African-American mystic and theologian Howard Thurman speaks often and eloquently of the primacy of community. The loneliness of the seeker for a community is sometimes unendurable, he warns us.

“Garden of Eden.” The Genesis story of humankind’s loss of community with all of life. Painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder  (1472–1553). On Wikimedia Commons.

Thurman explains Adam’s fall as being his loss of a sense of community with the rest of creation. The fall is a fall away from the community of all Creation with one another. A fall out of community.

Thurman believes that both the Genesis Creation story and the Creation story of the Hopi people tell the story of the climate of community in which our species began and to which we yearn to return.

We are always seeking a return to our beginnings, a healing and redemptive community. But the community which we yearn for is a full community, one that includes all God’s creation, not just a segregated one of human dwellers alone. When this community is torn asunder, awful things happen within the human psyche.

Thurman actually defines sin as our being outside community.

Isolation. Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

In community, the citizen receives an integrated basis for his behavior so that there is always at hand a socially accepted judgment that can determine for him when he is lost, when he has missed the way—that is, when he is out of community. Humanity, he says, would never accept the absence of community as his destiny.

When community is missing, we are lost.  Community by definition includes all our kin and thereby embraces our relationships with all Creation. We seek to belong, we long to be with others and be part of their work, their drama. Thurman saw this when he warned that

the community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them—unknowns and undiscovered brothers…. What we have sought we have found, our own sense of identity. 

“Solitary” Sketch by ja’s ink on paper on Flickr.

Belonging matters and reaching out to others inviting them to belong matters. One wonders what he would think of the anti-immigration hysteria of some politicians in our day.

We have committed to heart and to nervous system a feeling of belonging and our spirits are no longer isolated and afraid…. [We need to resist the] “will to quarantine” and to separate ourselves behind self-imposed walls.  I this “will to quarantine” alive and well today? 

In its place, Thurman talks about finding why we were born and it has everything to do with community.  For this is why we were born: Men, all men, belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.

The slaughter of Tatanka – source of food, shelter, clothing, and life to the indigenous peoples of the Plains. Photograph 1892 of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer. Photographer unknown. From Wikimedia Commons.

Thurman believed that the Native American’s sense of belonging to the land is primal—and that this relationship cannot be broken with impunity.

As the native peoples’ land was desecrated, the self was also, and a unique form of torture, a long, slow, anguished dying took place.  An ultimate abuse was enacted against the original peoples of this land.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, p. 85.

Banner Image: “Balcony Concerts to show solidarity, generosity, creativity between people even with social distancing.” Image by Catherine Cordasco for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Do you agree that all people “belong to each other” and to shut ourselves away diminishes and ultimately destroys oneself? What other lessons touch you in this meditation with Thurman on community?

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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12 thoughts on “Howard Thurman on Community”

  1. Avatar

    I think that it’s not community but connection that we most need. Subtle but important difference. I believe that if we are completely *physically* outside our community we can survive perfectly well. It’s the connection between us that keeps us alive – and not only between us, but between ourselves and what we believe in. Could be ‘god’, could be humanity, it could be the earth, but as long as we feel connected to it we can survive and survive well.

    1. Richard E Reich

      Cilla, I agree that connection is very important for us, but we can still be islands of individuality and separate while connectected. That’s why I feel community is so important. I believe we need to see our connections within the context of community, for that is where we live our lives…

  2. Avatar

    Thank you for today’s meditation Matt . Community i feel is so critical to our future, not just the 2 legged ones but all of creation. It is part of our D.N.A. to belong to the whole. I was introduced by yourself to the source of the word “communio” -the work of the people(and creatures,nature,universe). Everything in creation is wanting to commune to connect. All healthy spiritual traditions have this at the heart of their beliefs, science now has been saying this for decades. This great urge to commune to connect to the life force of the universe,the godhead,the cosmic christ, the Buddha nature, sophia,the isness that is. Out of the connection we experience from Community compassion bursts forth, and again taking one of your quotes from the Psalms Compassion is where Peace & Justice kiss.. something so desperately needed in our time. Thank you.

    1. Richard E Reich

      And thank you Steve for your words of support in this, and for including not just us, but also the 2 legged ones and all of creation…

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for the daily meditations-they are a wonderful way to start my days. I am wondering why you designate Howard Thurman as African American when other mystics referenced are not necessarily referenced by race or ethnicity-specifically the Caucasian or European American mystics. I am rather confident that it is to allow readers some context and that can includes generalizations and supposition—-but when racial or ethnic markers are given only to ‘minorities’ it can serve to subtly reinforce that the ‘norm’ is Caucasian/Euro Americans. I am a high school English teacher so I value context, but it is tricky to determine when and for whom to designate descriptive markers including race, age,ethnicity, gender, etc. -Mary O’Dell (old, white, Irish American yankee-raised Catholic, living in SC with bi-racial children)

    1. Richard E Reich

      I have been listening to Matthew lecture on Howard Thurman for over 20 years–in his doctoral program at the University of Creation Spirituality and at various other lectures and in his books. I believe that Thurman is not being singled out by Matthew for his ethnic background or race but rather because he simply happens to be one of our modern creation mystics who embodied the values that Matthew also values…

  4. Avatar

    Thank you Matthew for bringing Howard Thurman to the table today.
    I am seeing that a longing for community is not necessarily an egoic need!
    Each of the Daily Meditations speaks to the heart, thank you.
    Margaret N

  5. Avatar

    Several years ago Ii wrote the following poem about Community:


    trees that grow in a group to form a Forest.
    drops of rain that coalesce to form an Ocean.
    stars that gravitate around each other to form a Galaxy.
    the blending of a man and a woman into a community of One.
    birds that fly together to form a Flock.
    a gathering of colors that form a Rainbow.
    fish that swim together to form a School.
    particles of matter that come together to make Light.
    an agreement between five fingers to form a Hand.
    a gathering of notes that becomes a Song.
    a Community of Three that becomes One God.

    – Tim Conley

    + + +

    1. Richard E Reich

      Very nice poem, Tim. And it expresses the importance of community and how the universe organizes itself into “communities”…

  6. Avatar

    I think the loss of a sense of community and the desperate source for community or connection, whipped up by the artificial nature of the internet, has had a big part leading to the current situation in the U.S. and especially the rise of hate groups. Healthy community is universal, but unhealthy community is solely tribal, I think.

  7. Richard E Reich

    I think you are right for the most part about the relationship between community and “the artificial nature of the internet,” however, during the current pandemic with everything from social distancing, isolation and quarantines we need the internet just to stay connected…

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