By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
At a time when millions of Americans are afraid of their neighbors, Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book invites us to take a pilgrimage through the spiritual wonders in our neighbors’ religious traditions.
Based on her two decades of teaching Religion 101 at Piedmont College in Georgia, Barbara now is sharing some of her best, real-life stories with students. And, what an amazing opportunity it must have been for these young men and women! As they showed up for class, they were treated to a best-selling author and internationally known Christian teacher as their guide, accompanying them as they took their first steps toward discovering the richness of other cultures and faiths. Over the years, her course became quite popular—and students showed up with a wide range of questions and anxieties. They ranged from some who were afraid of what they might find when they set foot in other houses of worship—to those who were eager to go with her on field trips, but were clueless about how to behave.
As readers of her new book, Barbara is inviting us to look over her students’ shoulders in her classes and to join in their on-site visits. What we discover, along with her students, are spiritual wonders that are likely to leave us wanting more. That’s why Barbara calls this latest book, Holy Envy—Finding God in the Faith of Others. These experiences with our neighbors wind up making most of “us” envious of at least some of what “they” have.
For example, non-Jews who experience a fully observant Jewish sabbath will discover rituals, foods, scents, sounds and also relationships around the table that invite participants into a reflective solace. Non-Jews who experience such a sabbath for the first time often walk away saying, “Wow! I wish my family could have one day a week like their sabbath. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Meeting Buddhist teachers, many visitors want to try meditation—and may be inspired to learn more about Buddhist compassion. Visiting a Hindu temple, visitors’ eyes pop at the bright colors, the huge variety of divine images, the elaborate care of the temple—and sometimes high-spirited chanting and dance-like processions.
In her 222 pages, Barbara weaves together experiences from across all her years of teaching into what feels like a pilgrimage with the author. However, her preferred term is a word that followers of Iona-influenced Celtic teachers, such as John Philip Newell, like to use: “peregrination,” which refers to a wandering exploration of the world.
A TIMELY QUESTION:
HOW DO WE LIVE IN A MULTI-FAITH WORLD?
In our interview about her book, Barbara explained that she isn’t an author who plans to write a new book every year. Her books emerge in the fullness of time through a discernment process she follows in her own peregrinations.
“I am not an author who always is searching for her next subject,” she said. “The ideas for new books come to me when I keep meeting people who are asking me the same questions. I carefully listen to the people I meet, and I remember when the same question keeps coming up over and over again. So, I begin gathering information and stories in response to those questions. When all that stuff gathers into a big enough ball—then I’m ready to write a new book.”
I asked, “So, in this case, what was the question you kept hearing?”
“The question was: How do I maintain my Christian identity in a multi-faith world?”
I said, “Perhaps that’s where you started this book, but I think a lot of the stories in your book point us toward another timely question: What happens if the Nones take the time to look at the many religious traditions around them, today?” These “Nones” I was mentioning are the nearly 1 in every 4 American adults who now decline to identify any “religious affiliation” when pollsters interview them. When asked by a pollster to name their religious affiliation, they reply: “None.” Naturally, researchers are very curious about this trend, especially since new studies show that many of these Nones actually have vivid spiritual experiences.
I told Barbara: “I know you have a lot of loyal readers who are active church members. But I’ll bet this new book will draw a lot of Nones. It sounds like many of your students were essentially Nones. Looking at it that way, this book feels like an affectionate and welcoming letter to Nones—from an inclusive Christian teacher.”
“I think you’re right,” she replied. “What’s fun about traveling around and talking about a new book is that I hear from all these people who have read my book—and start telling me what they think it’s all about. I did start writing with the idea that this was about ‘maintaining Christian identity in a multi-religious world’—but you’re right, somewhere along the line this became a book about the Nones among us. And I would add to what you’re saying: Even within our own Christian communities, there are a lot of people who are asking most of the same questions the Nones are asking.”
“Yes,” I said. “Even regular churchgoers have lots of questions about their place in the larger spiritual world. Pew Research says millions of us are thinking about these deep questions, every week. So, it’s a timely book in that way, too.”
AND CULTURAL COMPETENCE
This curiosity about other cultures and religions is fueled by what Barbara describes as “religious literacy,” the goal of new training programs in a host of professions. Her own students taught her about this trend. The first example was a young woman majoring in nursing, who took her course because it would help her in caring for patients.
Then, over the years, she heard from more students. She writes:
”Business majors are more likely to relate to people across desks than bedpans, but they can benefit from knowing how people of different faiths view borrowing and lending money. Education majors need to know where the major holidays of their students fall on the academic calendar, especially the ones that are not on the Christmas-Passover axis of the public-school system. Sports management majors need to know the same thing, especially since the month-long fast of Ramadan can occur during any season of the year. Dietary laws may also affect the sorts of places athletes can and cannot eat while they are on the road. A criminal justice major once told me that he never expected to learn anything in Religion 101 that would help him to be a better detective. Then he learned about the ways that people of different faiths treat their dead—including murder victims—and why some families might resist allowing an autopsy that would help law enforcement do its job.”
“You could have gone further in that section of the book,” I said. “Many of the Human Resources departments in Fortune 500 companies, as well as lots of nonprofits and agencies involved in community service, now offer training in cultural competence.”
“I like that phrase,” Barbara said. “I do refer to the value of ‘religious literacy’—but using the phrase ‘cultural competence’ broadens the idea. We’re not just trying to reach some acceptable level of literacy—we are trying to broaden the ways we think about and live with our neighbors.”
HOW BIG IS OUR ‘ULTIMATE REALITY’?
In the book, the pragmatic value of “religious literacy” is just the starting point for a deeper, life-changing adventure for some students. As readers continue through Barbara’s book, she tells us that this kind of peregrination winds up challenging some students to question “their own relationship to the divine. Some may call it ‘ultimate reality,’ but their questions will be the same. What is true and what is not? How did they come to believe what they believe? If the bottom drops out, how far will they fall? If there is only one God, why are there so many religions?”
In our interview, I read those lines from page 23 to Barbara, then I said to her: “I think you’ve summarized the sweep of the whole book in that passage. And, I think there’s an irony in this, because some of your students showed up for your classes with initial fears that this course might somehow change their lives. Then, you would reassure them. For example, I chuckled when I read your story about having to reassure students that simply bowing when a Buddhist leader enters the room does not instantly turn them into Buddhists. Bowing is just a polite gesture, you tell them. Clearly, these students were pretty anxious.”
“That’s right,” she said. “When a new class would start, before we actually made our first visit, I always heard from some students who feared that, wherever we went, people were going to evangelize them.”
I said, “Well, given that you were in a smaller college in the South, they were used to that from their own experiences in their churches. Some of their own Christian families and friends were eager to try to grab newcomers. So, that’s what they expected when visiting someone else’s temple, right?”
“Yes, they had the Golden Rule in mind—but they had it backwards—they were expecting others to do unto them what they had done unto others as evangelical Christians. When I started teaching this class, the first students actually were frightened. But, then, over the years, no one ever tried to evangelize anyone on our class visits. Word got around among the students. Later, there was less anxiety.
“A lot of what I write about in the book is the way students came to really look forward to this class. Some of them were eager to explore new ideas and traditions—and that includes the distinctive foods, sounds, music, customs.”
I said, “And I think that’s the irony here. At first, you assure students it won’t change their lives—at least in the way they might fear—but, in fact, it did change a lot of students’ lives. And, now that these stories are in book form, you potentially can help change a lot of other lives.”
‘DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE LIVING WATER—AND THE WELL’
As we came to the close of our interview, I pointed out another kind of gem that readers will uncover in these pages.
“You’ve always been a very quotable writer,” I said to Barbara. “I just checked GoodReads and your fans have collected nearly 200 quotes from your earlier books. I’m sure a whole bunch of new quotes from this book will show up soon. And for church goers? They’re going to find passages from this book quoted in Sunday sermons, bulletins and newsletters.
“So, here are my nominations of a couple of quotes we’ll soon be seeing all over the place,” I said.
First, in the chapter The Smaller Picture, Barbara gives us the equivalent of a TV series recap—the story (told at much greater length in her book, Leaving Church) of how she started her career as an Episcopal priest and then decided to leave parish ministry. In Holy Envy, she writes on page 5:
As a pastor, “it was a good life for a long time. Then it was not. Ask me what happened, and I can offer you a variety of stories that are all true: I was not a skilled leader; I was gone too much; I succumbed to compassion fatigue; I lost my faith in the church. All these years later there is another story that sounds as true as any of those, which goes like this: the same Spirit that called me into the church called me out again, to learn the difference between the living water and the well. As surely as priesthood had given me a sturdy bucket for dipping into that well—and as clearly as I could smell the elemental depths of the divine mystery every time I bent over to draw some of it up—the well was not the water. It was a container and not a source. My Episcopal well, beloved as it was, was no longer enough for me to live on. I was dry as a bone.”
Then, on page 25 in the chapter Religion 101, she vividly describes the ultimate purpose of such teaching, such peregrinations and, now, such memoir writing:
“I want students to know that while every religion has its villains, each also has its saints. In the quiet backwater of my second-floor cinder-block classroom, I want to give their imaginations something better to work with than what they are getting from the movies and the news—some of the treasures in the chests they have never had any reason to open before. I want them to know about Mohandes Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jalal al-Din Rumi, and Abraham Heschel. I want them to know about the desert fathers and mothers, Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Desmond Tutu.
“I believe this has become my Christian duty. I believe it is the neighborly thing to do, the Christlike thing to do. Part of my ongoing priesthood is to find the bridges between my faith and the faiths of other people, so that those of us who draw water from wells on different sides of the river can still get together from time to time, making the whole area safer for our children.”
Care to read more?
VISIT BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR’S OWN WEBSITE—You can learn much more about her work, and you can explore her other books, too.