The Catholic University of America

 James Addison Defense

Final Examination of James Ridgeway Addison

For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

April 20, 2011 at 3:00 p.m. in Caldwell Room 125



William A. Barbieri Jr., Ph.D.


Mysticism and Peace in the Life and Thought of Howard Thurman

As a Baptist minister, pastoral theologian and “spiritual father” of the American Civil Rights Movement, Howard Thurman (1900-1981) made significant contributions to the religious and ethical life of twentieth-century America. Serving the majority of his pastoral career as an academic chaplain, preacher, teaching theologian and contemplative author, Thurman authored more than 24 books of cultural criticism and pastoral meditations and over 50 articles on religious life and mystical experience. The most famous of his works, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), deeply influenced the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black leaders were particularly interested in Thurman’s treatment of nonviolence within a Christian perspective. Claiming Thurman as a “holy man for the new millennium,” Martin Marty has recently suggested that Thurman’s unique ability to tutor the “religious quest for freedom” demands that scholars afford his efforts at spiritual and societal reconciliation the same consideration as those of his better-known contemporaries Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Evelyn Underhill. Akin to the writings of Merton and, more recently, the feminist theologian Dorothee Sölle, Thurman’s voice may rightly be considered as a neglected source of Christian pacifism promoting, to borrow from Sölle, “resistance” to any personal or social relations that are not ultimately rooted in and incarnating Divine Love.

In this dissertation, I analyze and interpret the interrelations of mysticism, peace and reconciliation in Thurman’s life and thought. Beginning with a biographical sketch of Thurman’s life that highlights the primary experiences and relationships which formed his theology of peace and personal mystical spirituality, I then move into an extended recovery of his theology of peace and mystical spirituality of reconciliation. I then explore his “spiritual idiom”  (use of language, silence, symbol and the arts) as a means of integrating his theology of peace and spirituality of reconciliation with his pastoral rhetoric evident in his speaking and writing. Finally, I integrate findings from the previous chapters, first by using Thurman’s original paradigm of “whole-making” to identity certain strengths and weaknesses of his witness, and then via consideration of Thurman as a “peacemaker.” I conclude this chapter and the dissertation through a brief consideration of potential new avenues of research related to Thurman, peace and mysticism, and spirituality more generally construed. By focusing on Thurman’s mystical theology of reconciliation and its practical implications for his pastoral ministry in this context, my research will make explicit his contributions to peacemaking, nonviolence and spirituality particularly within a Christian context.