Barbara Brown Taylor 2009 Interview on “An Altar in the World”

bout 10 years ago, working as a Religion Writer for Knight Ridder newspapers at the time, I became aware of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sturdy books.
That’s a term I learned from Phyllis Tickle — another beloved spiritual writer rooted firmly in rural America with all the sensibility and pragmatic attention to daily life that these words imply.
Both Barbara and Phyllis are steeped in ancient traditions, immersed in theology and skilled in the writing craft. Now, both of them are converging in a place familiar to ReadTheSpirit readers. We know what we’re truly looking for, don’t we? We want to connect with the most authentic treasures of religious life — but what matters most is finding the energy to climb out of bed in the morning and face another stressful day.
Barbara’s new book is about “reverently” walking in our shoes,
feeling comfortable in our skins and compassionately welcoming the world around us. (Remember that word “reverently” — she hopes its use will spread in religious communities.)
Fans of Barbara’s work who raved about her earlier memoir, “Leaving Church,” may not have
noticed, but that book carries a subtitle: “A Memoir of Faith.” Now,
there’s a big clue to the significance of “An Altar in the World” in
her subtitle this time: “A Geography of Faith.”
This time, she’s deliberately exploring the turf where our feet hit the floorboards each morning —
and where the day takes us into the world. Even if you’re not a
Christian, you’ll find a wise friend in Barbara’s books.
That’s why ReadTheSpirit has named Barbara Brown Taylor among our 10 Spiritual Sages to Watch in 2009. And we’ve strongly recommended her new book among our 10 Great New Spiritual Choices (even in these tight financial times).
This isn’t a uniquely American approach to spirituality. It’s also
the fuel behind neo-Celtic spirituality, for example, and I was not surprised at all,
when I rang Barbara’s telephone at our appointed time, that she started
by telling me she enjoyed our earlier interview with J. Philip Newell. Just a few weeks earlier, she spent a week teaching with Philip, she said.


DAVID: Your readers love your work. And I don’t think “love” is too strong a word for the way readers appreciate your books. One reason, I think, is that you’re not afraid of all the changes and challenges swirling around our world today. You’re telling us, like scripture itself: Don’t be afraid. Our faith can guide us.
So, first question — How do you perceive your readers? How does the relationship look from your perspective?
BARBARA: My sense of my readers is that their lives are shifting — and my readership is shifting, too. Among my readers are people who have been long involved in churches — both clergy and laity. These readers have been good friends to me for more than a decade now. When I moved to college work in 1998 and began moving myself more into interfaith work and interfaith study — and as my own spiritual life began to grow beyond the boundaries of Christian tradition alone — I found new readers who might identify themselves as the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, or the go-to-church-but-still-very-hungry crowd — the church-alumni crowd.
DAVID: And, if people pick up your new book, they’ll find that crowd directly addressed  in the opening pages.
BARBARA: I have new friends, too. I have found new friends in some Jewish communities, some Buddhist communities, so my sense is that I have readers I know about — and readers I don’t know about, friends I haven’t encountered yet. I have tried to write the kind of book that would appeal to all of these communities, because sometimes they are the same community, I know.
I did this intentionally by writing a book about spiritual practice, because I have high hopes that practice can bring us together where doctrine divides us.

     DAVID: That’s a powerful line. It certainly echoes our ReadTheSpirit project: The daily life of spirituality — our daily practices of reflection and prayer — can bring us together where doctrine divides us.
You mentioned J. Philip Newell of the Iona Community. We haven’t published the stories yet, but a high point toward the end of 2008 for ReadTheSpirit was coordinating the first Christian-Muslim pilgrimage to the centuries-old Christian holy site on the island of Iona in the Atlantic Ocean off Scotland. We didn’t do this as a “conference” or a “seminar.” Our publisher John Hile and I went with a small group of Christians and one Muslim pilgrim who participated in the portions of the pilgrimage that he could within his own tradition. He also maintained his own Muslim cycle of daily prayers. It was a powerful experience.
BARABARA: I love that story about Iona!
Yes, this is what I’m talking about when I say that practice has the power to bring us together. Both at the heart of Islam and Christianity is sacred journey, pilgrimage. Buddhism has that at its heart as well. That is a practice that people of many faiths can come together around. They can meet at the point that their feet touch the ground. They can leave home and encounter together whatever they may find there.
That’s exactly what I’m focusing on in this new book – focusing on our bodies and what actually happens in the world that brings us into proximity with one another. It is in these experiences that our encounters take over and become sacred and transformative.
DAVID: One favorite line in your new book is: “What we have most in common is not religion but humanity.”
BARBARA: I borrowed that line from Gandhi’s’ grandson — and from others as well. Many have said things like this so it doesn’t even bear citing a single source. But it certainly is truth for me.

DAVID: I’ve closely followed the work — the preaching, writing, films, tours, all sorts of formats — through which Rob Bell reaches people these days. And, Rob talks about: We don’t travel to take God to the godless. We travel to find God waiting for us in other places and other people.
I spent a week in December working with Philip Newell — and Philip said something like that, too: Our purpose in traveling to go find the light of God, to find the sacred in places that seem strange to us, in people we do not know. We’re not bringing the light. We’re going to discover the light, the new way it’s shining in new places. He and Rob Bell both are people who understand this important truth.
DAVID: Let’s take Rob Bell, for example, who also has departed from many of the typical themes used in Christian teaching and writing. Rob wrote a whole book about human sexuality that really was about coming to terms with owning our own bodies and our bodies’ desires as a sacred part of our journey with God. In other words, Rob – from his base in the evangelical and emergent-church communities — is approaching themes in ways very close to what you’re talking about in your new book.
Scot McKnight is another person writing on these themes. Scot’s new book on fasting talks about recovering the ancient practice because it is a whole-body way of praying.
BARBARA: Yes. If there is a connection between the chapters in “Altar in the World,” it’s about the ways human beings encounter the sacred in the flesh.
Now let me speak as a Christian here. I cannot speak for other traditions on this point. For me, Christian teachings have become very wary of the body from the point that I believe the intellectualization of the Christian faith may be one of the greatest threats facing Christianity, today.
As Christians, we have allowed our faith to go to the head. How do people talk about faith? Spirit-and-flesh. Heaven-and-earth. Human-and-divine. I’m talking about many Christians, people I know well, who are prone to divide reality into twos and then put the sacred only in the high part of the two halves.
Think about the posture so many people use of looking up in prayer. The posture of this new book is looking down. Looking down at our feet. Looking down at the Earth. Looking down at very grounded earthly encounters with the sacred and the things of this world.
We call the book, “An Altar in the World,” because I’m one of those people raised in the 1950s who grew up being taught a great deal of suspicion of my own female body. Christianity in many places has become very body phobic.
As I’ve gotten older, I now read Christianity as a faith of flesh and blood. Incarnation is sacred to us. That has sent me back to look at physical practices — pilgrimage, fasting, embodied prayer, dancing and other practices from our Christian tradition. I am looking at the ways we do baptism, the ways we eat together, the ways we wash feet. The ways we form our communities.

DAVID: I like the fact that you write honestly about your own life. We just had Shane Claiborne featured in one of these Conversations and Shane talks a lot about how important it is for him to maintain his daily life in his real neighborhood, his real household. He says he doesn’t want to wind up being a traveling speaker who tells stories about he used to live.
BARBARA: I’ve got to find out a lot more about Shane Claiborne. I want to write to him – not to pester him – but to hear what he has to say and to learn more about how he does things.
Yes, what he’s saying is true. We have to be grounded.  Now, not all of us are gong to wind up in urban communities like Shane.
I probably would be a solitary monastic, if I had it to do all over again. I don’t have Shane’s rootedness in his kind of a local, urban Christian community, but I have rootedness in a farm, a family and a small town that all are a part of me. If I didn’t hang out the laundry, feed the chickens, sweep the floor — I would forget who I am. My version of what Shane is doing is to stay rooted in the physical activities that sustain life. That’s my feet on the ground.
DAVID: Right. You describe elements of this in the book. You’re affirming that we can find this rootedness wherever we are.
BARBARA: My husband is an organic farmer so we talk a lot about eating locally at our house – trying to eat what is grown within 50 miles of our house. That doesn’t mean I don’t love a good piece of sushi now and then.
I did 10 years of ministry in an urban church. But now I live in the country. I grow very weary of general solutions to what we all ought to be doing. I suppose in that regard I’m post modern or post religious or whatever the latest “post” is. I’ve sunk into my own tradition enough to trust the Benedictine promise that if you can’t find God wherever you are — you won’t find God anywhere.
That’s the importance of our willingness to encounter Reality — with a capital R — where we find ourselves. We struggle with this. Every time I hear Tony Campolo give a talk, I start thinking that I should stuff everything I’m doing now and go somewhere else, where I might be able to do something more worthwhile.
But I do think that, if I can’t find it at home, I’m going to be a sad sack.
What I’m talking about is the need for a practice of constant daily discernment: Where are my efforts best placed today? Where is my time best spent? My own life just last night was to serve as chauffeur so that a group of students could go to hear a speaker. And these students were driving me crazy with their music! But my choice was to spend time getting them to a center where they could meet and hear a visiting swami.
It’s so hard for each of us to answer: What am I called to do? But, that’s a hugely important spiritual practice. What I am saying here is: Don’t get stuck high or low. We’re looking for a balance in our lives.

DAVID: In your book, you emphasize the word “reverence.” I like the way you use it. You use it to mean even more than mindfulness, which comes from Buddhism. Or perhaps I should say you want people to approach the word “reverence” in a fresh way. So, finally, talk a little bit about about this word you want people to use more often: “reverence.”
BARBARA: Oh, good! I like it that you like the way I’ve used this word!
Yes, what I’m trying to do is to weigh in and use language from different perspectives. Like mindfulness? Many people use that word now. People think they know what we’re talking about when they hear that word. “Oh, she’s talking about mindfulness,” people will say.
So, I’m talking about “reverence” here because I don’t want people to assume they know what I’m talking about. I want them to think about this in new ways. What these things share — mindfulness or reverence — is the essential posture of looking down.
I don’t want people to make hard and fast rules. You can look up at the stars, if you really want to do that. I love looking up into the stars at worlds I cannot possibly see.
What I’m talking about here is paying attention. If we really pay attention — that wall we think we see in front of us? That wall can open and turn out to be a thin place, a meeting place, an altar in the world — far different than the wall we thought was there.


Visit Barbara Brown Taylor’s Web site, where  you can learn more about her life and books. You’ll find her work praised by a Who’s Who of leading writers from Phyllis Tickle to Frederick Buechner and Annie Dillard.

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