Lesson 2: Holy Envy

Green with envyBarbara Brown Taylor addresses the pluralism in our society by writing about her experiences teaching World Religions 101 classes. She traces leaving parish ministry after feeling empty, entering the classroom to find meaning, and finally returning to her faith refreshed and strengthened.

Taylor assumes religions are different ways to view reality, speaking of them as wells in which we find the water of life and a lens by which we translate the landscape. She describes world religions as “treasure chests of stories, songs, rituals, and ways of life that have been handed down for millennia—not covered in dust but evolving all the way—so that each new generation has something to choose from when it is time to ask the big questions about life. Where did we come from? Why do bad things happen to good people? Who is my neighbor?” Still she emphasizes that a world view is a wave, not the entire ocean.

Unlike Karen Armstrong who finds a common denominator of compassion, Taylor thinks each religion differs in significant ways. She also refuses to build a customized religion using bits and pieces that suit her needs. Instead she looks for the wisdom found in each of them, hoping to build bridges not walls.

Her perspective for doing this is found in the three guidelines offered by Lutheran biblical scholar Krister Stendahl: 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; and 3. Leave room for holy envy.

When describing her own holy envy, Taylor writes, “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 displays all the symptoms of my condition. It 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.”

You get an idea from where she is coming when she cites John Hicks, Richard Rohr, and Raimon Panikkar. But even more impressive, she supports her approach by noting that Jesus raises more questions than answers in the gospels. Unlike so many of his followers, Jesus refuses to define what he means, offering stories and ambiguous sayings when pressed for clarity.

Taylor suggest that today his Good Samaritan might be a Good Muslim or a Good Humanist, and the Golden Rule might include honoring your neighbor’s religion as you want them to honor yours.

In the next few weeks, I’ll try to summarize the wisdom she finds in other religions and how that challenges Christianity. As I do that, remember in the end she declares, “I have discovered that I am Christian to the core. However many other religious languages I learn, I dream in Christian. However much I learn from other spiritual teachers, it is Jesus I come home to at night.”

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