Saturday, March 9, 2013

James Charlton on Meister Eckhart

Poet and prose writer James Charlton shares his ideas about one of Europe’s most creative thinkers: Meister Eckhart.
James is the author of Non-dualism in Eckhart, Julian of Norwich and Traherne: A Theopoetic Reflection (Bloomsbury, 2013).
Co-host Walter Mason asked James Charlton to share his thoughts on this magnificent mystic and thinker with our Book Club - and on Bernard McGinn's The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart which James found helpful in his research into those three European mystics.
Was Meister Eckhart a "Buddhist"?

Large numbers of book-lovers know about Eckhart. But when they’re asked to name a single book which ‘captures’ this 14th-century mystic, they’re stumped. I admit to being one of the stumped. Too paradoxical to be ‘captured’, Eckhart is a major ingredient in the large recipe of Western spirituality. But unless we’re experts in Middle High German and Latin, we have to rely on the work of others. And they all have an agenda, or (much worse) a preoccupation with a vain (peculiarly male?) effort to be ‘objective’. Among writers in English who specialize in Eckhart, Bernard McGinn - author of The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart - is (in my mere opinion) the best.
A recurring question: was Eckhart a "Buddhist" in the guise of a Christian monk?

The answer, despite the wishful thinking of many, is ‘No’. He smells and tastes like a Buddhist. But when he’s eaten, his non-dual Christianity is very evident. Yes, non-dual Christianity! This was the Western heritage before its distortion by the churchly ancestors of the likes of Cardinal George Pell.
Eckhart was immersed in Augustine, although he doesn’t share the so-called Augustinian pre-occupation with original sin. He was conversant with Thomas Aquinas, although he lessens the perceived Thomistic gulf between the divine and the human.

The most 'Buddhist’ aspect within Eckhart is his declaration that there is no such thing as a separate 'me'. In our more enlightened moments (he writes), we all know this to be true. The enlightenment to which he refers is instigated and brought to maturity by the Spirit of the Christ. This Spirit is not swirling around ‘out there’. It’s already ‘in here’. Hence his well-known lines to the effect that to find ‘God’ is to find oneself, since to find oneself is to find the True - and the True is ‘God’.

Eckhart writes: ‘My deepest me is God.’ Such quotations demand a context. What does he mean by ‘God’? How might his theology intersect with his anthropology? If questions such as these are of interest, Bernard McGinn is the author to turn to. God is not only One, but a dynamic process. This is a radical position. At a stretch, Eckhart might be called (along with A. N. Whitehead) a founding figure in process theology.

Alfred North Whitehead
We can’t blame Eckhart for using patriarchal metaphors. To save his skin, he avoided feminine language for the divine. And so he writes (in my paraphrase): 'In the mode of Father, the divine eternally gives birth to the Son. By extension, as "one birth", the divine also gives birth to the Son in us.'

The birth of the ‘Son’ will manifest itself (within a detached, open hearted person) as the enacted experience of altered behaviour. We’ll no longer attempt to maximize every circumstance of our lives. Instead, we’ll realize who we really are.

Here is part of Eckhart’s famous Christmas sermon:
Here, in time, we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature. St Augustine says: ‘What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters.

Eckhart has no difficulty locating passages in the New Testament which reveal the original non-dualism of Christian thought. For example, he employs Gospel passages in which Jesus seems to infer that children are one with the divine. A child will naturally extend its arms when seeking the embrace of its mother or father. Similarly, Eckhart calls for epektasis on the part of adults: literally a stretching forward toward the divine embrace (Phil. 3:13).  Dualism is transcended. And Eckhart is not thinking of any ‘heaven’. Nor is he thinking, primarily, of a particular indwelling of ‘God’ through the Spirit.

If Eckhart has a theme or ‘a single great idea’ from which all his other ideas develop, it is the actual birth of the divine in the human soul. Here is an extract from another sermon:
If anyone were to ask me: Why do we pray, why do we fast, why do we do all our works, why are we baptized, why (most important of all) did God become man? – I would answer, in order that God may be born in the soul and the soul be born in God.

There are precedents for this style of theological expression. Maximus the Confessor and other (somewhat) non-dualistic theologians believed in the potential divinization of humanity [humans identifying with their divine, eternal or soul inheritance]. The Council of Chalcedon had stated that each human being possessed an inherent capacity to be divinized.

Eckhart uses the phrase ‘Ground of the soul’ repeatedly, as a synonym for the deepest ‘heart’ of each person. This ‘Ground’ is beyond name and form; it is in the world and yet transcendent. The story of the Incarnation implies a full participation by Christ the ‘Son’ in this human ‘Ground of the soul’.
When we enter the ‘Ground’, we not only encounter the ‘Son’ but we become the ‘Son’ ourselves.

Following his interpretation of Augustine, Eckhart regards a physical, historical incarnation as less significant than an ‘inward’ incarnation.

In his discussion of the relationship between the divine and the human, Eckhart is highly paradoxical. On the one hand, the relationship is distinguishable; on the other, it is indivisible. It is the true Self (and not the lesser ‘separate’ self) which participates in the divine. And in his high valuation of all sentient beings, Eckhart is strikingly ‘postmodern’. He is also ‘postmodern’ in his scrupulous use of citation and in his employment of doubt as a means of arriving at truth. In my view, he dislikes fixed categories of ‘belief’ but can’t afford to declare his hand fully.

Eckhart risked censure from those church leaders whose theologies were entirely based around propositional truth. He risked torture and execution by those who had not experienced the non-dual, transformative experience of the Christ within their deepest selves.  In my unpleasant mind's-eye, I can see some religious conservatives lobbying to have Eckhart excommunicated. Here again is Eckhart’s seemingly radical side:
Go entirely out of yourself for God’s sake, and God will go entirely out of himself for your sake. When these both depart, what remains is a simple One. In this One the Father gives birth to his Son in the innermost source.

I think he’s telling me this: I’m drawn by immanent Love to a kind of crisis point. I glimpse the difficult truth that my separate ego is an illusion.  Eckhart does not use the word ‘ego’. He uses the Middle German ‘mit Eigenschaft’ which means ‘with attachment to self’. It is this attachment which prevents the direct experience of being loved by/in Reality. Opening out to Reality, the illusion of a separate existence is transcended.

James Charlton notes that Bernard McGinn's  The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart is not a light read; nor is it cheap. More than one third of the book consists of Notes, Bibliography and Index. We also suggest Matthew Fox's Meditations with Meister Eckhart as a starting point. You are welcome to leave your comments here. Or to support this Book Club by purchasing these or any other books through our book store links (above right).

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