From an early age, Barbara Brown Taylor knew that she wanted to live a spiritual life.
"It started early in my life," she says, "a hunger for the beyond, for the transcendent, for the light within the light, the glow within the grass, the sparkle within the water."
Taylor went on to become an ordained Episcopal priest, working as rector of a church. But she later left her job with the church and began teaching the world's religions at Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga.
As part of the course, Taylor invited members of different faiths into the classroom to share their beliefs. She also brought her students, who were mostly Christian, to mosques, synagogues and Buddhist and Hindu temples in an effort to help them better understand how various groups worship.
"I hoped it would be a way to convince [the students] that they could find things they liked about other traditions, and it would not make them disloyal to their own," Taylor says. "And it worked most of the time."
Taylor writes about how teaching the different religions changed her students' understanding of faith — as well as her own — in her new memoir, Holy Envy. She says the name of the book comes from her own experiences with different faiths.
"I would walk in and immediately find something to fall in love with," she says. "The beauty of the space, the tenor of the discourse, the teacher for the evening, the hospitality we were offered. I ended up being just bowled over by the beauty and kindness that I encountered every place I went. "
On going from being an Episcopalian minister to a college professor
It was a huge culture shock to go from being full-time parish minister to full-time college teacher. Everything changed. What I wore in the morning, where I parked my car, what was on the nameplate on my door. ... I had much greater authority in a classroom than I ever had in a church, and I think it's because I gave grades. So the contract was different. ...
I couldn't run on my assumptions or stereotypes — positive or negative — of other traditions. It was time to get down to the textbook, and to really learn more historically, politically, theologically, about the traditions I was teaching, because all of a sudden I was responsible. I held myself to the Golden Rule, which was 'teach these other traditions in the way I wish they would teach mine.' In other words, with respect, with some degree of honor about the best and not just the worst.
On whether she was concerned about shaking the faith of her students
I think that education does that — whatever the subject matter. So yes, I did feel as if in the field of religion I was in the business of making misfits, better educated, more thoughtful misfits, who would never fit quite the same way in their faith communities, their families. Then I started talking to colleagues in other fields and they said, 'Yeah, that's what we do at college, is people grow and change and don't fit where they used to.' So I embraced that as part of my job.
On taking students to mosques, synagogues and Buddhist and Hindu temples for class
It only took me about six weeks into my first class to realize that teaching religion from a textbook was like teaching people to cook from a cookbook. You just had to get into the kitchen somehow had to get your hands on the utensils and mix things up. So very quickly it became apparent to me we needed to get out of the house and go visit, which had so many advantages to it. ...
I can't speak for all of [the students], but to be the guest and not the host was vital to learning more about the world's traditions. ... We had people come to class and sit in front of the class in orange robes and lead us in meditation, but that was nothing compared to going to visit places that we entered and joined a community of people who were already there practicing a tradition we knew nothing of. Their hospitality over and over again ended up being for students, the memorable, surprising thing that changed them.
On being a "perfect stranger" when visiting places of worship for the class — and how that differs from being a tourist
I wanted to be a perfect stranger, which seemed different to me than a tourist, because I wasn't buying postcards or collecting souvenirs. Though, I was wide awake at the newness around me. I like to think of myself as a pilgrim ... traveling and visiting and not always knowing what's up ahead. But it catapulted me into a wide awake state of awareness that was like nothing else.
On why she stopped teaching the world religions class
To aim to teach any great living world faith in four class sessions, which is often how it's done, in 15 weeks began to seem to me like a kind of reductionism that was doing as much harm as good. Now, I'll challenge my own statement there I think it did more good than harm. Yet students could come out having only substituted positive stereotypes for negative ones, and there was no time for instance, to go into the relationship between religion, politics, economics, foreign policy, culture and all of those seem vital to me. You can't talk about religion isolated from any of those other things. So it just began to seem so reductionistic to me and I was getting old, and it was time to let a new young person have at it.
On why she still follows the Christian way, having studied world religions
If God is revealed in many ways why follow the Christian way? At my age, because it's the way I know best. I have learned the stories. I know how to look up Hebrew and Greek. I have practiced this tradition long enough to know how many ways it can go south, and to become somewhat wiser about my own ego, needs and theological questions. To switch ships now for me would be to go back to first grade and I don't have time to do that. ... But, in terms of why choose one? I can't honestly tell you that it's because I've compared and chosen. That's not true. This is the tradition I found myself in, and it's the one I know. ... It's the horse I'm on, Terry!
On if she still goes to a particular church as a parishioner
I don't have a regular place of worship which has helped me realize that even in the best Christian language, the church is not one physical place at the corner of two streets. The church is a communion of people around the world, in different walks of life, and on different continents who share teachings about what makes life meaningful, and what God wills for our relationships with each other.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Barbara Brown Taylor, was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1983, nine years after the church authorized the ordination of women. After serving as an associate minister at a large urban church in Atlanta, she found what she thought she was looking for serving as the rector of a small church in Georgia in the foothills of the Appalachians. But five years later, she left to become a professor of religion nearby at Piedmont College, an independent, church-related, four-year liberal arts institution where she taught the world's religions. Most of the students hadn't had much, if any, exposure to religions other than their own.
The first time I spoke with Taylor was in 2006 after the publication of her memoir about being a priest and why she left her position as rector. Now she's written a new memoir about how exposure to the world's religions affected her students and the impact it had on her own faith. It's called "Holy Envy: Finding God In The Faith Of Others." In the middle of writing the book, she retired from teaching religion. But it left her with many questions, including what does it mean to be a person of faith in a world of many faiths?
Barbara Brown Taylor, welcome back to FRESH AIR. When you're teaching the religions of the world with an open mind, then you're not saying that one religion is better or truer than the others. One of your students said to you when he first signed up your class, if you're really a Christian, then are you going to help us see what's wrong with these other religions? What was your reaction to that?
BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR: First I had to remember I was the teacher, and he was the student, because I got riled up about that because I've worked so hard to to learn the jewels of the world's traditions, and that's what I wanted to present. But then I remembered I was the teacher, and he was the student. And I said something that I hope allowed him a gracious way to stay in the class or leave it.
GROSS: Which was?
TAYLOR: Well, that it would increase his religious literacy, and he'd find himself more comfortable anywhere he was in the world, whatever he chose to do for a living. But he ended up dropping the class.
GROSS: Were you concerned about shaking the faith of your students by exposing them to other ways of thinking?
TAYLOR: I think that education does that whatever the subject matter. So yes, I did feel as if, in the field of religion, I was in the business of making misfits - better-educated, more thoughtful misfits - who would never fit quite the same way in their faith communities, their families. Then I started talking to colleagues in other fields. And they said, yeah, that's what we do at college, is people grow and change and don't fit where they used to. So I embraced that as part of my job.
GROSS: Give us an example of a typical question that your students asked, a question that you got many times over the course of the years that you taught.
TAYLOR: Those questions changed through the years that I taught. In the beginning, the most common questions were, how do these faiths view Jesus? Why do these faiths say things contrary to the Bible? And it took a while to explain that these faiths did not hold themselves to the Bible or to Christian faith in Jesus. So in the beginning, there was a lot of sort of Christian apologetics.
But as the years went on, and students began to know people of many faith traditions, and none, in the high schools from which they'd come, the questions took on a quality of genuine curiosity a lot more. What are they doing over there? What does that statue mean? Why is the face on that deity blue? So genuine curiosity began to take over more in the later years of my teaching.
GROSS: You're an ordained Episcopal priest. For years, you were the rector of a small church in a small community in Georgia. So what impact did it have on you and on your faith to not only expose your students to the religions of the world, but to deeply immerse yourself in them?
TAYLOR: What's the cliche? Those who can't, teach, or something like that.
TAYLOR: (Laughter) But it was a huge culture shock to go from being full-time parish minister to full-time college teacher. Everything changed - what I wore in the morning, where I parked my car, what was on the nameplate on my door. So everything changed.
GROSS: The level of respect you got?
TAYLOR: The level of respect actually increased, but we can talk about that later.
GROSS: Really? Wow.
TAYLOR: Very, very odd. I had much greater authority in a classroom than I ever had in a church. And I think it's because I gave grades, so the contract is different (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) You didn't do that when you were the rector of a church? (Laughter).
TAYLOR: No, but it would have been probably helpful. So (laughter)...
TAYLOR: But (laughter) to get directly to your question, I couldn't run on my assumptions or stereotypes, positive or negative, of other traditions. It was time to get down to the textbook and to really learn more historically, politically, theologically about the traditions I was teaching because, all of a sudden, I was responsible. And I held myself to the Golden Rule, which was teach these other traditions in the way I wished they would teach mine - in other words, with respect, with some degree of honor about the best and not just the worst.
GROSS: So one of things that happened to you when you were teaching the religions of the world is you came down with a case of god envy (laughter).
GROSS: Could - explain what you mean by god envy.
TAYLOR: I at least experienced holy envy, which was every tradition that I visited, either in the textbook, but far more importantly, in person, as students and I piled in the college van and drove 75 miles to Atlanta and visited all kinds of communities, I would walk in and immediately find something to fall in love with - the beauty of the space, the tenor of the discourse, the teacher for the evening, the hospitality we were offered. So I ended up being just bowled over by the beauty and kindness that I encountered every place I went.
GROSS: And you found things to envy, to appreciate (laughter) in the religions that you studied and that you taught. So let's talk for a moment about Buddhism. You write that you take greater refuge in the Buddhist concept of impermanence than in the Christian assurance of eternal life. Would you elaborate on that for us?
TAYLOR: I will. And isn't it interesting how many friends I have who are Christian and are Buddhist practitioners at some level or another? So I will very quickly tell you, I am no expert. But with beginner's mind, to take even the central teachings of Buddhism is to learn that things change. And if I love the way things are going today, they'll change. If I hate the way things are going today, they'll change.
Something about that matched my life much better than the idea of an upward trajectory of increasing perfection that would one day, by the grace of God, you know, land me in some eternal place that I could visualize. I don't know why the ladder wasn't, isn't attractive to me because it certainly is to lots of other people. But the Buddhist view of my existence matched my sense of my own existence. So those teachings that the Buddha offered for verification by practitioners, I could verify them.
GROSS: You know how you were talking about how you got more respect as a teacher than as a priest in a church because you gave grades (laughter)...
GROSS: ...In the classroom? You know, the idea of eternal life in heaven is kind of like the ultimate report card because heaven or hell depends on how you're graded in a way, you know, depends on whether you've sinned and whether - you know, the extent to which you've changed your life and accepted God and done the right thing and everything else. It's the ultimate report card in a way.
TAYLOR: That's brilliant, Terry. I think you just explained why mainline churches are decreasing in attendance (laughter) now is the grading of heaven and hell. I mean, I think, for better, the threat of eternal punishment or the promise of eternal reward is not filling churches that I know best. So that's a wonderful parallel that I'll have to think more about, that the fear and promise may be what keeps people very attentive.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Brown Taylor. She is an ordained Episcopal priest who was in parish ministry for 15 years. She was rector of a small church in Georgia in the Piedmonts for over five years. But she left that to do something else, which is to teach the world's religions at Piedmont College. And her new book is about how teaching the world's religions affected her students, but it's also a memoir about how it affected her and her faith. It's called "Holy Envy: Finding God In The Faith Of Others." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Brown Taylor, and she's an ordained Episcopal priest who left her work as the rector of a church to teach the world's religions at Piedmont College. Her first book was about leaving the church and her decision to do that in order to teach. Her new book is about teaching. It's about teaching the world's religions and how teaching the world's religions changed her students and changed her and her own understanding of her own faith. And the book is called "Holy Envy: Finding God In The Faith Of Others."
So we were talking about things that you found very attractive in other religions when you were teaching religions of the world and studying those religions yourself. I want to ask you about Judaism, which you found some beautiful things in, as well. One of the things that you found beautiful was the Shema, a Hebrew prayer. Would you quote that for us?
TAYLOR: Yes. It comes from the Book of Deuteronomy. And it is, "hear, O Israel, the Lord your God. The Lord is One," shema being the Hebrew for hear. And I was attracted to that because, again, in my tradition, prayer was more about talking to God, asking God for things. And to flip it and to begin by wanting to hear just seemed a wonderful thing to me.
GROSS: What other things about Judaism did you find interesting? Or - that sounds so weird, doesn't it? What are some of the interesting things about Judaism? But there are certain things...
TAYLOR: (Laughter) Compelling.
GROSS: Compelling - that is a better word. Thank you for that.
GROSS: Yes, compelling.
TAYLOR: I found extremely compelling the teaching that belief matters far less than practice; that Torah is a book of life - of how to live, how to behave towards the neighbor, the stranger; how to worship; how to make offerings; how to live a life and not about what to believe. I come from a tradition that has a very long Nicene Creed to define what we believe. And to come into central Jewish practice where the Shema is just a few verses long and has largely to do with hearing - hearing that God is one - seemed to me a marvelous thing. How I lived was more important than what I believed or how I would articulate my theories about the divine.
GROSS: And another thing you mentioned that you found compelling was the idea of welcoming the stranger.
TAYLOR: Truly. That was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who first pointed out to me Torah contains 39 commands to love the stranger in some form or another and only one to love the neighbor. That sent me back to read all over again.
GROSS: To read what?
TAYLOR: (Laughter) Torah.
TAYLOR: To read the commandments. Again, when I first began studying Judaism - and this was before I was teaching world religions. But to learn that, in comparison with the Ten Commandments - of which there are two sets in Torah - but to learn that there were more than the 10 that Christians honored, that there were 613, set me off in search of the other 603.
And quite a few had to do with the resident alien, with the widow, the orphan, leaving food in the field for the poor to gather, being sure that you pay laborers their wages before the sun goes down, not taking somebody's cloak in barter or in payment unless you returned it every night for someone to sleep under. The remarkable care for the marginal in Torah had never jumped out at me like it did when I found the other 603 commandments.
GROSS: One of the things that you did when teaching the world's religions was take your students to mosques, to Buddhist temples, to Hindu temples, to synagogues. Why did you want to do that?
TAYLOR: It only took me about six weeks into my first class to realize that teaching religion from a textbook was like teaching people to cook from a cookbook. You just had to get into the kitchen somehow, had to get your hands on the utensils and mix things up. So very quickly, it became apparent to me we needed to get out of the house and go visit, which had so many advantages to it. We had to learn how to become what I called perfect strangers, how to behave and how to act and where not to step. And it put us in a one-down position that gave us tremendous humility. I can't speak for all of them, but to be the guest and not the host was vital to learning more about the world's traditions.
And we could only go to a few places. But to invite a class visitor - you know, we had people come to class and sit in front of the class in orange robes and lead us in meditation, but that was nothing compared to going to visit places that we entered and joined a community of people who were already there practicing a tradition we knew nothing of. And their hospitality, over and over again, ended up being, for students, the memorable thing that changed them.
GROSS: You know, when I've gone to places of worship that aren't my own for, you know, for a funeral or a celebration, you don't know what you're supposed to do. Like, should you act as if you're a member of that religion and stand when they stand and pray when they pray and kneel when they kneel? Or should you act like you're part of the audience? Like, you're - you know...
GROSS: ...An empathetic member of the audience and observe? It's a little bit confusing. What did you advise your students about that?
TAYLOR: First of all, you're talking about a different kind of thing. And when you go to a funeral or a wedding or some kind of birth ceremony, it is difficult to decide what's the polite thing to do. But we went to students, which meant, first of all, we only visited places that made that part of their mission - was to welcome people like us. And they were ready to give us the etiquette of the day. So we only went places that were expecting us and instructed us to begin with.
But for instance, a big point of decision would come if we went to Friday prayers at a masjid and 400 people would stand up to do their communal prayer at the end. We quickly got out of the prayer line and went over to the sides but were invited to remain in the room and watch that prayer happen. But a few students didn't get the cue fast enough and ended up in the prayer line trying to do what the people left and right of them were doing, and they had stories to tell when they got home.
GROSS: (Laughter). You have a list of some of the personal questions that came up for you when you were studying and teaching the world's religions. And here's one of them. If God is revealed in many ways, why follow the Christian way? How have you been answering that for yourself?
TAYLOR: The first thing I've had to do, which is difficult not only for me but other people, is to admit - own up to how much of my religious choice or identity has to do with where I was born and when and what I was surrounded by. So when students would study Buddhism for four hours of class time and say - well, now, I know why I'm Christian - I want to say, no, wait. Wait; wait. You've had a lot more exposure to your own tradition than you have gotten to any of the others.
But it's quite disarming to realize how much depends on the cultures around us in which we're born. And now with the advent of Internet, students are exposed to many, many more teachings than they ever were before. So it's a time of wonderful exploration and great confusion about deity.
GROSS: Well, I'm going to ask the question again that you pose in the book. If God is revealed in many ways, why follow the Christian way? I mean, you're following the Christian way.
TAYLOR: If God is revealed in many ways, why follow the Christian way? At my age, because it's the way I know best. I have learned the stories. I know how to look up Hebrew and Greek. I have practiced this tradition long enough to know how many ways it can go south and to become somewhat wiser about my own ego needs and theological questions. To switch ships now, for me, would be to go back to first grade, and I don't have time to do that. So the wisdom I've accrued in my tradition is too valuable to me to let go.
The wisdom I've accrued in my tradition also, if I look at it in a particular way, gives me bridges to learn more about and appreciate more about other people who have invested similar amounts of time in their traditions. But in terms of why choose one, I can't honestly tell you that it's because I've compared and chosen. That's not true. This is the tradition I found myself in.
TAYLOR: And it's the one I know. It's the horse I'm on, Terry (laughter).
GROSS: No, I get it. But also, if the question is, if God has revealed in many ways, why follow the Christian way? - the answer could also be - well, why not?
GROSS: Do you know what I mean? Like, if it's revealed - if God is revealed in different ways, why not choose this way? I mean, why not?
TAYLOR: Let's just - why didn't you give me that answer before?
GROSS: But here's another question you ask. Is Christian faith primarily about being Christian, or is it about becoming truly human? And I want you to analyze that question. Tell us what that question means.
TAYLOR: That question's a wonderful measure of where I've been in my life because when I first came to Christian tradition in my teens, it was all about becoming Christian. And now, in my late 60s, it's all about becoming more truly human. I think - the Dalai Lama just came out with a tweet lately. I can't believe...
TAYLOR: ...He tweets and I don't. But it was a tweet about, you know, the world's traditions. What they do have in common is teachings about compassion and ways to handle the destructive emotions. And I just thought that was a wonderful way to look at what the traditions do have in common. But for me, if a religion does not teach us, lead us, help us practice being more fully human - and I mean that is the best thing - with one another and recognizing that in other people, then why bother?
GROSS: My guest is Barbara Brown Taylor, author of the new memoir "Holy Envy: Finding God In The Faith Of Others." After a break, we'll talk more about how her own faith has changed over the years. And John Powers will review a three-part crime series that was a big hit in England, where it first aired, that just started streaming in the U.S. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA SHAKES SONG, "GIMME ALL YOUR LOVE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Barbara Brown Taylor, who was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1983, nine years after the church authorized the ordination of women. After serving as an associate minister at a large urban church in Atlanta, she became the rector of a small church in Georgia in the foothills of the Appalachians. Five years later, she left to become a professor of religion nearby at Piedmont College, an independent, church-related, four-year liberal arts institution, where she taught the religions of the world. Her new memoir, "Holy Envy," is about how exposing her students to Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism affected her understanding of her own faith.
One of the things that you came to challenge by exposing yourself to not only other religions but people who were of other faiths was to challenge some of the language you had used in your own sermons. You got a letter from a psychiatrist who is Jewish who had been reading some of your sermons and liked them but was critical of what he called your language of condemnation. What did he mean, and how did that affect you?
TAYLOR: The phrase he used was - I was sorry to notice that you're still using the language of contempt.
GROSS: Contempt, that's what it was, yes.
TAYLOR: And he used that like a phrase he knew well. And it meant that I was unconsciously, with no awareness, parroting phrases that came straight to me out of my sacred scriptures about the burden of the law or the righteousness of the Pharisees. And he was the one who really scalded my tongue on those phrases so that I could never use them again - didn't want to use them again. And whether he meant to or not, he challenged whole days like Good Friday, which are about the crucifixion of Jesus and are full of wretched language about the killers of Jesus.
GROSS: So how has that affected your language.
TAYLOR: I don't have an easy time going to Good Friday services anymore. I will do everything from talking about the religious leaders of Jesus' day instead of scribes and Pharisees, to adding in some historical detail to a sermon that's not in Scripture like, how did the Romans get off so easy here, you know, when Jerusalem's going to be destroyed by Roman generals, and Jews and Christians will be banished from the city, not once, but twice? How come Jews come in for so much harsh language, and the Romans get off without a single blaming phrase?
So I could add in things in the sermons about the context in which some of this hurtful language was written. But it is in deeply. I was shocked last year to learn that the FBI crime statistics on religiously motivated hate crimes were way in the 50s for anti-Jewish hate crimes. Anti-Muslim hate crimes were half that. So the embedded language in Christian Scripture - I cannot help but think that the toll that has taken over millennia is beyond reckoning.
GROSS: So Good Friday is coming up soon. So you don't go to Good Friday services anymore.
TAYLOR: I haven't for a long time.
GROSS: Do you want to elaborate that, or did you say what you wanted to say about that?
TAYLOR: I can't go to those services anymore imagining Jewish friends sitting next to me because they are deeply Christian services, you know, mourning and grieving the death of Jesus. But often, they include dramatic readings from one of the Gospels that include language too painful to sit through. I may give it another try one day, but I haven't been in a long time.
GROSS: So the first time you were on our show in August 2006, as I've mentioned before, we talked about why you left your work as the rector of a church to become a professor. And because you were using the word God so much...
GROSS: ...In that interview, I asked you what you meant when you use the word God. You know, like, what is your understanding of God, which is a horrible question to ask somebody 'cause you could probably talk for days, weeks or years about that, as opposed to, you know, a concise answer in an interview. Nevertheless, I asked that, and I thought your answer was actually really beautiful. So what I'd like to do is play you what you said in 2006 and see how that compares to what you mean now when you say the word God. Is that OK?
TAYLOR: Well, yes.
TAYLOR: If you must.
GROSS: You hesitated.
TAYLOR: Well, I will say that question gave me brain freeze like no question ever and on the air. But yes, go ahead.
GROSS: OK. So this is my guest, Barbara Brown Taylor, in 2006.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TAYLOR: When I use the word God, I am so aware I'm using a code word and that everyone who hears that word and probably everyone who uses it imagines something different, imagines a different posture in front of that being, that presence. I suppose my own image, my own idea of God, as imperfect and as evolving as it is, right now would be the glue that hooks everything together, the consciousness that moves between all living things.
When I use the word God, I do not envision a large person with two arms, two legs and nose and two eyes. I envision, instead, some presence so beyond my being, a presence that both knows the stars by name and knows me by name, as well, that is not here to be useful to me, that is not here to give me things as much as to ask me to give myself away for love. I, of course, get a great deal of what I mean by God from the tradition in which I stand - the Christian tradition, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. But when I say I believe in God, I mean I trust. I trust in the goodness of life, of being. I trust that beyond all reason. I trust that with my life. And that's what I mean by God.
GROSS: OK. So that was Barbara Brown Taylor in 2006. How does that sound to you now? Would you stand by what you said, or has your concept of God changed since 2006?
TAYLOR: I've just had the common and unfortunate experience of realizing I was smarter then.
TAYLOR: That wasn't bad.
GROSS: I'm telling you. I thought it was beautiful.
TAYLOR: That wasn't bad. What I like about hearing that 13-year-old answer is how hard it was for me to find language, and I would say that has only increased. I recently learned that Saint John of the Cross - one of his names for God was Nada - nothing - Nada. And by that, he didn't mean null set, but he meant the place where language runs out, the place where concept runs out. So I suppose now, if I've changed at all, it's in the tradition of the great mystics appreciating the ways in which language will never get there. I think it was Soren Kierkegaard who said, if you think you understand it, it is not God.
GROSS: And I think that's why in the Jewish tradition, you don't spell out the word God because God is too vast and mysterious and unnamable to be embodied in language.
TAYLOR: Yes, and I had an imam tell me - and he may have been speaking only for himself - that's the reason the crescent moon is a symbol for Islam - is that that's the most any human can know of the divine. And I love that answer. It's like, again, the dash - G-D.
GROSS: So I need to take a break here. So let's do that, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Brown Taylor. She is an ordained Episcopal priest who was the rector of a church for several years, but she left that to become a professor of the world's religions. And her new book about what she learned and what her students learned through studying the world's religions is called "Holy Envy: Finding God In The Faith Of Others." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET'S "EXCERTO NO. 1")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Brown Taylor. When she was first on FRESH AIR, it was after she'd written a memoir about leaving her work as the rector of a small church in the foothills of the Appalachians in Georgia. And she is an ordained Episcopal priest. She left the church - she left being a practicing priest to become a professor of the world's religions at Piedmont College. And her new book is about her teaching the world's religions affected her students and how it changed her. And that book is called "Holy Envy: Finding God In The Faith Of Others."
So you know, it's interesting. You've dedicated your life to practicing and studying religion. Your parents believed in higher education, not a higher power. They discouraged you from pursuing religion. So was it an act of rebellion (laughter) when you joined a church?
TAYLOR: I think it was. And I think, like any child, if your parents point you away from something, that becomes the most interesting thing. But I also had a kind of - I wouldn't have called it a God hunger then. But in a way, they freed me. It was wonderful because none of the threats of the early youth ministers could get to me at all. If I misbehaved and they threatened to call my parents, I said, go ahead. My parents think I'm crazy to be here anyhow. So it was very freeing in terms of that.
But I - whatever it was, it started early in my life of - a hunger for the beyond, for the transcendent, for the the light within the light, the glow within the grass, the sparkle within the water. And I think that went from a kind of nature mysticism to looking for other ways in which that was articulated by people. So I was built for it, I guess.
GROSS: Your early years growing up - your early childhood was in Tuscaloosa, Ala. What religion were you exposed to as a young child?
TAYLOR: I was exposed, in Tuscaloosa, to the Episcopal Church because I was confirmation age - 12, 13. And my best friend's father was the rector of that church. And he was very brave during the civil rights movement when the University of Alabama was integrating for the first time. So that got my attention as a young person, an adolescent who was already familiar with social justice but saw it being acted out in that church.
Before that, my parents had taken me to a Methodist church for a year. That was in Dublin, Ohio. So I also had a wonderful experience there. But after that, I went on and visited quite a number of places with friends, ending up in the Baptist Church, the Southern Baptist version, when I was 16 where I was baptized by immersion.
GROSS: So having been exposed first to the Episcopal Church - and now you're an ordained Episcopal priest - what led you to become a Southern Baptist?
TAYLOR: Terry, his name was Jack (ph), all right?
TAYLOR: I think it would be - the truth would be that I was exposed to the Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, after that the Unitarians and then the Presbyterians and then interfaith campus ministry. And then I went to seminary and all of a sudden met professors, scholars - you know, people who began to talk to me about religion in a whole different way, and many of them were Episcopalians. So I followed them into that church and have found it a wonderful home for
me. The Southern Baptist piece had very much to do with being a sophomore in high school and traveling with a crowd of friends who were Southern Baptists and who, in their own ways, were very worried about my future with God. So they pressured me pretty hard. And it definitely matters that my boyfriend was one of them. So he got drafted to go to Vietnam and asked me if I would become baptized before he shipped out. And there was no way to say no to that.
GROSS: That's really interesting that you got baptized because of your boyfriend. So - but what was the religious significance of that for you? Was that - did it have a deep meaning for you when you were baptized? Or were you doing it for him?
TAYLOR: It did not have deep meaning. And I think I'm not the only person who approaches a religious ceremony like that and is disappointed that the heavens did not part and nothing - no voice came. But I do think I did it for the wrong reasons - unless loving him was a right reason and setting his mind at ease somehow. But I did not make that decision for the right reasons unless loving him was a right reason because it did set his mind at ease. But I was out of that church within the year for having behaved badly. I brought hippies to church, and that turned out not to be good. So...
GROSS: (Laughter) So did he survive the war, and did your relationship survive?
TAYLOR: The relationship did not survive, but I was happy to learn he had survived. And I believe he became an Army chaplain. So he went on and was one of the lucky ones who came home. But no, I think things between us petered out about the time I left the Baptist church.
GROSS: So you're still an Episcopal priest, although you no longer are the rector of a church and haven't been for many years. When we spoke in 2006, you said you still wore your collar on Sundays when you go to church. Do you still wear it on Sundays?
TAYLOR: It doesn't fit anymore, no.
TAYLOR: And they're made out of plastic. Anyone who's tried to wear one...
GROSS: They're plastic?
TAYLOR: ...Knows they're really uncomfortable. Yeah, unless you're...
GROSS: I always thought it was, like, a really, like, starched cotton - like, a stiff cotton.
TAYLOR: Well, if you're very, very aristocratic, then yes, you would wear a linen collar and have someone who would starch it for you. But I was never one of those. So - no, I like to think now that I'm incognito. I'm undercover or something. I have a wonderful - I've had a series of wonderful bishops who've appreciated what I do well enough to let me have a very long, long whatever - line of permission to be in churches, in a variety of churches, in and out of a lot of Christianities (ph) without yanking me back.
GROSS: Do you have a regular place of worship now?
TAYLOR: I don't have a regular place of worship, which has helped me realize that even in the best Christian language, the church is not one physical place at the corner of two streets. The church is a communion of people around the world in different walks of life on different continents who share teachings about what makes life meaningful and what God wills for our relationships with each other. But I am not a regular participant who walks through the doors of a particular church on Sunday.
GROSS: Why not?
TAYLOR: There is only one church in the county where I live, and it's the church I served for 5 1/2 years. And though I have good relationships with people still in that congregation whom I knew - and I hope the clergy who have served that church would say I have had good relationships with them. Yet when I walk through those doors, it's like going back into a part of my life that doesn't fit me anymore. And it would be like getting back into clothes that have become too small, like the clergy collar has. So - and there are still people there who - I yank them back. I'm a kind of time machine. Now, if I showed up more often, that wouldn't happen. But all I can tell you is I go from time to time, and most of the time I don't.
GROSS: OK. You know, I have to say it's been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much.
TAYLOR: You're so wonderful to ask me these good questions. I had all my answers preferred to different questions, so...
GROSS: Isn't it great that you won't be graded (laughter)?
TAYLOR: Yes, yes, yes. Oh, I'm going to think a lot about heaven and hell being the A and the F.
GROSS: Barbara Brown Taylor is the author of the new memoir "Holy Envy: Finding God In The Faith Of Others." After a break, John Powers will review a new three-part British crime series that John says is different from nearly all of today's crime shows. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET AND RON SODERSTROM SONG, "A.M.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.