Learning from Other Religious Traditions

Leaving Room for Holy Envy

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Hans Gustafson
Pathways for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , May
     186 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Learning from Other Religious Traditions: Leaving Room for Holy Envy, edited by Hans Gustafson, contains nine academic essays that delve into interreligious learning. Each essay is written by a practitioner of a religious tradition and engages one or more aspects of another’s religious tradition. What unifies the essays is a shared impetus of “holy envy,” a term coined by the late Krister Stendhal. In Stendhal’s own understanding, holy envy is “when we recognize something in another tradition that is beautiful but is not ours, nor should we grab it or claim it … Holy envy rejoices in the beauty of others” (3). The contributors, however, are not strictly bound to Stendhal’s understanding of the term and frequently go beyond it, identifying aspects of other religious traditions that one can learn from and also integrate into one’s own religious tradition. In this sense, most of the essays could be considered works of comparative theology—the practice of learning from another religious tradition to enrich one’s own.

In his introductory essay, Gustafson argues that holy envy is an alternative to Christian apologetics, which Christianity has employed for most of its history, and seeks only to prove Christianity’s superiority over other religious traditions. The other contributors to the volume hold a similar sentiment with their own religious traditions, and suggest an alternative is necessary in our modern world of religious diversity, which is often filled with misconceptions, suspicion, and even hostility. This volume is meant to address a “growing need for exemplars of finding beauty and value in traditions other than our own” (xxv). Indeed, there has been an expanding body of literature over the last few decades that engages in interreligious learning. Recent examples include How To Do Comparative Theology, edited by Francis Clooney and Klaus von StoschDivine Words, Female Voices: Muslima Explorations in Comparative Feminist Theology, by Jerusha Lamptey; and Comparing Faithfully: Insights for Systematic Theological Reflection, edited by Michelle Voss Roberts. Among these volumes, Learning from Other Religious Traditions is a welcome contribution, accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike.

Together, the nine essays bring a variety of religious traditions into dialogue: Christianity (Catholic and Protestant), Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism (Western and Zen Mahayana), Mormonism, and Ásatrú Heathenism (a modern form of Norse polytheism). One of the volume’s unique strengths is that religious traditions that do not normally appear in academic works on interreligious learning (e.g., Sikhism, Mormonism, and Ásatrú Heathenism) appear alongside those that typically are included. Additionally, the volume includes engagement between non-Christian traditions (Ásatrú-Hindu and Buddhist-Hindu dialogue) and interreligious learning of Christianity from non-Christian traditions.

Of course, no single volume could possibly contain examples from the full breadth of religious traditions, as Gustafson admits. Nevertheless, the volume strives to be as comprehensive as possible. Gustafson even includes brief reflections on Chinese Judaism and Daoism in his own introductory essay. Yet, despite the volume’s diversity, there is a heavy emphasis on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Six out of the nine essays center on either Catholic-Hindu, Ásatrú-Hindu, Hindu-Buddhist, or Christian-Buddhist dialogue. A more diverse or balanced representation would have helped toward accomplishing the goals of the volume.

Even so, the volume is notable for including non-textual comparisons, as academic interreligious learning often centers solely on sacred texts. Learning from Other Religious Traditions frequently goes beyond textual study to include home rituals, prayer and individual practices, and corporate devotional rituals.

Furthermore, there is a wealth of insight throughout the essays that will certainly generate inspiration toward a holy envy. Among the most intriguing and provocative contributions are those of Benjamin Sax and Karl Seigfried. Sax proposes a way in which Jews might learn from Jesus (a controversial move in Judaism), not by turning to the historical Jewishness of Jesus, as one might expect, but by drawing on an unlikely source: Friedrich Nietzsche. Meanwhile, Seigfried makes a strong case not only for why Ásatrú Heathenism should be included in interreligious conversations, but also why scholars have been gravely mistaken in using Christianity as the primary interlocutor with Norse texts like Völuspá. Far more illuminating, he argues, are Hindu texts, such as the Mahabharata.

One lingering question at the end of the volume concerns what precise theology of religion may be required for holy envy to manifest. Theology of religion can be defined as a religious tradition’s (often a priori) evaluation of all other traditions. In his forward to the volume, Paul Knitter states that one needs a theology of religion that opens one up to other traditions for holy envy to exist. Knitter goes on to argue that, in Stendhal’s understanding, holy envy necessitates a pluralist position, or a belief that no religious tradition has definitive access to or possession of the full truth. In effect, truth is a non-zero-sum game. Yet many of the other contributors in the volume seem to adopt an inclusivist position, a belief that even though one’s religious tradition has definitive access to or possession of the essential elements of truth, one’s tradition can still learn from others. This creates a tension that is not explicitly acknowledged or addressed in the volume. A concluding essay reflecting on this tension would have been helpful. Moreover,  a critical reexamination of Stendhal’s concept of holy envy, exploring questions such as how these nine essays describe the appearance of holy envy across multiple traditions in the 21st century, would have been beneficial. As an emotion, envy presumes superiority, but not in the way the possessor of the emotion would desire or expect. There is something disturbing and real at stake, demanding one’s attention. How one chooses to respond can lead to animosity, or something more holy. The essays in this volume offer a latent proposal for how envy might arise and take the latter path.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Massena is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Theology at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hans Gustafson is Director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where he teaches courses in the areas of (inter)religious studies and theology.


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