In the spring of 2020, around 5,300 colleges and universities across America will grant degrees to almost 3.9 million graduates. Sadly, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, few graduates will be able to gather in caps and gowns and walk across the podium to receive their diplomas while proud parents and other family members celebrate their accomplishment.
In a time of declining college enrollments, we should find other creative ways to celebrate students who complete a college or university degree, at least in part because college graduates tend to be more tolerant of others. For example, one study found that friendships among college students with different religious and political views increase empathy and understanding. Additionally, Pew Research studies show that, compared to those who have no knowledge, Americans who have at least some knowledge about other religious groups generally have more positive feelings about members of that group.
Since college graduates have spent thousands of hours over a number of years studying the wisdom of thinkers, the findings of scientists, and the literature of great writers, it only seems right that we should listen to some of the insights they have gained.
I would like to share what students in one class from one university learned about one idea: holy envy.
The term holy envy was developed by the late Krister Stendahl, who was Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and then Church of Sweden Bishop of Stockholm. This concept is core to the multi-faith research my colleagues and I do in the American Families of Faith project.
Stendahl formulated three “rules” of religious understanding:
Rule 1: When you are trying to understand another faith, you should ask adherents of that faith for information rather than critics or enemies of that faith.
Rule 2: Do not compare the best things about your own religion with the worst things of other faiths but rather compare bests with bests.
Rule 3: You should leave sufficient room for “holy envy,” by which he meant being open to aspects of other’s faiths that you admire so deeply you are inclined to wish they were part of your own faith.
My Class and Students
I teach an upper division elective course at BYU called “Family in World Religions” where we learn how Jewish, Christian, and Muslim families live their faith in their homes. I try to teach students the importance of gaining a deep respect for our friends of other faiths. We read books, chapters, and articles written by practicing members of those faiths. We consider the major branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform), the two major branches of Islam (Sunni and Shia), and three major branches in Christianity (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical Protestant). Students physically attend a service of a faith other than their own (this year, with COVID-19 restrictions, this was not possible), watch films and videos about various faiths, and enjoy guest lectures from a Jewish Rabbi, an Evangelical Pastor, and a lifelong devout Catholic woman who teaches Sunday School and is a member of the Holy Family Institute.
At the end of the semester, students write a paper on holy envy. This assignment asks students to “List and briefly discuss the 5 most important, personally meaningful, and/or helpful ideas you learned this semester about how those of other faiths practice their religion about which you felt some kind of holy envy.”
Most students in this class are seniors. As is typical at BYU, many are married and some are parents, and several had served as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where they spent almost every waking moment trying to share their faith with others. Based on good data, across almost every measure, BYU is among the most religious universities and BYU students are among the most religious of all university students in America. Thus, in these papers, highly religious members of a highly missionary faith express the things they not only respect about other faiths, but that they might want to change about their own approach to their faith based on what they have learned.
With permission from students and with only a few explanatory comments, I will quote some excerpts from student papers that focus on their holy envy for specific practices in specific faiths including, when provided by students, ways they indicated this might influence their own religious practice. Space permits including only a few excerpts from the dozens of points students mentioned in their papers. To highlight students’ words, excerpts will be italicized.
Holy Envy of Our Muslim Friends
“I have holy envy for the physically and mentally focused practice of Muslim prayer. I want to emulate my Islamic friends in having formal, predetermined times and places throughout the day where I can reconnect with my Heavenly Father.”
“In the Muslim culture, what I really admire is the dedication to get to Mecca. People literally spend so much time saving money and making sure they are healthy in order to make this trip. I really like how it shows the dedication to their religion and God. This is something that I want to emulate in my own life except it be an ongoing ‘Pilgrimage to Christ.’ I want to dedicate and sacrifice everything it takes to stay on the covenant path towards Christ and be as faithful as our Islamic friends.”
“The Muslim religion has a strong respect for ‘peoples of the book.’ This refers to any religion that respects and follows the word of God, even though it is not the Muslim word of God. I feel a little holy envy over this idea that Muslims have accepted. I want to always respect the beliefs of others and celebrate the fact that they are trying to be better and follow God in whatever way they believe is right. I hope I can teach my children to be accepting and loving towards other religions as well and accept that we are not the only religion with truth.”
Holy Envy of Our Jewish Friends
“Perhaps the practice I have the most holy envy for is Jewish Shabbat. With children receiving weekly blessings, families coming together to share meals, and rich symbolism during a Sabbath feast, there is much to be appreciated during Shabbat. Since learning and reading about Shabbat, I have begun to say a special prayer with my son to thank God the Father for his accomplishments and ask for specific blessings that my son stands in need of or that I wish for my son. Additionally, I have taken up my old hobby of making bread with a new vigor. Because of my in-laws’ dietary restrictions, I have tried to make bread that is delicious and okay for them to eat. This has been an active effort to mimic challah bread traditionally presented at every Shabbat dinner.”
“I have holy envy towards [Shabbat] because they look forward to their Sabbath all week long, and they observe it almost as a familial celebration. I want to follow the example of Jewish families and look for the blessings that the Sabbath brings. I will try harder to look forward to it as a day of rest and appreciation of our beliefs and the many blessings that God gives us. I hope to be able to teach this to my future children as well.”
A student wrote about Hanukkah and quoted from one of our textbooks, “How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household” by Blu Greenburg, in which the author writes, “This issue is not how to be universalist in this great country, but how to be particularist without rejecting everyone else, how to feel chosen without feeling superior, how to feel covenanted without erasing the covenant of the other, how to integrate positive modern values but not be overwhelmed and swallowed up by them.” The student then said, “this quote is one that resonates with me and I have great envy for the spiritual connection that Jewish families feel through celebrating Chanukah together.”
About the essentially Jewish practice of arguing about Torah, a student wrote, “Something else from the Jewish faith that I feel holy envy for is the way that they argue with one another. They are not arguing to cause contention and I do not want to be contentious. I just appreciate the way that they use their own thoughts to create and argue for what they believe. They use their agency to think for themselves, instead of just believing what someone else believes. I love this because even when we follow the commandments or words of the prophet, we still need to make our thoughts our own. I want to know for sure that I am doing what is right for me and my family. I want my thoughts to be my own, while still being obedient to the commandments and teachings of the prophets.”
Holy Envy of Our Roman Catholic Friends
“I served an LDS mission to Guatemala, a country richly steeped in Catholic tradition. I have holy envy for the Catholic vision of Mother Mary. I appreciate how many of their holy days venerate her, and how much love Catholics show her. I have holy envy for the Catholic emphasis placed on Mary’s sacred and feminine role. I can incorporate this into my own worship by studying elements of the feminine in my own scripture study and by studying the example of Mary.”
“Catholics believe in a practice called transubstantiation which is the belief that the eucharist or sacrament literally turns into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This gives me a sense of holy envy because of how sacred the eucharist is to Catholics. I think I could gain a lot from thinking about the sacrament a little more sacredly. Even just in the past month of having the sacrament at home it has helped me realize how much I still don’t understand about the sacrament.”
“My Catholic friends are rooted in tradition. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church we learn, ‘It is the celebrations that are repeated, and in each celebration, there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present.’ Each of their holidays from Easter to Christmas strive to point followers to Christ. Traditions have the power to shape us, creating deep meanings and powerful experiences. My husband and I will strive to make this holiday one where we take the Family Home Evening closest to this day and talk about what Easter truly means for each of us. We will discuss Christ’s last days before the Atonement to add more meaning beyond candy filled eggs.”
Holy Envy of Our Eastern Orthodox Friends
“I think it is really significant that Orthodox Christians have a special place in their house set apart for religious practice and worship. I love how they can look at that corner and be instantly reminded of their religion. I hope to implement this in a way, by placing religious objects all over my entire house. These religious objects will help my family worship as well as be constantly reminded of our religion.”
Holy Envy of Our Evangelical Christian Friends
“Protestant-Evangelical Christian pastor Mark Turco mentioned some very interesting things in his presentation to the class, including the idea that good works [do] not save you. He explained that faith in Christ is what saves us, and good works follow as a manifestation of true faith in Christ. Pastor Mark explained it in such a beautiful way, and it made me really want to focus on this more in my life. Learning about this Evangelical Christian belief made me further focus on who I am as a disciple of Christ rather than what I’m doing to prove that I am a disciple of Christ.”
“Devotion for the scriptures is something I truly admired in our Protestant guest speaker and it is a trait I recognize in most of my Protestant friends. I can increase devotion to scriptures by putting verses that inspire me up on the walls of my home, like many Muslims do.”
Holy Envy as LDS Teaching
Because the Church of Jesus Christ is a missionary faith, some readers might be surprised to learn that learning from those of other faiths is part of LDS teaching. In his journal, Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrote, “When we see virtuous qualities in men, we should always acknowledge them, let their understanding be what it may in relation to creeds and doctrine.”
Brigham Young, the second president of the Church (and founder of BYU) said, “It is our duty and calling . . . to gather every item of truth and reject every error. Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth.”
In speaking to Latter-day Saints about their friends of other faiths, former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley stated, “Look for their strengths and their virtues, and you will find strength and virtues that will be helpful in your own life.”
Two students summarized their experience in looking for the good in other faiths:
“An individual can learn a lot from each religion that can enrich their own worship. I have learned much about other religions in this class. Each religion has provided me with insight of how to strengthen mine and my future family’s religious worship.”
“Seeing those of other faiths as friends is a simple shift in mindset, and one that inspires me to worship in higher and holier ways.”
In her paper, one of my students referred to an interfaith worldwide fast for COVID-19 relief called for by Russell M. Nelson, current President of the Church of Jesus Christ. She also quoted the words of a person on a Facebook group:
“Just in the last week I joined a Facebook group about the Worldwide Fast we were invited to join on April 10, 2020. I have never seen a more loving and accepting people from all walks and religions. One person commented, “This page has nearly half a million members of a variety of religions, cultures, races, countries, beliefs, and more. I can honestly say, as many of you would surely likewise be able to say, that I have never before in my life seen such unity among so many people. One has to wonder whether the greater blessing of this fast will lie in the negating of the virus, or in the great love, unity, faith, hope and peace which it will have imparted and spread so deeply and universally.” When we put our prejudices behind, we really come to love our neighbor as our self, and in so doing we realize, that we aren’t so different after all.”
I am proud of each of my students for their efforts to learn important ideas, including the idea of holy envy. I hope they are able to share this important idea and other ideas they have learned throughout their university experience with others in their happy and productive lives.
David C. Dollahite is a Camilla Eyring Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University where he teaches classes on family and faith and studies the nexus of religion and family relationships as a co-director of the American Families of Faith project. His views are his own.