Updated: Jun 14, 2022
We stand in solidarity with protesters calling for racial justice. God calls us to work for a reconciled and whole creation, where all of God’s beloved are honored and respected.
Like so many these days, I am heartbroken. The systemic racism that is entwined in the fabric of our American culture has once again revealed itself in ugly, hateful and violent ways. As one who directs this organization that encourages people to go into nature to seek God and unity with all the earth, I am frankly baffled. Can nature make a contribution of any kind to the serious challenges our nation faces? Can nature be a salve, let alone a solution for these times?
As I consider these questions, my thoughts turn to Howard Thurman. Thurman famously proclaimed in his seminal work, Jesus and the Disinherited, the importance of “the religion of Jesus to those who stand with their backs against the wall.” Martin Luther King was so influenced by this book, he was said to have carried it with him everywhere he went.
While most know Thurman as a theologian, minister, scholar and mystic, few know that he was also an early environmentalist and had a deep and abiding relationship with the natural world. This relationship informed both his world view and also had a decided impact on his personal theology.
Thurman grew up in the early twentieth century along the Halifax River in northeastern Florida where he happily played and explored the forest and beaches around him: “When I was young, I found more companionship in nature than I did among people. The woods befriended me.” No stranger to racism himself, he would go to the natural world for solace and comfort: “The ocean and night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings.”
And for Howard Thurman, God too was present there:
There were times when it seemed as if the earth and the river and the sky and I were one beat of the same pulse. It was a time of watching and waiting for what I did not know – yet I always knew. There would come a moment when beyond the single pulse beat there was a sense of Presence which seemed always to speak to me . . . There was no voice. There was no image. There was no vision. There was God.
As Thurman matured, he took these experiences of nature with him and would “reach down in the quiet places” of his spirit to be with the earth that is the “one lung through which all of life breathed.” After a particularly difficult walk to watch the sunrise at Mt. Kinchinjuga in the Himalayas, Thurman described this moment as one of “sheer glory and beatitude, when time, space, and circumstance evaporated and when my naked spirit looked into the depths of what is forbidden for anyone to see. I would never, never be the same again.”
Shortly after his trip up Tiger Hill, Thurman met with a Hindu scholar—Dr. Singh—and had what he called “the most primary, naked fusing of total religious experience with another human being of which I have ever been capable. It was as if we had stepped out of social, political, cultural frames of reference, and allowed two human spirits to unite on a ground of reality that was unmarked by separateness and differences.”
So what are we to make of these experiences Thurman had with race, with nature, with God, with other? First, of course, for Thurman and for us, nature can be a balm, a place of comfort and peace. As Thurman was consoled by the assurances of seasons and natural systems, so might we be.
Yet nature seemed to offer more to Thurman than consolation and comfort. His writings suggest that when he was by his beloved river and ocean, he felt an acceptance there—one that was not available to him as a black man in America. Here he knew that he was a beloved and significant part of God’s beloved creation.
In Thurman’s works, particularly his later ones, there’s another aspect of nature he returned to often—unity. There was, he believed, “an original harmony” and wholeness within creation. This original harmony included relationships between humans—like that between Dr. Singh and him—and between humans and the non-human world. This original harmony, however, has been disrupted by the actions and inaction of humans. This broken harmony, he says, is particularly painful and evident to African Americans.
For Thurman, our human vocation is, therefore, to rediscover and reclaim the original harmony of creation. To do that, he says, we must first confront the disharmony we have wrought. So we start the healing process, as Thurman suggests, by acknowledging the myriad ways in which we contribute to the broken harmony—how we routinely violate, demean, diminish, marginalize and exclude, either knowingly or unknowingly. And in so doing we “yield at the core of one’s self, the nerve center of one’s consent to God; and trust the act itself.”
Howard Thurman’s words guide us to the work to which we are called in these times. It is only a beginning, but begin we must.