a couple of weeks ago, i attended a friend’s consecration in her new gig as a priest. the ceremony was beautiful, a time of honoring a new story in the chapter of this community. during the sermon, the meaning of religion was offered, returning us/them to the purpose of faith community. it was pointed out that the term religion originates from the Latin root “ligare” which means “to bind”. religion–just like the term “ligament”–is the connective tissue that re-binds us together in the web of life.
the reminder was timely and has stayed with me these last weeks.
i’ve never considered myself a religious person. like many, i’d refer to myself as “spiritual but not religious” and i’d emphasize “religious” with a longer-than-usual draw and likely, a squint of the eye as my eye is doing that as i write this. i’ve held religion as bad, wanting to dissociate from it. for sure this has been in large part to how it’s been weaponized to oppress and dominate. this is happening today. and, the return to the intention of religion helps to be with the impact of it, rather than to fall back into shame/blame/guilt around it.
i remember an onbeing interview with Krista Tippett in which John O’Donohue spoke of the importance of religion in liberation and justice. he said, “memory is to individuals what traditions are for communities.” he went on to say that religion holds the traditions; religion connects. and then a challenge: “And I think it’s a critical question, always, for somebody who wants to have a mature, adult, open-ended, good-hearted, critical faith, to conduct the most vigorous and relentless conversation that you can with your own tradition.”
which brings me to Howard Thurman.
Howard Thurman’s Strange Freedom has been working me. i’ve stayed with the excerpt from Luminous Darkness for a couple of weeks now, allowing it’s wisdom to wash over and soak in. Thurman is this kind teacher whose slowness and depth call for slow and deep time. the reading of this piece has felt profoundly timely given this nation’s current political and legal climate, with the supreme court acting as it is, threatening and changing civil laws and the insurrection hearings underway.
Thurman wrote this piece in 1965, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, in the same year of the historic Voting Rights Act and March on Washington and Public Accommodations Act. his writing focused on liberation and the role of both the laws and the prophets.
“The external symbols of segregation–the wall, the ghetto, the separate locale as a mandatory restriction binding upon groups of people because of race, color, creed, or national origin–cannot survive modern life. The emphasis here is “external symbols”…So much emphasis is placed upon the fact of the existence of the walls that the symbolic fact of the walls is ignored or is an unknown quantity…”
it serves to take a breath here. to take in the revolutionary nature of what he is saying. that the walls themselves—the external conditions that segregate and separate–are symbolic.
“…It must be remembered that segregation is a mood, a state of mind, and its external manifestation is external. The root of the evil, and evil it is, in the human spirit. Laws which make segregation illegal may or may not attack the root of the evil. Their great function is to deny the binding character of the external symbol by giving it no legal standing. They alert the body politic to the variety of external manifestations of the mood, the state of mind, and declare that whatever such manifestations appear, they are not to stand. This is most important because it calls attention to that of which segregation is the manifestation. As such it becomes a tutor or a guide for the human spirit. The law cannot deal with the human spirit directly…“
the external reflects the internal. we can point fingers at our leaders (our presidents, our bishops, our school officials) and one another (our partners, our parents, our children, our neighbors, our colleagues) and this misses the entire point. how we see determines what we see.
there is no separation between the external and the internal. it is an illusion to believe otherwise.
which is why, when we heal ourselves, we heal the world. when we do the work of reconciliation from within, that reconciliation is reflected in our outer worlds. this is the focus of the book Quanita and i co-authored; it’s a very different approach at reconciliation than orienting primarily to repair with the other. repair with the other comes from a changed relationship with other, with self as source of relationship.
and to continue, he goes on to write:
“The issue is a moral and spiritual one and falls within the broad and specific scope of morality and religion…The first step in giving the kind of new orientation that will bring one into moral focus is the loss of fear. When the relationship between the groups is devoid of fear, then it becomes possible for them to related to each other as human beings and have far more that unites them than divides them...”
“…The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being. It may be, I do not know, that to experience oneself as a human being is one with experiencing one’s fellows as human beings. Precisely what does it mean to experience oneself as a human being? In the first place, it means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organic kinship that binds him ethnically or “racially” or nationally. He has to feel that he belongs to his total environment. He has a sense of being an essential part of the structural relationship that exists between him and all other men, and between him, all other men, and the total external environment. As a human being, then, he belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life that includes all that lives and perhaps, also, all that has ever lived. In other words, he sees himself as a part of the continuing, breathing, living existence. To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in a living world…”
that last sentence, once again: “To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in a living world…”
and then, he unleashes a wrath against Christianity its it failure to be…religious.
“…Here at last we come face to face with the original claim of religion and here I refer especially to the ethical insight brought into the stream of contemporary life by the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It is most unfortunate that the trustees of this insight, namely the religious institutions, have failed singularly to witness to this insight. The impact upon the individual when he experiences himself as a human being is to regard himself as a being of infinite worth. Such a sense of worth is rooted in one’s consciousness which expands and expands until there is involved the totality of life itself. As important as is the clue to one’s self-estimate, as found in the attitude of others in the environment, this is not now what is at issue. To experience oneself as a human being is to feel life moving through one and claiming one as part of it.
It may be that the experience of which we speak is not possible unless and until the individual sees himself as being contained or held by something so much more than he is that his life is brought into a focus of self-conscious meaning and value. Such an experience is possible only in the light of ultimate values and ultimate meanings. And this is what religion undertakes to guarantee: the extent to which Christianit is religious is the extent to which it would guarantee such an experience for the individual. …
Time after weary time, the church has dishonored its Lord. When I asked Mr Gandhi, “What is the greatest handicap that Jesus has in India?” instantly, he replied, “Christianity.” And this is what he meant.“
ya’ll know i’m shaking my head and pounding my fists here. come on, Dr. Thurman! come on, Ghandi. say it again.
“What is the greatest handicap that Jesus has in India?” instantly, he replied, “Christianity.”
“The religious experience cannot become a dogma. It has to remain experiential all the way. The religious experience as I have known it seems to swing wide the door, not merely into Life but into lives. I am confident that my own call to the religious vocation cannot be separated from the slowly emerging disclosure that my religious experience makes it possible for me to experience myself as a human being and thus keep a very real psychological distance between myself and the hostilities of my environment. Through the years it has driven me more and more to seek to make as a normal part of my relations with men the experiencing of them as human beings. When this happens love has essential materials with which to work. And contrary to the general religious teaching, men would not need to stretch themselves out of shape in order to love. On the contrary, a man comes into possession of himself more completely when he is free to love another.”
and that last line again: “On the contrary, a man comes into possession of himself more completely when he is free to love another.”
“…I have dwelt at length upon the necessity that is laid upon the church and the Christian because the Christian Church is still one of the major centers of influence in the American community. Too, the Christian Church claims to be under the judgment of God as it fulfills itself in human history. But it must be remembered that what is true in any religion is to be found in the religion because it is true, it is not true because it is found in that religion. The ethical insight which makes for the most healthy and creative human relations is not the unique possession of any religion, however inspired it may be. It does not belong exclusively to any people or to any age. It has an ancient history, and it has been at work informing the quality of life and human relations longer than the records and the memories of man. Just as scattered through the earliest account of man’s journey on this planet are flashes and shafts of light illuminating the meaning of man and his fellows, so in our times we find the widest variety of experiences pointing in the same direction and making manifest the same goals.
Men are made for one another. In this grand discovery there is a disclosure of another dimension: the experience of one another is not enough. There is a meaning in life greater than, but informing, all the immediate meanings–and the name given to this meaning is religion, because it embodies, however faintly, a sense of the ultimate and the divine.“
true religion connects us as spiritual beings to all of life; we become human through this aliveness, this sense of interconnectedness. it is this aliveness and interdependency, that sets us free and locates us squarely in right relationship with all else.
true religion therefore offers access into untapped, vital resources.
john o’donohue enters in again here, as if he and Thurman are in conversation in/through my heart/mind: “the spirit and soul dimensions are not luxury items, but are actually the very origins and sources which will enable everything to flow and unfold in a new way…the invisible world is a secret, hidden resource that can be released and excavated for the huge resources of spirit, guidance, for areas of ourselves that we’ve forgotten.“
i hear the call to be more human/divine, to be the fullest versions of ourselves so that we can offer our gifts with and in love to the world.
and here, grace lee boggs comes on in with the last word (and perfect so as to offer her belated birthday blessings) :
“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/ spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/ transform the world, they must change/ transform themselves.”