Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest American mystics and prophets, Howard Thurman. I often invoke his teachings and in my most recent book on Hildgard of Bingen devote a chapter to Thurman and Hildegard’s wisdom coming together.
Thurman espoused a God of life who takes precedence over a God of religion. In his classic work, Jesus and the Disinherited, he lays out his conviction that Jesus’ teaching has often been “betrayed” by the church, for he sees the gospels as a means by which the oppressed or disinherited can learn while their backs are against the wall. Dr King carried that book with him everywhere.
When religion is healthy and doing its job well, the distinction between the God of life and the God of religion need not apply. But when religion demonstrates signs of losing its way, the distinction becomes crucial.
At long last it seems to me that the customary distinction between religion and life is a specious one… All life, indeed all experience, is heavy with meaning, with particular significance.
God is not merely the Creator of all creatures, of all objects animate and inanimate; but also, and more importantly, God is the Creator of life itself. Existence is the creation of God; life is the creation of God. This is of more than passing significance.
Indeed it is! Hildegard felt the same way. “God is life,” she says. “Who is the Holy Trinity? You are music, you are life.”
Thurman gets excited at the aliveness of life: “Life is alive [sic]; this is its abiding quality as long as it prevails at all. The word ‘life’ is synonymous with vitality.” Vitality is an excellent synonym for spirituality. To be spiritual is to be aware—and thus fully alive, truly vital.
Hildegard attributes this sacred aliveness directly to the Holy Spirit, calling the Holy Spirit the “Life of the life of all creatures.” Furthermore, “the Holy Spirit resurrects and awakens everything that is.”
Commenting on the Negro spiritual Deep River from slave times, Thurman says:
The goal of life is God! The source of life is God! That out of which life comes is that into which life goes. He out of whom life comes is He into whom 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.
He offers this naming of Divinity:
That which sustains the flower of the field, the circling series of stars in the heavens, the structure of dependability in the world of nature everywhere, the stirring of the will of man to action, the dream of humanity, developed and free, for which myriad men, sometimes in solitariness in lonely places or in great throngs milling in crowded squares—all this and infinitely more in richness and variety and value is God.
Adapted from Matthew Fox, Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, pp. 25-32.
Banner Image: Scanned: November 17, 2005 Howard Thurman Dean Thurman @ Marsh Chapel March 6, 1959
Does Howard Thurman speak to you both of the sacredness oof creation and of our responsibilities to be justice-makers and his awareness of the God of the cosmos and creation?
Hildegard of Bingen, A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century
Matthew Fox writes in Hildegard of Bingen about this amazing woman and what we can learn from her.
In an era when women were marginalized, Hildegard was an outspoken, controversial figure. Yet so visionary was her insight that she was sought out by kings, popes, abbots, and bishops for advice.
“This book gives strong, sterling, and unvarnished evidence that everything – everything – we ourselves become will affect what women after us may also become….This is a truly marvelous, useful, profound, and creative book.” ~~ Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism.