“Howard Thurman was a mystic. He offered this 'working definition' of mysticism as 'the response of the individual to a personal encounter with God within his own soul.' He adds, 'such a response is total, affecting the inner quality of the life and its outward expression and manifestation.' Although most often thought of as an intensely private experience, Thurman notes that 'even in the moment of vision there is a sense of community — a unity not only with God but a unity with all life….' In my conversations with his daughter, Olive Thurman Wong, she lamented that so many people failed to grasp the centrality of oneness to her father’s life and thought. She insisted, 'You can’t really understand my father unless you understand that point.' Of course, 'oneness' is an easy enough thing to bandy about. It is even an easy thing to profess, until we realize that it must include not only the people we like and agree with, not only those to whom we are sympathetic, but also those whom we view as abhorrent (whatever side of a political position we may hold). We don’t get to choose who we are one with — it’s everybody.

“But to be clear that oneness does not mean sameness. And unity is not uniformity. It is not a homogenization thing. Thurman cherished the unique expressions of every individual and the sacred dance between the particular and the universal. We can regard it this way: the infinite diversity of expression emerges from an infinitely inclusive whole. A divine whole. In a theistic framing, that wholeness is God. And through our oneness with God, everything and everyone — every expression of life — is one with every other expression of Life. Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term 'interbeing' to describe this. Even in science, quantum physics and quantum biologists point toward a common energetic matrix, and a unifying intelligence within all that is.

“This unitive worldview — this worldview of oneness — has profound ethical implications. If all life is one, then there is no 'them' separate from some constructed and exclusive 'us.' If all life is one, we cannot abuse or drop bombs on some 'other' people — there is no other! We cannot exploit or commodify the earth if the earth is the body of the Divine, part of the oneness. There is no race or class or nation, no river or blade of grass, that is not part of this sacred all-embracing wholeness and ultimately, therefore, part of (whatever I may understand to be) myself. Within this paradigm any act of violence, hostility, oppression, or exploitation is perpetrated against God, against the Divine, against the whole. And any genuine act of loving kindness or service is likewise of benefit to the whole. In a cosmology of oneness, nothing is inconsequential; everything — from the microscopic to the macrocosmic — touches and impacts all things.

“In my classes on mysticism and social change, I describe this view of oneness as 'north' on the ethical compass of the mystic ethos. (And one need not have had a personal experience of mystic union to adopt this ethic and worldview.) It is something to guide us, to point ourselves toward, to check ourselves against as we work for justice, healing, and liberation. It is the ideal that compels us, although we may never attain it, expanding the radius of our concern and the depth of our responsibility.”