Friday, July 22, 2011

Spirituality of Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman is, I think, the person who has most influenced African American meditative and contemplative spirituality. Thurman is brilliant and deep, something that is always a deadly spiritual combination. He is Jesus-centered. And humble. Here is one who had real authority, who was used by God to influence many people, not the least of whom was Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've got a stack of Thurman texts on my bookshelf that I've read and pondered since the early 1980s. Next week I will teach a session in my Spiritual Formation class to M. Div. students at Payne Theological Seminary. Here is the handout I will give them, and on which I will comment.

One of Thurman's quotes describes my Spiritual Formation class well. Thurman writes: “One of the great services that the Christian church can render to the community is to provide spells and spaces of quiet for the world-weary men and women whose needs are so desperate.” (HTEW, 57) This is what my class intends to do, not as a one-week experience, but as a lifetime spiritual habit.


1. Influences on Thurman

Thurman said that he learned more “about the genius of the religion of Jesus from my grandmother than from all the men who taught me all… the Greek and the rest of it. Because she moved inside the experience [of the religion of Jesus] and lived out of that center.” (In L. Smith, HTEW, 15)

• To embody the Christian faith, rather than just head-know it.
• To actually know Christ, not to merely know about Christ.

Thurman was influenced by Quaker mystic, scholar, and social activist Rufus Jones.
• “Jones guided Thurman’s first extensive formal study of mysticism. Thurman described his time with Jones as ‘a watershed from which flowed much of the thought and endeavor to which I was to commit the rest of my working life.” (HTEW, 18)

Thurman met with Gandhi. (HTEW, 20)
• “They were the first African Americans to meet with Gandhi.” (L. Smith, HTEW, 20)
• When Thurman returned to the U.S. after meeting with Gandhi “he traveled throughout the country speaking about his time with Gandhi and the relevance of nonviolent resistance as a means for addressing racial injustices.” (L. Smith, HTEW, 20)
• L. Smith writes: “Directly and indirectly, Thurman was the messenger for connecting the spiritual methods of India’s struggle for independence to the need for a spiritually based nonviolent movement to transform racial injustices in the United States.” (L. Smith, HTEW, 20-21)

2. Focus on the Timeless Issues of the Human Spirit

Prof. George Cross advised HT – “Give yourself to the timeless issues of the human spirit.” (Luther Smith, Introduction, Howard Thurman: Essential Writings [HTEW], 13)
• Ontological issues.
• Cultivate an ontology of the human spirit.
• Nouwen – the deeper we go in persons, the more we are all the same.

3. The Relationship of the Particular to the Universal

L. Smith writes: “The major themes in Howard Thurman’s spirituality are:
• The significance of religious experience
• The hunger for community
• The realization of a true sense of self. (HTEW, 30)

“Within each of these themes, a proper understanding of particularity and universality is crucial.” (L Smith, HTEW, 30)

L. Smith – “Thurman’s social analysis and theology are based on understanding the relationship of the particular to the universal. Thurman believes that a particular contains the universal, and the universal is composed of particulars.” (Smith, in HTEW, 25)

• In relation to spirituality, and spiritual formation/transformation/renewal/restoration…, this means: the deeper we go inside people the more we are all the same.
• E.g. – when God deep-searches out my particular heart…, the ontological realities of my particular heart are the universal-ontological realities of the human heart.

Autobiography is connected to spirituality. Luther Smith: “Whatever one seeks to discover about the meaning of life in general must take into consideration how such meaning is found in one’s own life.” (HTEW, 14)

• Because the deeper we go into our own selves the more we are like others…
• …such autobiographical study and research provides keys to “the meaning of life in general.”
• Therefore, find the meaning of your own life.
• Soul-research. Be yourself searched-out by God.
• “Search me, O God, and know my heart.”

4. Spiritual Disciplines

HT relies on spiritual disciplines “to tutor our spiritual discernment so that both the familiar and the strange are understood in light of the desires of God’s heart.” (L. Smith, HTEW, 32)

• Spiritual disciplines “tutor our spiritual discernment.” This brings “understanding.”

Spiritual disciplines “are meant to ‘ready’ the mind, the emotions, the spirit. They are no guarantor of Presence… God reveals His Presence out of the mystery of Being. With all of my passionate endeavor, I cannot command that He obey.” (HTEW, 45)

• E.g. – if I played basketball. I engage in “training” so as to compete in the game.
• The training, the “disciplines,” prepare me for the game.
• Spiritual disciplines “train” the body and mind and spirit of a person.

In Disciplines of the Spirit HT identifies five spiritual disciplines:

• Commitment
• Growth
• Suffering
• Prayer
• Reconciliation

1. Commitment

“Commitment means that it is possible for a man to yield the nerve center of his consent to a purpose or cause, a movement or an ideal, which may be more important to him than whether he lives or dies. The commitment is a self-conscious act of will by which he affirms his identification with what he is committed to. The character of his commitment is determined by that to which the center or core of his consent is given.” (HTEW, 46)

• In commitment there is a “yielding.” There is a “giving oneself to…”

“Commitment” is related to “surrender. “Whatever stands in the way of the complete and full surrender, we must search it out and remove it.” (HTEW, 48)

“Surrender your inner consent to God.” (HTEW, 48)

I think “commitment” and “surrender” are like: jumping out of the plane and trusting the parachute to open. It is a whole-being thing.

Like: “I surrender all…”

2. Growth

“Growth means development in the life of an organism. It means change manifest in structure.” (HETW, 51)

• “Change manifest in structure” sounds like: transformation.
• Structural change.
• Systemic change.
• Which will lead to changes in attitude and behavior.

“There are many adults who for various reasons have escaped this essential discipline of their spirit. True, in terms of physical and intellectual development they have continued to grow. Their bodies and minds have moved through all the intervening stages to maturity, but they have remained essentially babies in what they expect of life.” (HETW, 52)

• It’s either deep change or slow death.
• It’s either maturing or endless baby-hood.
• It’s either dining on spiritual meat or drinking spiritual milk from the bottle.

One of the real challenges of growth is crisis, and the “real possibility of failure.” “To guard against this and be prepared to deal with it when it occurs is an authentic discipline of the spirit… And for the religious man, it is to grow not only in grace but also in the knowledge and experience of God.” (HETW, 54)

• Ongoing engagement in the spiritual disciplines prepares one for crises and failure.
• Always growing deeper… the body wastes away but the spirit is being renewed day after day after day… closer knowing and experiencing of God…

What HT says about “growth” sounds like what I mean by spiritual transformation; the pain of change.

3. Suffering

“When a man is driven by suffering to make the most fundamental inquiries the meaning of life, he has to assess and re-assess his total experience. It may be that… he has never thought seriously of God. He has taken his life and all of life for granted. Now under the assault of pain he is led to wonder about the mystery of life. Why do men suffer? He asks himself. He sorts out the answers available to him…” (HTEW, 55)

“What would life be like if there were no suffering, no pain? The startling discovery is made that if there were no suffering there would be no freedom. Men could make no mistakes, consciously or unconsciously. The race could make no mistakes. There would be no error. There would be no possibility of choice at any point, or in any sense whatsoever… Freedom therefore cannot be separated from suffering. This, then, may be one of the ways in which suffering pays for its ride…” (HTEW, 55)

“Why do men suffer? They suffer as part of the experience of freedom. They suffer as part of the growth of life itself.” (HTEW, 55)

“Without suffering there is no freedom for man.” (HTEW, 56)

“What hostility may do is to serve as a guide through the wilderness of our suffering until we are brought to the door of the temple.” (HTEW, 56)

“There are many people who would feel cheated if suddenly they were deprived of the ego definition that their suffering gives them.” (HTEW, 56)

o Which means: some people are self-defined by their suffering. They are men and women of sorrows, and that is all. So to free them of their sufferings, to redeem them, would be to deprive them of their core identity. Such people resist the redemptive activity of God. They need their sufferings. They will feel they are a nobody should their being-abused cease. Prisonhood is their "normal"; freedom is abnormal and alien to them. Therefore one of the ways that people stay enchained and enslaved is that their chains define and delimit them. For such people to escape this horrible life-condition requires a revelation of their true self, their true identity, as children of God and made in God's image. Only then will they be horrified by their chains and suffering and cry out for release and redemption.

5. Prayer

First of all, “prayer… means the method by which the individual makes his way to the temple of quiet within his own spirit and the activity of his spirit within its walls. Prayer is not only the participation in communication with God in the encounter of religious experience, but it is also the “readying” of the spirit for such communication. It is the total process of quieting down and to that extent must not be separated from meditation. Perhaps, as important as prayer itself, is the “readying” of the spirit for the experience.” (HTEW, 57)

• Thurman: “When one has thus been prepared, a strange thing happens. It is very difficult to put into words. The initiative slips out of one’s hands and into the hands of God, the other Principal in the religious experience. The self moves towards God. Such movement seems to have the quality of innate and fundamental stirring. The self does not see itself as being violated, though it may be challenged, stimulated, inspired, conditioned, but all of this takes place in a frame of reference that is completely permissive. There is another movement which is at once merged with the movement of the self. God touches the spirit and the will and a wholly new character in terms of dimension enters the experience. In this sense prayer may be regarded as an open-end experience.”

“Fundamental to the total fact of prayer in the Christian religion is the persuasive affirmation that the God of religious experience is a seeking and a beseeching God.” (HTEW, 57)

“I agree most heartily with Rufus Jones when he says that prayer at its best is when the soul enjoys God and prays out of sheer love for him.” (HTEW, 59-60)

On the “problem” of intercessory prayer – see (HTEW, 58-59)

6. Non-Discursive Experience

By the phrase "non-discursive experience" I mean: experience that one cannot fully discourse about. (See here, here, and here.

“Religious experience is interpreted to mean the conscious and direct exposure of the individual to God.” (HTEW, 37)

This is what William James called “acquaintance-knowledge,” contrasted with “knowledge about.”

It is “immediate experience,” if not quite “purely immediate.” (HTEW, 37-38)

“The individual is never completely one with his experiences. He remains always observer and participant. This is very important to remember.” (HTEW, 38)

• So… no metaphysical union; no essential union with God.

There is something “extraordinary” in religious experience. This is: “awareness of meeting God… the individual is seen as being exposed to direct knowledge of ultimate meaning, ne plus ultra being… He is face to face with something which is so much more, and so much more inclusive, than all of his awareness of himself that for him, in the moment, there are no questions. Without asking, somehow he knows.” (HTEW, 38-39)

“The experience is beyond or inclusive of the discursive. It is not other than the discursive, but somehow it is inclusive of the discursive… ‘IT is the knowledge of the subject of all predicates’ [Bennett].” (HETW, 39)

• To meet God. To know God, and be known by God.

“The goal of life is God! The source of life is God! That out of which life comes is that into which life goes. God is the goal of man’s life, the end of all his seeking, the meaning of all his striving. God is the guarantor of all his values, the ultimate meaning – the timeless frame of reference… ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and our souls are restless till they find their rest in thee,” says Augustine.” (HTEW, 40-41)

Sheer rational and reflective processes cannot bring us to the God-conclusion. “This is the great disclosure: that there is at the heart of life a Heart… Wade in the water, because God is troubling the water.” (HTEW, 41)

Faith is a way of knowing, a form of knowledge. (HTEW, 43)

“Religious experience in its profoundest dimension is the finding of man by God and the finding of God by man. This is the inner witness.” (HTEW, 43)

“The religious experience is always current, always fresh. In it I hear His Voice in my own tongue and in accordance with the grain in my own wood. In that glorious and transcendent moment, it may easily seem to me that all there is, is God.” (HTEW, 46)

• The constant need for NEW words from God.
• For me, e.g., every Sunday is a “new Word” Sunday.

“Through religious experience… the individual comes to know God’s loving presence in a personal and private way.” (L. Smith, HTEW, 35)

L. Smith – Thurman “laments the tendency of the church to substitute creeds, doctrines, dogma, and ritual for religious experience.” (HTEW, 37)

• It’s all about the God-encounter that happens in religious experience.

At Howard U “Thurman crafted liturgies that introduced dance and other artistic expressions to university worship.” (L. Smith, HTEW, 21)

Thurman’s “speaking style captivated audiences. He was a master in the use of silence. At times, he would be so overwhelmed by an understanding that he seemed to be in a trance.” (L. Smith, HTEW, 22)

7. Mysticism

The word “mysticism” comes from the Greek word muo, which means: “to conceal.”

L. Smith – “Thurman is a mystic. He describes mysticism as a form of religious experience where the awareness of a “conscious and direct exposure” to God is more intense. Thurman does not consider mysticism as a superior religious experience, only different.” (HTEW, 35)

8. Waiting on the Lord

“In the total religious experience we learn how to wait; we learn how to ready the mind and the spirit. It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life – so that when His presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me.” (HTEW, 45)

• Cf. Nouwen’s distinction between “waiting” as expectation, and “wishing.”

9. On “Jesus and the Disinherited

Jesus and the Disinherited is a beautiful, loving, and powerful book. It is Thurman’s most famous text.

The most-quoted phrase from Jesus and the Disinherited is: “What, then, is the word of the religion of Jesus to those who stand with their backs to the wall?”

• The question is: “Does Jesus offer any answers that help the disinherited in this predicament of no exit?” (L. Smith, in HTEW, 27)
• This is redemptive stuff. This is “buying-out-of-bondage” stuff. This is “Exodus-stuff.”
• “James Cone identifies JD as an influential book for his development of a black theology of liberation.” (L Smith, HTEW, 28)
• Martin Luther King carried JD with him during the Montgomery Boycott. (L Smith, HTEW, 28)