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Born: C. 1260, Hochheim, Thuringia, Germany

Died: C. 1327, Koln Germany or, more likely; Avignon, France

Major Works: Sermons, Commentaries on Genesis and the Gospel of John (from the unfinished Opus tripartitum), Discourses on Discernment (before 1298), The Book of Divine Consolations and On the Nobleman (c. 1315), On Detachment (c. 1315)

Major Ideas

Beyond "God" lies the Godhead; that is, "God" as Father, Son, and Spirit is merely representation of the true God, or Godhead

The ground of God and the ground of the human soul are the same; thus God, or union with God, is to be sought within oneself Here occurs "the birth of God's Son in the soul."

God cannot be "known" rationally, but only through immediate experience, normally as the result of disinterest and detachment and usually, but not necessarily, arrived at through ascetic practices.

The spiritual and interior are superior to the material and exterior.

Johannes Eckhart, or "Meister" Eckhart, was a dominant force representing Neoplatonic mysticism within the medieval church. As a Dominican monk trained at the Universities of Paris and Koln (hence the title "Meister" or "Master"), prior of Erfurt and vicar of Thuringia and finally superior-general for all of Germany, a popular preacher and spiritual director he was widely known and exerted a strong influence particularly on the church along the Rhine Due to his popularity and influence, he naturally came under the scrutiny of the Church, and was found wanting in certain areas. He pled his innocence in Koln, and in 1327 he went to Avignon to defend himself against the charges of heresy brought against him in Koln. Eckhart died before the final verdict could be reached (Avignon supported the charges).

Eckhart's thought not only influenced those immediately after him, such as Heinrich Seuse, Johann Tauler (whose sermons were so highly valued by Martin Luther) and Nicholas of Cusa, but were received with what may correctly be called glee by the German idealists Hegel, for example, introduced to the mystic's works by Franz von Baader, allegedly finished a lecture on Eckhart with the words, "Da haben wir es ja, was wir wollen" ("Here we have indeed just what we want").

In this century, Eckhart has been heaped together with numerous, other mystics by the "creation spirituality" school, although with much less intellectual justification than can be found in Baader and his contemporaries. The most common threads of Eckhart's speculation that have run through the various renewals of idealism, romanticism, and mysticism seem to be the utter unity of God, or the Absolute, and the elevation of the human to actual participation in the creative and redemptive life of God.

We must bear in mind that Eckhart's thought was conditioned by mystical and hence ineffable experience involving union with God, or the Absolute. The mystical experience was interpreted within a metaphysical Neoplatonic framework that affirmed the accuracy of the experience. Thus, some sort of synthesis between two conceptions of reality was required: reality as experienced Neoplatonically, on the one hand, and reality as prescribed within the orthodox tradition to be Trinitarian, on the other.

To accomplish such a synthesis, Eckhart faced several problems: that of reconciling the God as understood within Neoplatonism to be Pure Being (eternal Form) with the God who is Three Persons; that of reconciling the Neoplatonic conception of creation as having its true existence and origin in the corresponding idea (eternal Form) with the orthodox conception of creation as finding its origin in God's creative act; that of reconciling the Neoplatonic idea that the ground of the soul is the same as the ground of God (and hence that the soul is uncreated) with the orthodox belief that the soul is God's creation; and that of preaching what is ineffable and hence indescribable in comprehensible and orthodox terms.

It is easily seen that Eckhart's task was almost, if not completely, insurmountable. It is not surprising that his efforts to reconcile Neoplatonism with the orthodox faith led to charges of heresy. Eckhart claimed his innocence of heresy on the ground that heresy requires intention, a deliberate act of will, while he always intended to be orthodox. (We must also bear in mind that Eckhart, like many mystics and preachers, tended to write and preach in terms of the ultimate. For example, even though he claimed that the just person is not merely similar to but is the same as Christ, he would not go so far as to claim such a thing of any actual individual.)

Eckhart argues that behind or beyond God (Deus) as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is the Godhead (Deitas), or God as the ground of God. It is with this God as ground of all that one hopes to attain unity While at times Eckhart conceives of God as intelligere (understanding), he most often uses the word esse (Being). This God is not simply a being, or one being among others, but uncreated being in which there are no distinctions.

Such a view raised the question of Eckhart's faithfulness to Trinitarianism. While Eckhart's defenders have taken pains to point out that he maintains that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are indeed somehow identical with the divine essence, the majority of his statements make it abundantly clear that for Eckhart what is essential is, after all, the undivided and indivisible unity of God.

God and the Human Soul

In emphasizing the absolute unity of God, Eckhart asserts the unity of God with creation, particularly with the human soul, in that the ground of God and the ground of the soul are one. While maintaining that the creator and the creature are indeed distinct, Eckhart cannot avoid returning to the Neoplatonic position that from God all things come, and to God all things eventually return. In and of itself this does not sound particularly problematic, but in the assumption that in the fall into matter or numbers, any emanations (a word Eckhart uses, albeit sparingly) contain something essential of the prior emanations lies the implication that God and creature are in fact one. Eckhart is careful to distinguish between creator and creature and yet transcendence of distinction and union with God are to be found through mystical experience. It is by turning to the ground of one's soul that one comes across God. Here Eckhart uses terms such as "spark of the soul" (Seelenfunklein, scintilla animae) and "ground of the soul." It is in this soul's ground, held in common with God's ground, that the "birth of God's Son in the soul" occurs. Here alone is God known as God.

In fact, God alone is worthy of desire; union with, or knowledge of, God is the ultimate purpose of the human being. Any person must become detached from everything else, even from the idea of becoming detached, if he or she is to gain the immediate experience of God. The person must turn away from everything but his or her own soul, what is within, "For creatures are only God's footprints, but by nature the soul is patterned after God." This means that the soul simply is, without self-knowledge, senses, or ideas. Thus God, who simply is, can unite with the soul. In detachment the soul receives not the correct concept of God, or even the true experience of God, but God. Eckhart says, "In the eternal birth, the soul becomes pure and one. Thus, its existence is the same as God's." As the Son is born in the person, the person is born in God and thus, now one with God, participates in the creation of all that is in the eternal now. The person who has had God, or God's Son, born in his or her soul actually partic ipates in his or her own creation. (This is one area in which Eckhart encountered considerable suspicion. Even with qualifications, the following kind of statement is puzzling: "... I am the cause of myself according to my being which is eternal, but not according to my becoming, which is temporal; and because of that, I am unborn (ungeboren)--a being which was never born-and thus I can never die.")

Union with God

Not only a philosopher but also as pastor and preacher, Eckhart was ever concerned to communicate to those in his care the necessity of union with God. The birth of the Son of God in the soul is of absolute importance to Eckhart, and he inserted the idea in numerous sermons. The key to this, as we have seen, is disinterest, or detachment (Abgeschiedenheit). Detachment does not indicate rejection of material things as evil but, rather, as inadequate. Thus one must let go, in one way or another, of external things: "If you want the kernel, you must break the shell." The usual way to detachment was through ascetic practices, although Eckhart pointed out that one can become attached even to the practices, thereby defeating the purpose of the practices in the first place. Note that detachment does not preclude activity. It only precludes any attachment to the object of the action, or the activity per se.

The point of detachment is not the experience of, but oneness with, God, but one must get beyond even awareness of a goal if one is to attain the goal. Thus the person must mortify the flesh and its desires so that he or she can get to the kernel, the common, disinterested ground of God and the soul. Here the person can be busy or still, either in prayer or in acts of charity--it simply does not matter, for the person "is" one with God, and thus beyond identification with the externals of his or her life. In a sermon on Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38ff), Eckhart stands on its head the usual interpretation of Mary as the contemplative one and Martha as the (too) active one, thus holding Mary up as the model for Christians. He describes Martha as the role model, sufficiently one with God that she is appropriately active in the world, and at the same time sufficiently detached that she is not "attached" even to the teachings of Jesus.

The Spiritual and Interior

As has become clear, the spiritual and interior (because that is where purity or unalloyed being is) is superior to the material and external. Eckhart wrote, "There is no physical or fleshly pleasure without some spiritual harm, for the desires of the flesh are contrary to those of the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are contrary to those of the flesh." He even goes so far as to say that "the pleasure we take in the physical form of Christ diminishes our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit." This priority of the spiritual over the material is evident in Eckhart's interpretation of Scripture. Like a number of early church fathers and virtually all the mystics, he finds an outer and inner meaning in Scripture. Again we have the shell/kernel differentiation that runs through Eckhart's understanding of things in general.

Eckhart, then, is a true forerunner and, we dare say, a progenitor of romanticism and idealism. Even in his strong emphasis on the unity of all things in God, he nonetheless attempts not only to leave room for but even to elevate the individual person. He simultaneously stresses the need for utter detachment and for loving actions; the individual's inherent unity with God (the soul's ground and God's ground being one ground) and, at the same time, the individual's distinction from God, God as the creative source, or cause, and the person (in God) as one who "was the cause of myself."

As noted above, Eckhart attempted to capture the essence of mystical experience in formulations which would not stray too far from orthodox and acceptable language. Rudolf Otto has compared Eckhart favorably with Acarya ("Meister") Shankara, the Indian mystic, indicating, perhaps, not that Eckhart was heretical but that mystical experience per se is one of unity, and that, like any experience, its articulation depends upon the mystic's theological and cultural framework. In Eckhart's case, it landed him in trouble.

Part of Eckhart's influence came from his formidable skills in preaching and writing. His insistence that the rites of the Church were not as crucial as the inner appropriation of God (although he never rejected or attacked the practices of the Church) and his emphatic assertion that "God is a God of presence" gave him a wide appeal. His influence appears again and again throughout the history of Western civilization.

Further Reading

Clark, James M. The Great German Mystics. New York: Russell & Russell, 1949, 1970. A helpful introduction to the lives and thought of Eckhart and other Rhenish mystics, with a discussion of the various critical reactions to Eckhart.

____. Meister Eckhart: An Introduction to the Study of His Works with an Anthology of His Sermons. Edinburgh: Nelson, 1957. The introduction is quite solid and contributes significantly to the rest of the book.

Eckhart, Meister. The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense. Translated by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and Bernard McGinn. Ramsey, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1981. A good source of some of Eckhart's central writings, with a useful introduction.
COPYRIGHT 1999 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Date:Jan 1, 1999

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