Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and theologian whose acclaimed writings on faith include Leaving Church (HarperOne, 2006), An Altar in the World (2010), and Learning to Walk in the Dark (2014), is now encouraging readers to let their appreciation for other religious teachings transform their own religious beliefs and practices in her new book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (HarperOne, out now).
When Taylor first started teaching world religions at Piedmont College, a small, private, liberal arts school in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains, she told her students that studying other faiths wouldn’t cause them to lose faith in their own. But after 20 years of teaching, she’s come to realize that discovering and embracing things from other religions is not a betrayal, but a way to discover the deepest truths in one’s own beliefs.
Holy Envy explores the many different ways religions conceptualize the world, the divine, our lives, and ourselves—and why understanding other religions should force us to question our own. Taylor says this is especially important for Christians, as Christianity’s core teachings—such as the belief in the divinity of Jesus—don’t make room theologically for those of other beliefs the same way that Judaism or Islam makes room for Christians.
“This is a book for Christians looking for good Christian reasons to engage people of other faiths and practice other forms of spirituality, but who have no help in terms of how to reconcile that with some of the teachings about there being only one way to God,” she tells PW.
For Taylor, some things that inspire holy envy include: the incredible sacredness of diversity in Hinduism and how many ways there are to approach God; the practice of mindfulness in Buddhism; the Orthodox idea of the Sabbath in Judaism; the physicality of daily prayer in Islam; the oral tradition and experiential nature of Native American and the primal religions.
Still, she says, “I come back to Christianity as the way that is open to all ways. That’s in my Scripture, that’s my experience, and that’s my tradition.”
Taylor exhorts others to go far beyond “spiritual shoplifting,” or cherry-picking the things they love most about their own religion or other religious traditions. “What I’ve noticed is how quickly I use traditions to affirm my choices and my way of life,” she tells PW. Instead, Taylor wants readers to use their envy to question divine reality and become more aware of traditions and beliefs that might have become neglected in their own religion.
She says we should also remember the Christian commandment to love your neighbor as yourself and draw on the rich Scriptural tradition of strangers, like the Magi, who bring blessings but stay on the outside. In the Bible, strangers who worshiped other gods, such as the Roman centurion or the foreign woman at the well, repeatedly and profoundly impacted Jesus and were often held up by him as paragons of faith. In the same way, people of other faiths – especially people who think or act or believe differently – may provide our best chance at new ways of understanding and connecting with God.
“My hope is that I don’t satisfy an appetite, I stimulate it,” Taylor says. “I never want my readers to close my book and say ‘that’s that.’ I want them to close my book and want to go learn more.”
Taylor is embarking on a 10-city book tour promoting Holy Envy. Michael Maudlin, executive editor at HarperOne, tells PW that the book not only “encourages us to find ideas, experiences, and practices in other faiths that we lack in our own, but in doing so reveals a face of God we did not know before.”
“Today, when ‘different’ often translates to ‘enemy,’ this book is very timely and needed,” he says.