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‘Christianity is a galaxy — I’ve become an astronomer’

28 June 2019

Barbara Brown Taylor tells Martin Wroe how teaching other faiths caused her to lose her own . . . and gain something else

E. Lane Gresham

BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR has few rivals among preachers and writers for composing a beautiful, literate, and grown-up account of the life of faith. But, visiting London to mark the release of her new book, Holy Envy (Books, 14 June), she says that it wasn’t until she began digging into the faith of those who didn’t share hers, that she really began to understand her own.

It was this journey towards meeting God in “so many new hats” that ignited her “holy envy”, a phrase first coined by Krister Stendahl, of Harvard Divinity School. Stendahl suggested three rules for the conversation between faiths: first, when trying to understand another religion, ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies; second, don’t compare your best to their worst; third, leave room for “holy envy”.

Brown Taylor, who swapped the pulpit for academia in the early 2000s when she had come to feel the living water run dry as a parish priest (“It was a good life. Then it was not”), began teaching “Religion 101” to her liberal-arts students at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. She noticed that “teaching religion from a textbook was like teaching people to cook from a cookbook. You just had to get into the kitchen, somehow had to get your hands on the utensils and mix things up.” Nervously, she began inviting students, most of whom identify as Christian, on field trips to Hindu and Sikh Temples, to Mosques and Synagogues. And so she was “born again in my own tradition”.

“I would like to tell you”, she explains of holy envy, “that it is the product of gaining wisdom, insight, and perspective through the stuff of other religions, but that would not be true. Instead, it is the product of losing my way, doubting my convictions, interrogating my religious language, and tossing many of my favourite accessories overboard when the air started leaking out of my theological life raft.”

But her deep dive into other traditions also turned up the living water again, “with all the existential dizziness that comes from drinking out of different wells.”

In what ways has your faith changed as a result of immersing yourself and your students in traditions different to your own?

I went deeper into my faith than I have been in a long time, because I was asked questions I’ve never been asked before, questions Christians would never have thought to ask me. And then also some very appropriate levelling of myself with people of other faiths — hearing from them about their encounters with Christians and how humiliating that had been for some of them, to assume they’d never had a thought about the divine or a way of life that was a life of justice and mercy. It’s put me on a path of endless questioning, wondering curiosity. And it feels very full of life. I went through a period of fear and came out the other side into a period of wonderful life-liness.

Can you illustrate how you are a different kind of believer now from then?

I went in confident that as a clergyperson with seven years of education and 15 years in parish ministry that I was very competent to teach introductory courses in religion, including my own. The first thing that went away was that confidence. I found out how many Christian languages there were: Pentecostal and Holiness and Seventh-Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which Christians don’t include, nor Mormons — a huge variety which woke me up to the diversity in the other religions that the students and I studied together. Initiation into the wider-than-ever diversity of Christian belief and practice helped me to appreciate the wide diversity in belief and practice in the other traditions we studied.

Is there an example of something you no longer bother about?

I no longer bother with Christian beliefs that have no practical usefulness. So, if people want to argue about Jesus’s Virgin birth, they can do that, but I have other things I need to do. I’m mostly interested in Christian beliefs that actually give me more life — and the people I’m with.

What about something that you’ve adopted as a result of this journey?

Probably Buddhist meditation, Buddhist stillness. It’s such an antidote to a crazy culture; and Buddhist teaching that invites me to experiment with the truths and decide if they’re true or not. I never experienced that in my tradition. My tradition taught me to believe things beyond belief and not ask questions, at least early on, before I became Anglican.

Now you’re more comfortable with feeling out beliefs and ideas to see if they resonate?

I’m more open to meeting other human beings and letting them tell me about their experience of the sacred and their troubles with the sacred. I’m not open to beliefs and practices unless they’re embodied. But once they’re embodied individually or in community, I’m all in. I want to know all about it. I have come to see Christianity as a planet. Turns out it’s in a galaxy. Turns out the galaxy is in a universe. And that means I’ve become — to push the metaphor — a great astronomer, very interested in all the ways human beings have thought about and approached the divine through a couple of millennia.

Many Christians approach “world religions” not unlike one of your early students who said, “Are you going to help us see what is wrong with these other religions?”

People are welcome to do that. I think it’s a losing battle. Next, we’ll decide whether apples are right and oranges are wrong. And whether science is right and religion is wrong. And whether white people are right and people of colour are wrong. And then we’ll decide whether cis-gendered people are right and other-gendered people are wrong. So while I’m naturally curious about those categories — right and wrong — they have only narrowed my sense of community and the number of friends I have, so why would I continue to go there?

Another thing I’ve gone further into is my own Christian mystical tradition. I’ve gone back to a lot of the medieval saints. I also consider Simone Weil a mystic, who finally refused baptism in the Catholic church, to which she was powerfully drawn, as long as there was a doctrine of salvation only within the Church. She stood at the door of the church. In my imagination of her she said she wouldn’t go into a church that others were kept out of. But neither did she go away. Seems like a faithful place to be.

Some people start out saying, “Tell us what is wrong with other religions.” Other people say, “Let’s study those religions so we understand them from our perspective.” You say, “Let’s understand what the people inside those religions mean by their religions rather than what I think they mean by their religions.”

That’s a good summation, and I would add also that I will never understand other religions: my world-view is so embedded in me. But what I can do is practise the teachings of my own religion which have a great deal to say about neighbourliness, crossing boundaries, and taking the log out of my own eye before I examine the speck in someone else’s. My religion is full of teachings that put me into neighbourly relationships with people of other faiths that I will never understand.

Understanding in practice rather than in theory?

Absolutely for me. I used to both believe and be taught that my theory, my Christian beliefs, should determine my practice and especially my engagement with people who didn’t share my faith. I’ve reversed it now and it’s my practice and my experience of other people that now shapes my theory, my belief. So that seems like a flip that someone in a religion of an incarnate God should be happy with. The flesh corrects the doctrine.

We’re all walking hermeneutics.

Living human documents.

You observe that many Christians fear exploring world religions in case it destabilises their own religion. It has destabilised yours . . . in a good way.

Yes, I used to begin this college course telling students of any faith, they need not fear losing their faith in order to study the world’s religions. And then I found out they did. And so did I. But I think what we lost were our containers: stable ground under our feet, our certainty about the rightness of our own positions. So, to go on one single field trip to a place of someone else’s devotions shifts one’s view of an entire world tradition in one trip.

Ninety minutes can change one’s certain beliefs. I used to hand out a bumper sticker that said, “Don’t believe everything you think,” and students quite often wrote papers about that, things they had thought that they no longer believed because they had been welcomed into communities not their own by people who bless them in their own traditions and said, “Please, if you came here Christian, be a better Christian. Go home a better Christian.” They couldn’t believe they heard that from a Muslim imam.

You suggest people who explore other faiths should “try to understand the dynamics of their own fear”.

I’m going to propose we all take psychology classes before we’re allowed to become religious. We should go study scapegoating and projection and groupishness and all the normal xenophobias that go along with being human out of really old instincts to survive. Until we understand how our minds work as human beings, it’s very difficult to go into a religious faith and invite God to sanctify our fear of each other and our suspicion of one another — which we have done. But in the best sacred texts there are loopholes everywhere, escape hatches. Where the deity comes down with teaching about the stranger and the outsider and the angel of whom you’re unaware.

Judaism, in particular, with more emphasis on the stranger than the neighbour.

The Righteous Gentile. I’d give anything for that concept in my own religious tradition which honours the person who comes to me from outside my tribe, offers a God-given blessing on the tribe, like the Magi; like Melchizedek. And they leave! They don’t become part of our tribe. They go back to where God planted them. But I don’t have anything like that in my tradition.

You learned how people of other faiths see your faith, and there’s a powerful moment when a Jewish reader writes about some of your earlier books and talks about a language of contempt. You hadn’t clocked that until you suddenly saw it through his eyes. It was a shock to you.

It’s a continuing shock. Right now, religiously motivated hate crimes in the US are more than half anti-Jewish. Jews make up two per cent of the American population; so you can see how out of whack it is. And I have no choice but to believe that Christian scripture, the New Testament part of it, has been murderous for people, not in explicit ways perhaps, because clergy who preach, say, Hebrews or portions of the Gospel of John or Matthew, are going to hit very anti-Jewish passages, also in some of the works of Paul.

If we don’t have someone from outside the tradition pointing to those, we’ll continue to speak them as the divine truth, with this implicit bias that floats so far below consciousness it’s hard to grasp. So, yes, this was a Jewish psychiatrist who wrote me who said that he liked my work very much, but he did notice that I was using the language of contempt. That’s things like “the burden of the law” or “the corruption of the Pharisees”, and all the language the New Testament gives Christians that needs to be re-examined in the 21st century.

There’s a climactic moment later, with a Jewish friend at a celebration of the eucharist, when you choose, in solidarity with your friend, not to receive the eucharist. You’re kind of denying God to affirm God.

It was a big “What would Jesus do?” moment, right? Would Jesus stand with the Jew who had lost generations of family in the Holocaust and who found “the blood of Christ” a terrifying thought, or would Jesus say, “Sorry, I’m stepping away for a moment and I’ll be right back.” I’ve heard from so many readers who had similar stories. I’ve begun to feel not as unusual as I thought I was at that moment. I’ve heard from a lot of people declining from a Christian celebration that excluded others.

If you see your faith from the perspective of others, sometimes it means you change your faith. You adapt your practice.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “Any kind of peace involves a profound crisis of identity.” So, even in the classroom, I had to talk about skid marks, the places where students put on the brakes really hard because that was probably more fruitful than their very pleasant uncomplicated interactions with other people. But when they hit a wall, to stop and think both about whether the wall was their own perceptive side. Were they seeing a hijab on a Muslim woman that they thought they understood completely but if they talked to the woman she understood it very differently? Or had they come into a real irreconcilable difference that both religious traditions would own?

It becomes clear that it’s not the knowledge of these great religions that will stick with students, it’s the experience of immersion in these other stories. The field trips seem to be more influential than anything.

It took me many years to realise that students were not going to leave my class with the Four Noble Truths distinguished from the Five Pillars of Islam. They were going to mess all that up but they would never forget the people they met, and above all, they would never forget that much that they had been taught about people of other faiths was not trustworthy. That it had been upset in — I would say — wonderful ways by their experiences during the semester. I didn’t want to blow students’ minds, but I wanted them to, by their own choice, enter territories that might blow their minds. Field trips were all optional but once students started bringing back their reports everybody wanted on the bus.

Although we’re all raised in different or no religious traditions, before we’re raised in that, we’re human. It’s just us. And what we’re about is survival and living a rewarding life.

And having children and partnering up and being in terrific grief and pain and sickness and joy. My taxi driver today was celebrating his 64th birthday, and I sang to him in the taxi. But you just did another huge flip. Earlier in my life, I would have told you that the purpose of humanity was to serve religion or faith. And now I think if a faith isn’t serving the greater good of humanity, it’s time to question what it’s all about. If there are Christian beliefs or assurances or practices that do nothing to equip me to move into a larger swath of humanity, then I’m sad about that. It seems to be the best reason to be Christian is to learn how to be in deeper community with people who are not Christian than of less.

For Christians, it might be quite interesting to learn about the other Jesus who has a rich life in Islam, a rich life in Buddhism, a rich life in Hinduism, but not as Christians know him. So Christians can get quite upset. But it turns out Jesus has a rich life in many other traditions, but he’s dressed in different clothes and he’s sitting in different postures. There’s nothing more frightening to me than someone who believes that he or she owns God, who understands clearly what God says and wants, and is ready at any time to step up and be the spokesman for the correct understanding of the God whom they own instead of being owned by.

One of the things the quest has alerted you to is a great provisionality.

Yes, a provisionality about my statements, about my definitions, but, above all, provisionality about my firm grasp on divine truth; so I’ve started calling the path I’m on “the sacred way of unknowing”. Fortunately, I have lots and lots of company all the way back to — I’m calling them — the Desert Parents now. But, I think, to be on the sacred path of unknowing is a faithful way. But there’s many Christians who have only heard that called an unfaithful way. That you need to be on the sacred way of knowing. And again it’s not polarisation, it’s not an either/or, but the sacred way of unknowing is a sacred way. And I would love to be helpful to anybody who has trouble being affirmed on that way.

Holy Envy, Finding God In The Faith of Others is published by Canterbury Press at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.29). The Revd Martin Wroe is an NSM at St Luke’s, West Holloway, and co-author of Lifelines, Notes on Life and Love, Faith and Doubt (Unbound).

Listen to an extended interview with Barbara Brown Taylor at www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast You can also listen to the Church Times Podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and most other podcast platforms.

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