In high school, I remember being delighted when a close friend invited me to her graduation from Hebrew School, which she called confirmation. Each teenager had to get up in front of the congregation and give a small talk about why Judaism meant something to them, and why they wanted to continue practicing their Jewish faith. It was so inspiring to hear about the ways Judaism influenced their lives, encouraging them to go on service trips, to help those struggling in their communities, to pray regularly, and to have hope in the midst of difficult times. As a Catholic who had made her Confirmation two years earlier, I felt a pang of sadness in my heart, not for the fact that I was Catholic – I still love my faith- but namely because I was so in awe at the way these Jewish teenagers had an opportunity to reflect on what this rite of passage meant to them, something I never had a chance to do when I received Confirmation. For many Catholics, Confirmation has come to have little meaning, since it is often forced upon thirteen and fourteen year olds who have almost no knowledge of the teachings of the Catholic Church by their parents or grandparents. It was not until I went to a Catholic university as an eighteen year old, that I finally found a group of people my age with whom I could share my faith journey.
At a conference entitled “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: Women and Gender in Religions,” held at Nazareth College at the beginning of the month, I finally found a name for that experience I had over a decade ago. Rabbi Rachel Sabath- Halachmi, in her keynote speech, spoke of “holy envy.” Coined by Krister Stendahl, “holy envy,” is the recognition of elements in another religious tradition that you admire so much that you wish they were reflected, or emphasized more, in your own.
I think most of us approach the word “envy” with some fear and trepidation. Many of us probably have memories of envy breaking up, or getting in the way of, a relationship. Yet, envy need not be a destructive force. Feeling holy envy does not mean the other tradition is better than your own, or that you want to adopt every aspect of the other tradition. It is simply a reminder that we live in a religiously pluralist world, and naturally, those who worship and believe differently than we do have something important to share with us.
In a religiously pluralist world in which certain religious doctrines are in conflict with one another (i.e- is Jesus God incarnate or a prophet? is there a personal God who reveals Herself to us or is there not?), people often fear that we may not be able to find any common ground or relate to one another easily. When you are in a group of scholars and add academic interests to the mix, the topics we study are so diverse that we may wonder if we have anything worthwhile to say to one another.
On the second day of the conference, I had the honor and privilege of presenting in a session with Amy Milligan, a professor of Judaic Studies and Women’s Studies Old Dominion University. My presentation dealt a comparison of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests and female prayer leaders in Islam breaking the “rules” of their traditions. We both admitted to each other before we gave our presentations that we thought our topics would have little in common. Yet, we could have not been more wrong. During Amy’s presentation, I once again found myself with the feeling of “holy envy,” especially viewing the pictures of Jewish women and their communities involved in Women’s Marches across the United States shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump. These women found amazing ways to bring their faith to the struggle for gender equality. When it came time for questions, the audience directed most of their inquiries to both of us, and we had a very fruitful discussion.
Certainly, I think it is dangerous to reduce all religions to being the same. They are not nor should they be. Our differences enable us to approach one another with a sense of curiosity that provokes awe and develops friendships. Differences are only a cause of strife if we force others to adopt our own doctrinal beliefs. I am Catholic and believe in a triune God of which Jesus is God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, but I know that many of my friends and colleagues from other religions do not share this belief. Nevertheless, all those who were present at the conference share a fundamental conviction that has the ability to transform this world. Namely, we all believe that God loves women, that God desires their flourishing and the flourishing of all human beings, and that God motivates us to change the status quo. We all can look at the injustices and violence committed against women in this world and say, “no, that’s not the way things should be!”
In today’s political climate, faith can be a taboo word in the political realm, especially when it comes to non-Christian religions. In the United States, some politicians hold the position that Islam is incompatible with a genuine concern for women’s rights, or the well-being of one’s country. Yet, Muslims too believe in a God that desires the flourishing of women and all human beings, and use the Quran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad to say no to violence and discrimination. I am always filled with holy envy when I encounter the Quran’s depiction of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Quran not only explicitly names Mary as an example of faith for both men and women, it also depicts her as having experienced the pangs of childbirth that all women go through. As a Catholic, these verses brought me to tears, since the Catholic tradition (except for recent works by contemporary theologians like Elizabeth Johnson) has not affirmed that a birth can be miraculous and holy, as well as bloody and painful.
Another one of the most poignant experiences at this conference was visiting the Susan B. Anthony House with other attendees. It was beautiful to watch men and women of all different faiths, veiled and unveiled, admiring the amazing accomplishments of women suffragists, all deeply convinced that God does not see men and women as unequal.
I am a Catholic. I believe that Jesus is the cause of my salvation and I could never imagine letting go of that belief. It comes from my experience of Jesus as the source of light and guidance in my life. I also cannot imagine leaving the Catholic Church, which, imperfect earthly institution that it is, is my home. But I also cannot imagine being a Catholic without my Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Protestant, and non-affiliated friends. Jesus lived in a particular time and culture. He did not leave us a blueprint for how to handle every possible problem or situation. Catholics do not have all the answers. It is God’s will that we learn from one another.
I will end this post with a Quranic verse mentioned by Professor Asma Afsaruddin in her keynote talk.
If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute.
A major thanks to Dr. Muhammad Shafiq and the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue at Nazareth College for organizing this incredible conference, to the presenters and speakers who taught me so much and gave me so many new ideas, and to all the attendees of whom I had the pleasure of meeting. May our paths cross again in the near future.