Holy Envy: finding God in the faith of others
Barbara Brown Taylor
Canterbury Press, 2019, £16.99, ISBN 978-1786220790
Barbara Brown Taylor taught Religion 101, a module about world faiths, to students at the Christian university of Piedmont, before her retirement. Holy Envy is a compelling account of what she learned from those faiths. Taylor is a great writer, who uses language carefully and with flourish. This book does not disappoint.
More than a piece of great writing, though, it is an invitation to see the faith of others as a rich source of spiritual insight, and to view our own with healthy critique. It is an excellent example for preachers of how to speak of the others’ beliefs. She adopts three principles proposed by Krister Stendahl, a Swedish theologian and one-time Bishop of Stockholm. Becoming aware of mounting opposition within the church to the building of new Mormon temple, he addressed a press conference: ‘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.’
Rather than teach Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and the rest, Taylor decided to visit appropriate places of worship. Her conclusion after several visits was that other faiths had much to teach. Others were invited in with no intention to convert.
I would guess that the common British view of Islam is little different from that expressed by Taylor’s students when asked to thought shower what they knew of the religion: terrorism’; ‘Allah’; ‘ISIS’; ‘veiled women’. At the end of the classes on Islam, students have learned ‘how race, religion, and social class get all mixed up in people’s minds’ and no longer want to be the kind of people who take part in stereotyping their neighbours.
Taylor recounts a moving visit to a Hindu temple. A priest invites her students to take part in a prayer ritual. There is discomfort as they realise they have crossed over from observation to participation and wonder how to respond. The contrast drawn between this event, and Christian faith, is based on hospitality. The Hindu priest offered an invitation to ‘come and worship with me,’ while all too often, Christian ministers seem to say ‘come and agree with me.’
Why are there so many different religions? Taylor concludes that difference is what best teaches human beings to first tolerate, then love each other and God. She prefers to interpret the Tower of Babel story as God judging a human domination project, saving people by introducing diversity. ‘God decided it would be helpful for people to be different instead of the same,’ she writes. ‘God decided it would be good for them to have to stop on a regular basis and say, “could you say that a different way please? I don’t understand what you mean,” or “Can you show me with your hands?”’
Significantly for those of us who preach, Taylor suggests ‘God decided it would be good for [us] to stop taking [our] communication for granted and work a little harder at trying to understand each other.’
Of her own Christian faith, Taylor says ‘If the Spirit is doing a new thing, I wish it would hurry up.’ Christianity seems to be failing many, and yet for Taylor, as for many of us, it is ‘home’; the faith she gravitates back toward even after regarding others with holy envy.
This is a great book, well worth reading. It challenges new thinking and offers new insight.
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