Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy is reminiscent of Marcus J. Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time as a story of circling back in a richer way to a faith of origin. In her fine book, Taylor describes embracing more fully her own Christianity—albeit a gentler version—through her exploration of the other major world religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam.
Taylor explains her move from Episcopal pastor to religion professor at Piedmont College in Georgia, where for 20 years she taught comparative religion. Encounters with other religions led her to what she calls “holy envy” (a term borrowed from biblical scholar Krister Stendahl). This is a longing to possess the practices or beliefs from other faiths. If only, for example, Taylor says, Christianity encompassed Hinduism’s many paths to God, Judaism’s Sabbath day of rest, and Buddhism’s concept of impermanence. Yet for all her yearning toward aspects of other faiths—and sometimes distress with her own—she ends up discovering that she is “Christian to the core.” Interfaith study didn’t send her hurtling toward another religion or into universalism but instead sharpened her vision and her respect for limits: “What I see in the neighbor’s yard does not belong to me, but it shows me things in my own yard that I might otherwise have overlooked.”
It also, paradoxically, softened, though not eradicated, her boundaries: Holy Envy is in part a friendly guide to interfaith dialogue. Leaning into her own experiences, Taylor notes the ways she has sometimes unconsciously offended other faiths—until this was gently explained to her by an adherent. Again citing Stendahl, she offers three rules of religious understanding: (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.” (3) “Leave room for holy envy.”
Quakers have much they can learn from Taylor. I remember some years ago Quakers inadvertently offending Native Americans by using sweat lodges out of context—and the debate that erupted over the boundaries on appropriations from other faiths. That which we desire, we might not have a right to take. None of this is easy, and none of us, no matter how pure we try to be, can anticipate our every blind spot. She offers good reminders too that it is easy to hate: for some Christians to equate all nontheists with the worst excesses of Stalinism—or Satanism—while it is equally easy for some nonbelievers to angrily reduce all Christians to the worst kind of fundamentalists. The more respect we can have for those who differ—especially those others who represent the “shadows” in ourselves we might not want to acknowledge—the better off we will be. As Taylor emphasizes, the diversity even within faiths is profound. We need above all, she reminds us, not to talk but to listen.
On a more personal note, Taylor’s book is autobiographical—about her experiences teaching and of growth in faith. As one who has taught comparative religion myself (and even, like her, used Huston Smith as a text, despite his essentialism), I was fascinated by the differences in privilege. Taylor taught at a small residential college, whereas I taught at commuter schools or a community college: no field trips 70 miles away for my busy students, despite Taylor’s belief in such trips’ centrality. This points to the importance of Taylor’s granular approach: the more details we learn about other lives, the more likely we are to be startled by seeming innocuous differences, to ask questions, and to come to a wider understanding.
This is a book worth reading, for, in Taylor’s words, as we expand our love toward other faiths, our own “box will turn out to be too small,” at which point we will build one with “more windows in it.”