11 min read ⌚
Finding God in the Faith of Others
Are you a Christian looking for God?
Barbara Brown Taylor is as good a guide as any.
And she wants to teach you a thing or two about:
Who Should Read “Holy Envy”? And Why?
When TIME magazine included Taylor in its annual list of most influential people, it said that she “writes spiritual nonfiction that rivals the poetic power of C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner,” and that “few souls are as synced to the world’s mysteries as Barbara Brown Taylor’s.”
If your life has been nothing but a long, desperate search for God, if you enjoy reading books by Christian apologists such as C.S. Lewis, if you truly want to understand other religions—then Holy Envy is the book for you.
About Barbara Brown Taylor
Barbara Brown Taylor is an American Episcopal priest and a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Piedmont College; she is one of US’ best preachers.
She has authored 14 books, some of which—such as An Altar in the World and Learning to Walk in the Dark—are already considered classics, in addition to being New York Times bestsellers at the time of their first publication.
In 2014, TIME magazine included Taylor in its annual list of the most influential people of the world.
Find out more at https://barbarabrowntaylor.com/
“Holy Envy PDF Summary”
In the Gospel of Matthew (22:35-40), as is—or, at least, should be—known to every Christian, upon hearing him talk, a lawyer comes near Jesus and asks him a simple question: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”
Jesus responds: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments,” Jesus concludes, “hang all the law and the prophets.”
Most Christian denominations agree: they consider these two commandments to “contain the whole law of God” and to be the benchmarks of a proper Christian life on earth. After all, Jesus himself calls these the greatest commandments. And it helps that they can be found, expressed in one way or another, in all the other three Gospels as well (Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28, John 13:31-35).
However, in reality, it seems that things don’t work that way: the more a Christian loves his god, the less he/she seems to love his/her neighbor.
You don’t agree?
Think again: Muslims, Jews, Buddhists—they are all your neighbors. How much do you actually love them? And how much are you merely interested in converting them, believing, deep down inside, that your path is the only reasonable path since it has been sanctioned by God and Jesus.
Well, Barbara Brown Taylor, an American Episcopal priest and Piedmont College professor of religion and philosophy, would want to kindly ask you to reconsider your position and leave room for something she refers to as “holy envy.”
What Is Holy Envy?
To understand what is “holy envy,” we must go back a few decades and meet “a tall, Scandinavian man with a stiff neck and a head of wavy hair” named Krister Stendhal. A respected scholar of the apostle Paul, Stendhal was also the dean of Harvard Divinity School and the Bishop of Stockholm.
Just a year after he was elected for the position, he faced a serious problem: vocal opposition from numerous people (mostly Christians) to the building of a new Mormon temple in Stockholm.
Not a very Christian thing to do, don’t you think?
So, at a press conference prior to the dedication of the temple, Stendhal proposed three rules of religious understanding that, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “have by now made the rounds more often than any of his scholarly work on the apostle Paul.”
The three rules in question are the following ones:
#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;
#3. Leave room for holy envy.
Nobody really knows what Stendhal meant by #3, informs us Taylor, but you can guess the meaning of this rule by some of his subsequent actions. Namely, in one or two later discussions, he expressed his “holy envy” for the best-known doctrine of the Latter-Day Saint movement: “vicarious baptism” or “baptism for the dead.”
It was this “holy envy” which gave Stendhal some “holy courage”: though a Lutheran, he stood by the Mormons—a religious minority in Sweden—to the very end, fearless of how this may affect his status and position. “In the eyes of God, we are all minorities,” he told a reporter shortly before his death in 2008.
“Plain Old Envy” vs. “Holy Envy”
“The first time I heard the phrase ‘holy envy,’” writes Taylor after relaying the story above, “I knew it was an improvement over the plain old envy I felt while studying other faiths.”
What does she mean by that?
When the Jewish Sabbath came up in class, I wanted it. Why did Christians ever let it go? When we watched a film of the God-intoxicated Sufis spinning, I wanted that too. The best my tradition could offer me during worship was kneeling to pray and standing to sing. 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 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. This gets to the heart of the problem: with plain old envy, my own tradition always comes up wanting.
Well, with “holy envy,” it is a bit different. Because it is not anymore about what your religion lacks—but about what God surely must have. Since God is benevolent and the embodiment of all good things that have ever existed, it is only natural to expect that he is also everything other religions have (and is good), and yours lacks (which is bad in itself).
But this leads us to another versus-section which should make things as clear as day.
Religion vs. God
To understand “holy envy,” you first need to understand that there is a difference between Christianity and Jesus—or, in more general terms, between religion and God.
A simple analogy may help you to see this difference.
Think of a well filled with so much water inside that many people can dip buckets in it and take with them as much water as they like. Still, you’d have to agree that neither the well nor the buckets are actually the water.
Because no matter how much water there is in the well, there are also rivers and seas and oceans, and rain and snow and ice. None of them are the water; they are all just different aspects of it. The bucket, the well, the oceans—they are all just containers; none of them is the source.
The same applies to this Christianity/Jesus or, more generally, religion/God relationship: Jesus and God are so much more than their containers, even if they are called the New Testament or the Bible. “The problem with every sacred text,” writes Taylor, “is that it has human readers. Consciously or unconsciously, we interpret it to meet our own needs.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this if we admit it. The problems arise when we deny it. And, more often than not, we do precisely that! We don’t think that we’re interpreting the Bible, but that we’re merely reporting what it actually says.
This is wrong on at least three accounts:
#1. Unless you know both Hebrew and Greek and have a relevant error-free copy of the Bible, you’re reading a translation, brought to you by certain translators, i.e., other human beings prone to making mistakes;
#2. Claiming that you are merely reporting and not interpreting means that the language you understand (be it English or French or Portuguese) is so perfect that it can relay God’s messages as they are.
#3. Moreover, it means that you are able to understand God’s words as perfectly clear as He does.
“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 of God,” writes Taylor. And we don’t need to tell you that the ones who believe to be error-free messengers of God are the very ones who are ready to commit crimes in His Name.
I can respect almost anyone who admits to being human while reading a divine text. After that, we can talk—about how we highlight some teachings and ignore others, about how we decide which ones are historically conditioned and which ones are universally true, about who has influenced our reading of scripture and how our social location affects what we hear. The minute I believe I know the mind of God is the minute someone needs to tell me to sit down and tell me to breathe into a paper bag.
Learning from Other Religions
To put it simply, all religions are mere buckets which we lower under ground to take some living water so that we can start investigating and understanding it. God, however, is the entirety of the living water and cannot be understood completely. The ones who say they understand Him are just as sinful as Lucifer: too proud to know their own limitations.
If our religion is merely the lens through which we see God, it is very wrong to forbid other people to use their own lenses when they are doing pretty much the same thing. “The lens is not the landscape,” writes Taylor. “It is a way of translating the landscape so that people can walk upright on it, making some sense of what happens to them.”
It is not strange that different religions have made sense of God and the world in different manners; it is strange to think that your way is the only valid one.
Think of the story of Rabia of Basra, an eighth-century Sufi who was seen running one day through the streets of her native city, with a bucket of water in one hand and a torch in the other. When asked about it, Rabia replied that she wanted to put out the fires of hell with the water and burn down the reward of paradise with the torch.
“O, Allah,” she prayed, “if I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in the hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”
What’s wrong with that story? asks Taylor. Isn’t it a great illustration of unconditional love for God? So, what if its protagonist is a Muslim mystic from Iraq! Everyone who loves God can learn more about how to unconditionally surrender to himself via this story.
Throughout Holy Envy, Taylor recounts many stories of this kind which have helped her broaden her perspectives. Perhaps the most memorable one happened to her at the end of a field trip to the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, when the imam ended his meeting with these words of wisdom: “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.”
Now there’s something to be envious about—in a strictly holy kind of way.
Jesus and the Religious Strangers in His Life
Jesus’ two great commandments make a lot of sense even if you have just a vague understanding of his philosophy. For one, he didn’t just help people who were like him—he helped everyone. And, interestingly enough, he was also helped by these strangers.
Just think of that Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. Jesus told her that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” but on account of her faith, he “expanded his sense of agency” and granted her request to exorcise her daughter.
Or think of that Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), about whom Jesus himself says that he had “not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” And he was a pagan. What should these words mean if not embracing religious pluralism?
Finally, think of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-29), or, even more, of that other Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19), the only one of the ten lepers who returned to show his gratitude to Jesus after being cured by Him, even though a foreigner.
“No preacher has suggested to the students of today that today’s Good Samaritan might be a Good Muslim or a Good Humanist,” writes Taylor. “No confirmation class teacher has taught them that the Golden Rule includes honoring the neighbor’s religion as they would have the neighbor honor theirs.”
Key Lessons from “Holy Envy”
1. Stendhal’s Three Rules of Religious Understanding
2. If Proper, Religious Envy Can Make You Holier
3. The Bible Is Not God, and You Are Not the Bible
Stendhal’s Three Rules of Religious Understanding
According to Swedish theologian and scholar Krister Stendhal, if you really want to be a good person, you need to accept and understand other religions. And if you want to do that, you need to follow three rules:
#1. Learn about this other religion from its devotees, and not its enemies;
#2. Don’t compare your best to their worst; and
#3. Practice holy envy.
If Proper, Religious Envy Can Make You Holier
Even though nobody knows what precisely Stendhal means by “practice holy envy,” Barbara Brown Taylor has a pretty good idea.
It means that some practices in other religious traditions may be better than the ones in your own, and you should be willing to recognize this fact, not merely as an aspect of faith, but also as an aspect of the All-Good God.
What’s wrong with the Muslims praying five times a day no matter what? Or with Buddhist meditation? Or with Judaism not embracing the doctrine of the original sin?
It’s good to envy these things; because this envy may help you understand that these other religious traditions, just like yours, are ways to come close to God. Something which we share—and not something which should divide us.
The Bible Is Not God, and You Are Not the Bible
The reason why religious people don’t seem to understand each other is because all of them think that their book (and not the book of their neighbors) represents the Word of God. Maybe all of them are right, says Taylor.
The problem is that the language of these books is a human language, and human languages are prone to create misunderstandings. What we read in the Bible is not God’s words, but an interpretation of them. And, consequently, what we know about God is not God, but merely an aspect of His.
Only by embracing pluralism, we should be able to understand Him better.
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“Holy Envy Quotes”Christians are not particularly gifted at knowing how we sound to others, especially in parts of the world where our voices are the loudest and most numerous. Click To Tweet Our shadows are often behind us, where others can see them better than we can. Click To Tweet Religion is more than a source of conflict or a calculated way to stay out of hell. Religions are treasure chests of stories, songs, rituals, and ways of life that have been handed down for millennia. Click To Tweet It just seems helpful to admit that Christianity is as complicated and conflicted as any other religion, with groups of followers who can believe in the unity of their faith even as they refuse Communion to one another. Click To Tweet It is a great thing to see something familiar from an unfamiliar angle for the first time, even if it is because you have been worried and lost for longer than you would have liked. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Normally, we tend to be a bit skeptical as far as religious books are concerned. Even the best of them—such as, say, Uninvited by Lysa TerKeurst—forget that there are millions of people out there who can’t relate to a particular frame of reference and are, thus, left out from the start.
Holy Envy doesn’t forget anything—nor it leaves out someone. Understanding, warm, compassionate, biographical, informed, it is one of the best religious books we’ve ever read.
Brown Taylor truly is a treasure, and this might be her most important book yet.