Howard Thurman (More to Come)…

Dr. Howard Thurman

Dr. Howard Thurman, American Mystic. Image via Wikipedia

In some ways, blogging keeps me humble. And here is one of those ways.

Last night I received the following message from a woman named Liza, one of this blog’s readers:

I will assume that it was a gross oversight not to include Howard Thurman on the list of mystics during the 20th century.

Gross oversight indeed!

I’ve fixed the “oversight” to which Liza refers, on this blog’s Christian Mysticism page. That was easy enough. But harder to fix is the fact that I didn’t include Thurman in the Big Book of Christian Mysticism. And that embarrasses me.

It embarrasses me for several reasons. First, I tried to find as many Protestant mystics as I could (Thurman was a Baptist). Secondly, I wanted to include as many mystics as possible of backgrounds other than European ancestry (Thurman was African-American). And thirdly, I wanted to include as many mystics from recent years as possible (Thurman lived from 1899-1981). For that matter, of all the mystics I have explored, Thurman has the most immediate geographical proximity to me, in that he went to school here in Atlanta.

So with all these points of consideration, how did I miss Howard Thurman? All I can think of, by way of answer, is the title of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel: Invisible Man. Howard Thurman, the grandfather of the civil rights movement and perhaps the most revered and eloquent African-American theologian of the mid-twentieth century, and yes, widely regarded as a mystic — didn’t make it into The Big Book of Christian Mysticism because I, well, overlooked him.

I suppose that’s better than “he didn’t get included because I didn’t think he deserved to be.” But not by much. I feel like a white schmuck right now.

Of course, it’s not just me. It’s the various books I consulted, articles I read, websites I visited, where names like Thomas Merton and Teilhard de Chardin and Evelyn Underhill showed up again and again and again, but Thurman… well, I knew who Thurman was, and I knew he was regarded as a mystic. But I never got around to actually reading Thurman, or reading a study of him (two books that are now in my Amazon shopping cart: Howard Thurman’s Essential Writings and Luther E. Smith Jr.’s Howard Thurman: Mystic as Prophet). Once I’ve had a chance to read those books, I’ll be in a better position to write something intelligent (and fitting) about the African-American Baptist who quietly espoused a mystical faith in the midst of the calamitous 20th century.

But in the meantime, thank you to Liza for bringing this “gross oversight” to my attention. And to all you Howard Thurman fans out there in the blogiverse, I offer my apologies.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?
Entering the Year of Mercy: Are You Willing to Take the "Rahner Challenge"?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Ellen N. Duell

    Thank you for this heartfelt apology. I think that my husband and I read Howard Thurman’s articles in “The Christian Century” magazine, and, probably, in “Sojourners” magazine. It was always a great day when we could read something of his–we learned, and our hearts were comforted that someone of such excellence would express the deep beliefs we held with such cogency and beauty of expression. I honor him and am grateful to his light in my life.