Thurman, Eckhart and the Four Paths: The Via Positiva

Experiencing Howard Thurman is for me like coming home.  The Four Paths of Creation Spirituality, so deep a part of Eckhart’s naming of the spiritual journey, are deeply attested to in his life and in his understanding of spirituality.  His passion for deep ecumenism, justice, a cosmic mysticism, all ring familiar bells when I read him. 

Howard Thurman eulogizes Martin Luther King, Jr., and his commitment to a nonviolent stand for justice. Uploaded to YouTube by The Conversation.

In addition to studying Meister Eckhart with the Quaker Rufus Jones, as a university student Thurman wrote a major study on Francis of Assisi.  He also loved Henry Adam’s Mont St. Michel and Chartres, a classic work on the cosmological mysticism of the middle ages.  Thurman found much nourishment in the mystical tradition of the medieval period, the West’s last attempt at living a Creation and cosmic Spirituality.

Thurman, however, is deeply original.  He does not come to Eckhart from a theory about mysticism; he comes to Eckhart from his own experience of the divine.  Thurman is a mystic and a theologian in his own right.

His teachings very much correspond to the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality that we find in Eckhart and other creation mystics.  Recognizing this can assist students of Thurman eager to coordinate Thurman’s voluminous writings and teachings. 

Moonrise over the Mediterranean. Photo by George Desipris from Pexels.

Regarding the Via Positiva, Thurman was very much a Nature mystic from his childhood days growing up close to land and sea in Florida.  Consider this testimony from his autobiography:

As a child, the boundaries of my life spilled over into the mystery of the ocean and the wonder of the dark nights and the wooing of the wind until the breath of Nature and my own breath seemed to be one–it was resonant to the tonality of God.  This was a part of my cosmic religious experience as I grew up.

His own experience as a wonder-filled child at the awe of nature as well as his peoples’ experience from an African Earth-based reverence for the cosmos permeates this self-disclosure  He draws on both sources of experience when he writes:

There is magic all around us–in the rocks, the trees, and the minds of men….and he who strikes the rock aright may find them where he will….There can be no thing that does not have within it the signature of God, the Creator of life, the living substance out of which all particular manifestations arise.

This is Cosmic Christ theology.

Thurman wrestled continuously with images of God, with how we can best name our mystical experience.  When he declares that God is the creator of life itself and that existence and life are the creation of God, I hear echoes of Eckhart teaching, “isness is God.” 

Thurman calls us from the personal to the cosmic when he declares that our “encounter with God….must be with One who is seen as holding within His context all that there is, including existence itself.”  This is panentheism.  Eckhart says that only “ignorant people” understand God as being outside of us or outside of the rest of creation. 

To be continued


Adapted from Matthew Fox, “Howard Thurman: A Creation-Centered Mystic,” in Creation Spirituality magazine, March/April,1991, p. 8. 

And Matthew Fox, Passion For Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart, Path I.

See also Matthew Fox, “Meister Eckhart on the Fourfold Path of a Creation-Centered Spiritual Journey,” in Matthew Fox, ed, Western Spirituality: Historical Roots, Ecumenical Routes, pp. 215-248.

Banner Image: “Sea of Clouds on a Mountain Peak.” Photo by Kanenori on Pixabay.

Be with Thurman’s beautiful telling of his mystical experiences in nature as a child.  Do you also have memories like that, when the awe of nature and the awe of existence made you resonant with the “signature of God”?

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8 thoughts on “Thurman, Eckhart and the Four Paths: The Via Positiva”

  1. Avatar

    YHWH / GAIA
    Is-ness and Earth” are One in Spirit / Mat[t]ter [E=mc2]
    One x One x One x One = ONE
    Jung’s Quaternity [a 4-fold path]
    Another quaternity that Jung develops is that of the four psychic functions: sensing, thinking, feeling, and intuiting. “The essential function of sensation is to establish that something exists, thinking tells us what it means, feeling what its value is, and intuition surmises whence it comes and whither it goes.

  2. Avatar

    Yes, I was caught up in the beauty of Nature from the time I was two years old. I’d ask my older sisters to lift me up onto the big kitchen chair facing the window, and I would spend hours just admiring the wonder before my eyes: the rolling hills, the tall trees, the beautiful greens of grass and plants . . . I couldn’t get enough of it.

    Once in kindergarten, my wonderful nun-teacher, gave me a seat next to a window where I could continue feasting my eyes not only on the land but on the sparkling brook singing as it laughingly ran its course through the rocks and wild growth alongside it. When she’d call on me to read out loud from our book, she’d give me time to find the last word that had been read, then continue reading. What an angel she was!

    And what a marvelous time we had when, as a little girl, my father and mother would pack the five younger children into the back of his truck and he’d bring us to a new destination every Sunday for a picnic in the middle of the woods. He’d been a game-warden for 10 years, and new every neck of the woods in Northern Maine! He would teach us all he knew about the different plants, bushes and berries , which ones were good to touch and eat, and which ones we were not to even touch.

    I do not remember talking about God, but I just loved the Nature he’d created all around us, and knew that somehow I was very blessed indeed.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      And indeed Vivian, “all nature is a book of God” and “nature is revealed in two books: the book of scripture and the book of nature.”
      These are my paraphrases of what the creation mystics from Hildegard to Eckhart wrote as well as Aquinas and Julian wrote of, and you express so intimately. Thank you!

  3. Avatar

    As I wrote in my ebook “The Bible says we were created in the image of God, which is true, yet incomplete. All existence emanated in the spiritual image of the divine.” Howard Thurman realized this, as did the so-called ‘nature mystics’ and the many faiths of indigenous peoples. Most orthodox religions are only concerned with human life.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Thank you so much for your comment Ron. Howard Thurman indeed realized this as well as the nature mystics of whom we call the “creation mystics” and they provide the framework for Creation Spirituality. These creation mystics are those we have discussed in these daily meditations ranging from Hildegard to Julian…

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