A boat glided through the glorious scenery of Switzerland and Germany on the Rhine River in the early 1540's. Among the passengers were a Jewish man and a Christian Scotsman who was a leader of the new Radical Reformation movement. The Scot was in exile from religious persecution back home. The two got into a theological discussion. The Scot, George Wishart, started the conversation in an accusatory tone, demanding the Jew to account for his failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. The Jew retorted that if the Messiah indeed had already returned, he would have restored the Law of Israel in full, including its prohibition of images of God or God's creations, and also would have abolished poverty completely. The Catholic Church, with its fabulously ornamented churches and wealthy clergy, clearly had failed to do these things. The Jew also pointed out that it was contrary to the Law of Israel to worship a piece of bread as if it were God.
That Jewish passenger humbled Wishart and inspired in him a holy jealousy. He quoted the Jewish man often in his preaching. Wishart embraced the iconoclastic impulse of the Radical Reformation, and also its opposition to the doctrine of Jesus' real physical presence in the bread of communion. I think these reforms were progressive in 1540, but we need further reformation today in order to bring iconography and ritual into our spirituality in fresh ways that are meaningful for our time. Wishart dedicated himself to doing whatever he could to help the poor himself, and to influence other Christians to do the same: an impulse that never should go out of style.
Jealously is holy if it moves us to be better people. Jealousy is holy if it inspires one religious community to mimic the good things that other faith communities do. When I attended the Parliament of the World's Religions a few weeks ago, I experienced holy jealousy many times. I was jealous of the phenomenal hospitality of the Sikhs of the state of Utah, who fed "langar" lunch to 10,000 people free of charge, and with a spirit of palpably holy hospitality. How can my church emulate that example? I was jealous of the evident joyfulness of the Mormon families with lots of children walking through the grounds of Temple Square in Salt Lake City. How can I do better to bring happiness and stability to my own family? (Of course, the families made unhappy by LDS anti-gay doctrines were not there.) I was jealous of the ancient, elaborate, deep traditions of Buddhism in Tibet expressed by the same monks who came to USC recently, as they created a sand mandala in one of the convention center hallways. How can I steep myself further in my own Christian artistic spirituality? I was jealous of the theological creativity of the Community of Christ, which had a table in the display hall. This group grew out of the branch of the Latter Day Saints that stayed in Missouri when Brigham Young led most of the Mormons to Utah. It's evolved steadily into an exceptionally interesting progressive Christian denomination. How can other progressive Christians emulate their ability to show respect for tradition while incorporating new theological insights?
Here at USC, I was jealous of the Hindu students on our campus last night as they celebrated Diwali, the festival of light. The event included a puja to Lakshmi, one of the Hindu manifestations of the divine. As I joined 400 students in chanting "om shanti," I was jealous of their communion with a 5,000-year-old tradition that I can only appreciate as an outsider. How can I, as a Christian pastor, help other Christians find enlightenment through the practices of ancient Christian spirituality?
A few years ago, I mused about another interfaith encounter that had enduring consequences: the meeting of Ignatius of Loyola with a wandering Muslim Moor. It was another case of a religiously prideful Christian being humbled in the process of defiantly defending his faith. Ignatius was furious at the Moor for a perceived insult against the Virgin Mary. But he decided to let his mule choose whether or not to chase after the Moor to exact revenge. The mule wandered away from the path of the Moor, suggesting that a beast of burden was more attuned to the God of love than the founder of an order of Catholic priests! I have holy jealousy for the soul of that mule, whose positive spiritual influence continues today in the peace and justice witness and interfaith engagement of Jesuits like Pope Francis.
On that boat on the Rhine, the Jew and the Scot started their conversation with a bitter theological dispute, but ended it in divine humility. At best, interfaith relationships inspire a holy jealousy that leads faith communities to be at their best and to emulate what is best in other religions.