“I know boundaried communities that produce good fruit. But when I look at tribalism, which is excluding and saying anybody not within this boundary is going to hell, the fruits of that aren’t lovely. They aren’t nourishing. I’d rather be a pantheist.”
It started with a simple internet search and ended with a raw and uplifting conversation about God.
A few months back, I was trawling the internet for interesting and open-minded spiritual thinkers. I Googled a man I truly admire, Richard Rohr, and looked at the “People Also Search For” tab. There she was: Barbara Brown Taylor. The name was vaguely familiar, and I clicked through to learn more.
Episcopal priest? Okay, not familiar with that tradition, but I’ll read up on it. Best-selling author of numerous books on faith and spirituality? She’ll definitely have a lot to say. Lauded by Time Magazine as one of the most influential people in the world (2014) and voted one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world by Baylor University (1996)? Impressive.
But what really grabbed me was Taylor’s book: Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. It was a memoir about her time teaching world religions at Piedmont College. It’s about Taylor’s journey teaching her mainly Christian students about other faiths, taking them on field trips to places of worship, and how these experiences radically changed her worldview. By “envying” other spiritual practices and being moved by other expressions of faith, it pushed Taylor to a deeper, more open-minded relationship with God. These experiences resonated with my own and signified a rich spiritual journey.
How Taylor ended up teaching world religions in the first place further piqued my interest. Prior to the classroom, Taylor was riding high as a darling of the Christian world. She entered the ministry in the 1980s and spent nine years at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Eventually, she decided to branch out and lead her own congregation. She chose a tiny church called Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia. City population: around 1,200; church capacity: 80.
It was here the attention started to mount. Word got out that she was a powerful speaker, and people flocked to the church. The buzz brought media attention, awards, and best-of lists. Taylor, who originally wanted to be a writer — “You’re looking at a failed poet,” she tells me — also began to write about her faith and spirituality, and audiences ate it up. The combined mediums made her a spiritual celebrity. But the fame had its major downsides. It was zapping Taylor of her soul. The heart of what compelled her to do any of this in the first place was withering. So she decided to walk away and start fresh teaching at college. She documented the whole process in her book Leaving Church.
All in all, the Barbara Brown Taylor story hit all the right notes. It was a journey of courage, of spiritual evolution, and a guidebook for how to utilize your gifts and calling while also knowing when to walk away before becoming jaded. I was compelled to reach out and learn more. I had high hopes for the conversation, and it didn’t disappoint.
Today, Taylor is semi-retired. She no longer teaches and preaches relatively infrequently. She spends much of her time on her 165 acre property in rural Georgia. There is much I WANNA KNOW from one of American Christianity’s wisest writers and orators. I caught up with Barbara Brown Taylor, via Zoom, from her home in Georgia.
From her fluid spirituality, to the problems of tribalism, to mystical experiences, to rejecting spiritual fame, to how teaching world religions changed her worldview, we cover it all.
I want to start by discussing spiritual identity. Your spiritual journey has been fluid in many ways, it seems. You’ve called yourself a “spiritual contrarian” in the past. Today, how would you define your spirituality?
I like that you to give me permission to define it today, because today is about all I can keep track of. A fluid identity suits me fine. I was trying to think of how to phrase it in terms of the Iron Age, the Ice Age, and all those ages we go through. But I was a teenage seeker not raised in churches. So adolescent rebellion took the form of seeking God and being discouraged by my parents from doing that. And so I went to church with a lot of people and was baptized in the Baptist Church by immersion and then found out there were other kinds of Christian churches.
Then I went into an interdenominational phase and then I went to seminary and realized if I wanted any future in the church, I needed to pick a flavor, I needed to pick a denomination. That would not be necessary now. So I found the Episcopal Church after a lot of wandering and found it a great place for me because it had a broad theological way. There was a book of common prayer in the pew, not a book of common belief or common confession or, you know, this is where we stake out our turf. So I’ve been happy in that tradition for a long time. Though when I left parish ministry for college teaching, there was a big shift and we can talk about that later. But I went out of the answer business and into the question business, and it was a great shift for me. And when I looked it up on Wikipedia, I’m a pantheist. Who knew?
I love that you allow fluidity to exist in your spiritual life. In a couple of email exchanges we had before this you mentioned mainline Christianity. I grew up in the Pentecostal church and yesterday I Googled, what is mainline Christianity? First, does that surprise you? And second, why do you think I had to Google that?
Oh, well, because these days those of us in mainline denominations are used to it being sidelined because it’s tiny now. I think there are some denominations hanging on to numbers. I don’t think numbers are a definition of faithfulness or even influence, but the numbers are certainly showing big, big declines and big, big gains in community churches that claim to be nondenominational. But the minute I read their statement of belief I know whether they’re disgruntled Methodists or disgruntled Presbyterians, so I can usually find the worldview that way.
But megachurches don’t identify denomination, so the mainline days are gone. It’s a small group, and I don’t think that’s going to be bad. But it’s got history. It claims a history. And so we know where people in our flavor fell off cliffs, where they got it wrong and who the heroes are and who the scoundrels are. And I don’t find that in a local church that is based on the personality of a pastor. That might be unfair, but there are ways in which there’s almost a dynasty in pastoral leadership of some megachurches where I live. It goes father to son or father to the recipient. It doesn’t work that way in mainline churches. It’s just a different way of identifying.
That schism between mainline Christianity and evangelicals and other factions of Christianity to me is fascinating. What do you think is at the root of that distance?
It’s a great question because I think I told you as soon as I got into the classroom I would mention well-known theologians and preachers and students had never heard of them. And when I explored the theologians and preachers they knew about, I’d never heard of them. So we were on very parallel tracks. In the U.S., that sometimes gets sorted out by what channels you subscribe to or what publications you read. ‘Christianity Today’ is pretty famously associated with more conservative Christianity and the ‘Christian Century’ is associated with more…I don’t even know what to call it. I hate all the words. Progressive? Does that make everybody else regressive? Emerging, which makes everybody else submerged? But it’s at least a way of being Christian that allows human presence in the reading of Scripture, in the understanding of Jesus, and admits happily that there’s all kinds of human subjectivity around that. I don’t find that as much in more conservative Christianity, which says no it’s a concrete, inarguable thing. It’s not a subjective thing. But there’s a big difference in the way we see the world to be.
Before we move on, just to get one thing clear, do you believe mainline Christianity holds the exclusive truth to understanding and knowing God? Is it the only way?
No. I think most people in mainline would say that. We’ve been around since the Reformation, and most Protestant denominations. It’s been long enough to watch our own denominations split and fight and argue about things and decide on some things and watch the mass exodus. So, no, it’s not the only way.
Within our own denominations, we’ve got all kinds of factions that think differently. So if it’s happening at home, of course it’s happening elsewhere. But I like to view that as the blessing of diversity. I love to think of the experience of the Divine as a diamond with as many facets as you can get on a rough rock. And it wouldn’t sparkle without the facets. I put on the brakes with some things, you know, around women’s leadership or domestic arrangements of who’s in charge and who’s the follower and who’s the leader. You can get me to some facets I’d like to put a little magic marker on and just kind of cut that one out. But all in all, it seems much healthier for me to admit that I don’t know. The only way to God? How many people would I have to excommunicate if I said I knew the only way? It’s just, no.
How problematic is it to hold that view? Can you hold that view and really be in tune with the sort of spirituality that has inspired you? I don’t say that to condemn people or judge people, but holding on to that seems to be one of the most corrosive things we’ve ever done in terms of trying to understand God or be good people.
Well, now I’m the journalist. You said to “hold on to that”. Tell me what “that” is.
“That” meaning holding on to claims of exclusive truth that maintains tribalism, that maintains othering. Othering and tribalism, to me, are the greatest cancers facing humanity right now. Is claiming exclusive religious truth, in Christianity and any practice, a corrosive force that must end?
First of all, nothing I say will keep anybody from claiming exclusivity, so we’re in no danger. But when I look at the fruits of tribalism, that’s really all I’ve got to look at. If we call it community with boundaries, I see beauty in that. I’ve spent some time at Brigham Young University lately. I didn’t know much about Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And now I know a little more. That’s a community with clear boundaries and it’s been persecuted for boundaries. I had a Mennonite houseguest over the weekend and Mennonites have moved from country to country because they don’t swear fealty to state government and so they move away. I know boundaried communities that produce good fruit. But when I look at what you and I are thinking of when we think of tribalism, which is excluding and saying anybody not within this boundary is going to hell, the fruits of that aren’t lovely to me. They aren’t nourishing to me. I don’t want to go there. I’d rather be a pantheist.
Continuing with this notion of boundaried communities. I’m a big Richard Rohr guy and I’ve heard him talk about the importance of balancing your tradition with experience. If you rely too much on your tradition and close yourself off to experience it can hamper your spiritual growth. Do you agree with that logic? If you’re not evolving with an ever expanding universe, and open to new experiences, you’re potentially missing the boat on something richer?
Sure. And since we have evoked the blessed brother, Richard Rohr, his great analogy is that we’re all fingers pointing at the moon. All of our traditions, all of the things we hold dear, our ways of understanding God and our place in the world, they’re fingers pointing to the moon and we keep arguing about who has the best finger. I love that analogy.
We can talk about what it was like to teach world religions and go into places of worship and study from the world’s great religions and to just be brought to my knees by the kindness, the hospitality, the welcome because a group from the dominant U.S. tradition came to visit a tiny part of the U.S. expression of religion. And that experience changed me for good. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of how many of these outsiders have been my best fingers pointing to the moon.
Your book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, is all about your time teaching world religions and how that shaped your life and worldview. I’ve been very inspired by the concept: include and transcend. For me that’s meant the more I include other ideas about God, with good discernment, I transcend to this openness and ability to let go of my own ego and my own exclusive claims. Does that idea ring true to how teaching world religions changed you and helped you transcend to a deeper levels of thinking about God?
There are many things going on there. One is that I have often heard that Christianity is the way that is open to all ways. To read the Gospels and the New Testament with one set of ears is to see someone for whom the neighbor was a more important category than religion. Even when the neighbor was a stranger, an irritating stranger, or a heathenous stranger, the stranger/neighbor was granted priority over a firm grasp of a tradition and obedience to it.
I read the text in my way, but when I meet a stranger and can see the human being there, we’re on our way to a conversation that can transcend politics, religion, gender, and many other things once we both see the human being. I think it was Gandhi’s grandson who said what we have most in common is not our religion, but our humanity. I know that can sound glib, but to be with someone in pain, to be with someone in joy, to see someone holding a baby at an initiation ceremony I have never been part of is to transcend religion. That’s not the most important thing in the room. The most important thing in the room is that I have been invited into this intimate circle to speak of things that matter.
The last thing I’ll say is I remember speaking with someone in the little church I served, and he was so irritated by the ways in which he was learning all about the Episcopal tradition. He said, “I expect my tradition to lead me beyond my tradition and to equip me to be with people beyond my tradition. Why does it keep wanting to keep me at home?” I thought that was the best comment from somebody in church every Sunday who said he wanted his faith to lead him into a larger world of faith and equip him to be there as a good neighbor.
I think you’re hitting home on the point that as much as you transcend it, you can still hold dear to the heart of your tradition while keeping an open mind. Were there any experiences that jump out to you during those years teaching world religions where you had epiphanies that really started to shift your thinking?
9/11. 2001. My class was scheduled to go to Masjid in Atlanta, a mosque. I can’t believe now that 9/11 happened on a Tuesday and we were scheduled to go to the mosque for Friday prayers. If I had asked for permission to go on that field trip a year ago or in 2010, I would never have been given permission, but we were. A lot of people bailed out. A lot of people went. It was a small, non-affluent mosque, which meant women were in the same room as men. We sat at the back. Men sat at the front. I heard my first sermon about 9/11 from an Imam in a mosque. It was about what you and I are talking about, the need for the unity of humankind. He even called members of his own tradition to great account that day about what made a Muslim and what didn’t.
But what I remember most of all is after the sermon was over, how the women back where I was grabbed the other women and kissed us and said, “Thank you for coming to see for yourself who we are instead of just watching the news.” I’ll never forget all the arms that reached out to hug us. We were dragged into bosoms and kissed by people with beautiful perfume on. That was one that brought me to my knees, among many others. I cannot think of a single site visit that went sour. People were so kind to us. One place we went to was a Sikh gurdwara. People had been there for two hours cooking lunch for us, just a bunch of noisy students who didn’t even know where we were or what we were doing. They had been there for two hours cooking lunch for us. So, there’s a fruit.
You describe some of these experiences as bringing you to your knees. Would you describe these moments as mystical? Would you even use that kind of language to talk about it?
“Mystical” is a huge word. For me, a mystical experience is one where boundaries get blurred. I can have a mystical experience where skin is the boundary that gets blurred, where I and a tree are having a conversation that doesn’t involve words. But wherever boundaries are blurred, wherever distinctions are less clear, it’s a unitive experience, Ryan. A mystical experience for me is unity. It unifies me with whatever is going on around me instead of dividing me from it. So, sure, it was firing through my senses as well. So if mysticism is not also sensual or sensory, then I don’t know if I know anything about it because I tingle. Frankly, by this definition, Lady Gaga singing at the Academy Awards was a mystical experience. When that woman took all her makeup off and all her fancy clothes off and sang from the top of that tiny little head down to her feet, I just got a rush from head to foot.
Have you ever had an experience that went beyond a “tingle” and was much more intense? Perhaps you momentarily lost control. You’re aware of where you are and don’t lose sight of your surroundings, but it’s just a more overwhelming experience?
We won’t talk about drugs, right? We’ll just leave that off the table. That was a long time ago now.
(laughs) Feel free.
No, I don’t want to minimize what you’re talking about, because yes, but it will be different from you. People are so temperamentally different, which is another problem with one way. One way for one person. What happened to all of our differences? But the way I experience what you’re talking about most is in what’s sometimes called flow. And for me, it comes writing a lot. I can lose five hours. I can go so far into that experience that I lose time, I lose place, and when I come out, I’m just inchoate. I can’t talk to people for a while. The worst thing I can do is go to the grocery store because I can’t choose cereal after a state like that. So that’s as close as I’ve come. And it happens in the world. I live on 165 acres in the middle of nowhere. So it happens for me with a particular day. But it’s brief for me.
That’s an important reminder that not everyone will experience mystical moments the same. Shifting gears a little bit, where are you at with Jesus Christ? Who is Jesus Christ to you?
Well, if I turn this computer around, you’d see an icon behind the computer from the 4th century from a monastery in the Sinai. But I went on sabbatical in 1990 and spent three months trying to answer that question. And as close as I got was walking into the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, where I got into a fight with a guide because I looked around at where the altar used to be and said, “This place wants to be a church.” And he replied, “No, madam, this place wants to be a mosque.” So I thought, “Okay, let’s go look at the art.” I found a mosaic that I had studied in school, stood in front of it, and wept for a while. That was the answer after three months of searching: tears. I was in one of the oldest places on earth, looking at a mosaic somebody had scraped junk off of to reveal Jesus with his mother on one side and John the Baptist on the other. I remember the gold mosaic and the tears. Finally, someone found me and reunited me with my group. But that was my answer.
If I made myself put words on it, I would come to the same conclusion as a lot of people who’ve studied Jesus: that in the end, he’s a figure walking into the mist. The minute I have it figured out, it’s done. Who in the world would want to figure out who he was? Was he a failed revolutionary? Was he a divine creature walking around on Earth? In that case, I want to see the DNA. But when I try to go down all my scientific and theological paths, I end up with the mystery of someone whom I’m still wondering about. What’s that? I’m still wondering about him.
I’ve heard Richard Rohr say that the only way to talk about God is through metaphor. In one lecture, he alludes to the idea that perhaps the same works for Jesus Christ. I’m paraphrasing him, but the gist of it, is that Jesus’ life serves as the ultimate metaphor for our lives: death and rebirth. That’s the good news. Yes, he very likely existed, but if you stay in the realm of metaphor, that’s the healthiest place to be because you avoid historical debate and hone in on what the story is trying to tell us. Do you think that goes a little too far to think of Jesus primarily as a metaphor?
Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ explores the idea that Jesus was not crucified, but made it out alive, married Mary, and had children. Later, someone found out about it and was going to expose it. The point was, go ahead and expose it. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the story has taken off, and the story is so rich with meaning. I choose to believe that somebody walked around to have that kind of impact, though I taught religion, and there are like two historical references to his real being. The truth is nothing caught on until the movement caught on. In other words, he was not a big splash. John the Baptist gets more attention in some of the historical annals of the time. So I’m at least completely on board with metaphor. I really want to talk to people who don’t pay attention to how Jesus uses metaphor incessantly. At one point, he’s talking and saying, “Did you bring bread?” And somebody says, “Oh no, we forgot the sandwiches.” He said, “I’m not talking about bread. I’m talking metaphorically here.” I wish he had said that out loud, but he worked through metaphor. And every time someone asked him for a definitive answer, he’d say, “But you know the answer to that.” Or he’d say, “Let me tell you a story.” Or he’d say, “What do you think?” It must be a second or third generation thing that we’re supposed to be certain about someone who upset people’s certainties so much.
From your reading of the Bible and studying Jesus Christ, do you believe he wanted to be worshiped?
Oh, that one’s easy because I had to answer that for myself. And I started at the beginning. All I had was the four gospels. And now we know there are a bunch more. There are like 19 more gospels that were in circulation in the first couple of centuries of the church. But the four that made it into the text, I love that they don’t all agree. And the early church thought we could handle that. “Yeah, let’s go out and put in some things that don’t match up. They can handle this,” you know. Plus, these are the authoritative accounts, and they don’t match. Now I know people who harmonize them, but I went back to the beginning of every gospel, and Mark and John don’t even start with a birth narrative, and Matthew and Luke do. But Jesus comes proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He doesn’t come proclaiming himself. And in Mark’s gospel, you’ve got, “Why do you call me good? No one’s good but God alone.” Who’s that? He doesn’t ask to be worshipped.
If anything, when people are following him, he goes and finds a boat so he can push out into the water and get a little distance on all of that. Now, they’re hungry. I don’t know if they’re there to worship. They’re there to eat and be healed. And that seems to be what he is about, signaling something. I think it’s the nearness of the kingdom. It’s what happens when hungry people seek food and hurt people seek healing and need their friends to lower them down through roofs. You’ve got me going here. I’m a Bible geek. I love the book, and I’m convinced Jesus did not come to be worshiped.
There it is.
There, I said it.
That’s courage. I also read a quote of yours where you said you’ve basically internalized Christianity. You don’t have to read every new book talking about the faith. But does that also mean the Bible is less important for you these days? What’s your relationship with the Bible like today?
Oh, what a book! It’s a library. And it contains arguments, which I just adore. Ecclesiastes argues with Proverbs, and John’s gospel argues with Mark’s gospel, and Paul argues with the writer of the Book of Acts. So I love the book for all kinds of reasons. It contains, in almost every book, an insistence on caring for those who don’t belong to the group. Any text that honors those who don’t belong to the group whose book this is has got my attention. But here’s how I read the text: I read it as the human recording of the experience of God. I read it as the human record of seeking God, of the hunger for holiness, of how people experienced the divine. I can read it and just dive into all the ways we human beings have experienced and written about God. And I can find parts, and I won’t cut them out like Thomas Jefferson, but I wish they weren’t there. I’d sure never give a Bible to a fifth-grader because I’ve tried that once, and all he wanted to read was all the gruesome, murdering, cutting off heads part. And then somebody, of course, had to find all the very erotic parts, usually where some prophet is behaving badly and gets compared to a whore in luscious detail. At any rate, the Bible is a dangerous book, and most people who say they use it as a guidebook for life, I want to say, “show me the pages.” I’ll go with the Sermon on the Mount for that. But there’s a lot in the Bible that is not my guidebook for life.
So many Christians see the Bible as the ultimate guidebook for life, and they worship Jesus in ways he probably wouldn’t have wanted. So, do you find yourself trying to convince other Christians to see your perspective on those issues that you feel very strongly about?
I’m not an evangelist in that realm, and I’ll tell you why not. I still remember a number of students’ faces. I was kind of a bull in a china shop in the classroom at first because I really wanted people to know the history of how scripture was put together. But the first student who woke me up was a young woman who believed in scripture, and I mean believed everything that you and I are wondering about. And I found out she lived in a trailer park with her mom, who had several husbands and boyfriends, all of whom had come into this girl’s room at some point or another. And Jesus was her lifesaver. I mean, Jesus was her metaphysical otherworldly “save me from this horror that I, as a young woman, can’t do a thing about.” And I backed off by three yards and decided never to mess with anybody’s views of Jesus ever again because I hadn’t lived their lives, and I didn’t know what kind of chaos was right underneath their feet. And it seemed hugely important. If I wanted people to honor where I was, I had to honor where they were.
Now, if they’re going to get murderous and violent toward other people, I want to do something, say something. But she and many others after, just the vulnerability of where people are and the role that Scripture or Jesus play in their lives, that’s not my business to go poking at that. It’s just not my business. I could do so much harm.
That reminds me of something James Finley told me when I interviewed him: the mystical never imposes itself. You can’t impose spiritual ideas on someone. You can speak your truth, but you must allow it to be felt by that person and experienced by that person. Having said that, do you ever find yourself subtly trying to steer people in that direction? Through your writing or speaking, do you aim to shift people towards a more open-minded and inclusive way to think about God?
I’m trying to bless curiosity. That’s about all. I’m thinking of two things when you ask me that. One is classroom experience, but that’s a particular age group for the most part. And for them, I did my very best to come up with assignments, paper topics, visits that would simply bless their curiosity about other people and the way other people believe and practice their faith. How they approach God and think about the human place. But I tried to set experiments that would allow them to pursue their curiosity about things and then to use religious language that I speak from my heart, but then left the rest up to the spirit. Whenever I started feeling myself in my self-righteousness, in my certainty about things, whenever I felt myself starting to impose that the Holy Spirit told me to go sit down and leave it alone. So it’s been beautiful. And then in writing, I can’t tell you how many people write and say, “I always wondered about that, but I never really had the courage to pursue that curiosity.” And so that seems like my job as a writer is just to say things people want to say but haven’t yet.
You talk about knowing when to sit down and when to pull back. I’m fascinated by your journey into success and notoriety as a preacher. Before we get into what compelled you to eventually walk away from that world, how did you know that you had a gift for speaking? And what gave you the courage to try it for the first time?
Oh, gosh, it’s such an old story. I wanted to be a writer. You’re looking at a failed poet, a failed short story writer who went to writer’s colonies for months at a time and produced only one short story that I sent to Harper’s. And it came back to me and the editor’s notes at the bottom said, “This is a really good story, but it makes me want to kill myself.” (laughs) I don’t think I’m going to be a short story writer.
So I went to seminary. I loved language. I loved the humanities. Theology is the queen of the humanities. Bottom line, somebody invited me to preach one time, a little short homily during Holy Week. It was seven minutes in a dark church. I wasn’t ordained yet, and there were maybe 12 people there. But afterwards, somebody came up and said, “Could I have a copy of that?” I thought, darn, I just sold my first short story. I give it away for free. But somebody wanted to read it. From there, I did seek ordination. And as things came into print, people wanted to read something else. And as people heard a sermon, they wanted to hear another sermon. So the call, whatever it was, came from readers and listeners, and it came at a cost, you know, because then you have to be better than you were last time. You have to be better than the other people who are good at this. And pretty soon, you’re being declared the winner of a horse race you never entered. And it becomes impossibly competitive, especially for somebody with an ego. And I’m an A-plus eldest child, you know, so I want to be the best at whatever I do. I want to get a good grade. So all of that means that I now think I flee competency. If I ever become good at something, I just stop. I just quit. I go do something I don’t know how to do so that I can start over.
So many people dream of having success like that and being celebrated for their craft. What did it feel like to enter into that space? How did you process it?
You know, I almost remember the weekend that happened. Baylor University sponsored a survey of the best preachers in the English-speaking world. They found out the first year they couldn’t do that because nobody agreed on what made a sermon good. Isn’t that funny? I remember a kid one time who was sent to my church to listen to a sermon and write a report. And he said there was no sermon that day but a woman got up and talked about the Bible. And I thought, that’s so interesting. He didn’t even recognize what I did as a sermon because women don’t preach. So at any rate, back to Baylor, they did this survey and then they had to take a year and back up and try to decide what made a sermon good or effective. I think they chose effective. But the weekend that my name came out on that list, for one day it was just wonderful. Flowers arrived at the church and there was more mail that arrived than I could answer. And it was almost the next day people started coming, wanting selfies at the door. I don’t think there were selfies then because there weren’t cell phones, but it just became awful. Very quickly after that, at least in my memory, some guy showed up in Bermuda shorts in this little church that seats 80 people. And when I got done preaching, he stood up and said, “Well, I don’t know what was so great about that.” And he laughed. The pedestal lasted 12 seconds.
My husband says I’m like the badminton champion of the world. It’s not a large thing, and I should not let it go to my head, which is a helpful thing to remember. But self-forgetfulness is key to my doing a good job at a lot of things. I prepare, I work hard, and then I forget myself. And before I go on to speak, I forget myself and I say, “God, help me remember why I’m here. And I love these people and I want to give everything I’ve got to them,” and then I forget myself. But there’s a way in which being awarded or recognized interferes with self-forgetfulness, a lot. The problem with fame or notoriety is you self-remember a bunch. “Oh, no, I just dropped a word.” “Oh, that hand gesture was in the wrong direction.” This is partly my problem. It’s kind of obsessive-compulsive behavior, but self-forgetfulness is one of the reasons I don’t have an easy time in church anymore. I can’t really go into a church and sit and pray, you know? And maybe that’s not what churches are for, but self-forgetfulness is vital to what we’ve been talking about, to flow to mystical experience, to the whole thing of being united with somebody. You can’t be remembering yourself too much when all that’s going on. I am not on social media. I moved from Atlanta to a little town in northeast Georgia with 1,500 people. I live nine miles from that town. And this is the kind of life that helps me live in self-forgetfulness. That’s highly creative to me and highly holy.
If you feel called to something, especially if it’s about spirituality, and you receive a lot of attention for it, do you think you have to relinquish it or you risk it destroying you and your message?
Let’s revisit what we’ve already discussed. Let’s attribute this partly to my temperament, as I know people who can step into the spotlight without worrying like I do. Some people can manage it. I believe that some people are called to it, such as heroes like the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu. Do they get to decide to move to a little town in northeast Georgia? Thank God they don’t. It’s upon us to be true to our temperament and how we’ve been created because we’re always part of a web of what’s happening. During my moment in the spotlight as a woman preacher in 1995, there weren’t that many women in the field, and I was part of a large web. There were a lot of other things happening beyond what preaching was about at that moment. But at any rate, I don’t deliver formulas, and I’m a bad role model, but I believe I’m typical. So I go out and say stuff because I think I’m typical.
Is there something about spiritual power though that uniquely corrupts? It’s incredible how many scandals we’ve seen in the church, where pastors gain authority and attention then sexually abuse or manipulate people. Based purely on your experience in that world, what is it about spiritual power that seems to corrupt so many people?
I would call it isolation instead. I believe that power brings isolation with it. I’d rather point the finger at the isolation because when people acquire a great deal of power, unless they keep people around them or stay in some kind of community with other individuals in their position, it becomes difficult to remember to gauge themselves. This is where I see the scandal originating, as people become so isolated. I’ve seen clergy become so isolated because of their roles that they no longer feel like they can display anything that isn’t exalted, and that’s isolating. I could provide many examples, but I believe that the isolation caused by power is the problem.
You say some people can handle the spotlight for extended periods of time. But it seems to me that those who stay around the realm of spiritual teaching or power too long run the risk of being idolized. And by being idolized, it distracts from the message they want their audience to focus on. For example, Richard Rohr has built a canon of books and lectures, and perhaps when he’s gone people will build a quasi-religion around his teachings. Now, of course, that’s the last thing he would ever want. So, shouldn’t all spiritual figures eventually relinquish their standing and retire from the spotlight to avoid being worshiped?
But that’s almost the problem of the idolizers, isn’t it? I’m glad you brought up Richard Rohr. Now, anybody who’s listening to us, who doesn’t know who he is, will look him up because he is the most self-effacing dude. He just will not let that happen. In fact, you probably heard him say that he prays to God for one humiliation every day. I thought, you have to ask? He’s just a wonderful model of how to serve in that role without inhaling. He just doesn’t inhale it. So you and I should both make a list of people we admire who do that. And then you and I should also both refuse to become idolizers. I see people in airports, and they’re famous people, and I just leave them alone. Do not go up and say, “I’m sorry, I hate to interrupt you.” Well, you just did interrupt them, and they were having a moment, a quiet moment with their families. I’m just not going to be an idolizer as best I can help it.
You’ve written a lot about darkness and suffering. You’ve talked about God and darkness being friends. Is it a stretch to say you think God loves suffering, that God created suffering?
I won’t do that. I think God is in suffering. My theology has led me to question human ideas of divine sovereignty because when we go there, we make God responsible for babies born with half a heart – a real literal pumping heart. We make God responsible for COVID. We make God responsible for hurricanes. And so, it’s a very individual choice that I don’t go there. I believe God is in all that happens. The mystery of why things happen, I don’t know. It seems to me that an awful lot of stuff happens because of us. You know, the old trope about asking God, “Where were you?” And God says, “Where were you?” Where were you when the Holocaust happened, not where was I? So, divine sovereignty, I hover around it, but I don’t go there like a lot of other people do.
Now, let’s separate darkness and suffering for a second, if we can, because darkness is a metaphor gone rabid. People tuck all kinds of stuff in the darkness folder that they haven’t thought about too much. One example I often use is if I asked you to make a timeline of your life, with the highs and lows. You moved, you lost a parent, you lost somebody you loved, your beloved dog died, and below the line of what happened in your life, give me a graph of your spiritual life. And it’s just amazing how those lines meet. Where the suffering line comes down low, the spiritual sensitiveness, vulnerability, comes up to meet it. And that’s an interesting line to me. Did somebody cause that? I don’t know. But it is interesting to me that when I am suffering, that thing about what we have most in common is our humanity, that really becomes apparent, especially if I can remember I’m not the only one suffering right now. That whatever my state is, if I could just take a breath, I’d remember how many people have been there before me, are in it now and will come after me.
So I call people to open up their darkness folder, look at what’s in it, but also realize that first kisses and shooting stars and fireflies and dreams and incredibly beautiful things are in darkness because it’s a place of uncertainty and you don’t walk fast in the dark. You walk slowly, and all your senses are alive. Now I’m talking literal darkness, but I think it’s true of metaphorical darkness. When I don’t know where I’m going, I seek companionship like no other time in my life. I’m more open to any help I can get. I am wide open for revelation, you know? Is that a bad thing? Darkness and suffering. There’s something there. But I’m not going to seek suffering. Suffering will find me. And I think too much of Christian teaching tells us to go seek it. And I don’t think that’s necessary. Jesus asked to be spared it.
I can relate to what you’re saying. I can see a throughline between suffering in my life and how those experiences helped me grow spiritually or deepen my friendships, or just see the light more clearly. My life got better. But at the same time, I can look at other human experiences and objectively see how the suffering destroyed the light, and they committed suicide, for example. How do you reconcile your own beautiful journey while knowing others seem to be steered in the opposite direction by suffering? How can I think deeper about that or differently?
I actually got an answer from Buddhist teaching on that. You can let the suffering that is not redeemed, that destroys people and the people around them, break you open. I just found out a beloved person in my community, 45 years old probably, took his life, and there’s no romanticizing or sentimentalizing that for anyone. I often say the only people who talk about suffering making us better people are people who survive it. You only have a story if you come out the other side. If you’ve been depressed, and I mean clinically where you can’t get out of bed, you can tell a story about it someday but only if you live through it and only if it passes. So I don’t have any kind of romanticism about suffering being a formula. X plus suffering equals better. You just used the word better, and then you used the word deeper. And those are two interesting things to me. Deeper. I’ll go better. I’m not very interested in better.
That makes me think deeper about concepts of reincarnation. It’s easier for me to reconcile that if I believe this isn’t the only life, or only redeemable experience we can have. What do you think about the notion of reincarnation as a way to think about suffering?
I’m pretty much a Christian existentialist. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds good, doesn’t it? Kierkegaard was one. So in other words, the here and now, maybe I’ve got holy envy for Judaism. When I taught world religions, every tradition we studied had heaven and hell or afterlife except Judaism. And if you investigate that, you’ll often hear it’s because Torah, the Hebrew Bible, is about this life. It’s about justice, and it’s about awe. And it’s about battle and it’s about homeland and it’s about generations. And that it’s about this life that God’s teachings are about. Later is left very undefined, which I find true in the New Testament as well. So, I stick with the here and now. And when people say, “Well, how do you conceive of the afterlife?” That’s where faith kicks in. 100%. I don’t have a clue. But I’m going. So I’m going to trust the universe is for me and not against me. And if that is true in this life, it may be true in some other. But I mean to live this life and not leave a drop in my cup if I can help it.
Another thought I’ve been having recently is that Earth might not exist in the relatively near future. And as a result, Christianity probably won’t exist at some point in the future. No one will know who Jesus Christ was. Does that bother you? Is that exciting to you? How does it make you feel?
Well, first of all, I think Earth will exist. It’s us getting wiped out. If you look at the other planets in our system, they’re bare. They don’t support life, but they’re still there. So we’ll wipe ourselves out. But what gave rise to Jesus Christ? What gave rise to creation? Will that not continue to be? I mean, all I do is look at the Webb Space Telescope to know how much I don’t know. Have you ever just really laid down in the yard at night and looked up and thought, where does this end? How far does the universe go and what’s beyond this? So whatever is enlivening you and me now will continue to enliven. That’s my blind faith. So no Earth, no humans, no Bible, no stories of Jesus. What gave rise to all that will give rise to something new. And then, you and I get to forget that it’s all about us.
I’ll wrap with this question. After all of these years of thinking and studying and suffering and celebrating is God really real? What doubts, if any, remain?
Well, first of all, who would I be to know or to give you an authoritative answer? Whatever I call God, which is that enlivening spirit, talk to me when I’m on my deathbed. Talk to me when I can’t lift a cup to my mouth and see if I say this, but I trust everything I have and am and have done to the ongoing enlivening spirit that I call God. Other people will define that differently. But the power of love, the power of these experiences of union you and I’ve been talking about, this curiosity we’ve been talking about. Our conversation is my proof of God’s existence. There you go, Ryan. This conversation is my proof. Who are you? Who am I? How did we connect? This is a great conversation. Where did this come from? What did we do to deserve this? You know, whatever this is, this is it.
That’s awesome. I’ll end it there because it can’t get better than that answer. Thank you so much for taking this time and for sharing and opening your heart like that.
You’re so welcome. I have loved every minute of it. And thank you.
FOR MORE ON BARBARA TAYLOR BROWN:
- Visit her website: https://barbarabrowntaylor.com/