WHEN I READ about the dire impacts of global warming, I think about Howard Thurman. This might be perplexing to those more familiar with Thurman as the author of Jesus and the Disinherited, a book Martin Luther King Jr. was said to carry with him wherever he went.
While Thurman is well-known as a theologian, prolific writer, mystic, seminary professor, and religious leader, few realize that—well before environmentalism became mainstream—Thurman articulated a complex theology of the “original harmony of creation,” a harmony that human action had significantly disturbed. As he lamented in 1971, “Our atmosphere is polluted, our streams are poisoned, our hills are denuded, wildlife is increasingly exterminated, while more and more [humanity] becomes an alien on the earth and a fouler of [our] own nest.”
From the early years of his life at the start of the 20th century, Thurman’s faith was formed in intimate connection with the natural world—specifically, the Halifax River and northeast Florida woods and coastline, where he wandered and played as a boy. Thurman’s relationship with nature deepened when a heartbreaking event estranged him from organized religion. When he was 7, his beloved father died quite suddenly. The family pastor refused to conduct a funeral because his father was not a regular churchgoer, and a traveling minister who officiated at the service took the opportunity to expound on the dangers of dying “out of Christ”—to the small boy’s wonderment and rage, “preach[ing] my father into hell,” as he later recalled.
In contrast, the young Thurman found solace and comfort in nature’s seasons and cycles:
Here I found, alone, a special benediction. The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings. The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances.