Holy Envy: A Window in Interfaith Dialogue (sermon)

May 12, 2013

West Cummington Church, West Cummington, MA

Karen G. Johnston

Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry

Let me begin with gratitude.  Thanks to West Cummington – to you all – for inviting me once again to fill your pulpit.  It is always a joy.  Thanks to those from Village Church who have come to swell the pews here today and their ongoing support of my ministry.  Thanks that Steve, the minister here, is recovering well and returning next week, where an even bigger event of gratitude will take place.  Thanks to the my Muslim friends who, via the wonders of Facebook, helped me shape this worship.  And the biggest thanks of all to Imam Enver Osman Kaan, for his partnering  in this interfaith moment, and to his family, Nihaal, Elif, Yakop, and Zehra, for coming along for the long ride from Indian Orchard.  The friendship our two families have developed is dear to me.

Let me get at least one thing so-called straight before I go any further.  This is not about Interfaith Dialogue with a capital “I” and capital “D” though that is how it is typeset in the order of worship.  This window is lowercase “i” and lowercase “d.”  Which is to say, this is a story of an idiosyncratic mind (mine) and a particular friendship.  This is not a primer, this is not authoritative, and it might not even be the way to go.  But it’s the way I’ve gone and we’ve gone, so far.

I first met Enver at orientation at my seminary.  We discovered that we were both enrolled in the seminary’s one required course, “Dialogue in a World of Difference.”  Of course, to fulfill my Masters of Divinity degree, there are many requirements, but this particular course is a requirement of nearly everyone who attends Hartford Seminary.

This Dialogue class was team taught by a Christian and a Jewish professor; other years, they have a team of three primary instructors, sure to include a Muslim professor as well.   We met weekly for three hours for a full semester and often had guest speakers.  It was a big class: nearly 30 people in a room that should have been a bit bigger.  People from the U.S.  People from Korea, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, many from Turkey.  Three Jews, nearly a third Muslim, and many flavors of Christian, largely Congregational, but there was even a brave Pentecostal…plus me.

As a Unitarian Universalist, particularly one that is not Christian, I was insistent that I not be grouped in with the Christians just because my worship style and history smacks of Protestantism.  I do not hold deist beliefs and I cannot front a particular theological doctrine, so I would be no good answering questions as if I were a Christian.   I baffled more than a few; my guess is that most people lumped me in with the Christians or at least as among the People of the Book, as Islam refers to the three Abrahamic faith traditions of itself, Judaism, and Christianity.

Still, I would not allow the professors, whom I held to a higher standard in this regard, to do so.  So I was always correcting them when they made up their multi-religious small groups – so much so that by the end of the semester, it was a point of humor.  Hartford Seminary – my seminary – is amazing when it comes to Christian-Muslim dialogue, they are committed to expanding this to all three Abrahamic traditions and are on their way, but there is much room for growth when it comes to non-deist faiths.

We had Interfaith Engagement Guidelines to help facilitate communication.  I share with you just a few to give you a flavor and perhaps to whet your appetite.

  • Listen with a view of wanting to understand, rather than listening with a view of countering what we hear
  • Ask questions to increase understanding rather than to trip up or confuse
  • Concentrate on others’ words and feelings rather than focusing on the next point we want to make
  • Speak for ourselves from our own understanding and experience rather than speaking based on our assumptions about others’ positions and motives
  • Honor silence rather than using silence to gain advantage

These rules are really helpful for interfaith work, but I know a few committees in non-profit organizations where I have worked who would benefit from them as well.  Not to mention some church committees, too!

In addition to reading and in-class discussion, each of us was to attend a worship service within our own tradition, equipped with a sociologist’s guide so that we could view our own tradition with some helpful distance, perhaps even as someone unfamiliar with the tradition might experience it.  The assignment also included attending a worship service of a tradition not our own.  This was, after all, an interfaith dialogue course.   For the first assignment, I attended worship at a church in Deerfield that co-affiliates with the UCC and the UU.  For the second assignment, I attended Friday Ju’maa prayers at Enver’s mosque in Indian Orchard, where I was treated to the warmest, kindest, most generous hospitality.

In any class, our human minds are lucky to retain one tenth of what is taught.  I know this from my own experience as a student, as well as my work as a trainer and workshop facilitator.  A few gems might have staying power, if we are lucky.  One of the gems I took away from that class was the concept of “holy envy.”

Holy envy comes to us from the late theologian, Krister Stendahl, who taught at Harvard Divinity School and was Church of Sweden Bishop of Stockholm.  He was a mentor to one of our professors.  Stendahl introduced Three Rules of Religious Understanding in 1985 when defending the right of Mormons to build a temple in Stockholm:

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

Now, one could give a sermon solely on these three rules and someday, somewhere, I just might.  But today I just want to spend a moment on that third one.  Holy envy is the ability to find something beautiful and meaningful in the religious other.  It is not built on the deprecation of one’s own, or anyone else’s for that matter, faith tradition.  For instance, it is not “Unitarian Universalism seems to generate more questions than answers; I sure do envy Islam with its clarity and sense of certainty.”

Neither is the first half of a sentence with two clauses that are joined together with the conjunction, “but.”  For example, it is not “I really love the charitable impulse about Christianity, but I can’t stand how the crucifixion focuses so centrally on torture and suffering.”

It is an appreciation of something in another’s religion – perhaps the Jewish tradition of valuing zaftig – curveous – bodies that you wouldn’t mind at all if it was part of your tradition too.   And yes, this is perhaps more cultural than religious, but I’m hoping you are getting my point.  It is a good tool to start when engaging in interfaith dialogue, particularly when engaging under circumstances of tension or hostility; as one deepens in this kind of engagement, it is also a tool that becomes less used or morphs into other, more useful tools.


In that Dialogue class, I announced the celebration taking place at the Buddhist Peace Pagoda in Leverett, marking the anniversary of their founding.  Though I am not associated with the Peace Pagoda, I offered that I would be attending and that I would welcome company from anyone interested.  Enver and his family decided to attend as their first exposure to Buddhism.  It was there that I met his wife and children and he met my husband.

What started as a classroom friendship then took on new facets as a family friendship developed.  Since then, Enver and Nihal have entertained me in their home and we have entertained them in ours.  Enver invited me to take part in an interfaith event at his mosque during the final days of Ramadan.   Part of my ministry is working for immigration justice.  I attended a meeting in Springfield on this subject and invited Enver to also attend.  Though he arrived just as the meeting was ending, he connected with one of the organizers of Just Communities, which led to his – and the Somali children he teaches the Qur’an to on Sundays — taking part in an interfaith worship in Springfield that over 800 people attended.  And here we are, today.  Our friendship, and professional paths, continue to cross and recross.

In the various conversations that Enver and I have had over the course of our friendship, it is clear that we do not agree on everything.  In addition to very different theological understandings, we have sometimes found ourselves talking about history or politics or gender relations and not seeing eye to eye.

I like to think that my faith prepares me for this, at least to some degree, because explicitly as a Unitarian Universalist – and I think you at West Cummington share this value – we find beauty and strength in the very fact that we do not have a shared doctrine or system of beliefs or point of view.  Yet such preparation does not make things necessarily easy or comfortable, particularly when the not seeing eye to eye is actually more like full out contradictory disagreement.

It is in these moments when I find helpful guidance from those who have done this interfaith work more deeply and longer than I have.  One of these people – one of my heroes — is Eboo Patel.  Born in 1975, he grew up in a suburb of Chicago, is an American Ismaili Muslim (Shi’ite) of Indian (Gujurati) descent who co-founded, with a Jewish friend, the Interfaith Youth Core.  His first book, Acts of Faith in 2007, was autobiographical.  Less than a year ago, his second book was published: Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.

Just a week ago (May 5), Patel wrote a piece on the web site Religious Dispatches, responding to a critique of his response after the marathon bombings.  In this one, entitled, “What is Interfaith Cooperation For?” Patel wrote,

I do not think the primary task of interfaith work is to circle religiously diverse wagons more tightly around particular political positions, however strongly I might hold some of those positions. There are already well-established groups who mobilize diverse religious communities for various causes. There is a religiously diverse movement for gay marriage, and one against it; a religiously diverse movement for abortion, and one against it; a religiously diverse movement that supports the Palestinian cause, and a religiously diverse movement that supports Israel.

Of course I would like my political views to win the day at the ballot box, but I am also concerned that different political views (especially those shaped by religious interpretations) can cause deep divisions in American civic life—in our hospitals, preschools, Little Leagues, and so forth. We are seeing signs of this. One of the most important findings in Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace is that perhaps the most polarized areas in American life are around political positions that are connected to religion. Increasingly, people with progressive definitions of “justice” and conservative definitions of “justice” run in separate social, civic and intellectual circles.

Patel continued

I do not believe that interfaith cooperation should contribute to widening these divisions.  Instead, I think interfaith work is about building positive relationships between people whose diverse religious convictions shape their dramatically different politics. I believe that is both an end in itself, and a means to another useful end—expanding civic space, strengthening social cohesion and increasing social capital. How else do you have a thriving diverse democracy unless people who have deep disagreements on some issues are able to work together on other issues?

The moment of interfaith engagement can be joyful, as this morning’s worship reminds us.  It can be an opportunity of exercising spiritual practices of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger, of acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly.

But it can also remind us too vividly of how much distance, how deep the chasms are, between many nations and tribes of humanity.  We religious liberals often like to speak of the many paths leading to the same divine origin or truth.  Though I like to believe this is true, I also know there is truth in the opposite, which Stephen Prothero points to in the title of his compelling book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World.  In the introduction, Prothero tells us

What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point.  And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world.  In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi tells us that life is out of balance.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells us that there is something rotten in Denmark but also in the state of human existence.  Hindus say we are living in the kali yuga, the most degenerate age in cosmic history.  Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering.  Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden: Zion, heaven, and Paradise lie out ahead.

Though we human beings are wired as much for compassion as we are for conquest, for caring for each other as much as for hurting each other, it takes intention.  It takes bold moves against the tide.   Like our call to worship reminds us, even though we “do not utter the same prayers, nor do we even use the same word, if any at all, to speak the name of God,… we are woven together.  We are bound to one another.  We belong to and with each other.”  Let us act on this as if our world, as if our very lives, depended on it.  Because they do.

Amen.  Ameen.  Insh’allah.  Blessed be.


McTigue, Kathleen. “We are Woven Together,” from the collection, For Praying Outloud: Inferfaith Prayers for Public Occasions, edited by L. Annie Foerster, Skinner House Books, 2003.

Patel, Eboo.  “What is Interfaith Cooperation For?” Religious Dispatches, May 3, 2013. http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/7100/what_is_interfaith_cooperation_for_/

Prothero, Stephen. God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, HarperOne: New York, 2010.

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