Sunday, December 11, 2011

Meister Eckhart I

Scott Bradley


I've been reading Meister Eckhart, the 14th Century 'mystic' scholastic, who was declared a heretic by papal bull in 1327. I expected to find a description of ecstatic union with God in which all distinctions between self and God disappear. But, although he tends in this direction, his presentation is largely intellectual. He speaks of the union of God and man, but mostly only theologically so. As the translator Raymond Blakney says, his heresy was more a question of degree than of substance.

In any case, although he had many insightful and helpful things to say (some of which I will briefly share in the next post), it is all mediated through a belief in a personal God who wills and plans and takes an active part in the affairs of man. This does not entirely negate the value of what he says for someone not inclined to believe in such a Being, but it does set it at significant remove — it has an alien ring. I do not intend this as a condemnation — within the context of his time and tradition, Meister Eckhart seems to have experienced an extraordinary repose in Mystery — but it does make a difference what one believes.

When, for instance, Eckhart speaks of utter surrender to the will of God, so that no will of one's own remains, this is quite similar to the Zhuangzian call to surrender to the-way-things-are. And the consequent freedom may be very much the same. Only in the case of the former, purpose and reward are part of the mix, and this is decidedly alien to the Taoist point of view. Does that really make a difference? I think it can, and most commonly does, but that it need not necessarily do so. I am confident that Eckhart would himself declare that true surrender was likewise an abandonment of all purpose and reward. Conversely, the Taoist point of view could be, and probably most commonly is, imbued with a similar sense of purpose and reward.

The reason I think this matters to one interested in transcendence of the egoic self is that the belief in purpose and reward have their origin in that egoic self, and are thus part of the problem, not the solution. But to tell you the truth, at the moment, I myself am feeling a bit like a hair-splitting scholastic, so I think I'll just stop here.

Only I will give my final word on God. God is a word. And whatever God we might imagine, it will always be 'too small' to in any way approximate what God might be. Savoring the words 'Utter Mystery' feels, to me, like worship.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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