Howard Thurman on the Individual, Community, and Kinship with Life

Community lies at the heart of Thurman’s mysticism.  He says:

The profoundest disclosure in the religious experience is the awareness that the individual is not alone. What he discovers as being true and valid for himself must at last be a universal experience. 

Greeting the Sunrise. Photo by Natalie Pedigo on Unsplash.

The individual absorbs what all others absorb.  His experience is personal, private, but in no sense exclusive. All of the vision of God and holiness which he experiences, he must achieve in the context of the social situation by which his day-by-day life is defined.

What we discover through our personal religious experience, we must “define” or act upon in community. Community becomes the “test” as well as the beneficiary of our spiritual experience — our experiences are “personal, private, but in no sense exclusive.”

What is true of our depths is true of others also.  Indeed, if we can’t confirm that what we feel is a “universal experience,” we lose “all of its personal significance.” What is deeply felt and learned about ourselves is a reflection of the depths of others.

Activist Julia Butterfly Hill tree-sits in the “watchtower tree” at the South Central Farm on May 28, 2006. Photo by borderhacker on Flickr.

But Thurman reminds us that community is not just the human community. 

The individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organized kinship that binds him ethnically or racially or nationally. He has to feel that he belongs to his total environment. 

This kinship with all of life defines us a human being. 

As a human being, then, one belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life that includes all that lives and perhaps, also, all that has ever lived.

All things are connected; small actions lead to large outcomes: “Effect of Butterfly.” Painting by Anastasiya Markovich; photo by Picture Labberté K.J. On Wikimedia Commons

In other words, he sees himself as a part of a continuing breathing, living existence. To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in a living world.

Thurman strikes at an essential paradox: even though we are individual human beings, we must seek a “sense of kinship to life” that transcends all particulars.

Thurman’s grandmother, who lived with him when he grew up, was an ex-slave. She instructed him on many important issues, and he tells one of his favorite stories derived from his grandmother:

The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.

“Desegregation.” Statue honoring the 1951 strike by 16-year-old Barbara Johns and several fellow students protesting deplorable conditions at their segregated KS school. Their strike ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision banning racially segregated school systems. Photo by Travis on Flickr.

When I was a youngster, this was drilled into me by my grandmother.…In her recital, she would come to the triumphant climax of the [visiting black] minister: “You — you are not niggers. You — you are not slaves. You are God’s children.” This established for them the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth could absorb the fear reaction. This alone is not enough, but without it, nothing else is of value.   

Moving beyond the internalized oppression of the oppressor to realizing his own God-likeness — this is where “courage, fearlessness, and power” arises in one’s soul.  There follows “the ground of personal dignity” and a “profound sense of personal worth.”

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, 211, 209, 210.

Banner Image: “Dialog with Nature: All Other Beings Appear in You” Image by Alice Popkorn on Flickr.

How is your sense of personal dignity and personal worth these days? Like the preacher, do you work to inspire the same in others?   Do you feel a new courage, fearlessness and empowerment rising?  Is community and your commitment to the common good at the heart of it?

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8 thoughts on “Howard Thurman on the Individual, Community, and Kinship with Life”

  1. Avatar

    God’ children:°
    Ten years after quitting the Catholic Church – but still wrestling with all those penitence, sin, redemption teachings I had an extremely powerful dream:
    I left a boring party at the Vatican with the Pope, we jetted around the world, then returned to the Vatican just before dawn. Everything was locked. The Pope said the only way I could leave was through St. Peter’s Basilica. Our footsteps echoed in that vast space. Suddenly the Pope halted – directly beneath the dome. He turned to face me, raised his hand and officially forgave me for every sin I had ever committed but also for every sin I ever would commit, and he told me not to worry about that “because you are God’s child.”
    I had goosebumps, chills up and down the spine. I woke up and they continued. I get hints of them writing this now, decades later.
    God’s children, freed from putting ourselves down as broken sinners, never quite up to the mark – If we really understood this (it took me years to ‘believe’ the dream) we could change the world. We would understand that we had to.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      I studied with Jeremy Taylor, an authority on dream work, at Matthew’s University of Creation Spirituality. In fact I took a number of classes from Taylor who referred to your kind of dream as a “Big Dream.” Matthew records one of his Big Dreams in his book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ–he called it, “Your Mother is Dying.” And the message to you in your Big Dream is clear: you are truly a child of God, and you are truly forgiven !!!

  2. Avatar

    This definition resonates particularly recently as I struggled to understand how a dear Italian ‘second’ cousin in WWII spoke of almost 2 years in a German concentration camp . During my years in college abroad and after, whenever I asked, he would emotionally be unable to explain. Instead he gave me a chapbook of 1946 Italian poetry. Most recently, sensing the urgency of exploring this history, I translated the poems in 2018 and researched Italian military records as best I could. I found that after the Armistice of 9 Sept 1943, 620,000+ Italian soldiers individually refused to continue fighting for the Axis’ call to do so. Many were killed on the spot of their refusal. Others were captured and imprisoned with the Italian Military Internee designation, leaving them outside of Geneva Convention protections and sending them to camps. My cousin was one of these dissenters, resisters.

    Individually, these men came to a ‘crossroads’ – whatever their individual reasons for refusal – fatigue, betrayal, disbelief, resistance, condemnation – the [God’s] Universal Collective response [community] aligned across Europe to conceivably change the dynamics of history. Besides the moving verses of poetry I have translated into English, I have found a profound sense of Universal forgiveness and the folly of judgment from politicized points of view.
    “Community becomes the “test” as well as the beneficiary of our spiritual experience — our experiences are “personal, private, but in no sense exclusive.” Today’s reflection unfolds this universality at the heart of Truth.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      I am so moved by what you wrote concerning your “second” cousin in WWI. I am so moved that words fail me in terms of response. So what I’d like to say is what you said, “Community becomes the ‘test’ as well as the beneficiary of our spiritual experience — our experiences are “personal, private, but in no sense exclusive.” Thank you for sharing !!!

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