For Priest Turned Professor, ‘Holy Envy’ Is Key To Appreciating World Religions
From an early age, Barbara Brown Taylor knew that she wanted to live a spiritual life.
“It started early in my life,” she says, “a hunger for the beyond, for the transcendent, for the light within the light, the glow within the grass, the sparkle within the water.”
Taylor went on to become an ordained Episcopal priest, working as rector of a church. But she later left her job with the church and began teaching the world’s religions at Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga.
As part of the course, Taylor invited members of different faiths into the classroom to share their beliefs. She also brought her students, who were mostly Christian, to mosques, synagogues and Buddhist and Hindu temples in an effort to help them better understand how various groups worship.
“I hoped it would be a way to convince [the students] that they could find things they liked about other traditions, and it would not make them disloyal to their own,” Taylor says. “And it worked most of the time.”
Taylor writes about how teaching the different religions changed her students’ understanding of faith — as well as her own — in her new memoir, Holy Envy. She says the name of the book comes from her own experiences with different faiths.
“I would walk in and immediately find something to fall in love with,” she says. “The beauty of the space, the tenor of the discourse, the teacher for the evening, the hospitality we were offered. I ended up being just bowled over by the beauty and kindness that I encountered every place I went. ”
On going from being an Episcopalian minister to a college professor
It was a huge culture shock to go from being full-time parish minister to full-time college teacher. Everything changed. What I wore in the morning, where I parked my car, what was on the nameplate on my door. … I had much greater authority in a classroom than I ever had in a church, and I think it’s because I gave grades. So the contract was different. …
I couldn’t run on my assumptions or stereotypes — positive or negative — of other traditions. It was time to get down to the textbook, and to really learn more historically, politically, theologically, about the traditions I was teaching, because all of a sudden I was responsible. I held myself to the Golden Rule, which was ‘teach these other traditions in the way I wish they would teach mine.’ In other words, with respect, with some degree of honor about the best and not just the worst.
On whether she was concerned about shaking the faith of her students
I think that education does that — whatever the subject matter. So yes, I did feel as if in the field of religion I was in the business of making misfits, better educated, more thoughtful misfits, who would never fit quite the same way in their faith communities, their families. Then I started talking to colleagues in other fields and they said, ‘Yeah, that’s what we do at college, is people grow and change and don’t fit where they used to.’ So I embraced that as part of my job.
On taking students to mosques, synagogues and Buddhist and Hindu temples for class
It only took me about six weeks into my first class to realize 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. So very quickly it became apparent to me we needed to get out of the house and go visit, which had so many advantages to it. …