I cannot remember a time when I did not have a book or two on the go. My childhood was spent at the public library, reading under a tree, or staying up late into the night with a book. But in this time of social distancing and upheaval, my ability to focus has waned and I’ve read far less than usual. Although reading fiction is my first choice, I agreed to review a non-fiction book, partly as a motivation to discipline myself to read and to write. And I’m glad I did. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others challenged my thinking and made me reflect on my own faith journey.
Barbara Brown Taylor, author, teacher and Episcopalian priest, describes herself as a spiritual contrarian. Her latest memoir recounts her experience teaching the Religions of the World class at Piedmont College, a small liberal arts college in rural Georgia. Taylor writes in a clear and engaging style that wrestles with the idea that there is only one way to God. Ultimately, her exploration strengthens her Christian faith, but it’s a faith with a bigger box and more windows.
Taylor, author of Learning to Walk in the Dark and Leaving Church, came to a point in her ministry where she felt that her spiritual well had run dry and that she needed to drink again of the living water and maybe draw up new buckets, too. And so she said yes to the invitation to teach religion and traded her “altar for a desk” and her collar for a dress.
One of the goals of Religion 101 was to improve students’ religious literacy. Although many were raised as Christians, they were more likely to describe themselves as spiritual, not religious. Working, living and socializing with people of different faiths and knowing more about those faiths could help the students become better at their occupations and relationships. The exploration of other religions included the risk of losing one’s own faith, but also offered the possibility of recognizing areas of neglect and strengthening that faith.
Classroom work and field trips introduced students to Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Taylor and her students found much to be envious of in other religions as they visited temples, churches and mosques. They adopted Krister Stendahl’s guidelines for understanding other faiths: talk to the adherents, not the enemies; don’t compare your best with their worst; and leave room for holy envy. See the value that is “over the fence” but with eyes that recognize that we are all humans drinking from the same reservoir of water.
In comparison with Christianity, Hinduism seemed more gracious in the belief that people are different and that there are different paths to union with the divine. In Buddhism, the students identified with the central teachings on compassion and suffering, but struggled with the idea that belief in God is optional. Judaism, the nearest neighbour, reminded them of the power of intentional observances and challenged students to see how much hatefulness has come out of Christianity toward the Jews. Studying Islam was a particular challenge because of the culture and racism that has been mixed in with the religion. Finally, it was time for Christianity and facing the challenge of studying it from the outside.
Part of the challenge was recognizing that there are many Christian churches with many different teachings about what it means to be a Christian. One teaching that Taylor struggles with is the emphasis on gaining converts and the way evangelism has bruised people of other faiths. She questions whether faith is a competitive sport with one team winning for all eternity. In contrast, the Jewish rabbi and Buddhist monk they visit advise students to learn more about their own faith and become better at living that faith.The way to make a disciple is to be one, they advise. A “rose doesn’t have to preach,” says Gandhi. But what if your neighbour follows a different path to God? How do we reconcile the Christian belief that Jesus is the only way to God when there are so many views of the divine? These and other questions challenge one to examination and reflection.
Reading this book made me reflect on my own spiritual journey, back to being immersed in faith at home, school and church in the Christian Reformed denomination. I attended catechism classes, Sunday School, Calvinettes, youth group, Christian school and college and acquired a lot of knowledge along the way. When I made a public profession of faith at age 17, along with most of the senior high school students in my church, I dutifully answered the doctrinal questions we had all learned in preparation. Although I was asked to describe my personal relationship with Jesus, I do not recall being challenged on what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus and live the Christian life. Nor was I exposed along the way to learning about other religions and how to view them as a Christian.
I identify with the “mostly white haired” audiences that Taylor speaks to who want to grow in their faith and are open to exploring questions that may not be appropriate for Christians who are beginning to learn the language of faith. One of the ways my spiritual lens was broadened was when I became a teacher in the Catholic school system in Ontario. I discovered that Catholic teachings about God, scripture, Jesus, and Christian living were not that different from Protestant teachings. Yet the first time a priest led me into centering prayer at a staff meeting and called me to find God within was unsettling and challenged my beliefs about the divine. I was introduced to new spiritual teachers like Richard Rohr and Henri Nouwen and participated in liturgies and workshops that shaped my faith in new ways. It was a time of learning from each other and developing meaningful relationships. The stranger, even within my own faith, became my neighbour. Still, I recognize that there is much more I can do to love and welcome the stranger, even and maybe especially when it causes unease in me.
Taylor is willing to live with the unease that comes from the different ways of seeing the divine in other religions. In the end and with all she learned and envied in other religions, she remains firm in her Christian faith and belief that Jesus is the way to God. It is the language she knows and the language that speaks so excellently of what it means to be human: being made in the image of God. The monumental spiritual challenge of living with religious difference, she says, is to “love God in the person standing right in front of you” and to “treat every human being as if he or she were Jesus in disguise.”