Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Being a bit fairer to Meister Eckhart

Now, I blogged a little while ago about Meister Eckhart, the 13th/14th century Dutch mystical theologian (see below for link), and suggested that maybe he was a bit horrendously dualistic. Having read some more and thought a bit more about what he's saying, I realise that I was was probably a bit harsh, and have repented accordingly. It's always less fun to argue that someone's thought is complex and nuanced than that they're totally right or completely idiotic, but in the name of fairness, I thought I ought to have another go at some Eckhart-exposition.

Eckhart starts with a fundamental distinction between the oneness of God and the multiplicity of the world (check out my blog on divine simplicity if that makes your head boggle – link below). The closer to God things are, the simpler they are; the further away, the more multiple. In line with lots of other people who espouse divine simplicity, Eckhart tends to see physical, external things as more multiple than spiritual and intellectual internal things, so he tends to privilege minds over bodies and what we want and choose over what we actually do. It's not that external actions don't matter; it's just that they're less important than what's going on inside us. In addition, we can control what goes on inside us more easily than we can what goes on externally: we can't stop our annoying friends coming round and being annoying, but we can make sure that our minds are fixed on God at all times so we're able to love them even when they're idiots. We can't feed all the hungry people in the world, but we can get ourselves to the point where if we could, we would: and Eckhart thinks that for God, that's as good as actually doing it. We can't ignore what goes on around us, and we have to get involved with it, if only because we need to eat and drink and wear clothes just to not die; but the more we care about God, the more we'll be preoccupied with what's going on inside us, because that's the part of us that's most like God, and the less we'll care about whether our food is tasty or has maggots in. But at the same time, Eckhart does realise that external things can reveal God to us - an amazing steak can speak to us of the goodness of God - so we need to both let go of external things and also grasp God in and through them.

It really comes down to this: that everything comes from God, and if we want God more than anything else then our relationship to all of those other things will fall into place naturally: we'll see everything in terms of its relationship to God. But if those things are more important to us than God is, our whole way of seeing the world gets snarled up, and the good things God made becomes dangerous temptations into sinfulness and idolatry.

Creation, for Eckhart, is about God giving of himself; and our response to his generosity should be to give ourselves in return. We are most ourselves when we're totally given over to God, when we're so united with God that God acts and wills through us, when we have chosen God so profoundly that God chooses God in us. We get so given over to God, in the end, that it becomes difficult to tell where we end and God begins (this is the bit that got Eckhart in trouble for sounding a bit heretical), and our relationship with God should, eventually, resemble the relationships of the Trinity, where God is one but also three. Getting to this place of perfect relationship with God isn't easy, at least at first. Eckhart says it's like learning how to write: when you start, it's really difficult; you have to concentrate really hard and it still looks like some drunken spiders vomited all over the page. But if we keep persevering, slowly training ourselves, then eventually be able to write beautifully without even thinking about it (That's perhaps a less comforting analogy for those who, like me, have always had dreadful handwriting). If we discipline ourselves to want God above all else, then choosing God will, eventually, become second nature, and we won't even need to think about how we relate to the physical things around us because with God at the centre of our lives, everything else will naturally assume its rightful place.

Slightly harsh post on Eckhart here.
Divine simplicity made simple here.


Anonymous said...

Eckhart is perhaps the greatest genius the church has ever produced. I have read literally hundreds of books of Christian theology, and in my experience it is extremely rare to find in one person the combination of profound spirituality and razor sharp intellect which he exhibited. I believe the only reason he is not more widely celebrated is because people do not understand him. I do not know what your academic background is, but if he were here now he would run circles around you intellectually (no offense, he would do the same to almost anyone).

I just skimmed your post - didn't read every single word - but I don't know how you can accuse him of dualism. It is precisely his nondualism that casuses people such discomfort. He asserted, essentially, that to truly know an object is to be identified with it (i.e. to know God is to be one with Him to such an extent that one becomes unaware of one's own creatureliness).

Read CF Kelley's book "Meister Eckhart on Divine Knowledge". It is a comprehensive expositon of Eckhart's theology, and has been called "the greatest philosophical and theological exegesis on non-dualism to come out of the Christian tradition". This would of course be impossible if Eckhart were in fact dualistic.

Marika said...

Perhaps if you'd read the post in a little more detail you would've noticed that my whole point was that Eckhart wasn't as dualistic as I'd suggested in an earlier blog post. I think perhaps also the sort of dualism you're talking about is different to the sort of dualism I'm talking about: you're right that Eckhart talks sometimes almost as though we become God, and that's what got him into trouble. But the dualism I was talking about is the dualism between intentions and actions, which I do think is an issue in Eckhart, although not as much so as I once thought.

Anonymous said...

"It's always less fun to argue that someone's thought is complex and nuanced..." very true, and Eckhart's work requires a nuanced approach.

"Eckhart starts with a fundamental distinction between the oneness of God and the multiplicity of the world..." yes, and he calls creatures (by which he means the multiplicity) worthless.

"Eckhart tends to see physical, external things as more multiple than spiritual and intellectual internal things, so he tends to privilege minds over bodies..." Well, yes, for him Divine Intellection is the highest activity, but there is probably less "dualism" between intention and action than you might think. We shouldn't assume that for him thinking about feeding the poor is just as good as actually feeding them. He would say that although contemplation is the best we can do, the very reason we contemplate is to bring what we receive in God back to the world (i.e. compassion).

"Eckhart does realise that external things can reveal God to us" and to the one who has recieved what Eckhart called "the birth of the Word in the soul" everything becomes God (which doesn't necessarily mean that he would, with relish, bite into a maggot riddled steak).

One of the best analogies that I have come across is that Eckhart's relationship to God is like a swimmer's relationship to water. That is, he is constantly aware of being immersed in God (St. Paul would say "lives and moves and has his being in"). It is difficult sometimes to understand him, but the difficulty is one of perspective. Kelley says that Eckhart's heretical sounding statements - like being born as God's Son - should be understood as having been spoken "In Divinis" or from within the Godhead - a dizzying vantage point, indeed.

Anonymous said...

And to continue the swmming analogy: I listened to a Joseph Campbell lecture on CD today, and he said, interestingly, that the mystic and the schizophrenic swim in the same waters. The only difference is that the mystic doesn't drown.

profling said...

Anonymous mustn't be too sure of him/herself, or he/she would have a name. His/her big error is thinking Eckhart is a gnostic--typical of people who value gnosis higher than praxis, which is what Eckhart is all about.