Book Review–Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others

 

Barbara Brown Taylor is a favorite author, an Episcopal priest who sometimes presents with Fr. Richard Rohr. Her latest book began when she taught World Religions for 20 years at a small liberal arts college in Appalachia. She had grown burnt-out and weary in parish ministry, so she opted to learn “about other ways of approaching the divine mystery that were strange enough to upset my parched equilibrium.”

Sometimes an author describes to a T the journey we’ve been on ourselves, so we sit up and take particular notice. Brown speaks of an experience where she declines Communion because the Jewish friend standing beside her refuses. The sentence “I had chosen to abstain with him rather than to participate without him” rang bells, because twenty years ago, I did the same thing.

I was attending a Mass and graduation ceremonies at the Catholic Biblical School for my friend Jo, now deceased, one of the holiest people I knew. Her husband was an Episcopal priest; she too was a reverent Episcopalian. The diocese had issued the dire warning ahead of time—“no Communion for anyone but Catholics.” It was so sanctimonious, so reeking of unfriendliness, so unlike Jesus, that I made the same decision Brown did: “I did not want to celebrate any Communion that did not include” Jo.

When you’ve heard for years that you’re God’s only child, it rocks your boat to hear about other faiths that have sustained millions of people for centuries. The “rude awakening” of many Christians to the world’s pluralism led to Krister Stendahl, a Scandinavian biblical scholar and dean of the Harvard Divinity School, coining the term “holy envy.” Brown translates this to her own “spiritual covetousness”: of  Hindu inclusivity, Buddhist non-violence, Muslim prayer and Jewish sacred debate. Young folk are aware that the Christian path is one among many ways to God, but have we relaxed our staunch truth claims to help guide them?

Since “religious illiteracy is a luxury they can no longer afford,” Brown wisely leads her students to the major mosques, synagogues and temples in nearby Atlanta, and asks their respective guides to introduce the “saints and villains” every tradition has.  Initially, some students worried about “losing their faith” (this was in the south, where Christians made up a large majority), but they, and Brown found it only deepened what they already had, or introduced “the way of sacred unknowing.” She puts it better: “I want to keep leaving my comfort zone on a regular basis in order to visit the neighbors, without expecting them to exemplify their faith any better than I exemplify mine.”

This approach back happy memories of a spirituality group I led in Denver, who made the same kinds of visits. I remember how touched we were to see synagogue furniture that survived the Holocaust, and how hard we tried to keep scarves from slipping off our heads at the mosque. I continue today with monthly meetings of Muslim, Jewish and Christian women who have become fast friends as we try to understand our differences and similarities.

Giving up the hard, fast certainties of the “one true faith” preached in my youth is never easy. Brown encourages: “You will have to leave your bags of spiritual sweets behind….Sooner or later you will have to leave all your soothing props … entrusting yourself to the God who cares more about your transformation than your comfort.” She is unstintingly honest and gracefully humorous about that process: what a blessing to have such a companion.

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