Katie Cannon on Howard Thurman
Katie Cannon is a foremother of Womanist theology who focused on ethics. Womanist studies is movement of Black women reclaiming social and theological narratives for liberation at the intersection of race, gender, and class oppression. Dr. Cannon passed away this summer, and I had the absolute joy of attending a packed session in her honor at this years American Academy of Religion conference — rarely if ever have I been in a space that was so free.
Inspired by that session, I’m now reading Cannon’s classic text Black Womanist Ethics and LOVING IT. More thoughts on that to come. For now, I just had to share one section. Her summary of the life and thought of Howard Thurman might be one of my favorite descriptions I’ve ever read of discipleship after Jesus. Thurman is a unique character who blended mystic and activist, pastor and theologian. It’s said Dr. King carried a copy of Thurman’s slim masterpiece Jesus and the Disinherited with him wherever he went.
This sentence in particular sang home for me:
“Fragmented, unfulfilled individuals align their separated lives with all of life, so that as newly empowered individuals, they form community which will allow them to bring insights and concerns of the Christian faith to bear on altering the most oppressive situation in society.”
And again, Cannon on the “two concentric circles” of Thurman’s ethics:
“Ethics emerges from mystical consciousness which obligates individuals to transform the social environment.”
I loved reading this and thought I’d transpose it here for others to enjoy. As we enter the Advent season and contemplate what it means to follow the Jesus who himself came in the body of the oppressed and whose ministry was in every way, as Thurman puts it, “for those with their backs against the wall,” I hope you can find a moment of margin to steep in some of this good Thurman a la Cannon:
Howard Thurman, the author of twenty books, forty-five articles, and over eight hundred tapes of sermons, lectures, meditations and interview on religion, has distinguished himself as the most prolific Black writer on religion. Due to his strong bias against the scientific systematizing of religious beliefs, Thurman resisted being called a theologian,. Yet his ardent following consisted of religious and historical scholars who characterized Howard Thurman as ‘the most articulate interpreter of the Christian understanding of existence among Black American church persons….”
The central metaphor that shapes the conception of moral existence and sets Howard Thurman’s general ethical orientation is a vision of ‘community relatedness.’
Thurman’s theological ethics comes out of ‘the conscious and direct exposure of the individual to God.’ Fragmented, unfulfilled individuals align their separated lives with all of life, so that as newly empowered individuals, they form community which will allow them to bring insights and concerns of the Christian faith to bear on altering the most oppressive situation in society.
In illuminating the nature of God and the moral responsibility of humans, Thurman’s ethics move in two concentric circles. The compact inner circle is the mystical religious experience and the surrounding supervening cycle is the inherent relatedness of inclusive community. Thurman rules out laws, principles, Normas, fixed ends and the like as models for moral agency; ethics emerges from mystical consciousness which obligates individuals to transform the social environment. First, we are to commend our spirits to God. Next, we work to transform the powers and principalities which destroy the personality so that justice, equality and human rights will be safeguarded for all.
The essence of Thurman’s theological ethics is that the religion of Jesus is a ‘technique of survival for the oppressed.’ Each person’s life must be defined, nurtured and transformed, wherein the self is actualized, affirming the inward authority which arouses greater meaning and potential with each mystical experience.
Howard Thurman believes that moral-ethical insights emerge from religious experiences. Faithful living, the day-to-day activity that guides and gauges conduct of individuals as they shape their social reality, is a result of direct exposure to the Divine Personality. All interactions either encourage wholeness or brokenness. All experiences either nourish religious exposure to truth or snuff it out.
Oneness with God progresses from outward life to the inward life, to outward life in community. The mystical experience with God provides resources which order, focus and define precepts and actions which can be used to transform socio-political structures that denigrate and inhibit the realization of wholeness that God brings to all life.
- Black Womanist Ethics, 20-21