Hospitality and holy envy

If you haven’t seen it yet, Zach Anner’s “Have a Little Faith” series for Soul Pancake is a delightful, generous, neighborly, and immensely human exploration of religious belief in all its diversity. His video with Mendy Pellin, exploring Hasidic Judaism, is a good introduction to this oddly beautiful series. In a previous video, Anner visited the Islamic Center of Southern California for afternoon prayers.

Anner is a self-professed “religious idiot” who has no religious faith of his own, but his approach in these videos reminds me of Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl and his “Three rules of religious understanding”:

1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.

2) Don’t compare your best to their worst.

3) Leave room for “holy envy.”

“Holy envy” was Stendahl’s term for seeking something to admire and to learn from in the perspective of other religions.

I haven’t heard Zach Anner explicitly citing Stendahl’s rules, but he does a terrific job of showing us what they look like in practice. And in the video below, I think, Mendy Pellin makes it easier for the rest of us to find some room for holy envy. Pellin, his family and his religious community welcome Anner and his questions with joyful, genuine hospitality.

Hospitality is not always evangelistic, but all evangelism is hospitality — welcoming the stranger while also making that stranger want to be welcomed. “Practice hospitality,” the apostle Paul said. It takes practice, because it’s not always as easy as Pellin and Anner make it appear.

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  • Invisible Neutrino

    Hmm. I wonder if Fred purposely brought up “hospitality” because the legend of Sodom and Gomorrah has, he notes, often been distorted because the true fundamental crime being committed within those cities was an utter lack of willingness to treat decently with strangers.

    As opposed to so many people through the centuries using it as a weapon to beat gay men* over the head for their alleged sinfulness in God’s eyes.

    * I specifically use this term because lesbianism often gets a ‘pass’ on theological and male-gazey grounds and for a long time the concept of being one gender biologically and another mentally was completely unheard-of.

  • LL

    Adorable. “Hey! Shalom!”

  • Cathy W

    It makes me sad that there are people who are so convinced of the absolute rightness of their own beliefs (or so afraid of having their beliefs challenged) and so incurious about their fellow humans that in their minds “holy envy” works out to either “doubt” or “error” and is forbidden either way….

  • James M

    “1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.

    2) Don’t compare your best to their worst.

    3) Leave room for “holy envy.””

    ## Perhaps a fourth could be added ?

    4. “Judge a religion or outlook, not by its worst examples, but by its best”: not by the terrorists & fanatics whose actions contradict it, but by the best representatives of it, who are admired as such by its adherents. Christians who commit murder are are acting against their own religion, because it forbids murder – so they are not its best examples. (There is the further issue of whether all homicide constitutes murder; but one can’t cover everything.)

    Applied to atheism, this would mean Christians should avoid condemning it because of mass-murderers like Stalin, and should look instead at people like Henry Sidgwick, a Victorian atheist much admired even by Christians. Applied to Catholicism, this would mean judging it not by the dictators & terrorists who have been Catholics, but by those who have been admired as its exemplars.

    1. This does not mean that dictators, fanatics, criminals & “bad guys” who were or are Catholic (for instance) are unimportant – they are part of the record, and must not be swept under the carpet. But they do not exemplify Catholicism at its very best – so they are not as good a test of what Catholics can be at their best. People can be typical of a creed or outlook, without being its best examples. Behaviour that is bad by the standards of atheists (for example) is not a fair index of the best of atheist behaviour, when there are atheists whose behaviour is so much attractive. Atheism is better represented by atheists who are kind, generous, and forgiving, than Christianity is by Christians who are unkind, selfish, and unforgiving.

    2. Catholicism, tested by its best examples, can by that standard seem obnoxious. So be it. Those, like Christopher Hitchens, who think ill of someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta (& he made clear why) can’t be automatically dismissed as “anti-Catholic”, because they may well be applying Catholic standards more wisely than Catholics do. Not everyone is going to find a St. Francis of Assisi or a St John of the Cross admirable. Such things happen.

    3. Problem – there is no one moral standard shared by everyone; so how can one speak of best or worst behaviour ? Because individuals have standards, even if they are not members of a group (such as a Church) with a common morality. A lot of atheist objection to Christianity can be summed up as a protest against the failure of Christians to live up to the ethical standards which they are thought – rightly or not – to subscribe to by being Christian. This is at least consistent with the possibility (it is not proof) that many atheists object to Christian failings because they too regard them as failings. For atheists to regard gay-bashing (say) as bad, implies a moral standard. Atheists often object to the (mistaken) idea that to be an atheist is to be without morals. It is simply bad history to think that not being Christian must necessarily mean nor having moral standards.