A Critical Review of A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life

by: Kevin Murriel

Beneath the anecdotes and models of successful leadership should abide a deep concern for the Christian leader. Such a concern deals with the religious experience and the nurturing of one’s soul for the task of Christian leadership. The writings of Howard Thurman get to the heart of this matter. In the book, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, Walter Earl Fluker and Catherine Tumber bring together many of Thurman’s writings and speeches on religious experience and public life that show this scholar at his most vulnerable and his best. For the Christian leader today, Howard Thurman’s dealings with meditation, the idea of fruitfulness, suffering, crisis, and leadership serve as a significant framework through which leaders can better nurture their souls for that task of leadership.

For Thurman, the private life was of utter importance to one’s religious experience. And in his words, “the fight for the private life is fierce and unyielding.” It is often difficult for the Christian leader to assume a strong private life simply because their public life occupies an inordinate amount of space. In his understanding of the spiritual discipline of meditation, Thurman suggests, “in the great huddle we are desolate, lonely, and afraid. Our shoulders touch but our hearts cry out for understanding without which there can be no life no meaning.” I agree with Thurman that meditation is of extreme importance to the nurturing of the soul. In order for the Christian leader not to be desolate, lonely or afraid in the public life, there must be something deeper on which the leader can depend. There must be a deeper connection with God. For Thurman, this dependence comes by locating one’s own spirit the trysting place where he and his God may meet; for it is here that life becomes private without being self-centered, that political purposes that cloy may be absorbed in the big purpose that structures and redefines, that the individual comes to himself, the wanderer is home, and the private life is saved for deliberate involvement. The Christian leader’s private life prepares him/her for their public life. But where the private life (the special life of meditation) is absent, one’s soul and eventually one’s patience and physical availability in public life will become confined and occupied by desolation, loneliness, and fear.

One’s private life (meditation), then, is essential for bearing fruit in one’s public life. This is fundamentally what the Christian leader is called to do–bear fruit for the kingdom of God. In his 1932 sermon entitled, “Barren or Fruitful” Thurman deals with the issue of security in one’s life using the life of the prophet Jeremiah as an example. He asks a question that I believe all Christian leaders should ask themselves: “To what do I appeal when I want to convince myself that I am somebody?” He argues that there are three areas of life in which most people seek to affirm security in themselves. They are: family connections and social position, training and education, and ones particular qualities of righteousness. He suggests that those who dwell on such things for the personal security end up becoming “desert scrubs.” More directly, “he who turns to his self-righteousness for security is doomed to fundamental defeat. In utter amazement he will discover one day that his life is barren–a desert scrub that never thrives.”

Christian leaders cannot look merely to accomplishments, education, family and social connections for their security and self–worth. Again, there must be something deeper. Something that enriches the soul of the Christian leader each day. Thurman suggests one’s fundamental security is not in family, training, piety or the like but rather it is the supreme quality of one’s dedication to the highest there is in life–God. For Thurman, there is an inherent God presence within each of us and such an affirmation is apparent for three reasons: God is, God is near, and God is love. For the Christian leader this is a critical understanding for one’s soul development and personal security–to know that God’s presence is ever-abiding in times of difficulty and uncertainty. This understanding of God leads Thurman to write: “He who dedicates his life to God is like a tree planted beside a stream sending its roots down to the water. Its leaves are always green. It has no fear of scorching heat. It goes on bearing fruit when all around it is barren and it lives serene.

The extreme focus of Thurman’s “theology of the soul” prepares the Christian leader for times of suffering. Suffering is universal for [human] kind. There is no one who escapes it. It makes demands alike upon the wise and the foolish, the literate and illiterate, the saint and the sinner.” Christian leaders will experience suffering if not directly, indirectly. Thurman helps the Christian leader to understand the implications of suffering and how it can strengthen one’s soul. Whether physical suffering or the suffering of ones spirit and emotions, Thurman believes,

For many Christians the sense of the presence of the suffering Christ, who in their thoughts is also the suffering God, makes it possible through his fellowship to abide their own suffering of whatever kind or character. To know Him in the fellowship of his suffering is to be transformed by the glory of His life, and for these individuals this is enough–in His name they can stand anything that life can do to them. This is the resource and the discipline that comes to their rescue under the siege of pain.

For the Christian leader, Christ should remain the focus in the midst of all suffering. It is in the person of Jesus Christ that Christians affirm the grace of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in times of crisis and suffering. Thurman does not assert that pain and suffering will cease in one’s physical body but affirms that one’s spirit and soul can remain nurtured and strong even in times of suffering. If suffering, then, is a part of life that does not choose sides and is impartial, the task of the Christian leader must be to nurture one’s own soul consistently in order that one’s presence in times of suffering might be reflected through the character of Jesus Christ. For the Christian leaders sake and for the sake of others.

Freedom, in essence, is the ethos of this book. This freedom is one that comes through the consistent nurturing of one’s soul, which is essential for the Christian leader who operates within an institution or system. In 1928, as Thurman speaks with the force of the New Negro intellectuals whose mission was to reconstruct the intellectual coherence of African-American spiritual, cultural, and political practices; he contrasts the rise of materialism in post-war black culture with the traditional African-American integration of religion and life. In his speech, he notes several things to the black ministers that were in attendance, which I would argue have important implications for all Christian leaders today. He says,

The Negro [Christian] minister must find how to interpret life in terms of a creative expansive idealism. Therefore, he must be a student. For instance, he must know what the problem of evolution is and must be prepared to think clear through it with the anxious ones who share their doubts with him. He must be aware of the findings in all the major fields of human knowledge and interpret their meaning in terms of the kingdom of God.

I do not intend to take away from the message that Howard Thurman is presenting to this particular group of individuals. However, all Christian leaders in the 21st century should be students and interpret life in terms of a creative expansive idealism. They must be aware of what is occurring in the secular so that they might interpret the eternal to all people within society and from within their particular institution. Further, Thurman notes the minister must be a thinker. He must sense the dilemmas in which his people face in American life and must offer intelligent spiritual and practical guidance to them. This points to the awareness of the Christian leader. An awareness that moves beyond the complexities of ones private life and engages with the public life of the people whom one has the privilege of leading. Thurman refers to this as “keeping open the door of thy heart.” There is a profound ground of unity that is more pertinent and authentic than all the unilateral dimension of our lives. This a [human] discovers when he is able to keep open the door of his heart. This is one’s ultimate responsibility, and it is not dependent upon whether the heart of another is kept open for him.

In understanding the words of Howard Thurman, the Christian leader begins to experience “A Strange Freedom” that is a direct reflection of the intentional and consistent nurturing of one’s soul. Fruitfulness, security, growth in suffering, creative expansive leadership, and an open heart are its byproducts. The private life is of utter importance to thriving in the public life. And for the Christian leader, this book is a reminder that the progression of the kingdom of God becomes more effective as a result of the disciplines of one’s own spirit.

About the writer:
Kevin Murriel was born on May 28, 1986 in Brandon, Mississippi. He received his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Jackson State University (Jackson, Ms.), his master’s degree in Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (Atlanta, GA.) and is currently pursuing his doctor of ministry degree from Duke University (Durham, NC.). Kevin is a United Methodist pastor in the North Georgia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and is the author of the book, “Who’s Afraid of the Journey? 8 Steps to Help You Walk in the Confidence of Christ!” Read more about Kevin at www.kevinmurriel.com.