Book review: “Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others”

The title Holy Envy seriously caught my eye after I had first heard of [Krister Stendhal’s three rules of religious understanding]. Someone else had taken the idea to heart and written a book about it. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest who wrote the book after teaching a world religions course in the southern US. Engaging with the ideas of other religions changed her experience with her own, and this book is the result.

Growing up as a Latter-Day Saint, I saw very little incentive to engage with other religions. After all, we were the one “true and living” Church on the earth: why try to sift through “philosophies of men mingled with scripture”? God Himself seems to have a low opinion of other religious persuasions when he says to Joseph Smith in the First Vision that “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” The portrayal of the young Joseph being bullied by the protestant minister gave you the impression that other religions were even potentially hostile.

I would like to think that started to change on my mission in Germany when I encountered others from different faiths up front. I attended an apostolic church with my companion when time, when my mission president asked us to find creative ways to find new investigators, as going door to door wasn’t yielding much. I was curious, but it seemed so foreign to me, even though many of the elements were the same– congregation members would approach the sacrament table instead of the familiar trays being passed around the room. Afterwards, I did talk to a few church-goers, but I was very self-conscious as my missionary nametag stuck out like a sore thumb. I automatically assumed it labelled me “the enemy.” The members were gracious though. I asked one woman if they viewed baptism like a covenant with God, and she seemed intrigued by the idea. However, most experiences with other faiths on my mission were more of the Bible-bashing variety.

It wasn’t until I got home from my mission that I began to seriously engage with other faiths more. The thing that did it for me were the works of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I had first read Lewis’s Screwtape Letters in high school, and it spoke to me more than any religious text from my own tradition did on any given day. Lewis asked hard questions of his faith, it was a part of his whole being, he didn’t feel the need to tread lightly. This is what I wanted in my own faith. This, I would say, was my first experience with holy envy.

Taylor writes of similar experiences in her class when teaching about other religions. I like her list of four ways that learning about other faiths changes you:

  1. They get to think much more deeply about where their beliefs come from and how well they fit together.
  2. They get to figure out how to explain their beliefs to people who are not already committed to them.
  3. They get to discover points of contact with neighbors of other faiths along with points of irreconcilable differences.
  4. They get to engage those who are different without feeling compelled to defeat or destroy them.

That last one is powerful, and it has completely changed how I interact with others. I no longer feel a sense of confrontation when talking about religion with other people.

But she also talks about the hard things too. This change in view doesn’t come easily. Without judgment but complete understanding, she talks about how some students couldn’t let their guard down:

If you really are Christian, then are you going to help us see what is wrong with these other religions? From what you have said so far it doesn’t sound like it, and if that’s the case, then I don’t think I can stay in this class.

and

They are so lost, and they don’t even know it!…It is just so sad to me seeing people worshipping statues when they could be worshipping Jesus instead. It just breaks my heart.

I for one think my own religious tradition has room for engaging other faiths, and that our inward-ness is a later development. Joseph Smith taught in the 13th Article of Faith that “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” I interpret this as giving me free reign to seek truth where I find it. Joseph Smith was constantly reading and working with material outside of his tradition; we like to think it all came directly downloaded from heaven, but that’s not the case. While he was working on his translation of the Bible, he was getting inspiration from commentaries on the Bible by Protestant ministers. And if the 13th Article of Faith wasn’t clear enough, he states:

Have the Presbytarians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, etc, any truth? Yes. We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.

I an ideal world, that would be all well and dandy. But some don’t feel that such an approach to faith is a weak faith, or worse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, just like those examples above of Christians being taken way out of their comfort zone. I like that Taylor acknowledges these challenges. Near the end, she quotes Richard Rohr on what it is like to live at “the edge of the inside” of the faith, but the goods and the bads:

When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honor, you are in a very auspicious and advantageous position. You are free of its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.

But on the other hand, David Brooks explains some downsides:

You never lose yourself in a full commitment. You may be respected and befriended, but you are not loved as completely as the people at the core, the band of brothers. You enjoy neither the purity of the outsider nor that of the true believer.

This book is so good, because it leaves things unresolved. These tensions are still there and have to be worked through, and to me this is where faith is.

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