Book Note: David J. Chalmers’ “Reality +”

David J. Chalmers, Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

I’ve been intrigued by some form of simulation theory since I saw The Matrix a couple of decades ago. When I introduce Hinduism to my students, I connect simulation theory to the concept of “Brahman,” the name of existence itself, of which all of us are part. For many Indian philosophers, everything and everyone is Brahman since everything participates in “existence”. When Brahman is personified, questions can be asked as to why there is difference if all of us are ultimately the same thing: lila and maya. Lila is “divine play” where Brahman “decides” to experience endless realities as a way of “enjoying” all the different perspectives that all of us create. Maya is the negative illusion that we’re individuals. Our stress and anxiety come from the false separation of “I” from everything else. So, lila and maya are two sides of the same coin. In order to enjoy our experience of reality, and for Brahman to have that experience, we must believe we are individuals, unique and distinct from the whole of reality in some way. But that sense of self, that illusion, also leads to our own entrapment in samsara, cycling through almost endless lives, until we can realize our oneness with Brahman, releasing ourselves from the illusion of distinction, and merging back into the whole. This is called “moksha”.

Hinduism is said to be “monistic” as in there isn’t one “god” like the popular forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but just one “thing” or one “reality”. Again, that reality is Brahman.

Why do I connect this to simulation theory? Well, simulation theory asks whether or not we are in a simulation and if we could know if we were in one. I push my students to consider the possibility that we are in a simulation, or that we are emanations of Brahman, and then ask them whether discovering that we are simulated or emanated would change how they view themselves and their lives. Since many of my students have been raised in homes where Christianity is practiced, or where Christianity is the unspoken influence, they tend to think of themselves as creations distinct from a Creator—creations with a unique, eternal soul that will never lose its distinction. For these students, the concept of Brahman, and simulation theory, can be unnerving. For students who tend to be more naturalistic, who already see themselves as material beings emerging from a material world to which their bodies will return when they die, neither Brahman nor simulation theory causes much unease.

David J. Chalmers, one of the foremost philosophers in the area of the study of mind, has written a wonderful book titled Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problem of Philosophy that deals a lot with simulation theory. When I’ve told people about the book, some of them say something like, “I can’t imagine reading a whole book on that topic.” But it isn’t about simulation theory only, just like when I teach my students about simulation theory, I’m really trying to help them conceptualize Indian concepts of Brahman. The book uses simulation theory as a gateway to many of the fascinating “problems of philosophy,” as the subtitle suggests. Chalmers has chapters on epistemology, ontology, and ethics that all use virtual worlds as thought experiments. When we ask whether we can know if we’re in a simulation, we’re jumping into a conversation about how we can know what we know or if we can really know anything (and what we mean by the word “know”). When we consider simulation theory, we’re asking what is “real”. It physics the only “real” world. Is our perceptions “real” or completely constructed. And when we consider what it would be like to see sentient life emerge in a simulation—whether we are the created or the creator—it forces us to consider our own ethical paradigms around how we treat other minds.

For this reason, the book can serve not only as a niche study of virtual worlds and how we should consider them—whether that be wearing an Oculus, enjoying whatever Meta is creating, or participating in Second Life—but it can serve as a general introduction to many of the problems that philosophers have been addressing and will continue to address. Also, the illustrations found throughout the book are excellent which makes the book all that more effective at teaching difficult philosophical concepts.

Book Note: “Philosophy’s Big Questions” edited by Steven M Emmanuel

Philosophy’s Big Questions: Comparing Buddhist and Western Approaches edited by Steven M. Emmanuel (Columbia University Press, 2021).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

Philosophy’s Big Questions: Comparing Buddhists and Western Approaches, edited by Steven M. Emmanuel, contains eight essays that each do what the title suggests: examine one of philosophy’s big questions through the lens of “Western” philosophy in dialogue with Buddhist philosophy. These essays cover topics ranging from epistemology (e.g. Chapter 2: “What Is Knowledge? Knowledge in the Context of Buddhist Thought” by Douglas Duckworth) to ontology (Chapter 3: “Does Reality Have a Ground: Madhyamaka and Nonfoundationalism” by Jan Westerhoff) to ethics (e.g. Chapter 7: “How Much Is Enough? Greed, Prosperity, and the Economic Problem of Happiness: A Comparative Perspective” by Emmanuel; Chapter 8: “What Do We Owe Future Generations? Compassion and Future Generations: A Buddhist Contribution to an Ethics of Global Interdependence” by Peter D. Hershock). There’s a mix of theoretical-leaning essays (e.g. Chapter 4: “Can Consciousness Be Explained? Buddhist Idealism and the ‘Hard Problem’ in Philosophy of Mind” by Dan Arnold) with practical-leaning ones (e.g. Chapter 1: “How Should We Live? Happiness, Human Flourishing, and the Good Human Life” by Stephen J. Laumakis).

The reader will encounter the conflict of similarity and dissimilarity. By this I mean, that sometimes “Western” philosophy seems worlds away from what Buddhist thinkers have suggested—for example, Hershock’s discussion of the “Bodhissatva” figure in Mahayana Buddhism— while at other times it seems like they arrived at similar places from different directions—for example, Laumakis’ discussion that also cites ancient Greek philosophers or Arnold’s essay that engages the work of philosophers like David J. Chalmers while speaking of the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” (anatta) in a way that resonates with view of Daniel Dennett and others that our “consciousness” is just an illusion.

On a side note: one thing I really appreciate about this book is that it answers the call of those like Bryan Van Norden who have challenged philosophers to look beyond the Western canon. This volume definitely accomplishes that objective!

Book Note: Carolyn Chen’s “Work Pray Code”

Carolyn Chen, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in the Silicon Valley (Princeton University Press, 2022).

(Amazon; Bookshop)

In Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in the Silicon Valley, Carolyn Chen asks us (p. 196), “What happens to society when its members worship work?” Then she responds, “Silicon Valley offers us an answer.” The answer is, on the one hand, enlightening, and on the other hand, terrifying. It’s enlightening because it provides us with much-needed insight into the spirituality of the so-called “Nones” (i.e. those who answer the question “With what religion do you affiliate?” with the answer “none”). When people hear “Nones” they may think of people with a religious void, or people who claim to be “spiritual-but-not-religious” (which is a claim founded on a misplaced concreteness regarding the word “religion”). But few “Nones” are religiously apathetic; they place the energies that others may devote to going to a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc., to something else but with similar vigor and intent.

While Chen doesn’t provide a working definition of “religion” until Appendix A, her implied definition is clear and aligns with her stated one in the appendix. In short, Chen admits (p. 213), “To find ‘religion’ in Silicon Valley, I realized that I’d have to reexamine my assumptions about what is ‘secular’ and what is ‘religious’.” To do this, she says that there “are two ways of studying religion empirically in a secular age” which she claims are through the clearly “religious” “religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and so on” which doesn’t work well for finding religion in the Silicon Valley, and through the less clear idea of “the sacred” which are “the institutions, ideas, practices, spaces and things a community sets aside as special and worthy of worship. Something is sacred because of the power it has over the members of the community.”

This reminds me a bit of Paul Tillich’s definition of “religion” in Theology of Culture (pp. 7-8), “Religion, in the most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern. And ultimate concern is manifest in all creative functions of the human spirit.” For a Christian, ultimate concern may be a relationship with their god through the person of Jesus resulting in the award of eternal life, and for a Buddhist, ultimate concern may be to reach nirvana, extinguishing the pain of suffering and dissatisfaction. For a Google employee, ultimate concern may be the creativity inherit in their job and the mission of the corporation of which they’re a part.

And this is where it’s terrifying. We should use the word “cult” cautiously because as we know it’s a pejorative that’s often used to dismiss or demonize a religious movement that seems fringe or unfamiliar. As it’s said, “cult plus time equals religion”. Most religious movements are seen as fringe and unfamiliar, dismissed and demonized, in their earlier state but come to receive some level of “respectability” over time. But I do think that when most of us use the word “cult” casually, we’re expressing discomfort not only with the difference we’re observing but the difference plus the level of demand. We’re used to Catholic priests and Buddhist bhikkus giving their lives but outside of these very old, well-established institutions, when a religious movement begins to demand all of someone’s life, especially when it results in that person becoming divorced from the world outside of their religious community, popular discourse refers to this level of control as “cultish” or “cult-like” and the group/community/organization as a “cult”

As you read Chen’s account of how much tech employees pour of their lives into their place of work, and how much it shuts them off from the outside world, you’ll begin to understand why some people see the religious devotion of Silicon Valley workers to their companies as, at least, “cult-like”.

In the Introduction, “How Work is Replacing Religion”, and Chapter 1: “Losing My Religion…and Finding It at Work”, the reader comes to see how and why work has begun to fill the hole where religion used to reside in the hearts of many people. In Chapter 2: “Corporate Maternalism: Nurturing Body and Soul” and Chapter 3: “Managing Souls: The Spiritual Cultivation of Human Capital” we receive insight into how the tech industry sees their employees, in a competitive “knowledge economy”, as investments. They can’t burn out their workers when these are some of the best and brightest minds coming from the top universities and colleges, so they must invest in them, and keep them healthy and happy. Pardon the analogy but it’s like this: you won’t get as much from a cow if you work it to death, so for as much extraction as you may require, there better be an investment. Similarly, free snacks and drinks, yoga lessons, on-site gyms, child care, etc., help corporations keep their employees happy and satisfied, and in return, with every need met on location, it allows for the employee to put in more hours for the corporation.

Now, if this seems dehumanizing, remember what the introduction and first chapter establish: work has become one of the ultimate forms of fulfillment in our society. And as I read these sections, I was reminded of something I’ve seen stated by people who survived the tragedies of The Peoples’ Temple, the Branch Davidians of Waco, and Heaven’s Gate: those were some of the most excited, fulfilling, best days of their lives, even if it all came crashing down on them. And many survivors of these movements, while recognizing something went wrong, never could get the same high as when they were on a mission to save the world. Silicon Valley is full of companies that encourage their workers to see themselves as world-changers, so 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week, isn’t a sacrifice.

Chapter 4: “The Dharma according to Google” and Chapter 5: “Killing the Buddha” examine what happens when workplaces import religious practices while often stripping them of their religious affiliations. This process is what Chen calls, “the secular diffusion of religion” (p. 16). We’ve seen it: yoga has hardly anything to do with Hindu thought and practice in the minds of most Americans who practice it; mindfulness has little to do with the Buddhist meditative practices from which it derives. So, what happens when a Zen teacher is contracted by a corporation to come and teach mindfulness while leaving their Buddhism at the door? Cognitive dissonance is often what happens. For many “spiritual coaches” in the Bay Area, there’s the pragmatics of needing to afford to live in one of the most expensive places in the world, so if they have to offer “Diet Buddhism” so be it. For others, there’s a sense that some Buddhism, even if unnamed, does more for the world than no Buddhism. And for others, it was too much, and some tech workers, meditation teachers, etc., decided that their religion was being corrupted by its marriage to big tech and then decided to choose their religion over big tech.

Chapter 5: “Killing the Buddha” may be worth the price of the book (though, you benefit from the rest of the book when it comes to understanding this)! Chen takes from the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” (which, while interpreted diversely, has come to mean for some that you should kill the “religious trapping in the practice of Buddhist meditation” [p. 155]), and shows that this can be very problematic when we observe how it’s applied. Chen discusses five types of Buddism that emerge when corporations want the perks of Buddhist practice without all the things that may be considered “religious” sounding and looking. Those types of Buddhism are “Hidden Buddhism” as in the practices are Buddhist, but out of fear of violating Title VII, must be done without reference to their origins. Whitened Buddhism is Buddhism not only without its religiosity but “It erases the ‘ethnic’ and ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans in favor of the thinking and experience of White Westerners.” (p. 162) Scientific Buddhism is when CEOs or HR can be sold the benefits of Buddhism by appealing to the scientific studies that may indicate that meditation/mindfulness has certain psychological and physical benefits to it that will benefit the company (remember the themes of chapters 2 and 3). Bottom-Line Buddhism is directly connected to Scientific Buddhism: if workers are serene, peaceful, and free from anxiety, this will bring down lost hours, health-care costs, etc. So, Bottom-Line Buddhism is sold to corporations on the promise that it’ll increase productivity, reduce costs, and ultimately result in profit. Finally, On-the-Go Buddhism is just as it sounds: a religion that may ask you to spend time being in meditation is squeezed into a fast-food version of itself that’s suitable for busy tech workers.

The Conclusion: “Techtopia: Privatized Wholeness and Public Brokenness” examines the fallout of this sort of work-as-religion worldview, ranging from work “colonizing” the time of its employees to the displacement and economic turmoil the tech industry has caused in the Bay Area. Now, as I’ve spent much more time on the negative impact of work-as-religion, I want to be clear that this book isn’t a hit job. It’s quite fair to tech industry at many points. Chen embedded herself in that world for five years, so she got to know the people, the companies, and their culture. And as a former resident of San Francisco myself, I can resonate with the high of Bay Area life. It’s not just the West Coast of the United States but it often feels like you’re on the edge of the future, and I didn’t even work any jobs even remotely related to tech. So, while we may be rightly concerned with people giving their everything to work so that they’re no longer part of a church, or a PTA or HOA, or local politics, etc., let’s remember that tech jobs do provide purpose and mission, and as many religious institutions have failed to be able to show people their “purpose-driven life” (to borrow from Rick Warren’s 2000s approach to American Christianity), the tech industry has been able to do it. As religion becomes less relevant in the lives of many Americans, new forms of “ultimate concern” are created and offered to seekers everywhere.

Book Note: James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (reprt. 2012; Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). (Amazon; Bookshop)

I didn’t intend to finish this book during the weekend when we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Actually, I started reading it a few months ago and I thought I’d finish it during the winter break but as I’m prone to do, I got distracted when a new wave of books arrived in my mailbox. But I made my way back to it and now I’ve read it.

I think one of the things white Americans need to know is this: MLK isn’t the only Black American voice with which we should be familiar. Also, the parts of MLK’s legacy with which most of us are familiar are often sanitized for us. But if we really care to hear the voice of our Black neighbor, we need to read more of King’s corpus, and we need to hear voices other than those of King.

Whenever I read a book by a Black author I’m hesitant to say much because (1) it can come across as virtue signaling and (2) it places me back in the central role as a speaker rather than a listener. So, I’ll say little. Instead, I’ll say: go read this book if you want to hear the thoughts of one of America’s legendary and insightful Black authors. What I will say is more of a sharing; a sharing of a few of the statements that really hit me between the eyes:

  1. In the “Preface to the 1984 Edition,” Baldwin writes of white Americans that when our legends are attacked, “as is happening now—all over the globe which has never been and never will be White—my countrymen become childishly vindictive and unutterably dangerous.” (p. xxii). If we’ve seen anything over the past half-decade, it’s this. Threatened by pluralism, white Americans have become scary. Baldwin reminds us a paragraph later: “The people who think of themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant.”
  2. An important experience I had while reading this book is recognizing how many Black Americans feel white Americans see them but also hearing how many Black Americans feel about white America. (Note: I’m torn between capitalizing “White” since in a sense, to keep it lower-case seems to universalize whiteness when whites are just one demographic among many in the United States while simultaneously sensing that one of the things white supremacy has done to white people is prevent us from actually creating a constructive culture of which we can be proud because much of our identity-making has been a project that attempt to lift ourselves up at the expense of people of color, making me wonder is the lower-case, denoting a lack of unified culture built around any real solidarity, is more appropriate. I don’t know.) Baldwin speaks of himself as a “kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa.” (p. 6 from “Autobiographical Notes”) He comments that much of what is celebrating in this country, “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the strong of Paris, the cathedral at Chartes, and to the Empire State Building” are “not really my creations; they did not contain my history”. (pp. 6-7) Baldwin observes that to be Black in America means that one must “hide from himself as the price of his public progress”. (p. 9) And as he writes in “Many Thousands Gone,” for the Black American, “the past was taken from him whether he would or no,” (p. 30) as he is “adopts the vestures of his adopted land” (p. 30).
  3. People like me need to realize that our whiteness—not pigmentation but the cultural weight of whiteness that we white people have created—can become threatening even if that’s not our intent because so many people who look like us have used their whiteness to dehumanize our Black neighbor. In the essay, “Notes on a Native Son,” Baldwin remembers a time when he basically zoned out when he was refused service by a white female waitress and that this dehumanizing act “made me colder and more murderous than ever” (p. 98) Even as the woman fearfully and hesitantly enforced segregation, her feelings about her participation in this act were secondary to what the act was doing to Baldwin. Baldwin didn’t do anything he ended up regretting but what he felt arise in him scared him. On several other occassions, he comments on these feelings. For example, in “Stranger in the Village,” he says, “…since white men represent in the black man’s world so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naïveté, or else to make it cost him dear.” In the next sentence (p. 170), he states, “The black man insists, by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white mean cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being.”
  4. Baldwin’s comments in his “Autobiographical Notes” (p. 9), “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This was made evident in narrative form in his essays on his time in Paris, where for all the perks of experiencing French culture, he still felt away from home. Many white Americans have the attitude that “if you don’t like it, leave,” which is silly, at best. True love doesn’t mean lying to yourself or cheerleading everything that something or someone you love does. You can love a child or a parent and rebuke them. In fact, you must if you truly love them. We white Americans need to learn that the anger we hear from some Black voices is often more disappointment than anything. Black Americans love this country as much as white Americans do, maybe more when you look at how many white Americans would happily cast aside democracy in order to establish a ethno-state or a theocracy.

I said too much. Read the book.

Book Note: David Janzen’s “Trauma and the Failure of History”

David Janzen, Trauma and the Failure of History: Kings, Lamentations, and the Destructions of Jerusalem (Semeia 94; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

If much of the Jewish Tanakh/Christian Old Testament can be understood as apologetic for the god of Judah after the events of the Babylonian Exile, then what catches my attention are the voices of dissent. For example, the Book of Proverbs with its emphasis on wisdom can be interpreted rigidly, almost mathematically, to read that those who do well in life must be the ones who lived by the guidance of divine wisdom while those who struggle must be the fools. Then comes along the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes and overthrows that whole ideology by pointing out that it’s too simple/simplistic.

The Deuteronomistic impulse is to justify the divinity while blaming the humans for what happened during the Exile; it’s to warn how the people shouldn’t behave if they want to avoid a repeat. That impulse is found in the Book of Kings where the blame for the Exile sits on the shoulders of the people—and as Janzen observes, specifically the people, not the royalty of the House of David. But the Book of Lamentations, which sometimes tries to fall in line and echo the rationale found in the Kings, but often simply can’t, is evidence of a dissenting voice.

In Trauma and the Failure of History, Janzen presents “history” as a narrative about past events that attempts to explain them and provide a true presentation and interpretation. The Book of Kings is such a work. It narrates past events leading to the Exile as a way of explaining “how did we get here”.

But trauma can’t make simple sense of what’s been experienced. There’s no metanarrative that comforts. Trauma doesn’t explain the past because in a sense the past is present, the effects linger. For Janzen, this is what we find in the Book of Lamentations. This texts fails to explain what happened to Jerusalem because it simply grieves what happened to Jerusalem.

I highly recommend this book, especially for those who are interested in the internal conversation found in the Hebrew Bible around topics related to theodicy. It reminds me a little of a couple other books I’ve mentioned on this blog:

Recently read: Dochuk’s “Anointed with Oil”

Darren Dochuk, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (Basic Books, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Darren Dochuk‘s Anointed with Oil mixes together numerous strands of American history: the separation of “liberal” and “conservative” Christians; the rise of the gas and oil industry; the emergence of powerful, capitalism-advocating families like the Rockefellers; the motivation for American foreign interests, especially in the Middle East; and much more. If you are interested in American history broadly and/or American religious history, specifically, you’ll want to read this book. It’s so extensive, that it’s difficult to review in a succinct blog. What I’ll say is this: the oil industry has had more to do with the modern shape of the United States, and the United States’ within world affairs, than you could’ve imagined, and American Christians—liberal and conservative—were highly influential.

Dochuk’s work intersects everything from the origins of many of the energy giants you know—BP, Chevron, Exxon, Texaco, Shell—to how the pursuit of “black gold” was shaped by “wildcat” theology, premillennial dispensationalism, modern ecumenism and interfaith efforts, and more. In fact, one thing many American Christians shared for a few generations was the belief that oil was a gift of God, though there were detractors who observed of and warned of environmental devastation from the beginning.

Rather than write more about the book, let me recommend episode 56 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast where Dochuk was interviewed John Fea. This was the interview that inspired me to buy and read the book. It’s one I highly recommend.

Recently read: Steinberg’s “Age of Opportunity”

Laurence Steinberg, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence (First Mariner Books, 2015). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Laurence Steinberg is a psychologist who happens to be one of the foremost experts on adolescence (see his fuller credentials here). His book, Age of Opportunity, applies the insights gathered by psychologists into what is going on in the minds and bodies of emerging adults.

The first few chapters are an informative look at why adolescence is so important for the development of humans (probably the second most important developmental stage) and what’s happening in the human brain at this time. If you’re a parent or an educator, I guarantee these insights will help you become more patient with your evolving children/students.

Chapter 3, “The Longest Decade,” is important because it explains why “adolescence” can actually last about two decades. In other words, this stage of brain and body development isn’t over at 18 or 21…not even close. Think late 20s!

Chapter 4, “Protecting Adolescents from Themselves,” drives home the point that adolescents are “risk-takers,” far more than those of us who are post-adolescence. This comes with many risks and possibilities that parents/educators need to consider.

Maybe the most unique argument offered by Steinberg is that one of the most important things that must be developed in adolescences in “self-regulation”. This is the central thesis of chapter 6 but remains key to the rest of the book’s argument with gives advice to parents in chapter 7 and educators in chapter 8.

If you’re wondering what’s going on in the brain of teens and most twenty-somethings, this book is worth your time. As I’ve mentioned, it’s beneficial to parents and educators. And I think it’ll make you a more patient person!

Recently read: Bond’s “The First Biography of Jesus”

Helen Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

I received my copy of this book from the journal Review and Expositor, so I’m saving my full review for them, but I’ll say here what I said on the website “Goodreads”:

This is about as good a case as I’ve read for reading Mark as a form of the ancient Greco-Roman genre of bioi. But it’s more than that, as Bond shows the practical implications of reading Mark this way. For example, one big takeaway would be the centrality of the main character in a biography and how secondary characters exist only to reflect upon the primary one. In other words, the reader should not see themselves in Peter or Judas or Pilate…but instead, compare themselves only to the moral/ethical example of Jesus. This approach could alter everything from scholarly to liturgical to devotional readings of Mark.

Recently read: Brown Taylor’s “Holy Envy”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, (Harper One, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others is a beautiful reflection from someone who has spent many years educating students in comparative religion while wrestling with implications of what she has learned from the process. As a Christian, Taylor admits that studying and teaching other religions can become a challenge to your confidence in your own tradition. She writes about how teaching a course on comparative religion has been enriching but also:

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 208

Yet Brown Taylor has decided that the answer is not to abandon her own tradition of Christianity. She comments:

In the first place, no one can speak all the religious languages in the world, and there is no spiritual Esperanto. None of us can speak “language.” We have to speak a language before we can learn anyone else’s, and the carefulness with which we speak our own can make us better listeners to others. In the second place, my religious language is quite excellent at speaking of what it means to be authentically human.

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 193.

Brown Taylor balances honest epistemology with authentic belief. On the one hand, there’s no need to try to create a brand new blend of religions. The blend creates something new—it doesn’t necessarily honor other religions. On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal to admit doubt about your own tradition. Christianity often has been a religion that demands triumphalism. Brown Taylor provides a path that allows the Christian to be Christian without posturing triumphalistically against other religions.

This is where the main theme of her book should be highlighted. Holy envy is a concept Brown Taylor derived from the great scholar of religion, Krister Stendahl, who had three rules for religious understanding (quoted here from p. 65):

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

Holy envy is when you learn to love and respect the traditions of other religions but in a way that doesn’t try to create a colonialist museum out of them (an analogy she uses on p. 70). You may go to another well when the well of your tradition seems dry (p. 5) but that’s not the same as collecting and objectifying the religious beliefs and practices of others.

Brown Taylor sees her role as a Christian educating others about the world’s various religions as her “Christian duty”. She says (p. 25), “I believe it is the neighborly thing to do, the Christlike thing to do.” But it’s also nourishing for the self. It’s a way to see things from a new perspective and learn new ways of speaking about the world and our humanity in it.

As an educator who teaches students comparative religion from as objective and fair a place as possible, but for someone who also identifies as Christian, I found great joy in reading this book. It’s worth your time if you’ve ever wondered how being a Christian should shape your approach to/posture toward religious others. It’s a book of wisdom written in humility that’s worth your time.