philosophy is for everyone
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The Man From Whom God Hid Nothing
An essay on Johannes Eckhart
by Arthur Brown
Today, I am to write about one of the greatest Christian mystics ever, a man who was forgotten and left behind for too long. A soul that lived long before the rise of modern western science yet penetrated the deepest depth of being. A man from whom God hid nothing, even the nothingness beyond God himself was to him revealed.
Johannes Eckhart was born around 1260 A.D to a knight. He entered the Dominican order when he was about 15. He taught in Paris, Strassburg and Cologne, held numerous responsible provincial offices, and was a great preacher.
Eckhart seldom taught in Latin. Except for official occasions where Latin was almost a must, Eckhart used to speak to his German fellows in their homeland language. This is quite expected, for Eckhart had nothing to hide. While other preachers hid their repetitive sermons and sterile systems beneath enigmatic Latin terms, and even before the ecclesiastical authority executed William Tyndale (1492-1536) for translating the bible to English, Eckhart wanted everyone to know God, to know God the same way he knew God. He thought that spiritual knowledge was made available for everyone by the Lord, from the theology master to the naive layman.
Eckhart's language is in every aspect superb. It is without exaggeration the text analog of a Steven Spielberg film! Eckhart used to write in such a vivid language, his writings are full of fruitful parables, mind-wrecking paradoxes, colorful images and mysterious symbolism. Eckhart's language raises the reader's soul to the highest of all heavens, makes him feel as a pure angel standing next to the Lord and glorifying him eternally. One moment later, it sails the soul through the turbulent seas of the confused human's thoughts, just before it dives the soul to the depths of the calm oceans of divine knowledge, the desert of the Godhead where everyone is spiritually naked, unattached and undesirous. It was thus no surprise that Eckhart inspired German thought after him, whether mystical or not.
Unlike most other theological scholars at his time, Eckhart did not talk about things that he learnt from books. Eckhart taught nothing but his own personal experience. It is quite evident from his writings that he does not write theology that he was taught to believe, that was abstract and aliened from his everyday life. He taught what he himself lived. Definitely Eckhart was greatly influenced by the neoplatonic thought as well as the teachings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, yet he didn't naively repeat anyone's words. Eckhart embraced those teachings because he was in accordance with them. It is not strange that Eckhart's thoughts are also in extreme accordance with most oriental systems. D.T. Suzuki, the famous Zen philosopher, was perplexed when he read Eckhart, it seems that he never expected to see one of the 'dualist westerners' talking about the mystical oneness in a manner parallel to or even exceeding expert Zen masters! In his book 'Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist' he says:
'When I first read which was more than a half century ago a little book containing a few of Meister Eckhart's sermons, they impressed me profoundly, for I never expected that any Christian thinker ancient or modern could or would cherish such daring thoughts as expressed in those sermons... As far as I can judge, Eckhart seems to be an extraordinary "Christian"... He stands on his own experiences which are emerged from a rich, deep, religious personality. He attempts to reconcile them with the historical type of Christianity modeled after legends and mythology. He tries to give an "esoteric" or inner meaning to them, and by so doing he enters fields which were not touched by most of his historical predecessors.'
Eckhart's religious philosophy is based on the one impersonal reality that is empty of any form, yet penetrates every form, The Godhead. Godhead can never be known in the same way all things are known, because it is not a 'thing'. The Godhead is deprived of any form, it is just when we negate everything that the light of the Godhead is born in our heart. Thus we can find him teaching that 'God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.' Eckhart usually speaks of this spiritual enlightenment as 'the inner birth of the Christ'. This potentiality of divine knowledge, according to Eckhart lies at the depth of every human, thus he teaches, 'The seed of God is in us. Pear seeds grow pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God seeds into God.' It is to be noted here that he here didn't only affirm our ability to know God, but even to be God, and to realize the God that is in us, more wood to the fire that was later to burn Eckhart's fame for centuries.
Eckhart was astute enough to differentiate between Godhead, the impersonal reality and God the personal God of the scripture. He was even able to differentiate between the empirical self 'the ego' that loves, hates and remembers and the transcendental self, that white sheet on which we write our personalities, 'the atman' in Hinduism. He gives them different names: the soul and the apex of the soul 'the spark', or the inward man and the outward man. This quote is an excellent example:
'God and Godhead are as different as earth is from heaven.
To shift to a more detailed paragraph explaining the same thing we can quote:
'I have occasionally spoken of a light in the soul which is uncreated and uncreatable... This light is not satisfied with the simple, still and divine being which neither gives nor takes, but rather it desires to know from where this being comes. It wants to penetrate to the simple ground, to the still desert, into which distinction never peeped, neither Father, Son nor Holy Spirit. There, in that most inward place, where everyone is a stranger, the light is satisfied, and there it is more inward than it is in itself, for this ground is a simple stillness which is immovable in itself. But all things are moved by this immovability and all the forms of life are conceived by it which, possessing the light of reason, live of themselves.' (Sermon DW 48)
It seems that the apex of the soul itself is just a 'spark' of Godhead. This spark, as the Godhead, doesn't possess any form. And being formless it is even above the most sacred of forms, that is God himself, thus Eckhart talks about the spark as,
'a force in the soul; and not only a force, but something more, a being; and not only a being, but something more; it is so pure and high and noble in itself that no creature can come there, and God alone can dwell there. Yea, verily, and even God cannot come there with a form; He can only come with His simple divine nature.'
Godhead is definitely what is meant by 'his simple divine nature' so Eckhart here is teaching that only like knows like. We, being of form, know forms, yet since we can also 'know' the formless Godhead, then we must possess something that is of no form, this is our 'Spark' that is formless and is nothing other that the Godhead that is in us. We can summarize it all by this phrase 'When God made man, the innermost heart of the Godhead was put into man.'
It must be mentioned that Eckhart usually misnamed the Godhead as God many times, maybe he was cautious in using such a strange term as the Godhead, or maybe being surrounded by 'normal' Christians somehow confused him. Yet it seems that he usually meant the Godhead by 'God' and not the personal biblical God. He had a sublime concept of God other than the naive concept of a 'superman that stands in front of you and talks to you'. He says, 'Some simple folks think that they will see God as if He were standing there and they here. It is not so. God and I, we are one.'
One of the most famous sayings of Eckhart is that of the eye. He said:
'The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God's eye are one and the same one in seeing, one in knowing, and one in loving.'
Plotinus provides a similar passage:
'No doubt we should not speak of seeing, but instead of seen and seer, speak boldly of a simple unity. For in this seeing we neither distinguish nor are there two. The man... is merged with the Supreme... one with it.'
This is the classical Advita Vedanta the two are preaching. I am God, God and I are one, when 'I' is no longer the narrow 'I' of the ego, another 'I' emerges, that is the universal self. And it is that universal self that is 'really' me. Although being deprived of any particular information that would give me a separate identity than others, and despite its belonging (or better still not belonging!) to every creature to the same extent that it belongs to me, it somehow describes me better than my 'personal' ego does. This is the corner stone of genuine mysticism. This is the paradox of non-duality.
Eckhart goes too far about one's detachment from not just the world, but also everything even God himself. Thus he says, 'I beg God to void me of God, for my essential being is above God, insofar as we take God to be the beginning of creatures.' (Sermon 32) and also 'Man's last and highest parting occurs when, for God's sake, he takes leave of God.'
Eckhart did think of creation in a very different manner than what Genesis had to offer. God did not create the world in a certain time at the past and had a rest. Eckhart sees creation as an eternal action thus he says,
'God is not only a Father of all good things, as being their First Cause and Creator, but He is also their Mother, since He remains with the creatures which have from Him their being and existence, and maintains them continually in their being. If God did not abide with and in the creatures, they must necessarily have fallen back, so soon as they were created, into the nothingness out of which they were created.'
It is here quite clear that creation is an eternal action, God is in an everlasting process of creation, of sustaining creatures in their being that is his being, for without him they would return to pure nothingness.
It was a long time before Eckhart was accused of heresy. It was his exemplary ethics, high theological position and the people's love that helped him stay away from the court. Yet he received the sad news only a couple of years before his death. The man whom Buddhists, Hindu, Taoists, theosophists, Sufis and others strive to prove being one of them, was rejected by the medieval church.
Eckhart finally had the honor to stand before the Catholic court, accused of heresy. I will try to spotlight the first two points of disagreement between Eckhart and the church to illustrate how the church misunderstood Eckhart due to the different grounds of reasoning between the two.
Let's start with the first point on the papal condemnation. Eckhart said, 'God created the world as soon as God was.' 'Oh! How daring! This means that God is not eternal, that he was brought to existence at a certain point in the past just like the world, this is heresy!' Cried the orthodox literal mind. In fact, Eckhart has always stressed more than anything else that God is eternal, where is the trick here? Eckhart meant that the personality of God was first perceived by us, who in our personality personalize God. It is through the filter of my own personality that we comprehend God as personal and it is through our human projection of personality onto God that he or better it evolves personhood.
Number two: 'In every work, bad as well as good, the glory of God is equally manifested.' Here Eckhart is stressing that the divine light that shines from beyond all is capable of transforming even the bad to goodness. Bad is seen as good at this mystical experience although being still bad as it is. Rudolf Otto had a very nice statement regarding this paradox, he says, 'This results in the peculiar logic of mysticism which discounts the two fundamental laws of natural logic, the laws of contradiction and excluded middle. As non-Euclidean geometry sets aside the axiom of parallels, so mystical logic disregards these two axioms; and thence the "coincidentia oppositorum," the "identity of opposites," and the "dialectic conception" arise' and Otto more boldly states, 'Black does not cease to be black, nor white white. But black is white and white is black. The opposites coincide without ceasing to be what they are in themselves.'
It seems that his being accused of heresy deeply shocked Eckhart. He was so internally grieved at the news that it is possible that his death around that time was somehow produced by the bitterness he felt seeing his angelic, heavenly-like works investigated for 'Satanic doctrines'. I can imagine him walking in circles in his cell, quasi-madly talking to himself with words such as 'Okay, say I am a heretic, hate me or even burn me alive. But you can't say that this is heresy I am saying, this is the naked truth, if it was something that I concluded by mind or even logic I can say that I was somehow mistaken, but this is something that I personally felt, this is something that I did live deeply in my heart. All this love, calmness, faithful silence and tear-evoking sanctity just can't be illusion.'
I cannot have the least sympathy for the church accusing Eckhart with heresy. I can somehow 'understand' the medieval church's fear of science and its skepticism regarding scientists like Galileo. Yet, the church condemning Eckhart was something more than resisting science, it was resisting spirituality. A defender can say that the church is a 'spiritual organization' not a scientific community, thus we should forgive it for misunderstanding science. Yet, if the church misunderstood Eckhart, then it was not even spiritual. It had nothing left to claim!
Fortunately, on the 27th of March 1329, when the pope was reciting his condemnation, and the opponents chanting their 'Anathemas', Eckhart was not listening, he was doing a better job; he was resting peacefully in his final trance, in his eternal sleep of silence. Wasn't it him who has said, 'You could not do better than to go where it is dark, that is, unconsciousness'?
© Arthur Brown 2005