Lightly edited copy of a blast email sent out to participants in an online book discussion group Debi and I facilitate for our parish, Peace Lutheran Church of Springfield, Ill. (It meets Sundays at 6 p.m. — hence the name.) We are discussing “Holy Envy” by Barbara Brown Taylor. Her title comes from Harvard Divinity School dean (and Swedish Lutheran bishop) Krister Stendahl’s “three rules for religious understanding” — the third involves “holy envy,” being open to other faith traditions. 

Hi everybody —

Our next session is Sunday, Feb. 12, at 6 p.m. (we’ll be online from 5:45 p.m. to chat and work out technical glitches). This week we’ll discuss Chapter 4 of Holy Envy. It’s titled “Holy Envy,” and, as you can guess from the spoiler alert in the chapter title, in it Taylor develops one of the main themes in her book. A participant handout is attached […].

In Chapter 4, Taylor begins with an epigram quoting Andrew Young, a pastor, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, mayor of Atlanta and US ambassador to the United Nations: “Before I read Gandhi I couldn’t see what difference Jesus made.” As we learn from other faith traditions, we grow in our own. She also quotes extensively from Krister Stendahl, at various times bishop of Stockholm in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden and dean of Harvard Divinity School, who coined the term “holy envy.” He never defined the term, but by it he meant an openness to interfaith dialog among diverse traditions. Stendahl is Pete’s favorite Lutheran theologian whom nobody ever heard of; in 2001 he spoke at Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, and his talk was printed in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin as “Why I Love the Bible.” He’s talking here about the four gospels and the letters of Paul — they all give different versions of Jesus — but he had the same attitude about world religions:

Let a thousand flowers bloom. Richness. Plurality. Plurals. Yes, meanings is better than meaning. Isn’t that, in a way, what the Trinity is about? Isn’t that odd, these confused monotheists who speak about the Trinity: We couldn’t quite settle for something which was just oneness, we had to have more of a fullness of an interplay, of a giving and receiving. Do you remember how it is with the oneness in John 17, where Jesus prays that they all be one? And you, father, are in me, and I am in you, and they are in us. It’s like the biological world: Everything is interdependent. It’s a giving and a receiving. It’s a oneness that is not a glob, but a living interplay. Plural.

It’s available online at It’s too long for us to assign for Sunday, but it’s a good read if you’re interested. 

We found a very short video about Stendahl’s own take on holy envy and his defense of a Mormon Church practice. Link here:

We also found a lengthier video (about a half hour) of an interview in which Taylor discusses the book Holy Envy, which you can watch if you get time and are interested:

Hope to see you Sunday, and we’re looking forward, as usual, to a great discussion.

Debi and Pete

Excerpt from participant handout. Taylor borrowed the concept of holy envy from Swedish Biblical scholar Krister Stendahl, who proposed three rules of religious understanding:

  • When 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.

What parts of other religious traditions do you envy? How could that envy be turned into what Taylor describes as “holy envy” (an appreciation of other religions that deepens one’s own)?

In Chapter 4, Taylor spoke of three possible routes of action she could have taken when finding other religions attractive: convert to one of them, make a quilt of spiritual bits and pieces from all of them with none at the center, or let her attraction to other teachings transform her love for her own. She chooses the third as the best option for her. Do you know anyone who has chosen one of the others? What choice sounds best to you?

Taylor observes that many of her students consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Do you know anyone like that? What do you think of the concept?

Taylor says that when she first began teaching Religion 101, she engaged in a form of “spiritual shoplifting,” which she describes as, “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.” When does borrowing from another tradition become “appropriation?”

Taylor laments the Christian doctrine of original sin, saying, “It drops the bar on being human so low that you have to wonder why we don’t all just stay in bed.” However, many Christians embrace this doctrine because it makes clear that humans cannot work their way to salvation, but must accept salvation as a gift of sheer grace. How important is original sin to your understanding of faith?

Taylor suggests that today’s Good Samaritan might be a Good Muslim or a Good Humanist, and that the Golden Rule might include honoring the neighbor’s religion as we would have the neighbor honor ours. What do you think of these suggestions?

Rather than see religions as competing for the one and only place of truth, Taylor presents a view where “absolute truth moves to the center of the system, leaving people of good faith with meaningful perceptions of that truth from their own orbits.” She also shares the metaphor of religions as different rivers having the same heavenly source. How do you respond to these images and why?

[Published Feb. 12, 2023]

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