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Keenan Lecture 2019 | Emory’s Dr. Luther Smith previews ‘Becoming Our True Selves at the Borders’

Steve Jones

The public is invited 7 p.m. Monday, April 22 to hear Dr. Luther Smith Jr.,  Professor Emeritus of Church and Community at Emory University, deliver the 2019 Spalding University Keenan Lecture – an annual discussion of the religious themes that is sponsored by the School of Liberal Studies and the Community for Peace and Spiritual Renewal.

The Keenan Lecture, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Egan Leadership Center’s Troutman Lectorium.

Dr. Smith, a noted scholar of the philosopher, theologian and spiritual visionary Howard Thurman, will give a lecture titled “Becoming Our True Selves at the Borders,” in which he’ll explain his belief that our lives are fulfilled when we make connections with people from backgrounds and perspectives different from those most familiar to us.

The Keenan Lecture is the first of two on-campus events to feature Dr. Smith. At 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, the day after the Keenan Lecture, Spalding and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary are partnering to present a free screening of the documentary “Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story” at the Columbia Gym Auditorium, 824 S. Fourth St. Afterward, Dr. Smith, new LPTS President Dr. Alton Pollard and the film’s director, Martin Doblmeier, will participate in a public Q&A about Thurman.

We spoke with Dr. Smith about the upcoming Keenan Lecture as well as Thurman’s legacy.

What do you have planned for the Keenan Lecture?

The focus will be on how our lives are not just enriched but, I think, fulfilled when we are experiencing the differences beyond our normal familiar relationships, especially those relationships that are in some way strongly related to how we’ve grown up and the kind of paths we’ve been on professionally. I think especially for students in education, for many of them, the extent to which they have found themselves primarily not just associating with but developing  real connections with persons who often fit their sort of demographic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Life really is, I think, most fulfilled with these kinds of connections that we have that are beyond what is familiar to us. It relates then to how what is not familiar to us often becomes that which we fear and that which we actively resist and that which we make abstract and stereotype. So basically another way that another that we could express this is, how do we get to beloved community? Beloved community depends upon our capacity to go beyond our own borders and experience the unfamiliar, to experience what’s at the margins of our lives and at the margins of our relationships in ways that, I think, expand the heart.

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The title of the lecture is, “Becoming Our True Selves at the Borders.” The word, “borders,” is that referring to borders in a human sense, as in the borders of our selves, or is it referring to actual physical borders that we hear a lot about nowadays?

It would be both. I’ve worked with the terms “borders” and “boundaries,” and they have basically the same meaning, but one of the implications of the word, “borders,” is that it’s something that’s really reinforced with guards or guardians, but it’s something that tends to be truly reinforced to the point that it’s secure in keeping out that which we often fear. But it also is the thing that enables us to sometimes feel as if we’re secure where we are. So I prefer the term “borders,” and I mean it both senses – the way in which we are speaking about it politically today in terms of a national border being secure but also the ways in which we all have our racial, ethnic, religious and class borders.

From a topical sense in today’s political climate, I gather that you think we should extend beyond those borders?

Oh, yes. I’m thinking especially two major theologians of the 20th century. One is Paul Tillich, who talked about the most creative places for us are at the margins, and not just at the center. This is not to denounce the significance of the center, but it’s at the margins in which we find ourselves in expanding our minds and our hearts and our understanding. And also (the theologian) Howard Thurman, who indicated that the death of any community occurs – the death of many biological units – when it perceives itself to be in some way self-sufficient, and it’s only when it’s connected outside of itself that it is nourishes. Otherwise, it begins to feed on itself. This occurs, I think, in all types of communities, religious communities, political communities, social communities. So this understanding of just what may be a fundamental principle of life, I think, is to be grasped by us and lived by us if we’re truly going to be fulfilled persons – and for those who are religious, I think – faithful persons.

For anyone coming to the lecture who may not be familiar with Howard Thurman, explain how his teachings and writings have influenced you.

Just about every audience I’m in, those who are familiar with Thurman are in the minority, but it would be wonderful if (that wasn’t case). As a bit of background, the first book-length critical work on Thurman (titled Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet)  was done by me in the late 1970s and was published in 1981. Before then, we didn’t have any critical work on Thurman; we had a biography of Thurman. It’s really been a delight to see how interest in Thurman through scholarship has grown since then. The Howard Thurman Papers Project is the second-longest papers project on an African-American. It’s second only to the Martin Luther King Papers Project. You have a number of persons who have done their dissertations and done published works on Thurman. There are conferences that are focusing Thurman’s work, and, of course, now we have this documentary that has been telecast nationwide on PBS. I think Thurman’s legacy is worthy of that kind of attention. I was drawn especially by his focus on what constitutes vital community as well as what constitutes the vital self. You can even see that influence in the title of the topic that I’ll be presenting when I’m there.

I became familiar with Thurman right in the midst of the Black Power and black theology movement and found in Thurman an emphasis on community that was certainly expressed through those various movements but also an emphasis on attending to the self, one’s self and the self of others, which was not as prominent a dimension of those movements. And Thurman, I believed and continue to believe, has a more holistic dimension of what contributes to vital community as well as vital individuals. It’s a neutrality. You don’t have vital individuals without attending to a vital community. Neither do you have vital community without attending to the vital self. Thurman captured that for me with a kind of insight about faith. And this was also very important to me in terms of Thurman: The vital insight about faith being that which certainly nourishes us and empowers us for being engaged in both transformation of community as well as the fulfillment of self, but a faith that itself is being transformed. That it’s not just a faith that is in some way enacting doctrine, or not just in some way enacting what one believes to be the fundamentals of the faith. The faith itself is transforming. There is a dynamic quality to our believing that is hopefully reflecting that dynamic quality of God. It’s Thurman’s way of perceiving the religious dimension of life aligned with the social dimension of life as well as the personal dimension that for me has been very holistic, very nurturing. It some ways it was the path I was traveling before I became equated with Thurman through my own family relationships, but Thurman all the more enriched that path for me, and I’m deeply indebted to the way I’m able to walk with him.

As for the Keenan Lecture, what kind of person do you foresee who would enjoy and should attend the lecture?

I’m thinking of students, faculty, staff who understand that the quest for a fulfilled life has its many challenges as well as opportunities and how making one’s way to the border is a way to do that.

The next night, during the documentary screening, why do you think people should be interested in coming to watch it and hearing the panel that you’ll be on?

Thurman’s legacy is for us. And in terms of many of the current challenges we’re having about how to be a pluralistic society that honors people’s distinctive contributions and also holds together at its center, I think Thurman provides us a way to do that, a way to both celebrate our differences, not just have our differences and tolerate our differences. There’s a way to celebrate our differences as well as a way in which we can increasingly celebrate becoming community. I think the other approaches that are not emphasizing that fail us – the whole idea that the only way in which we become community is through assimilation. There is always some measure of assimilation involved in the formation of community, but the notion that people must assimilate into what is and somehow or another leave at the border the gifts of their culture or the gifts of their nation or the gifts of their inner city, I think is a failed formula. And it’s a formula that will doom us. Thurman, I think, provides us a way that is worthy of us and is worthy of the energy that will require the transformation of our lives and hearts for it to be enacted by us. It’s a really a challenge to all of us about the kinds of decisions that we’re making about how we’re going to be living our way not only into the future but what kind of decisions are we making day by day to prepare to be moving into the future faithfully, to be moving into the future that is worthy of us.