Paul Daniels, a second-year doctoral student in Fordham’s theology program, received a prestigious Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship for his research. His work focuses on how lessons from a prominent 20th-century Black theologian and civil rights activist can be applied to contemporary life, especially through the perspective of Black queer Christians like Daniels himself. 

“There’s a certain philosophical understanding of the human that doesn’t make enough room for Black and queer life. Black studies scholars and queer theorists want to dismantle this understanding in order to talk about Black and queer existence in terms that are non-negative or abject,” said Daniels. 

Daniels’ project, “Thurman’s Theory: The Mystical Life of Black Study,” examines the archives of Howard Thurman—one of the largest sets of archives of any African American scholar. Thurman was a Black spiritual activist who grew up in the Jim Crow South and later became a key mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. 

“My project attempts to show that some questions these scholars are attempting to demythologize have already been done in the mysticism of Howard Thurmanor [that]some of his mysticism allows us to approach new understandings of what it means to be human,” Daniels said.  

From ‘Tide-Shifting Cultural Moments’ to Today 

Over the next three years of fellowship funding, Daniels plans on analyzing Thurman’s recorded sermons, letters, meditations, and short essays and linking Thurman’s work to key themes in spiritual life today. Most of the works Daniels will be analyzing were written in the last decade of Thurman’s life from 1968 to 1971, after the assassination of King and during the emergence of Black studies, feminism, and gender studies in the U.S.

“I’m reading Thurman’s work at the end of his life at a particular time when many of the questions and theoretical methods that are popular now [in theology]were in their nascent stages. I’m asking, what was Thurman thinking about while these tide-shifting cultural moments were taking place and being born? And how might what he was thinking about then still be relevant to what scholars are thinking about now in its more developed stages?” Daniels said. 

Under the Ford Foundation fellowship funding, Daniels is also developing two peer-reviewed journal articles: an article that analyzes the relationship between eroticism and religion and an article that examines how Black queer Christians worldwide understand Black queer theology. 

“I am deeply interested in how my own project intersects with Black religion in general around the world. I want to think about what Black queer theology might look like because we are more connected now than ever [thanks to technology],” said Daniels, who serves as an Episcopal priest at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. 

A Spiritual Vision That Allows People ‘To Be Their True Selves, as God Made Us’ 

On a deeper level, Daniels said his research investigates what it means to be human in relationship to God. 

“There is an attempt to nail down characteristics of what constitutes a properly human person. There are normative ideas of sexuality, gender, or what a body should look like. But they don’t allow people to be seen as dynamic—to be their true selves, as God made us,” Daniels said. “I want to develop a spiritual vision that can contend with normativity and promote dynamism.” 

His research also offers an important perspective on Black life, especially amid the Black Lives Matter movement, said Daniels’ mentor Rufus Burnett, Jr., Ph.D., assistant professor of systematic theology, who studies how divinity emerges in Black life. 

“Paul is saying there’s a different way for us to think about Black lives mattering. He’s offering the younger generation a way into the mystical through a Christian heritage that offers an alternative,” said Burnett. “He’s offering a very unique entryway to those who feel that Christianity has forgotten them.” 

The Main Takeaway

Daniels credits Fordham’s diverse theology department—a group of ethicists, theologians, and historians from the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic faiths—with helping him develop a deeper interreligious perspective. 

“Fordham’s diverse theology department allows me to cultivate the skill of listening across different disciplines and religious theological commitments and traditions,” said Daniels. 

Daniels said that the main takeaway from his fellowship research is that there’s something special—and unbreakable—within each of us. 

“There is light, imagination, vitality, and power within all of us that exceeds the limits of any political and social determination,” said Daniels, who plans on graduating from Fordham with his Ph.D. in theology in 2025. “With an abiding spiritual vision, practice, and faith, we can access that light and transform this world. Although it may not be perfect and we may not see precisely all of the things we hope to see, we need to keep the faith in our work because it comes out of a place that cannot be utterly violated by the world, that will live and move beyond us in ways that we can’t imagine.”