: Chapter 8-9, pp. 139-173
- May 16: Chapter 10-11, pp. 175-202
- May 23: Chapter 12 and Epilogue, pp. 203-224
- May 30: No Class (Memorial Day Weekend)
Introduction and Chapter 1
In this book, Barbara Brown Taylor explores the religious diversity and pluralism in our society by writing about her experiences teaching a class that introduces the religions of the world to undergraduate students.
She tells her story of leaving parish ministry after many years, feeling empty and unsure of her faith, and taking a position at a private liberal arts college in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains (Piedmont College). The class she taught most often was Religions of the World. When she recovered from “the shock of meeting God in so many new hats, she fell for every religion she taught.” It was only when teaching Christianity “that the fire sputtered, because her religion looked so different once she saw it lined up with the others.”
“She always promised her students that studying other faiths would not make them lose their own. Then she lost hers, or at least the one she started out with. This is the story of how that happened and what happened next.” It is also the story of a generation of young Americans who are growing up with more religious diversity than their parents and grandparents could ever imagine.
Rather than seeing religions as largely the same, held together by some common denominator, Taylor assumes religions are inherently different. They offer alternative ways of viewing reality. She understands world religions as wells in which we find the water of life and a lens by which we translate the landscape. She describes them as treasure chests of stories, songs, rituals, and ways of life that have been handed down for millennia—not covered in dust but evolving all the way—so that each new generation has something to choose from when it is time to ask the big questions about life. Where did we come from? Why do bad things happen to good people? Who is my neighbor? She suggests that a worldview is a wave, but not the entire ocean.
Unlike many scholars of religion who assert a common denominator of love and compassion, Taylor thinks each religion differs in significant ways. Each offers a unique set of perspectives on the world that gives rise to diversity, even in the confines of particular religious traditions. She resists the temptation to construct a customized religion using bits and pieces from other faiths that suit her needs and the needs of others that share her tradition. Instead, she looks for the wisdom found in each of them, hoping to build bridges not walls.
The basis for this approach for this approach is articulated in three guidelines offered by the Lutheran biblical scholar Krister Stendahl: 1) When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies; 2) Don’t compare your best to their worst; and 3) Leave room for holy envy.
When describing her own holy envy, Taylor writes, “My spiritual covetousness extended to the inclusiveness of Hinduism, the nonviolence of Buddhism, the prayer life of Islam, and the sacred debate of Judaism. Of course, this list displays all the symptoms of my condition. It is simplistic, idealistic, overgeneralized, and full of my own projections. It tells you as much about what I find wanting in my own tradition as it does about what I find desirable in another.”
She supports her approach by noting that Jesus raises more questions than answers in the gospels. Unlike so many of his followers, Jesus refuses to define exactly what he means, and instead offers stories and ambiguous sayings when pressed for clarity.
Taylor suggest that today his Good Samaritan might be a Good Muslim or a Good Humanist, and the Golden Rule might include honoring your neighbor’s religion, as you want them to honor yours.
In this journey she notes, “I have discovered that I am Christian to the core. However many other religious languages I learn, I dream in Christian. However much I learn from other spiritual teachers, it is Jesus I come home to at night.”
From this perspective, she describes the approach she takes in her classes and in the book as her Christian duty, her way of being faithful to the way of Jesus. “I believe it is the neighborly thing to do, the Christ-like thing to do. Part of my ongoing priesthood is to find bridges between my faith and the faiths of other people, so that those of us who draw water from wells on different sides of the river can still get together from time to time, making the whole area safer for our children.”
Chapter 2: Vishnu’s Almonds
and Chapter 3: Wave Not Ocean
In considering Hinduism, Taylor cites the quote from Huston Smith (whom she refers to as the “great god-father” of all the teachers of world religions: “Hinduism is the great psychologist of the religions, he wrote. It knows that people are different and offers them different paths to union with the divine. Some choose a scholarly path and others a path of service. Some choose a path of meditation and others a path of devotion. Some devote themselves to Vishnu and some to the Divine Mother. Some shun the worship of deities altogether, striving to realize God in themselves with no decoys. Others mix and match.”
This provides a very helpful perspective on this ancient Indian faith tradition. In the context of Taylor’s experiences, it takes on fresh relevance. The plurality of the Christian faith, expressed in numerous denominations and communities, reflects many paths of Hinduism. Contemporary Christians tend to choose even from their own traditions what they find to be acceptable and disregard teachings and practices that they do not find compelling. Christians are often critical of the diverse and pragmatic nature of Hinduism without reflecting on the notion that the diversity of Christian denominations are often perceived as different religions by outsiders (as well as some insiders).
The irony becomes even more obvious when many claim that Christianity is the only way to God. The different traditions offer numerous answers, leading to the quite natural questions, which version of Christianity is the right way. Taylor reports her experience shows other religions are not so concerned with converting the whole world to their way.
She describes significant incidents in visits to other religious sites where leaders and authorities from every other tradition assured her students they had no desire that they should convert but hoped their experience would make them better Christians. A Hindu professor confesses love for Jesus but declares that does not mean she cannot love Lord Vishnu as well. A Buddhist monk speaks of Judaism and Buddhism being very much alike and advocates learning more about both to become a better Jew. A rabbi emphasizes you do not need to be Jewish in order to be righteous in God’s eyes and wonders why anyone would want to adopt their strange practices. A Muslim imam expresses the hope that worshiping in his mosque will help the students practice their own faiths more devoutly.
On the other hand, she reports many Christians have attacked her for introducing her students to the “idol worship” of other religions. They warn the she might be responsible for some of them cut off from God and condemned to hell for eternity. Taylor repeatedly stresses that the vehemence of this idea that the Christian way is the only way is what embarrasses her most in the Church.
Taylor’s holy envy of Buddhism particularly extends to its commitment to nonviolence. The Buddha reminds us that human suffering is the major concern of religious thought and action. Interestingly, Jesus also addressed the underlying causes of poverty, illness, death, and hatred in his ministry and teaching. Like the Buddha, he warns violence promotes pain and suffering while solving nothing. Jesus’ call to love unconditionally even our enemies is certainly one of history’s best and most challenging expressions of nonviolence. A major issue in the Christian tradition has been the question of “just war” or “just violence.” Those who Christians who have adopted an exclusively and consistently pacifist approach are appreciative of the Buddhist tradition of nonviolence.
Questions for Discussion:
- After witnessing Padmavathi’s bath (p.37), Taylor writes “I have never seen anything like this mix of the sensual and the sacred, with no fireproof ditch between the two.” How do you feel about the sensual and the sacred being so intertwined?
- What are the tensions and overlaps between being culturally respectful and participating in a religion you don’t follow? Discuss Taylor’s questions: “Can anyone who visits a sacred space remain an observer, or does one become a participant simply by entering in? Does taking part in the ritual of another faith automatically make you a traitor to your own?” (pp. 43–44).
- Taylor quotes author Paul Knitter, who wrote, “The more deeply one sinks into one’s own religious truth, the more broadly one can appreciate and learn from other truths” (p. 48). Can you describe any instances where you’ve had this experience in your own life? How has maturing in your own faith helped you to appreciate other faiths?
Chapter 4: Holy Envy
and Chapter 5: The Nearest Neighbors
The perspective Taylor develops throughout the book, and the basis for here title, comes from the work of the Lutheran biblical scholar Krister Stendahl (a former dean of Harvard Divinity School). He suggested three guidelines for religious dialogue and 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 the eyes of God we are all minorities. That’s a rude awakening for many Christians, who have never come to grips with pluralism in the world.”—Krister Stendahl
“If God isn’t partial to Christianity, then what am I doing here?” In reflecting on this question, Taylor writes, “I wish ordinary Christians took exams, so I could put that question on the final. As natural as it may be to want to play on the winning team, the wish to secure divine favoritism strikes me as the worst possible reason to practice a religion.”
In describing her own holy envy, Taylor writes, “My spiritual covetousness extended to the inclusiveness of Hinduism, the nonviolence of Buddhism, the prayer life of Islam, and the sacred debate of Judaism. Of course, this list displays all the symptoms of my condition. It is simplistic, idealistic, overgeneralized, and full of my own projections. It tells you as much about what I find wanting in my own tradition as it does about what I find desirable in another.”
Taylor writes that her unit on Judaism brought the most embarrassment to her regarding her own faith. She had to acknowledge all the horrible ways the Church persecuted the Jews down through history, even accusing them of being god killers. She tells of her own coming to terms with the ways in which she used language and maintained views that implied contempt when speaking of Judaism. She tells of a letter from a Jewish psychiatrist who had been reading her sermons. While he found much to appreciate, he also and pointed out that she was still using the “language of contempt” for Judaism when she suggested the Judaism had been “replaced” by Christianity. This idea is known as supersessionism or replacement theology.
In this regard, Christians can benefit from examining some of the common stereotypes that denigrate the Jewish tradition in relation to Christianity. An honest reading Law and the Prophets corrects ideas about the deity in the Old Testament being violent and the God of the New being loving and gentle. It also makes it impossible to base the difference between the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible on a contrast of law and love. It is important to remember that Jesus is Jewish and stands firmly in the Jewish tradition. His teaching affirms that tradition and seeks to extend it for his followers.
Taylor expresses holy envy for many Jewish practices, especially for the Jewish observance of the Sabbath. She also appreciates the acknowledgement that God’s covenant with Noah offers a universal promise to all the nations.
She wonders, why the teaching of Jesus became, by the end of the first century, a religion about him.
Questions for Discussion:
- Taylor laments the Christian doctrine of original sin, saying, “It drops the bar on being human so low that you have to wonder why we don’t all just stay in bed” (p. 74). At the same time, many Christians embrace this doctrine because it makes clear that humans cannot work their way to salvation, but must accept salvation as a gift of sheer grace. How important is original sin to your understanding of faith?
- Rather than see religions as competing for the one and only place of truth, Taylor presents a view where “absolute truth moves to the center of the system, leaving people of good faith with meaningful perceptions of that truth from their own orbits” (p. 78). She also shares the metaphor of religions as different rivers having the same heavenly source. How do you respond to these images and why?
- A Jewish psychiatrist writes Taylor about the latent “language of contempt” he has found in her published sermons (p. 87), in which she reinforces the idea that God’s covenant with Abraham has been supplanted by a new covenant with Christ. Is that idea new or old to you? How might a compelling challenge to that idea change your reading of the New Testament?
- Taylor contrasts the Christian emphasis on right religious belief with the Jewish emphasis on right religious practice. What is your answer to the question on page 95, “How does being Christian change the way you live?”
Chapter 6: Disowning God
and Chapter 7: The Shadow-Bearers
Taylor deals with personal questions that were coming up for her in the classroom:
- What does it mean to be a person of faith in a world of many faiths?
- If God is revealed in many ways, why follow the Christian way?
- Is Christian faith primarily about being human or becoming truly human?
- How does loving Jesus equip me to love those who do not love him the way I do? What do religious strangers reveal to me about God?
Her experiences in church and in the classroom deepen her awareness of the basic interpretive character of religious traditions. “The problem with every sacred text is that it has human readers. Consciously or unconsciously, we interpret it to meet our own needs. There is notion wrong with this unless we deny that we are doing it. As when someone tells me that he is not ‘interpreting’ anything but simply reporting what is right there on the page.”
This approach to reading the Bible, or other ancient texts for that matter, is highly problematic. We are already reading texts in translation. This means that the texts we read have already been subject to considerable interpretation. Just think of the differences among translations. In addition, we are so distant from the social and cultural contexts of the times in which these texts came into being. But perhaps the most significant concern to Taylor is because it is “such a short distance between believing you possess an error-free message from God and believing that you are an error-free messenger God.”
“The minute I believe I know the mind of God in the minute someone needs to sit me down and tell me to breathe into a paper bag.”
“Once my holy envy led me to ask more of my tradition than the narrative of exclusive salvation and everlasting triumph, I began to search for counternarratives that sounded more like Jesus to me. In particular, I looked for stories that supported Christian engagement with religious strangers—not as potential converts but as agents of the God who transcends religion and never met a stranger.”
For Taylor, the deeper message in the events of Jesus visit to Nazareth in Luke 4 is that no one owns God. “This is how far my holy envy has brought me: from fearing that Jesus will be mad at me for smelling other people’s roses to trusting that Jesus is the Way that embraces all ways.”
For Taylor this belief does not diminish her devotion to Jesus or her commitment to his teaching.” In every circumstance, regardless of the outcome, the main thing Jesus has asked me to do is to love God and my neighbor as religiously as I love myself. He minute I have that handled, I will ask for my next assignment. For now, I have my hands full.”
The relationship between religion and culture has reemerged as a problem in our time, most particularly in the terrorism practiced by some Middle Eastern groups. Politicians on both sides have used religion to justify their military actions. Taylor reports this situation made teaching Islam the most difficult. When she introduces Islam and asks students to write what they (think) they already know about it, terrorism will inevitably lead the list, followed by other, often similar ideas.
Some the problems and difficulties she identifies for understanding other religions and particularly Islam are:
- Recognizing the entanglement of politics, economics, history, and religion
- Noticing how religions change from culture to culture
- Vetting the viewpoints of your news source
- Resisting the tendency to judge the many by the actions of the few
- Understanding the dynamics of your own fear
“The biggest surprise for everyone is that Christian and Muslims both revere Jesus. Muslims call him Isa, believing him to be both prophet and messiah. Christians believe he shares divine status with God, which neither Jews nor Muslims can affirm, but Muslims honor him as an exemplar of what it means to truly surrender to God.”
“Letting this sink in for the first time, I am struck by the realization that Christians do not own Jesus any more than we own God. He has other sheep who do not belong to our fold, and when he is walking with them, they see him very differently. Hindus may see him in the saffron robes of a holy man or as an avatar who manifests the divine. Buddhists see him sitting in the lotus position as a bodhisattva, a compassionate being who works for the benefit of all beings. Jews have every reason to see him as the shepherd of a murderous flock, though there are a few who can see him as a liberal Pharisee of his day or a passionate rabbi who died for his vision of Judaism.”
“Jesus may not have been a Christian, but Christians do not like anyone claiming to know him as well as we do.”
Questions for Discussion
- Taylor persists in reading the Bible because “it is my baseline in matters of faith—something far older than I am, with a great deal more experience in what it means to be both human and divine. . . . I return to the Book—not to find a solution, but to remember how many possibilities there are” (p. 106). How do you approach the Bible? How has your approach changed, and—if you still read it—why do you persist?
- Taylor recounts some stories of religious strangers in the Bible—from King Melchizedek in Genesis to the wise magi of the Gospels—who enter the sacred story of a particular tradition in order to deliver a blessing and then leave it again without ever becoming a member of the tradition (pp. 108–110). What do you think of that idea? How does it challenge common understandings of how God works?
- What is your response to Taylor’s interpretation from Jesus’s first sermon at Nazareth (pp. 111–17)—that no tradition has privileged access to the divine and no religion owns God? How would accepting this conclusion change how you practice your faith or how you relate to other faiths?
- On page 129, Taylor says that September 11 changed the way Americans view Islam, resulting in what President Bush called “a quiet, unyielding anger,” (p. 129), that continues today. What fears do you have around terrorism? Where do they come from? How do they affect your perception of everyday Muslims?
- Referencing author Jonathan Sacks, Taylor identifies “groupishness” as the source of our violence, more than religion or secularism (p. 131). Where do you see “groupishness” in your own community? How can we maintain a positive sense of group identity without diminishing the value of those who do not belong to it?