Dangerous Mystic

Eckhart as "Patron Saint" of the Perennial Movement?


"Despite Eckhart's longtime reputation as an honorary Protestant and his enthusiastic reception among nineteenth-century Romantics and Idealists, mainstream Protestants, particularly German Lutherans, have been slower to embrace the master fully because of his association with "Catholic" mysticism. The great church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) proclaimed that "mysticism can never be made Protestant without slapping history and Catholicism in the face." As theologian Karl Barth (1886-1930) argued, mysticism propagates a path to salvation "that completely bypasses the biblical history of salvation and the Last Days." Since the 1960's Protestant believers have been worried less by the Catholic context of Meister Eckhart and other mystics than by the latter's growing association with several New Age – and presumably unscriptural – approaches to enlightenment. That cautiousness continues today, although many American Protestants, including evangelicals, are increasingly discovering worthwhile spiritual insights in the words of the medieval master.

Most commonly since the mid-twentieth century, the master has been praised as a bridge to Asian religions and philosophies. In his correspondence with Thomas Merton, Japanese scholar D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) called Eckhart "the one Zen thinker of the West." The just man's inner Christ nature described by the medieval master looks remarkably similar to the internal Buddha nature of Mahayana tradition, as does Eckhart's combination of the contemplative-active life of love. Letting-go-ness lines up nicely wiht Zen "no-mind" (wuxin) as well as the Taoist "no action" (wuwei). The Buddha also remained wary of human God-talk and aspired to a unity with the ultimate similar to Eckhart's deification. The many resemblances are indeed striking.

Several modern observers have also notes Meister Eckhart's kinship with parts of the Hindu Tradition, particularly the Advaita Vedanta school. The Tamil writer Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) exlaimed that "Eckhart's sermons might well be termed an Upanishad of Europe," noting the master's "astonishingly close parallel to Indian mods of thought; some whole passages and many single sentences read like a direct translation from Sanskrit." Here too, some Eckhatian terms seem to have other religious equivalents, such as Brahman for the ground, and neti-neti (not his, not that) for the ineffability of the divine mystery. Above all, both Eckhart and the Vedanta school emphasize the necessity of intuition to experience the entirely of reality, which then leads to loving kindness.

Both Islam and Judaism also have their own strong mystical traditions, and here too many notable similarities to Meister Eckhart's teachings emerge. Like Eckhart, his near contemporary, the great Sufi master Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) sought a religious philosophy that would above all be practical for genuine spiritual seekers. His Perfect Human, like Eckhart's Just Man, has realized the divinity within – the inseparableness from the divine essense in the eternal Now – and has dedicated himself or herself to a life of perfect love. The fantastically popular Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi (107-73) prefigures his Christian counterpart's language and message even more strikingly. With evocative images and meticulously crafted phrasing, Rumi describes his own relentless pursuit of union (fana) with "the Beloved." The experience of this mystery, which most non-Sufis reject as heretical, is like no other. Coincidentally, a Jewish contemporary of Eckhart and Rumi, the mystic philosopher Abraham Abulafia (140-91) taught a similar kind of divine union, known as mediative Kabbalahism, which remaines likewise controversial among modern Jews.

Meister Eckhart's seemingly universal applicability among virtually all the world's religions accounts for his particularly popularity in the rapidly growing belief in religious syncretism, also known as perennialism (and sometimes called religious pluralism). This is the conviction that all the world's religions share a common essential truth, which has since been fractured into various rituals, doctrines, and other structures. Given that Meister Eckhart in fact sough such a universal religious philosophy, it's little surprise that he has proven such a superstar among its adherents. The Neoplatonist Agostino Steuco (1497-1545) coined "perennial philosophy," to describe a common, transcendent truth evident in both classical Greek philosophy and later religious traditions. Steuco's idea lay largely dormant until spreading among the Deists of hte eighteenth century and even more spectacularly among the Transcendentalists, Universalists, and Theosophists of the nineteenth century. In 1945, Aldous Huxly (1894-1963) published The Perennial Philosophy, in which Eckhart plays a prominent role, taking the universalist perspective into popular culture. Since then, perennialism has become closely associated with various New Age writers as well as some ecumenists among Christian denominations.

At least on the surface, Eckhart could qualify as the patron saint of the perennial movement. Like its modern advocates, he rejected the materialism of human society to seek a hidden, spiritual truth. He was also remarkably inclusive in his sources for past wisdom, consulting not just Christian thinkers, but also Jews, Muslims, and ancient pagans. Although a Christian (and member of the clergy!), he stressed individual, internal transformation over external rituals or doctrines. His approach was egalitarian, not requiring a high degree of learning or other special gnosis. And above all, his sermons were practical and encouraging, full of colorful metaphors, memorable aphorisms, and answers to anticipated questions. There was but one goal, union with God, which modern followers refer to as ultimate reality – and Eckhart would not disagree with the characterization."

– Joel F. Harrington, Dangerous Mystic

Place Yourself in Darkness and in Unknowing


"Meister Eckhart's mature understanding of letting-go-ness was comprehensive. Not only must the sinner let go of the world and sin, but also of all the traditional remedies proposed by the Church: pious acts of devotion and petitionary prayer aimed at flawed human notions of "God." The seeker had to let go of all images, desires, and thought itself. Only then was he or she ready for the final step in Eckhart's way to God, which is to be silent and let God work and speak within. Typically, the seeker was more aware of God...in a quiet places, but that requirement, Eckhart clarified, reflected human imperfection more than divine nature, for God is equally in all things and places. Most importantly, he continued,

all your activity must cease and all your powers must serve [God's] ends, not your own...No creaturely skill, nor your own wisdom nor all your knowledge can enable you to know God divinely. For you to know God in God's way, your knowing must become a pure unknowing, and a forgetting of yourself and all creatures. Now you might say, 'Well, sire, what use is my intellect then, if it is supposed to be empty and functionless? Is that the best thing for me to do – to raise my mind to an unknowing knowledge that can't really exist? For if I knew anything at all it would not be ignorance, and I should not be empty and bare. Am I supposed to be in total darkness?' Certainly. You cannot do better than to place yourself in darkness and in unknowing."

– Joel Harrington, Dangerous Mystic (italicized words are direct quotes from Eckhart's sermons)


The similarity of Eckhart's thought to The Cloud of Unknowing here is obvious.  

Man Reaches The Peak Of His Knowledge of God When He Realizes That He Does Not Know Him

Some irony from scholastic theologians, and perhaps for today's "Systematic Theologians" out there...

"Seven years had passed since Eckhart's previous professorship in Paris. Although he had continued to work on his Opus Tripartitum during that time, progress had been slow amid all his travel and administrative work on behalf of the order. Eckhart's second regent professorship in Paris offered him the time and resources to make significant progress on the Opus. Ironically, it was at just this point that his ambitious intellectual pursuit of God appears to have hit a deeply troubling impasse – namely the outer limits of human reason. It was a paradox that Aquinas too had discovered during the composition of his own Summa: 'Man reaches the peak of his knowledge of God when he realizes that he does not know Him, understanding that the divine reality surpasses all human conception of it.' Shortly before his own death, in fact, the Angelic Doctor had experienced a deeper understanding of the divine that 'made everything I had written seem as straw.' For Aquinas and Eckhart, all human perceptions, however logical, remained limited by the derivative and subsequently partial nature of our own understanding...

Over the past several years, the master had become increasingly intrigued by an alternate way of knowing God – the intuitive or 'mystical' approach embraced by his spiritual father, Augustine. According to Eckhart, Augustine had grasped that theologians were always trying to balance the understanding of God offered 'through a glass darkly' by reason with other wisdom obtained more directly by nonrational experience of the divine. Now Eckhart decided that knowing God intuitively from within was no longer merely a complementary method to knowing God from without through rational inquiry, but was in many important ways superior to it. The master never completely abandoned his philosophical work, but he increasingly acknowledged its inadequacies, particularly in reaching his own ultimate goal of achieving direct experience of the divine."

– Joel F. Harrington, Dangerous Mystic

A Right State


"I was asked, 'Some people shun all company and always want to be alone; their peace depends on it, and on being in church. Was that the best thing?' And I said, 'No!' Now I see why. He who is in a right state, is always in a right state wherever he is, and with everybody. But if a man is in a wrong state, he is so everywhere and with anybody."

– Meister Eckhart, Quoted in Dangerous Mystic

The "right state," according to Eckhart, is a state of detachment from our own self-will.  

"In true obedience there should be no trace of 'I want so-and-so,' or 'this and that,' but a going out of your own."

If a man is in the right state, he is at peace in any situation, at any place, with anyone.  If he is in the wrong state, it doesn't matter where he is or who he is with.  Internal state trumps external circumstances.  

Dangerous Mystic


I just got through reading this biography of Meister Eckhart.  Very good.

The popular image of Eckhart is that of a pure mystic, probably out in an isolated cottage somewhere, absorbed in the presence of God, maybe occasionally counseling a wandering seeker. 

Eckhart was a professor at the University of Paris.  He held several official positions in the Dominican order of the Catholic Church.  He was extremely well educated in scholastic theology and philosophy.  But, like Aquinas, Eckhart eventually became disillusioned with academic theology and its ability to lead a soul to God.   Rather, he turned to experience, teaching that each individual could find God by turning within in silence.

Also his first name wasn't Meister, but rather just Eckhart.  Meister is a title meaning "master" or "teacher."  I did not know that.

Great, engaging read.