Lectures by Barbara Brown Taylor, 22 February 2015

Dr. Taylor’s lectures addressed the challenges of living with religious difference in today’s world, especially at a time when so much of the news we hear is about the rage and violence spawned by religious extremism both at home and abroad.

image002The first lecture, “Who Is My Neighbor?”, explored the question of how to respond to religious extremism. We must begin, she argued, by educating ourselves “so that our imaginations have better material to work with” when we encounter people of faiths other than our own. “Ignorant people are more likely to be fearful people, and fearful people are more likely to hurt the people they are afraid of.”

Equipping the imagination is what Dr. Taylor attempts to do in a course she teaches at Piedmont College entitled “Religions of the World.” The purpose of that course, she noted, is not to decide who is right about God, which some of her students seem to expect it to be, but rather “to get to know the neighbors.” This is now possible because all the major religions of the world are indeed our neighbors. The key experience the course offers is field trips to places of worship in the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist communities in and around Atlanta, all within easy reach of Piedmont College. This engages students in what John Philip Newell describes as the “practice of peregrination” – becoming pilgrims to a new place, something that requires (as he puts it) “leaving the known for the unknown.” This practice, Dr. Taylor hopes, will encourage her students and all of us to leave room in our religious consciousness for “holy envy,” a term introduced by the Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl in 1985 that is also the working title of a book Dr. Taylor is currently writing. Find things in other faiths that you admire and might wish were part of your own. The example she offered from her own experience is the beautiful physicality of the way Muslims worship together in the masjid: toes touching the toes of those on either side, raising hands to the ears, and going down in a perfect wave to the floor, head facing the ground. “I envy this,” she said.

As a Muslim friend suggested to her, the only chance for peace is to “seek a common life together.” She concluded with a brief survey of the ways in which the other Abrahamic faiths make room for Christians (in Jewish teaching, through the Seven Laws of Noah; in Muslim teaching, through the concept of “People of the Book”), wishing that Christians might find ways to exercise that same “faithful generosity” in return–even if that requires doing some new theology for a new age.

The second lecture, “What Would Jesus Do?”, took Dr. Taylor beyond the search for common ground to a celebration of religious diversity and the development of a “theology of difference that has legs.” We must do more than acknowledge religious differences with an eye to merely tolerating them; the next step is to bless “the whole divine array as an expression of the will and pleasure of God.” This begins, she said, with something akin to Thomas Merton’s sudden realization, standing on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky, “that I loved all these people” – total strangers but none of them aliens – “all walking around shining like the sun.” It continues with accepting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s conclusion that religious uniformity is neither desirable nor possible.

Here, bold Jewish leaders have set the example, most notably the Orthodox British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who, insisting on the distinction we must draw between uniqueness and absoluteness, has asserted that “one does not need to be Jewish to know God, to know truth, or to attain salvation.” “I envy that,” said Dr. Taylor. The key, she argued (echoing Sacks), is “the problem of the stranger, the problem of the one who is not like us,” and the solution begins with the core story of Judaism: “Love the stranger because you were once strangers in a foreign land.” (The Torah, she noted, contains one command about loving one’s neighbor, but thirty-six commands to love the stranger, e.g. Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Numbers 15:15.)

The theology of difference requires us to see that “the unity of the creator is expressed in the diversity of the creation.” For Dr. Taylor, speaking as a Christian, the key biblical texts include the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9), which she reads not as a punitive story but “a judgment of God on human sameness.” Diversity is God’s will, it seems to be saying. They also include from the New Testament Jesus’s teaching on the Great Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), which may provide the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” He would love the stranger, as he shows repeatedly in the Gospel narrative, because “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:43). Dr. Taylor concluded by urging us to see human difference as a strength and not a threat.