The Life Worth Living: The Prophetic Spirituality of Howard Thurman

One of my favorite projects last year was the week in which I posted daily posts celebrating, in my small way from my small platform, the voices of African American theologians. I don’t mean this in a self-congratulatory way; but I genuinely loved getting out of the way to give space for these largely under-appreciated, brilliant theological voices to shine out — with the side benefit of making our theology a little bit less WEIRD. Over the past few months, I’ve had the blessing of being exposed to more Black theological voices. And so, in honour of Black History Month, I’d like to share three more of them with you between now and Ash Wednesday.

Today, I’d like to begin with Howard Thurman (1899-1981). While his theological legacy has been somewhat muted in the decades after his death, during his life he was a major force in the American, and indeed, global Church. There is perhaps no greater indication of his importance than the fact that when the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were gathering in places like Montgomery and Selma, they brought Thurman’s writings on nonviolence with them. Surely a thinker who influenced such influential people at such an influential moment of history is worthy of our attention!

What strikes me most about Thurman’s theology was his focus on the intersection between the universal and the particular. In an academic and political environment that was deeply committed to a Modernism that promoted universal ideals at the expense of the particular, Thurman insisted that the universal always plays out in the particular lives of individual men and women. In one formative moment, a seminary advisor encouraged him to set aside theological reflections on racial justice in order to focus on “the timeless issues of the human spirit.” Reflecting on this incident years later, Thurman wrote: “I … wondered what kind of response I could make to this man who did not know that a man and his black skin must face the ‘timeless issues of the human spirit’ together” (With Head and Heart, 60). As he understood it, Life could not have meaning unless every single life had meaning, including his own.

How then, might “a man and his black skin” face the “timeless issues of the human spirit together”?

Here, he turned to the example of Jesus, who lived similarly as one of the world’s disinherited:

The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts. We are dealing here with conditions that produce essentially the same psychology (Jesus and the Disinherited (JD), 34).

What he found in Jesus’ example was what he called a theology “for those who stand with their backs against the wall.” It’s a stirring analogy: The world’s disinherited are trapped between the violence of the privileged and the “wall” of systems and structures that don’t allow them an escape. Their options are limited. So what are they to do?

After thinking through and rejecting options such as passive acceptance, ‘playing the game’ through deception, and hatred and violence, Thurman posits that Jesus’ nonviolent example of forgiveness and love of the enemy offers the best course of action. Nonviolence, he believes, “gives the disinherited the initiative” and “declares their humanity, power, and freedom” (Luther E. Smith, Jr., introduction to Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, 28). Of course, Jesus’ way may be the best course of action, but it is a challenging one:

The religion of Jesus says to the disinherited: ‘Love your enemy. Take the initiative in seeking ways by which you can have the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value. It may be hazardous, but you must do it’ (JD, 90).

To do otherwise, Thurman suggests, is to accept the powerful’s false premise about power. The way of Jesus — to love one’s enemies and bless one’s persecutors, to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile — recognizes “that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny” (JD, 18). Hatred and other modes of dehumanization, whether levied against the self or the oppressor, “meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, and death to communion with [Jesus’] Father. He affirmed life; and hatred was the great denial” (JD 77f). In contrast, nonviolence “engenders in the individual an attitude that inspires wholeness and integration within” (Disciplines of the Spirit, 114f).

The magic of nonviolence lies in its affirmation of the value and humanity of both the disinherited and the oppressor:

Because nonviolence is an affirmation of the existence of the man* of violent deeds, in contradistinction to the fact that violence embodies a will to nonexistence, the moral impact which nonviolence carries may potentially realize itself … by rendering the violent act ineffective and bringing about the profoundest kind of change in attitude… [Its] purpose is not merely to change an odious situation, but, further, to make it urgent for a man to face himself in his action (Disciplines of the Spirit, 114ff).

By taking the initiative and rejecting the premise of the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy, nonviolent actions move “the wall” from behind the backs of the disinherited to behind the privileged, demonstrating that it is the oppressor who is bound and the oppressed who is actually free. It creates a cognitive dissonance that, yes, may increase the danger in the moment, but also creates an opportunity for genuine change of heart and face-to-face encounters upon which true reconciliation can be built.

It is fitting that Thurman grounds his thoughts on racism and the response to it in terms of fundamental truths of human dignity and the full life of the mind and spirit. For this is the real heart of his thought. Racism and its impacts are not isolated circumstantial facts, but are are symptoms of the human condition and primary examples of how sin degrades human dignity, separates us from one another, and limits our potential. Thurman was first and foremost a contemplative, and a theologian of the life worth living.

Making life worth living is, for Thurman, one of religion’s primary purposes: “Religion is most helpful in developing in the individual a sense of personal responsibility for one’s actions and thus aiding the process of self-fulfillment” (Meditations of the Heart, 69). More poetically, he wrote:

Human life, even the life of a slave, must be lived worthily of so grand an undertaking. At every moment a crown was placed over his head that they must constantly grow tall enough to wear (The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, 134f).

Because Thurman was a contemplative — perhaps even a mystic — he grounds this concern for personal growth in the reality of religious experience:

Precisely what does this [religious experience] mean? In the first place, he must make his choice of work, of vocation … in the light of his religious commitment. … More and more his life totally belongs to the God of his dedication. The tools, the skills, the training, the resources of every kind which are his must be at the disposal of the commitment derived from his religious experience. The dichotomy that exists between his professional life and his private life, between his formal life and his informal life, between his inner life and his outer life, must be reduced steadily to the vanishing point. Thus wherever such a man is at work, wherever such a man is at play, there the rule of God is at hand (154, The Creative Encounter, 130f).

Rather than isolating and insulating us in our own spiritual bubbles, our personal encounters with God turn us outward into the world as powerful forces of integration: our internal divisions and separations and our various facades and personas crumble before the genuine experience of God.

This post has gotten very long and has barely scratched the surface of Howard Thurman’s rich theology. I will leave you with one final quote, which I think, demonstrates how all three of the themes I’ve touched on here — the integration of the universal and particular, personal growth, and the importance of religious experience — come together so seamlessly in his thought and writing:

The religious experience as I have known it seems to swing wide the door, not merely into Life but into lives. I am confident that my own call to the religious vocation cannot be separated from the slowly emerging disclosure that my religious experience makes it possible for me to experience myself as a human being and thus keep a very real psychological distance between myself and the hostilities of my environment (The Luminous Darkness, 111).

* Note: Throughout his writings, Thurman uses the generic ‘man’ (adjectival form, ‘human’), a form that has since gone out of style since it is so easily confused with the gendered use of ‘man’ (adjectival form, ‘male’), and therefore can be easily understood to privilege male experiences. As jarring and unacceptable as this historical usage is to our ears, it was the accepted vocabulary of Thurman’s day and ought not to be taken as excluding women’s experiences.

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