The Spirit in Howard Thurman’s Theology

Accept the offering of our lives, O God; we do not know quite what to do with them. We place them before Thee as they are, encumbered and fragmented, with no hints, no suggestions, no attempts to order the working of Thy Spirit upon us. Accept our lives, our Fatherwork them over. Correct them. Purify them. Hold them in Thy focus lest we perish and the spirit within us dies. Amen.

Howard Thurman, The Light of His Spirit, The Inward Journey

Howard Thurman was an African-American theologian and preacher during the early 20th century. As a public theologian, he held a variety of academic positions, wrote more than twenty books, and was a significant influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. It is said that a copy of Thurman’s seminal work, Jesus and The Disinherited, was always with MLK’s bible. His thought is profound in its pastoral depth and is concerned with articulating a vision of human living and living faith that comprehends and navigates the dynamics of what he called “the structures of life”.

Almost 20 years ago I was introduced to the thought of Howard Thurman in that same book, Jesus and The Disinherited. The impact of Thurman’s penetrating pastoral analysis awakened my own burgeoning concerns with the Gospel’s call to justice and compassion. This book pushed me to read whatever other writing of his I could find. His work continues to have a lasting impact on my own work and aspirations as a pastor, preacher and theologian. Howard Thurman is a Protestant mystic, and one can argue that he represents what Hans Urs von Balthasar describes as the “complete theologian” who embodies both rigorous thought and vigorous devotion. Frankly, more people should read Howard Thurman.

Thurman’s work is undergirded by the conviction that God’s Presence is able to be discerned in and encountered via the interrelated architecture of all material existence. This point of encounter includes the landscape of human relating and interiority of feeling. (For Thurman the dimension of human relating and feeling is of particular importance; He is not espousing a flattened, materialist notion of God. This is not pantheism or, for you Star Wars fans, “The Force”.) While we could dismiss all this as the logical outcome of a dogmatic commitment to the category of “omnipresence” simply dressed up in intellectual and mystical language, Thurman’s functional posture here does not rest upon “theology proper” or concepts that are primarily focused on divine capacities, power, and the projection of divine will.

For Thurman this experience of and encounter with the Presence of God is unabashedly “pneumatological”. It is the work of the “living Spirit of the Living God” whose Presence is to be found in the living structures of all life and reality.

Furthermore, in Thurman’s thought, it is the the work of the human to discern and consent to this same Spirit so that we may live healed lives [1] that are filled with a kind of basic integrity that comes only as we totally surrender to God. In this way we can also say that Howard Thurman represents a continuation of the basic assumptions of biblical wisdom literature. While I have yet to find any attempt by Thurman to systematically outline his formal pneumatology, his writing is shot through with references to, and invocations of, the Spirit of God and its communion with our human spirits.

He writes:

“…this is a living world; life is alive, and as expressions of life we, too, are alive and sustained by the characteristic vitality of life itself. God is the source of the vitality, the life, of all living things. His energy is available to plants, to animals, and to our own bodies if the conditions are met. Life is a responsible activity. What is true for our bodies is also true for the mind and spirit. At these levels God is immediately available to us if the door is opened to Him. The door is opened by yielding to Him that nerve center where we feel consent or the withholding of it most centrally. Thus, if a man [sic] makes his deliberate self-conscious intention the offering to God of his central consent and obedience, then he becomes energized by the living Spirit of the living God.” [2]

For Thurman, the Spirit, for all its energizing and sustaining activity, is at its core the site of God’s own receptivity. The Spirit is that part of the Godhead that deigns to meet us in the only sphere we can know, the sphere of bodies, and birdsong, the laughter of children, the wondrous dance of quarks and infinite expansion, and the deep longings of the human heart. It is this world through which God evinces the generosity and Presence of the Trinity, and it is in this world The Spirit waits to receive a total yielding, a throwing wide the gates of our total being. “…God is immediately available to us if the door is opened to Him.” Upon this reception, the Spirit simply does what the Spirit is wont to do. Namely, fill, heal, empower, sustain, provide, counsel, comfort, provoke and guide. These are all descriptors of the Spirit’s activity that Thurman uses throughout his writing. It is important to note that Thurman is careful to cordon off any notion of mechanistic response while still affirming the the essential character of the Spirit is to be receptive to our own surrender.

It would be easy to miss this critical element of receptivity because we love to understand the Spirit in terms of the benefits and advancements that come as the Spirit moves in our lives. So while we must often rightly “wait for the Spirit”, and we desperately need to receive the power of the Spirit, we cannot forget that the Spirit also waits for us and has received, in the structures of our living and relating, the pathways along which the Spirit will move. The Spirit’s essential character transmits generosity and mutuality as the basic character and posture of God. This is love.

The Spirit then is the agent of God’s humility and open-handed welcome that invites all people to discover the guaranteed gifts of sustenance, affirmation, integrity and energy that are ours as we exercise what Thurman calls our “sovereign right” and “birthright privilege” to choose to welcome God into our lives with that same humility and open hands. This welcome, this “consent” is “…an ingathering of all the phases of one’s being, a creative summary of the individual’s life; it is a saturation of the self with the mood and the integrity of assent.” [3]

And out of God’s generous reception of our assent, Thurman says:

“It is good to remember that God has not left himself without a witness in our spirits. There is a Spirit in us that contains our spirit, that provides the secondary consolations which float the big anxieties, that sustains the effort beyond the calculated endurance, that makes the case for the good impulse when the rational judgement sends the mind spinning in the opposite way, that brooks over all weariness and all despair until the change comes and the heart is revived, that holds the confidence in the integrity of the self when the deeds that contradict will not be stilled and the act that destroys goes on its relentless wayit is good to remember that God has not left Himself without a witness in our spirits.” [4]


Recommended Howard Thurman Books:

Jesus and The Disinherited

Disciplines of The Spirit

The Creative Encounter

If any of you wish to talk more about Howard Thurman, please comment below or email me: nathanclairis [at] gmail [dot] com.


1. The Inward Journey, 128

2. Disciplines of The Spirit, 21

3. Disciplines of The Spirit, 20, 22

4. The Inward Journey, 133