Palm Sunday, 2016, Saint Johns Orthodox Church, Warren, Ohio.

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of “holy envy” and the Swedish academic who coined the term. That’s partly because I worry that the whole idea of pluralism — both religious and secular — is under sustained attack now at home and abroad. I feel like we’re crying in the wilderness, and a little more respect for each other’s religious and cultural traditions — a little holy envy, in other words — might offer us a viable way out.

It’s especially poignant this year over the Orthodox Easter weekend, at least for me, as Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox believers are caught up in a brutal war in Ukraine. We’ll get back to that in a minute. But first, let’s define terms.

(Bearing in mind, of course, that “holy envy” is essentially undefinable.)

The idea originated with the Right Rev. Krister Stendahl, who served at various times as dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Stockholm in the Lutheran state Church of Sweden. In the latter capacity, he championed the admission of women as ordained clergy and supported Mormons who wanted to build a temple in Stockholm.

During the brouhaha in 1985 over the Mormons, Stendahl, who seems to have had a typically dry Scandinavian sense of humor, called a press conference and laid down three “rules for religious understanding.” Wikipedia’s bio of Stendahl quotes the most widely circulated version like this:

  • When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  • Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  • Leave room for “holy envy.”

He didn’t say exactly what he meant by that last bit, but Wikipedia’s definition is as good as any (bearing in mind, or course, that the term has to be experienced, not defined): “By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.” In practice, I think all three of his rules are inextricably related.

Which leads me back to Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and, inevitably, to the war in Ukraine. Ever since I visited Alaska 10 and 15 years ago, I’ve had a strong case of holy envy for Russian Orthodox liturgical music and for the bits and pieces I know of Russian Orthodox theology, even though it is far removed from my own faith tradition.

I’ve told the story before, HERE and, more recently, HERE (in a meditation on salmon chowder, muktuk — dried whale blubber — Russian Orthodox liturgical hymnody and cultural pluralism). But here’s the gist of it — when I tagged along with Debi as she rolled out training manuals she wrote for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, I was teaching a Native American cultural studies course at Benedictine. I was fascinated with the way Russian Orthodox missionaries respected Native Alaskan belief systems and incorporated Native spiritual practices into their own, and I used my time in Alaska to learn as much as I could of the history. I think it’s one of the great American stories.

The insights added to my classes and, in time, my own faith. I was especially taken with the Very Rev. Michael J. Oleksa of Anchorage (aka “Father Alaska”), who finds a common chord in Native and Russian concepts of the imminence of God. “Orthodox Christians are not pantheists, but they are pan-en-theists,” says Oleksa. “The universe, taken as a whole, is not God, but He is ‘everywhere present and fills all things’.” This isn’t all that different from Franciscan theology, as popular Franciscan author Richard Rohr explains in an online daily devotion:

This is not pantheism (God is everything), but panentheism (God is in everything!). Such a central message of cosmic incarnation was never seriously taught in the Western, overly individualistic church, except by a few like Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), and Bonaventure (1221-1274). It was much more common in the Eastern Church, especially in early scholars and mystics like Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nyssa, and Symeon the New Theologian.

And in time I would discover a similar theological school of Finnish Lutheran scholars who maintain, in dialog with their Russian Orthodox counterparts, that “Christ is present, in the very fullness of his divine and human nature, in [a believer’s] faith itself,” to quote Tuomo Mannermaa of the University of Helsinki. It turns out, in unexpected ways, that Luther has more in common with Orthodox — and Franciscan –theology than I ever could have imagined before I visited Alaska and started digging into the local cultural history.

So I came back from Anchorage with more than a taste for salmon chowder, and I may be the only Lutheran in Springfield to have a picture of the wonderworking icon of Our Lady of Sitka on my bedroom wall. I also picked up a taste for Russian Orthodox music, starting with a chanted Akathist, or festival service, dedicated to Our Lady of Sitka. (You can hear it HERE, recorded during a service at an Orthodox Church in America congregation at Mogadore, Ohio. Most ethnic Russian congregations in the US now belong to the OCA.) None of this makes me an expert, but I do have several CDs of Russian Orthodox liturgical music to match the taste for reindeer sausage and salmon chowder I acquired in Alaska.

So when I was looking for coverage of this year’s Palm Sunday processions in Jerusalem, I was blown away by the YouTube video embedded above. It’s a setting of a piece of music known as the Cherubic Hymn, sung at the transition in the service from the Service of the Word to the Eucharist in the Divine Liturgy, as the Orthodox counterpart to the Mass or Holy Communion in the Western liturgical tradition is known: 

We who mystically represent the Cherubim,
and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,
let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
escorted invisibly by the angelic orders.

In other words, it comes at a key moment in the service, and one that’s common to the Sunday services I know. So I can feel the emotion. It doesn’t hurt, either, that St. John’s Orthodox Church in Warren, Ohio, has a fine parish church choir.

Holy envy? The reverence with which they sing the invitation to Holy Communion (which is how I understand the Cherubic Hymn) reminds me of what’s going on in the sacrament. Especially now, when I watch my parish’s services livestreamed on the internet or the sacrament is administered in a “drive-through communion” ceremony, it’s not bad to be reminded of the holy. And the music in Warren, Ohio — especially those bass harmonies! — makes me ache for the day, post-pandemic, when I can sing in a church choir again.

I’m not Russian, and I’m perfectly happy with my own Western rite faith tradition. But for a moment, when I’m watching the Cherubic Hymn sung on YouTube, I feel like we’re all part of the body of Christ and we all share in the hope for resurrection and new life.

Even at what has to be an especially tragic time for Orthodox Christians.

Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, college teacher and author of a 2019 book title Holy Envy, says it’s at the heart of religious pluralism. Rather than insisting any one faith has the right answers, she grounds the discussion in her own experience teaching comparative religion and suggests we can — and must — learn from other traditions. But she offers a caveat:

All of these teachings caught my attention when I first learned them too. They were as yet unimagined ways of viewing the relationship between the human and the divine, and once I encountered them, I could not let them go. It took me a while to understand that finding these things attractive did not mean it was time for me to convert or—conversely—to start making a quilt of spiritual bits and pieces with no strong center. The third possibility was to let my attraction to other teachings transform my love for my own. […] When I first began teaching Religion 101, my envy took the form of spiritual shoplifting. When I saw something I liked in another tradition, I helped myself: Tibetan singing bowls, Hindu deities, necklaces strung with Zuni fetishes, Muslim prayer rugs.

Far better, she says, to feel the envy and reflect on how it might inform our own faith and experience.

I think Brown Taylor’s book is deservedly popular. It’s been excerpted in Christian Century (I’m quoting here from the excerpt), and a study guide suitable for congregational book study groups is available on the internet. Most of her students, undergrads at a liberal arts college in North Georgia, were Christian, more-or-less, and the bulk of it recounts their field trips to Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu temples in the greater Atlanta area.

In spite of Brown Taylor’s caveat about spiritual shoplifting — appropriation is another word for it — she found more — much much more — of value in it. And in the end, it led her to a deeper appreciation of her Christian faith:

Eventually all people of faith must decide how they will think about and respond to people of other (and no) faiths. Otherwise we will be left at the mercy of our worst impulses when push comes to shove and our fear deadens us to the best teachings of our religions.

Once, at the end of a field trip to the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, the imam ended his meeting with students by saying, “Our deepest desire is not that you become Muslim, but that you become the best Christian, the best Jew, the best person you can be. In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Thank you for coming.” Then he was gone, leaving me with a fresh case of holy envy.

I could do that, I thought.  […]

I can do that too, I think.

Works Cited

Chad Curtis, “The holy envy of Krister Stendahl and the Latter-Day Saint temple,” History Engineers, Sept. 16, 2029

Michael J. Oleksa, “The Alaskan Orthodox Mission and Cosmic Christianity,” Jacob’s Well, 1994, Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of New York and New Jersey [I get a dead link now, but I quoted the passage at].

Richard Rohr, “The Christification of the Universe,” Daily Meditations, Center for Action and Contemplation, Nov. 6, 2016

Barbara Brown Taylor, “My holy envy of other faith traditions,” Christian Century, March 7, 2019

__________. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. Study Guide, Small Group Guides, HarperOne

“Ukrainians, Russians mark Orthodox Easter in time of war” [segment begins at 3:05], DW News, Deutsche Welle, April 24, 2022

Wikipedia articles on cultural appropriation, Tuomo Mannermaa, Michael J. Oleksa, the Orthodox Church in America and Krister Stendahl.

[Published April 28, 2022]

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