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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?