The following eight ideas flow from an imagined conversation between one of the world's most influential religious thinkers of the past one hundred years, Howard Thurman, and the unfolding tradition of process philosophy, whose sights are now turned toward the urgent need for ecological civilizations.
The building blocks of an ecological civilization are local communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, egalitarian, multi-religious, humane to animals, and good for the earth, with no one left behind. They are, in the language of Martin Luther King, Jr., beloved communities. The people in these communities know that they are small but included in a larger web of life. In quiet but effective ways, their sense of love includes people, other animals, and the earth.
What are the spiritual foundations of such communities? Together, in an imagined conversation with one another, Howard Thurman and Process Theology offer eight ideas that can support such communities. The ideas, when practiced in concrete settings, can encourage personal fulfillment, satisfying relationships, and the building of communities that are just, sustainable, and joyful.
Life itself can be a foundation for understanding spirituality. Here life as two meanings. It refers to the lives of human beings, including their (our) inner lives. It also includes the lives of other living beings, which likewise have interiority. Life also refers to Life with an upper-case L, understood as what Howard Thurman calls the ground of life. In their book The Liberation of Life: From Cell to Community, John Cobb and Charles Birch speak of Life with an upper-case L as God.
A Feeling for Life is natural to human life. People all over the world already enjoy a certain kind of intuitive spiritual experience of life and its ground, however named and understood. Thurman proposes that this experience is the experiential foundation for many of the world's religions. This experience includes (1) a sense of radical interconnectedness with the web of life and (2) an intuitive sense that the web is 'grounded' in something deeper, wider, and nurturing.
A Feeling for Life can faciliate interfaith friendships and cooperation. The very recognition of can be a resource for interfaith understanding: that is, a way that people with different religious and cultural orientations can live together in interfaith coooperation even as they also appreciate and celebrate their differences.
People who enjoy a Feeling for Life may be, but need not be, religiously affiliated. The world's religions can foster ways of awakening to the ground, as Thurman emphasizes, but they can also inhibit that recognition. People to reject "religion" can well have a sense of the ground of life.
A Feeling for Life can be a foundation for ecological civilization, because it reveals the value and beauty of life itself in its many expressions: human, animal, plant, and mineral. Process theology emphasizes that there is something like 'life' or 'vitality' all the way down into the depths of things.
A Feeling for Life has many expressions in daily life, which offer the sustenance needed for beloved community. These include attention, a sense of beauty, connection, compassion, devotion, enthusiasm, faith, forgiveness, gratitutude, imagination, nurturance, playfulness, wonder, and zest for life itself. These are among the qualities and traits that arise out of a sense of being grounded in Life. (See the work of Spirituality and Practice.)
A Feeling for Life is trans-religious and can have many different religious expressions: Afro-Caribbean, Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Daoist, Hindu, Humanist, Islamic, Jain, Jewish, Native American, Pagan, Shinto, Sikh, Unitarian-Universalist, Zoroastrian, and it can also be cultivated by means of New Religious Movements. Each expressions adds its own flavor. In the case of Humanism, which includes certain forms of atheism, the word "God" will not be used; the ground of life will be named in different ways. What remains is a sense of the beauty and value of life, and its sheer inter-becoming.
The various professions -- business, government, education, law, and medicine, for example -- can be grounded in a Feeling for Life. They need not serve humans alone, much less the economy alone, they can be in service to life itself.
The Larger Context
Three Things Needed
The eight ideas offered above speak primarily to the spiritual side of communities exemplifying ecological civilization. For the emergence of such civilizations three things are needed:
Organic worldviews: that is, the adoption of worldviews which help humans recognize that they are small but included in a larger web of life, filled with beauty and value, and worthy of respect.
Education and Public Policy: that is, the development of forms of education and public policy (business, government, non-profit) that help people live with respect and care for one another and the larger web of life.
Emotional Intelligence and Spiritual Vitality: that is, the cultivation through formal and informal education, within and outside of religion, of "qualities of heart and mind" offering sustenance for human life while sustaining positive relations with other animals and the earth.
A Life-Centered Mysticism Religious Experience, Howard Thurman, Ecological Civilization
Religious Experience Richard Rose and Jay McDaniel
Do certain kinds of religious experience have wisdom in their own right? Can they help people find wholeness in their lives and also help them build ecological civilizations? Can these experiences help them live constructively and creatively with people of many faiths? In short, can certain kinds of religious experiences elicit creation-care and interfaith-cooperation?
Howard Thurman believed so. His life and thought advance the claim that authentic religious experience serves to nurture the human spirit and build community. For Thurman, the authenticity of what he called "religious experience" is not defined, determined or validated because it occurs in the context of a particular religious tradition. It is trans-sectarian in an important sense. Thurman believed that when an individual realizes connectedness with the “Ground of Life” that individual then seeks to live in “community” or harmony with every other aspect of creation.
It is here, with his emphasis on an experiential connection with the Ground of Life, that Thurman's life and thought can enrich the outlook on life and way of living in the world of process theology.
Process theology is itself an interfaith movement that is deeply influenced by Alfred North Whitehead's idea that experience itself is the very foundation of life. Human life, to be sure, and the lives of all living beings. From a process perspective we humans are not thinkers who happen also to undergo experiences; rather we are first and foremost experiencers who also, and sometimes, think about things. Our experiences include our emotions, our feelings, our memories, our subjective aims, our perceptions, our hopes, and our dreams. Our very lives unfold, not as ideas entertained by the intellect, but rather as experiences we undertake and undergo as we interact with the world. Some of those experiences are conscious; many or most are unconscious.
Our experience can well include what Thurman calls "the religious experience." For Thurman, this is an experience of the interconnected unity of all things in the universe as grounded in a common source, which Thurman calls the Ground of Life. For process thinkers the particular experience to which Thurman points is indeed valid and real.
Howard Thurman on his Own Terms Richard Rose
Thurman was an African-American who sought to overcome racial segregation in the Christian Church community; that effort made him sensitive to many of the issues related to religious pluralism and interfaith interaction. When examined carefully we see that Thurman’s life and thought provides a method for an individual to discover links between religious experiences within their own religious tradition and religious experiences in other communities of the world.
That method is presented as a conceptual model to encourage interfaith dialogue in today’s global society. Howard Thurman writes,
It is hardly a reasonable hope that there should ever come a time in human history when there shall be one world politically and socially until men find out how they can be sustained by one faith. And by one faith I do not mean one creed, one doctrine, one dogma, one church, but one faith -- one pulse beat that is so frontal, so basic to all of the movement of life that it is capable of feeding all of the little heart beats and recognized as such. It takes more than a political dream and more than hunger of body to ground and sustain a neighborhood the size of a planet.
It is important to note that the unity Thurman is seeking will not be found in doctrinal pronouncements, but it is something more basic – a type of experience. Thurman’s belief in the oneness or interconnectedness of the universe is essential to understanding his conceptualization of a world in community. In this he resembles and enriches the idea, found in process theology, that we human beings are experientially connected with one another and with the more-than-human world at a level deeper than words. In the language of Whitehead, we "feel the feelings" of other things and are connected through our feelings of them.
Of course this sense of a felt interconnectedness is not unique to process theology or, for that matter, to Howard Thurman. Thurman’s sense of cosmological unity is consistent with the testimony found in many of the cumulative religious traditions of the world. Thurman was sensitive to the testimony of others; and his non-sectarian approach to religion left him open to experience religious truth wherever it might be found.
This emphasis on experience is not meant to disabuse words and language of the power, but rather to contextualize words and language within a deeper and more experiential context. From Thurman's perspectie, even though we recognize the limitations of language, words are nevertheless helpful in telling a story to convey an idea. While doctrine is problematic when reified, words are needed to convey concepts and ideas in a systematic way for communication. We use words to help us convey our concepts and notions, which are themselves nourished by myths and narratives. In each cumulative tradition in the world, various myths, history and cultural life of the community are involved in developing the doctrine and belief system of that particular tradition. Thurman was cognizant of this development in the religious traditions of the world, and in studying these traditions sought to find the elements which might reveal commonality.
In Thurman’s most philosophical work, The Search for Common Ground, he makes a claim about God, that grounds him firmly within the Christian tradition and, at the same time, provides the philosophical space for interfaith dialogue and striving for an ecological civilization. Thurman writes:
[T]he mind of God realizes Itself in time and that there are observable patterns of sequences in all creation. ... From this point of view, all time-space manifestations of substance – in short, all things, even existence itself – are regarded as the Mind of God coming to Itself in time and space. (Search for Common Ground, 5)
The citation above follows the creation pattern we see in John 1:1-3:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
If the term “mind” in Thurman is understood to be conceptually the same as the word “Word” in the Biblical text, the theological similarities are evident. God’s intelligence (logos/word) is responsible for all entities within the created order. What is distinctive about Thurman's approach is that he understands the Word mystically. For him, it is through mystical experience that people can experience a unity with creation and a unity with the Creator, both at the same time. Thurman believed that this unity is at the heart of what sages from many traditions affirm.
This insight came gradually to Thurman through life’s experiences. Thurman was not born into an integrated society or ecumenical religious community. Thurman was born November 18, 1900 in Daytona, Florida. He lived in the Southern United States where Jim Crow laws made separation and discrimination legal toward blacks. This meant his interaction with whites at an early age was not one that allowed for two humans to meet on an equal basis. His early life was greatly influenced by his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave. Because of his grandmother’s presence he began to consider, early in life, the meaning of Africa for himself and American blacks. Therefore, since childhood Howard Thurman had an appreciation and sense of wonder regarding the land of his ancestors.
He lived in a closely-knit black community in a section of town called Waycross. During his childhood he was brought up in an atmosphere of pronounced demarcation between Christian denominations. Samples of the inside/outside mentality of denominations during that era can be seen in anecdotes shared by Thurman. Thurman’s belief that religious experience is derived from a common source was not taught to him but developed gradually. For example, he and his family were members of the Baptist church in his neighborhood. He and his younger relatives, though they loved a particular Aunt, believed that there was something “a bit queer” about her because she was Methodist by marriage. And because he was convinced of his denomination’s theological correctness, he would argue on his way home from school with Methodist children over the “efficacy of the rite of baptism.” In his autobiography he recalls:
“Years ago I had made a tentative discovery when I preached for the first time in the Methodist Church in my hometown and, to my amazement, discovered that I had the same kind of religious experience there that I had had in my own Baptist Church.”
When Thurman traveled to India, the belief that religious experience is derived from a common source took on a universal dimension. An experiment at a Hindu temple in India illustrates the full conscious development of this idea. He writes,
I had to seek a means by which I could get to the essence of the religious experience of Hinduism as I sat or stood or walked in a Hindu temple where everything was foreign and new: the smells, the altars, the flowers, the chanting -- all of it was completely outside my universe of discourse. I had to find my way to the place where I could stand side by side with a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Moslem, and know that the authenticity of his experience was identical with the essence and authenticity of my own. There began to emerge a growing concept in my mind, which only in recent years I have been able to state categorically, namely, that the things that are true in any religious experience are to be found in that religious experience precisely because they are true; they are not true simply because they are found in that religious experience. It is not the context that determines validity.
It is Thurman’s belief that “sooner [or] later one must be alive to other religions.” Thurman’s position is meant to counter any exclusivist notion of religious experience where the validity of the experience is affirmed because of its relationship to a particular religious tradition. Thurman rejects the idea that God has revealed God’s self in one tradition to the exclusion of others. In fact, the religious experience is authentic in and of itself, regardless of its religious, historical, cultural or social context. This idea affirms the omnipresence of the Divine Being and takes seriously the testimony of others who claim an awareness of divine presence.
Thurman’s conceptualization of God assumes a common ground for everything which exists, because God “bottoms” existence. In this sense every living entity has internal access to God because it is in fact a particular manifestation of God. We will see how this has implications for a healthy planet. The various religious traditions are then expressions of religious truth as developed in a particular context. The obvious challenge to this position has been the inability of religious traditions to find “common ground.” The problems in interfaith dialogue are usually a result of the conflicting truth claims of the different traditions.
In order to understand the ideas found in other religious traditions those traditions must be studied. When studying the doctrine and worldviews of various religious traditions we are dealing with vast and complex systems of thought and experience. Each tradition’s worldview is based upon its own assumptions and analysis of seminal religious events within its tradition. Due to independent formation and/or different presuppositions, religious traditions and the worldviews out of which they operate conflict conceptually and theoretically with one another. These worldviews, nevertheless, constitute reality for their adherents. The sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann have argued that reality in this sense is socially constructed. In discussing the rational for a contextual analysis of what individual communities have come to call knowledge, they write:
Sociological interest in questions of “reality” and “knowledge” is thus initially justified by the fact of their social relativity. What is “real” to a Tibetan monk may not be “real” to an American businessman. . . . It follows that specific agglomerations of “reality” and “knowledge” pertain to specific social contexts, and that these relationships will have to be included in an adequate sociological analysis of the contexts.
These agglomerations of “reality” and “knowledge” create what Thurman would call the “boundaries” of specific societies. We have seen it emphasized by Thurman that cultural boundaries should not prohibit or limit fellowship with those outside the prescribed boundaries. However, because religion claims to deal with that which is ultimate this becomes problematic in that each worldview assumes universality based on its traditions revealed truth. In this sense, all of the great world religions claim, in their doctrine, creeds. etc., to be universally relevant. In some traditions there is the claim that ultimate truth and ultimate salvation can only be found through that particular tradition. The point raised by Berger and Luckmann is that in order to understand the concepts of another culture it is necessary to know how the concept is used in the worldview espoused by the people who employ the concept. In terms of religious doctrine and faith, it is necessary to learn about a religious tradition from the perspective of its adherents.
Thurman learned through his own experience that the world we live in is pluralistic. Yet, he did not see religious pluralism as a sound starting point for religious understanding. For Thurman, religious exploration should not be done in a vacuum. Thurman was well educated, having graduated from Rochester Theological Seminary as valedictorian, he was well aware of the subtleties which constitute a religious tradition. So, for that reason, each individual must have some ground, some center, out of which to structure his/her daily living. In Thurman’s words, “I know that a man must be at home somewhere before he can feel at home everywhere.” The key then is to be conscious of the relative nature of the doctrine and tradition which helps one find meaning in life. Our challenge, according to Thurman’s position, is to conceptualize the functional role of a religious tradition’s doctrine and then to live in harmony with those whose beliefs are in some ways different.
There are three common ways of understanding the conflicting truth claims of religious traditions: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. The first two notions come short of affirming an authentic message of salvation outside of their own. Pluralism affirms the salvific/liberating potency inherent in each of the great religious traditions. John Hick, who has written widely in this field, provides a good explanation of how pluralism is understood. According to Hick:
Pluralism, then, is the view that the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness is taking place in different ways within the contexts of all the great religious traditions. There is not merely one way but a plurality of ways of salvation or liberation.
In Thurman’s work we find the evidence of what might be called “mystical pluralism.” Mystical pluralism connotes the idea that individuals from different traditions are able to realize absolute interconnectedness with others while remaining true to their roots. For example, in the quotation used to introduce this paper, Thurman argues that one faith does not require the affirmation of “one creed, one doctrine, one dogma, one church,” rather it is the affirmation of a unity which is found in the midst of diversity. The unity is not one of logic, but one of action and interaction which is influenced by religious encounter. The great religious figures of the world are examples of individuals who exemplify this idea of spiritual growth or transformation. This conceptualization of pluralism places each cumulative tradition on level “holy” ground. We see this idea expressed by Thurman when he writes,
On any road, around any turning, a man may come upon the burning bush and hear a voice say, “Take off your shoes because the place where you are now standing is a holy place, even though you did not know it before.” I think that is the heartbeat of religious authority.
The idea of religious authority brings us to a crucial point in Thurman’s thinking. A problem arises in that if the notion of pluralism is accepted over the exclusivist or inclusivist positions it is necessary to determine how the obvious contradictions between the various traditions can be resolved. Thurman addresses the questions of religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue with the searching and probing of his religious inquiry and he offers an insightful solution to the problem.
Thurman’s position is that the contradictions of life are not in themselves either final or ultimate. According to Thurman the commonality of the human predicament is able to create a bond of mutual understanding among seekers of truth that will transcend ideologies and faiths that may divide. Ultimately, the religious experience bears witness to this truth.
We have discussed the revelatory nature of the religious experience. Once that experience has occurred the human participant seeks to share it with his community. We discussed how the person who has had the religious experience is motivated to express the content of the message through social action; however, this position does not address the problems found in the cumulative data which make a religious tradition a living social structure. We need to see the way in which Thurman deals with the ritual and doctrine that we associate with a religious tradition when we consider its practices and statements of belief.
Thurman’s position is simply that doctrine and rituals are not the essence of any authentic religious tradition. The true aim of religion is to experience the presence of, or develop a relationship with, that which is ultimate; and the doctrine, ritual and creeds are actually cultural by-products of the experience or relationship. Thurman, commenting on the connection between religious experience and creeds, doctrine or dogma, writes:
This is where I’m coming out. Here, the concern is not with the particular creed, doctrine or dogma. The mystic is not fundamentally concerned with such categories. He sees clearly that all such categories are definitions of the mind. They reflect the teaching, the culture patterns, the particular social orientation of the individual. They represent what the mind does when it seeks to rationalize the profound experiences of the spirit. They are what the mind distills from the ceaseless ferment of the ebb and flow of the fluidity of experiences as life is being lived. They do not represent the truth of what one experiences. Such is only necessary when one undertakes to talk about it, to explain one’s experiences of the truth.
What typically happens, in a specific tradition, when one has an ineffable religious experience is the following. In order to explain the truth of the experience, the individual calls upon the most profound myths and stories within their religious tradition to make the personal revelation intelligible. The result is usually some sort of propositional statement which seeks to motivate listeners to know for themselves the profound nature of the experience, including its immediate and long-term benefit. The statement may make reference to the similarity of this personal experience to that of an ancient folk hero or divine moment that is well known in his/her tradition. This scenario serves to build community within the tradition and perpetuate the dynamic of the faith. In many instances the wonder, awe and reverence regarding the experience is lost for persons outside of the tradition. The problem is that despite the mystic’s warning regarding the symbolic nature of the language used to tell the story, the story is taken by some followers of the tradition to be literal inerrant fact.
According to Thurman’s position, the dynamic of a religious tradition is circumscribed when sectarian doctrine becomes absolute and obscures its commonality with other traditions. In the religious traditions of the world the idea of oneness, wholeness and unity is a common theme. The commonality of this theme, however, is often ignored or undetected due to sectarian concerns and/or the diverse conceptualizations and the many approaches to wholeness and unity emphasized by different religious traditions. The hint to discovering the similarities regarding the commonality of this theme is found in the idea of function. In this sense function precedes creeds, doctrine and dogma. According to Thurman “[c]onvention follows conviction; conviction is not validated by convention.” The doctrine and dogma are, as seen above, simply the religious traditions’ contextual tools (language) utilized to convey the conceptual discovery. John Hutchison in Paths of Faith writes that, “the truth of a religion may be judged in terms of the adequacy with which it fulfills the function of illuminating and guiding the course of human existence.” According to this position, doctrine is judged for its functional value rather than for its ontological precision.
Ecological Civilization Richard Rose and Jay McDaniel In this age of global environmental crisis, it is important that one’s doctrine function, in context, to address our responsibility to take action. Thurman’s idea that the created order is a manifestation of God’s mind, provides that functional connection. Thurman writes,
Since we are not only living in the universe but the universe is living in us, it follows, then, that man is an organic part of the universe. In his organism he experiences the order and harmony of the universe. In fact, it would not have been possible for him to emerge had certain conditions not been maintained so that life for him and all his multitudinous kinsmen could be sustained. (Common Ground 32)
In the West, we have been taught to celebrate our independence and to a large degree emphasized our dominance of the natural environment. We take pride in our ability to shield ourselves from the elements of nature. Yet, Thurman is encouraging us to see where we as a species fit into the natural order. According to Thurman the order of creation is at work both internally and externally. Our internal biological systems allow for the growth, sustaining and reproduction of life. The environment outside of us provides the conditions which allow for this process to take place.
Thurman’s hints at an ecological civilization are seen in his warnings about health and illness. Centered in the notion of common ground and interconnectedness, Thurman makes the following claim:
Man’s experience as a creature is that of an alternating rhythm between his internal environment and the external, geographical environment by which he is nurtured and sustained. When, for any reason, this rhythm is broken through the malfunctioning of any of his organic parts, then automatically, often without his leave, processes are set in motion for the restoration of the orderly process of unself-conscious respiration, or health. (Common Ground 39)
The point being made by Thurman pertains to the human body. Thurman is alluding to the organic properties within the biosystem that seek to ensure the body’s health. Such is the role of the immune system which consists of cells, organs, proteins and tissue. It seems, however, that one can see this information about the functioning of the immune system as pertaining to the entire cosmic order. Is it unreasonable for the entire planetary-cosmic system to seek to rid itself of maladjusted parts? Could humanity be a cancerous component within the organic planetary system which needs to be eliminated for the harmonious functioning of the whole?
I believe the work of Thurman gives our species hope at a time like this. We will recall that for Thurman, creation is the “Mind of God coming to Itself in time and space.” This realization contains within it hope for ourselves and the ecosystem that will sustain the civilization we will inhabit. Our hope lies in our conscious connection with the Ground of Life. Because of our present connection to God, the harmonious vision and its attainment are always within reach. Thurman believes the idea of Utopia helps us keep the vision clear:
Utopia’s most pronounced characteristic is a limited and contained community in which the potential of the individual as well as that of the society can be actualized. Every element is defined in a manner that makes its presence identical with its function. In other words, Utopias are custom made, even though men must live in them. It is as if an entire society and physical environment were fashioned to order.
Because we are intelligent and able to comprehend much of that order, we can learn to live harmoneousely within the ecosystem and create sustainable civilizations. As co-creators with God, it is through the realization of interconnectedness that each entity within the created order is encouraged to fulfill its highest potential. This is our greatest and perhaps our only real hope.
Exclusivism and inclusivism correspond to Thurman’s interpretation of Jesus in the first instance. In the second interpretation expressed by Thurman we see the seed of religious pluralism. Exclusivism affirms the possibility of salvation/liberation through one and only one particular tradition. The Christian who holds this position understands Christianity as the only true religion and salvation outside the Christian Church is not possible. The inclusive position, by contrast, is more accepting of other traditions. Inclusivist theory explains the efficacy of any religious tradition by the salvific acts of one particular faith. A Christian who holds the inclusivist view understands the saving work of Christ as universal. Religious or secular traditions which affirm values that are similar to Christian values, do so through the spirit of Christ. According to the inclusive view any positive transformation which takes place in the life of an individual from another tradition is the result of the power of Christ, even if the adherent is unaware of that fact. Christianity is understood to be unique in relation to God, as compared to other cumulative traditions, because Christians acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ who is God personally incarnate
 Howard Thurman, Brahman Mystics (San Francisco: Howard Thurman Educational Trust. n.d.), audiocassette.