For Thurman, the institutional church in America was and had been both a vehicle for discrimination and racial injustice and a beacon of hope for a transformed community living according to the example of Jesus. To some extent, Thurman distrusted the institutional church and wrote that denominations could pose yet another obstacle to the formation of real, inclusive community. Yet, Thurman spent his life pastoring and helping to build church congregations that could model his vision of inclusive community.
Questions to Consider
- According to Thurman, how had the institutional church failed in its mission to represent the true message of Christianity?
- How did Thurman’s vision of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco reflect his understanding of what the church really should be? How did the work and worship life of Fellowship Church reflect Thurman’s vision?
- Why was it important to Thurman that the arts be integrated into worship experiences? How did they support his vision of what the church should be? What role did the arts play for Thurman in theological terms?
- Fellowship Church very pointedly did not have any creed or any denominational ties. How was this unusual, and what do you see as the positive or negative consequences of these decisions?
- How closely do you think Thurman’s vision of the church tracks with what most people experience in America today?
- What does Thurman have to say to today’s “nones” – those who claim no religious or spiritual affiliation, or those who may describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”? Are there ways in which his inclusive theology and circumspect attitude toward denominational life may be congenial to younger generations today?
Related Thurman Quotes
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have heard a sermon on the meaning of religion, of Christianity, to the man who stands with his back against the wall. It is urgent that my meaning be crystal clear. The masses of men live with their backs consistently against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed…The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life. (Jesus and Disinherited, 13)
The Church is divisive and discriminating, even within its fellowship. It is divided into dozens of splinters. This would indicate that it is essentially sectarian in character. …Here we come upon the shame of what is meant by the phrase of a certain minister in referring to the eleven o’clock hour on Sunday morning as “the great and sacred hour of segregation.” (Essential Writings, 77; The Creative Encounter, 139)
American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption. Churches have been established for the underprivileged, the weak, the poor on the theory they prefer to be among themselves. Churches have been established for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Korean, the Mexican, the Filipino, the Italian and the Negro with the same theory in mind. The result is that in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established – in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth or the like – this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers. (Jesus and the Disinherited 98)
The concept of denominationalism seems to me to be in itself a violation of what I am delineating as the Jesus idea. The separate vision of a denomination tends to give to the individual who embraces it an ultimate, particularized status, even before God. . . . In the encounter with God in the religious experience, however, the denominational frame of reference receives its true status, which is a frame of reference, without standing, as such, in the ultimate meaning of the experience itself. (Essential Writings, 77-8; The Creative Encounter, 140-2)
Fellowship Church was a unique idea, fresh, untried. There were no precedents and no traditions to aid in structuring the present or gauging the future. (Head and Heart 148)
One thing we had in common was a vast hunger for a better way of living together that we had ever known and a deeper spiritual hunger that only the God of life could satisfy. . . . I desire to share in the spiritual growth and ethical awareness of men and women of varied national, cultural, racial and creedal heritage united in a religious fellowship. (Head and Heart 143)
. . . meaningful and creative experiences between peoples can be more compelling than ideas, concepts, faiths, fears, ideologies and prejudices that divide them. (Essential Writings 99; With Head and Heart 148)
Radiating from this center were our deepest personal and corporate concerns for the total community, and we worked faithfully to implement this imperative of our commitment. We were responsible but penetrating critics aiding in every effort to make the good life possible for all people. (Head and Heart 145)
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