The Mysticism and Cosmology of the American Genius Howard Thurman, a lecture at CIIS

Last night I had the privilage of attending a lecture by Brian Swimme and Bonnie and Kashka Wills on the thought of Howard Thurman. Brian is a mathematical cosmologist who teaches at CIIS here in San Francisco. Bonnie is a Restorative Justice Facilitator in Oakland. Her brother Kashka is a former literature professor turned poet. They focused both on the ethical and cosmological dimensions of Thurman’s work, which I will attempt to summarize below.

Though he was a Christian pastor, Thurman was critical of Christianity because of the extent to which it had strayed from the religion of Jesus. Jesus’ religion might be summed up in one word: Love. Thurman saw Love as the source of cosmic kinship–a stern yet kind intelligence that functions to maintain the Life of the universe. He thought American Christianity in general had become narrowly focused on personalistic, as opposed to cosmic love. Love lacks a cosmological dimension when it fails to deal honestly with the adversaries of hatred, fear, and deception. Rather than resorting to sentimentalism in regard to these matters (“be a good person!”), Thurman plunged right into the deeper nature of hatred. While acknowledging that vengefulness can bring one down to the level of their enemy, Thurman also recognized the great power that sometimes comes from meeting adversity. He thought hatred may sometimes be necessary to overcome the sense of worthlessness instilled in the oppressed by their oppressors. It produces one with the surplus energy needed to speak truth to power despite fears of breaking long established taboos of racism, sexism, etc. In the end, however, if hatred cannot be released, it dries up the creativity of life as we become unable to focus on anything but our enemies.

Bonnie emphasized the importance of a cosmological dimension in Christianity, since without it, we dwell to heavily on the personal and familiar and forget the extent to which we are creatures of the earth, embedded in a much larger, and stranger, community of life. Thurman’s cosmological orientation (“the earth beneath my feet is the great womb out of which my body comes”) places him way ahead of his time (he was born in 1899). He felt quite deeply the increasing rootlessness of industrial life and blamed the increasing prevalence of mental illness on our species’ increasing alienation from nature.

It is his emphasis on the cosmic extent of Love that draws me to Thurman most. His is undoubtedly a cosmopolitical vision. I’m fascinated by the possibility that Love may eventually overtake power as the most prevalent shaping influence of human society.