HOLY ENVY Reviewed by Carl McColman

HOLY ENVY Reviewed by Carl McColman

It’s such a well-worn story that you don’t have to look very hard to find lots of bad news in the name of religion. At the time of writing a cursory stroll through Google revealed these headlines:

  • “Ethnic and Religious Violence Surges in Sri Lanka”

  • “Clergy and Religious Among Catholic Dead in African Violence”

  • “Indonesia’s Election Exposes Growing Religious Divide”

  • “Blocking of Mosque Reveals Religious Intolerance”

In addition to the new headlines that appear every day or week or so, there are the “legendary” stories that never seem to go away. Stories about entrenched forms of religious hostility — from Northern Ireland during the Troubles, to the ongoing hostility between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, and of course the long shadow of the Holocaust, a crime against humanity driven as much by religious intolerance as by ethnic or cultural hatred.

Even when the stories don’t involve violence, there still seems to be plenty of bad news: how religious fundamentalism can create hostile environments that are unsafe for LGBTQ+ people, or women, or members of minority faiths, for example. Or how authoritarian and charismatic religious leaders too often seem to become implicated in scandals involving financial malfeasance or sexual impropriety. Is it any wonder that more and more people — especially younger adults — opt to disaffiliate with religion altogether? When the Pew Research Center conducted a study of changing religious identities in the United States, was anyone really surprised to find out that “Spiritual But Not Religious” marked one of the fastest growing ways that people identify their spirituality — with “None” also showing robust gains?

So is there good news about religion anymore? 

It might be helpful to consider that the stories about religion that create national or international headlines often are by no means the full story. I remember attending an Iftar Dinner where the conversation turned to the frustration my friends felt over how few stories presenting Islam in a positive light ever seemed to make the national news.  What’s ironic is that I know many Christians who feel the same way — that only the shadow side of their faith ever seems to get any oxygen.

Such perceptions are subjective, of course, but it’s not hard to get a sense of how our perception of things might get skewed by our appetite for controversy and conflict.  If a Christian fanatic threatens to burn a copy of the Qur’an, everyone hears about it. Meanwhile, when Christians and Muslims reach out to one another in neighborhoods all across the nation to work together to make neighborhoods safer, no one pays it much mind.

We seem to need several new stories — or, should I say, we seem to need to do a better job at telling the already existing stories that connect the dots between faith, tolerance, and hope. With this in mind, I am so thrilled to see Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, hit the bestseller chart on both Amazon and the New York Times. Not only in this book an eloquent call for religious tolerance and understanding, at the same time it makes the case that one of the best ways to foster religious tolerance is by practicing one’s own faith with integrity and conviction.

Forget the fundamentalists of all religious persuasions, who insist that their way is the only way. But rejecting all religion as mere superstition or tribalistic thinking doesn’t help matters either (among other things, if all liberal-minded people abandon religion, the fundamentalists and chauvinists are the only ones left to speak in the name of God — a role they happily embrace). Taylor is careful never to criticize those who choose to be spiritual but not religious — in fact, she expresses a real sense of understanding for why people make that choice — but she makes her own compelling argument for how the solution to religious intolerance and violence needs to be a spiritual solution — anchored in the religions rather than at odds with them.

Taylor is an Episcopal priest who became nationally known when in 1996 Baylor University named her one of the most effective living preachers in the English-speaking world. At the time she was the rector of a small Episcopal Church in rural Georgia, but she left that position to become a religion professor at a small private college.  It was in this role as a professor — of world religions — that she found the voice she would use to write Holy Envy. It is the story of how she approached the study of world religions, often navigating the resistance that her more conservative students displayed toward anything other than evangelical Christianity — while, at the same time, learning about all her own blind spots and subconscious biases when it came to religions other than her own.

Taylor recognizes that perhaps the best way to teach world religions is to allow her students to encounter actual practitioners of other faiths, along with their places of worship. Since her school was located within an easy driving distance to Atlanta, she soon made connections with mosques, synagogues, Hindu temples, and Buddhist centers where  she could bring her students to learn, to listen, to ask questions, and to explore entirely new ways of experiencing religion — and spirituality — beyond what they may have known before. Since most of her students were white Americans from either Christian or secular homes, these spiritual “field trips” became a significant part of the student’s learning experience. But Taylor soon realized she was doing a lot of learning herself.

The book’s title comes from a term coined by the Biblical scholar (and Lutheran bishop) Krister Stendhal, who worked to defuse hostility between Lutherans and Mormons in Sweden when the Latter-Day Saints built a temple in Stockholm. Taylor describes his actions like this:

Stendahl aimed to defuse tension by proposing three rules of religious understanding, which have by now made the rounds more often than any of his scholarly work on the apostle Paul. Here is the most common version of what he said: 

    • 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. (p. 65)

She goes on to admit, “No one is positive what he meant by number three,” but she shares her own sense of what “holy envy” might be: the experience that a person might have when they discover something about a faith, other than their own, that they find particularly attractive or appealing — especially when that same quality seems to be absent or under-represented in their own faith.

A few examples of how this might play out: a Methodist might feel a sense of holy envy toward a Buddhist who uses meditation to cultivate a serene and peaceful life; a Baptist might experience holy envy when considering the strong commitment to social justice that characterizes Unitarian Universalism; or a Catholic might feel a bit envious at how committed his Muslim friends are at praying multiple times every day.

I know the last one, for it is a holy envy I myself have felt. And I suspect there are many other ways that people — of all faiths, not just Christianity — might feel drawn to, or appreciative of, religious traditions other than their own.

Taylor spoke with a number of her students to get permission to tell their stories in the book. Unless the student explicitly gave her permission to do so, she protects their identity by using pseudonyms and/or combining the details of multiple students into a composite “character” in her book. She is careful to show how students often had differing experiences of the study of world religions. Yes, some had that sense of holy envy — but others could never get over the idea that any religion outside of their own was just wrong, and its adherents needed conversion, not dialogue. Clearly, the study of religion is a messy business, and everyone can only embrace it according to their own values and perspective.

Still, the book is filled with inspiring stories of how the students — and their professor — discovered that, in learning more about the religions of the world, they found their experience of their “home” faith changing and growing as well. Perhaps nothing brought this home more forcefully than the segment on Christianity — when Taylor invited her mostly-Christian students to try to see their own faith through the eyes of others.

Taylor acknowledges that holy envy can, for some, lead to a desire to change religions, or to adopt a religionless spirituality where one can cobble together one’s beliefs, cafeteria-style. But in the end she acknowledges that neither of those options appealed to her as much as simply letting the study of, and encounter with, other faiths help her to deepen her faith and practice as a Christian. And that, it seems to me, is the real treasure hidden at the heart of this wonderful book. But not just for Christians. Whatever faith we may hold — if we can open our hearts to learning about other religions, other faiths and practices, we can find in that learning process, paradoxically, an invitation to move more deeply into our faithfulness to our own spiritual path. This deepening is a process, and Taylor warns that an honest exploration of world religions with not leave your own faith untransformed.

Envy, after all, is a challenging emotion, with its own capacity for lurking in the shadows of our heart. Envy in relationships can lead to bitterness or unhealthy competition, at its worst, it can fuel unloving behavior (toward oneself or toward the object of our envy). I’ve encountered at least one person who found the title of Taylor’s book to be disturbing. How can envy — which is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins of Christianity — ever be thought of as holy?

Part of what makes Taylor’s writing so compelling is her commitment to telling the truth and to exploring nooks and crannies of the spiritual life that other, less intrepid authors, might leave untouched. She recognizes that there really is something holy in the recognition that somebody else’s faith might just have something that one’s own faith lacks. For those who perhaps have never deeply examined their own faith, this insight might seem explosive, perhaps even dangerous. But for those who are willing to follow the golden thread wherever it might lead, holy envy can take us to a place of truly profound appreciation — not only for the gifts we find in the “other” faith but also for a renewed appreciation of our own faith, even if that deeper insight also includes a more honest assessment of how our religion — like all faiths — has its own limitations.

A while back, I heard Cynthia Bourgeault lead a retreat for a group of centering prayer practitioners in Alabama. 9/11 had happened only a few years earlier; Bourgeault brought it up, and suggested that contemplation is the only real antidote to religious violence. I am in broad agreement with her, in that I think a contemplative approach to faith and spirituality — contemplation being a roughly equivalent word for “mindful” — is perhaps essential for creative interfaith and interspiritual encounters. But we need to be more than just contemplative or mindful — we need to step into the messy unpredictability of real relationships with real people whose faith and spirituality is not like our own. This requires trust and vulnerability — spiritual values, to be sure. But if we, collectively, can enter into these kinds of honest encounters, perhaps there will be benefits far beyond our own individual growth. 

Taylor quotes the British rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who says “The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation… speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope.” I think he’s right. We will never legislate away religious violence. But we can inoculate ourselves — and our societies — against it, if we only are willing to risk telling a new story — that begins with friendship and love.

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