interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

The Good Kind of Envy?

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarperCollins, 2019.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

I read an excerpt from Holy Envy in the Christian Century and thought “I’d like to read that book,” even though I didn’t agree with Barbara Brown Taylor about original sin. A couple of days later a friend of mine said “Hey, have you heard about this book? You’ll really like it!” Convergent validity. Since it was a loan, it went on the top of the stack.

The very idea of “holy envy” resonates. I can’t imagine it doesn’t resonate with anyone who teaches religion because they love it, in all its forms. I can’t speak for the people who teach religion because they hate it; or for the people who study and teach religion to prove that all the religions but theirs are wrong. But people who study religion because humans do it, care about it, believe it, are passionate about it, and because it is the form of art that anyone, even the least artistic, can make, and because it is the place where people’s love and trust and desire and fear and hope and failure and triumph and best and worst come together, predictably, over and over, and where those explosions of meaning that happen when symbols and circumstances coincide can take place with surprising clarity and beauty at any moment … those people, I have no doubt, have all felt pangs of holy envy.

So it is good to have the word for that experience, and also good to have Barbara Brown Taylor’s memoir about it.

cover of Holy Envy

Holy Envy the book, rather than the concept, is really a memoir about teaching world religion. Because I have that disease where I compare myself to other people, I often found myself as a reader wishing my students had an energetic and creative teacher like Barbara Brown Taylor, who would take them on field trips, and who would bring them sacks of food to examine and eat any of as long as it was kosher (which sounds like a possibly borrowable exercise, by the way), and so on. This made the book slightly less enjoyable for me than I imagine it was for the friend who loaned it to me. But only slightly, because meeting someone, even through print, who loves what you love, who talks about it eloquently and beautifully, and who can teach you something else you didn’t already know about it, is delightful.

Because Holy Envy is a memoir about teaching world religion, it is also a memoir about teaching, and about students, and about self-discovery. That’s how teaching works. And because Taylor’s prose is beautiful, her observations acute, and her thoughts about what she observes poignant, realistic and kind, her record of what she has learned while teaching, learned about students, and learned about herself feels warm and wise.

And embracing. Reading Barbara Brown Taylor, I feel I could have thought some of these same things myself, if I’d had the wit to. I could have felt some of that, too. I nod. I agree. I can see that the world is full of interesting human beings I could be caring about, because they matter, in marvelous, constantly recombinant ways, nothing short of walking miracles. I could even be one of them.

I need to be reminded that our shared humanity matters, and like to discover that it can be the occasion for beautiful prose and ideas, too.

I don’t know whether Taylor is the theologian for me. I lean universalist, which I think is in her direction, but where she describes herself as positioned on “the edge of the inside” of her religious tradition, a phrase she borrows from Richard Rohr (217), I hug closer to the center, at least with respect to the circles I travel in. I left church, and came back, a lot longer ago than Taylor did, from the sound of it, and not the same way. I didn’t make a list of doctrinal differences, though; despite those, her experience – that one of the things holy envy really teaches us is to appreciate our own religious roots and practices – rings true. We agree on that.

Plus, I was especially grateful for the definition of spirituality she borrowed from her friend Judy, “who embodies fana – the self-annihilating love of God – as well as anyone” she knows (187). (Not to disrespect my friends, but if I met someone who embodied the self-annihilating love of God at all, that would be definitely more than anyone I know; I gather from her “as well as” that Taylor knows astonishing people.) I normally despise that word spirituality. I think of it as being either meaningless or else a euphemism for feeling good in a way people can’t criticize you for. But her friend Judy’s definition of spirituality is “the active pursuit of the God you didn’t make up” (188). That has forced me to reconsider.

“If I could make my neighbors up,” says Taylor, “I could love them in a minute (194).” She can’t – make them up, that is, and neither can we, and this turns out to be a weird, prickly blessing, because

… if you stop and think about it, what better way could there be for me to actively pursue the God I did not make up – the one I cannot see – than to try for even twelve seconds to love those brothers and sisters whom I can see? What better way to shatter my custom-made divine mosaic than to accept that these fundamentally irritating and sometimes frightening people are also made in the image of God? Honest to goodness, with a gospel like that you could empty a church right out. (195)

Or not. Barbara Brown Taylor’s book is a bestseller. Hard as it is for us humans to accept the strangers around us, and to extend them hospitality, we seem to like to read about doing it.

Holy Envy is a memoir about encountering difference, about welcoming the stranger, and about being welcomed by strangers in return. To me, that makes it a book about hope. And spirituality. The kind we don’t make up.

A tower of books with a almond- or vaginal-shaped opening

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