Thurman insists that emptying becomes a new source of energy, a new encounter with the Divine. It holds within it the possibility of “readying the spirit for religious experience.”  A kind of courage and perception can result.

“Bereaved.” Photographer unknown.

What matters is that we become “stripped to the literal substance of ourselves before God.”

One emptying that we undergo in life is detaching ourselves from the tribal boxes in which we often put ourselves and this certainly applies to religion—we are made for bigger than simplistic identities.  For example, says Thurman,

It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist nor Muslim, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God. 

What a powerful statement about interfaith, interbeing, deep ecumenism, inclusion, spirituality (as distinct from religion) this insight is!  And, about the vastness of the mind of God. Thurman insists it is available to us all and it follows from being true to the great lessons that the via negativa experience teaches us.

“Desegregation.” Statue honoring the 1951 stdents’ strike against deplorable conditions at their segregated KS school, which 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.

Thurman also addresses lessons of the via negativa we learn through social struggle and racism.

What, then, is the word of the religion of Jesus to those who stand with their backs against the wall? There must be the clearest possible understanding of the anatomy of the issues facing them. They must recognize fear, deception, hatred, each for what it is. Once having done this, they must learn how to destroy these or to render themselves immune to their domination. In so great an undertaking it will become increasingly clear that the contradictions of life are not ultimate.

We can look squarely in the eye of fear and deception and hatred and become “immune” to them.

The disinherited will know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of men which is committed to overcoming the world. It is universal, knowing no age, no race, no culture and no condition of men. For the privileged and the under privileged alike, if the individual puts at the disposal of the Spirit the needful dedication and discipline, he can live effectively in the chaos of the present the high destiny of a son of God. 

“John Lewis Declares ‘Change Has Come’ at Dream Speech Anniversary. ” Video by PBS NewsHour

Thurman believes we can live the “high destiny” of a son or daughter of God in the real world. He believes that the Spirit which teaches us the way is “universal,” and not subject to any age or race or culture. We can achieve this if we put ourselves “at the disposal of the Spirit” and commit ourselves to dedication and discipline.

Notice how he names the “chaos of the present” as being real and what it forces us to undergo.  But it does not have the last word and can ready us for the Spirit and for another and high destiny as a son or daughter of God.

Adapted from: Adapted from Matthew Fox, “Howard Thurman: A Creation-Centered Mystic.” Creation Spirituality Magazine, March/April 1991, p. 9f. 

And from Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics, # 214, 204f.

Banner Image: Dancing in the shadows. Photo by Fernando Rodrigues on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

What have you learned from your experiences of emptying?  How valuable have been those lessons? 

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3 thoughts on “Thurman on the Via Negativa, continued”

  1. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    The words, “emptying becomes a new encounter with the divine”, ring true for me personally. This encounter does indeed ready oneself to receive something more that the Spirit desires to bless oneself with, which also enlarges not only one’s perception, but ones heart as well. However, the first few courageous steps of emptying, of letting go of attachments to what was, is often at times sorrowful… there is a kind of grieving in this surrendering all. There is also a time of waiting, of trusting while in the in-between spaces and places of what was and what the new potential possibilities will be. It’s like slowly tredding water in a gentle river, surrendering to the flowing currents of the unknown. Sometimes you are drawn into an eddy within this movement and the only way to move forward from the chaos of encircling the past, is to dive down deep… into the center of your soul. In the depths of this cool darkness you begin to discover and reclaim gifts that can only be found there. Resurfacing you breathe new life into these new potential possibilities… and you begin to tend to, nurture and care for these treasures that were once hidden within, now made known.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, I think you are right in suggesting that the self-emptying of ourselves that is being asked of us takes courage, and Matthew always says that courage means “big heart”–and big hearts go deep “into the center of the soul.” Thank you again for your comment.

  2. Avatar

    Every objective worth attaining does require some sacrifices and considerable effort. Actualizing divine unity necessitates a huge sacrifice: that of giving up your self. Discarding your ego and abandoning individuality will take more effort than any previous task. It requires incredible courage to try and even more to persevere. Very few people come to it naturally.

    Those who diligently seek divine union will become better people on Earth, more in harmony with the universal divine and better prepared for whatever comes after this life. Potential benefits far outweigh the risks and dedication essential to attaining these goals.

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