Howard Thurman’s Spiritual Teacher- Matthew Fox

African American theologian Howard Thurman (1899–1981) was the spiritual champion of the civil rights movement. Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, was a huge influence on Martin Luther King Jr., who took the book with him each of the thirty-nine times he went to jail.

Thurman studied Meister Eckhart as a young man from Quaker teacher Rufus Jones, and he cited Eckhart often, especially Eckhart’s “spark of the soul” that lies in every person and cannot be snuffed out by hostility or fear or anger or oppression. Thurman writes, “What Eckhart calls the ‘uncreated element’ in [a person’s] soul . . . was an assumed fact profoundly at work in the life and thought of the early slaves. This much was certainly clear to them — the soul of man was immortal. It could go to heaven or hell, but it could not die.” What gives hope to the downtrodden, Thurman feels, is “the great disclosure: that there is at the heart of life a Heart,” and “the most daring and revolutionary concept known to man” is that “God is not only the creative mind and spirit at the core of the universe but that He . . . is love.” Not only is God the creator of all things, but “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.” In this, Thurman echoes Eckhart’s God talk, in which the “God of life” takes precedence over the God of religion. As did Eckhart, Thurman feels that Jesus’s teachings have often been “betrayed” by the institutional church, which too often readily ignores those whose backs are “up against the wall.” 

The life of the historical Jesus was important within the civil rights movement. Thurman writes:

    The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. . . . ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ When this spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.

After Jesus, Thurman says, the Christian church “became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression.” But that does not reflect the mind or life of Jesus. (ibid) Thurman shares with Eckhart the core belief that being a “son or daughter of God” has profound political ramifications: “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.” Indeed, for him as for Eckhart, “the core of the analysis of Jesus is that man is a child of God, the God of life that sustains all of nature and guarantees all the intricacies of the life-process itself.” And, like Eckhart, Thurman believes humanity itself needs to realize it is part of the cosmos: “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. . . . As a human being, then, he belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life.”

Thurman also repeats on many occasions his stark naming of the via negativa, such as when he says that ours is a journey wherein the “human spirit [is] stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.” Thurman sounds very Eckhart-like when he declares that his primary concern is to remove “the last barriers between the outer and the inner aspects of religious experience.” (W 153) My marrying the via positiva and via negativa (inner) with the via creativa and via transformativa (outer) is focused on the same task. 

One sees in Thurman — and by extension in his student Martin Luther King Jr. — an application of Eckhart’s deepest teachings, including that of the divine spark in every person, cosmic awareness, and his speaking truth to the economic, political, and religious powers. It is a teaching that compassion and justice are one.

Clearly, Howard Thurman and MLK Jr. are spiritual warriors who challenge us to engage in social, environmental, racial and economic justice, which Eckhart helped lay the ground for. After all, as Eckhart said, God “is justice itself.” 

Excerpted from Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Times by Matthew Fox (Novato, Ca: New World Library, 2014), pp. 248-250.


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Rev. Matthew Fox, PhD, author, theologian, and activist priest, has been calling people of spirit and conscience into the Creation Spirituality lineage for over 50 years. His 36 books (translated into 74 languages), as well as his lectures, retreats, and innovative education models, have ignited an international movement to awaken people to be mystics and prophets, contemplative activists, who honor and defend the earth and work for justice.

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