by Barbara Brown Taylor
When I began teaching world religions at Piedmont College twenty years ago, it did not take long to realize that the students and I would have to escape the classroom sooner instead of later. The maps and timelines in our textbook led us to believe that world religions were religions that existed elsewhere in the world. Yet most of them were alive and well just seventy-five miles south of us in Atlanta. All we had to do was get in the college van and go, looking between and beyond the tall steeples of churches to see temples, synagogues, masjids, and gurdwaras.
Hinduism posed the biggest challenge, not only for the students but also for me. Their problem was trying to get their heads around an ancient tradition that had no single founder, path, text, or creed. My problem was trying to decide where to take them to see Sanatana Dharma in action today. Should I take them to the classic Hindu Temple of Atlanta south of the city or to the newer BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir north of town? Should I take them to the Hare Krishna Temple near Emory University or one of the two temples on Jimmy Carter Boulevard?
After I found the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, I never took them anywhere else.
There was no grand façade to dazzle the students, no busy crowd inside to intimidate them. From the moment Swami Yogeshananda welcomed us inside the small house that served as both worship space and monastery (this was before the chapel was built), tight shoulders came down as our shoes came off. Some of our tension was warranted. It is seldom easy to enter someone else’s sacred space. But there was more to it than that.
So many of the students came from evangelical Christian backgrounds that they expected to be evangelized in turn. Few had seen the byword on the sign outside: “Truth is One; people give it various names.” Fewer still knew what to make of the ceramic medallions on the walls of the worship space. There was one with a cross on it that looked familiar. Another was embossed with a Star of David, and a third with a star inside a crescent moon. But what were they to make of the eight-spoke steering wheel, the yin-yang symbol, and the double-edged sword? We had not yet studied Buddhism, Taoism, or Sikhism in class.
The biggest surprise, for most of them, was to see a picture of Jesus over the altar along with pictures of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and the Buddha. What was he doing there? When Swami Yogeshananda explained that Vedanta teaches reverence for all religions–and that no one in the room needed to be saved because none of us was lost–any tension that remained gave way to curiosity. What about sin and evil? What about heaven and hell? How did being born again differ from reincarnation, and who forgave you when your karma became too much to bear? The Swami answered these questions (and more) as if he had not been asked them a thousand times before. Then he led us in into his kitchen for tea and cookies.
The students were quiet on the van ride home. This is always a disappointment to me since I am an inveterate eavesdropper, but when I read their field trip reports later I discovered what they had been thinking. “I love the notion that karma is not measured or judged by a higher power,” one of them wrote. “You are responsible for your own actions. Whether I decide to believe in a religion or not, I will keep this moral code of self-accountability with me.” Another said, “I wish Christians would focus on being more compassionate instead of feeling like they have to correct everyone else.” A third student was preoccupied with the contours of monastic life, which she had never seen up close before. “I really think the Swami needs a cat,” she wrote in her paper.
From my perspective, all of these insights and more were the fruits of “holy envy”—a phrase used by the Swedish bishop and scholar Krister Stendahl to describe one of the three rules of religious understanding. First, he said, if you want to understand another religion, you should ask its adherents and not its critics. Second, don’t compare your best to their worst. Third, leave room for holy envy. No one is sure what he meant by that third rule, but anyone who engages neighbors of many faiths soon finds out. Holy envy allows you to see desirable things in other spiritual traditions without abandoning your own. It encourages you to make your best even better by seeing the best in someone else.
The best thing about taking students to the Vedanta Center was the opportunity to engage—and to be engaged by–a living teacher whose teaching made instinctive sense to them. All of a sudden, students had reason to use the vocabulary they had learned from their textbooks. They heard what “Om” sounds like when it is carried on human breath. They listened to someone pray in a different tongue, who could speak of the sacred in a way they recognized. They lowered their guard in the presence of someone who took their faith as seriously as he took his own. In a phrase familiar to Christians, they met “the word made flesh”—the word of the Vedas, in this case—and that made all the difference.
After Swami Yogeshananda retired, they met Swami Brahmavidyananda. After Swami Brahmavidyananda retired, they met Brother Shankara, whom I have counted as teacher and friend for more than eight years now. His ability to meet college students where they are is a great testament to the truth he teaches. He knows how to prop open the window of human consciousness with just the right metaphor. He softens the hearts of his listeners by opening his to them. He makes dumb questions sound smart and gives deceptively simple answers to the really hard ones. I have never heard him condescend.
Long after students have forgotten whether the Rig Veda was written before or after the Bhagavad Gita; when they can no longer remember what makes Advaita Vedanta different from Dvaita, or jnana yoga from bhakti, they will remember what they learned at the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, which is chiefly this: they were welcomed there, just as they were, to discover how much more there was within them (and among them) than they had ever imagined. Religion was not as tight a box as they had been led to believe. It was—and is—the Eternal Quest, which they too are invited to join.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an American Episcopal priest, professor, author and theologian and is one of the United States’ best known preachers. In 2014, TIME magazine placed her in its annual TIME 100 list of most influential people in the world. She can be reached through her publisher, HARPERONE.