Meister Eckhart has become something of a spiritual celebrity these days; one often finds him discussed widely in many forums interested in spirituality, or discussed by members of Eastern religions who seem interested to draw parallells between Eckhart and Eastern philosophy, or in philosophers who find Eckhart's often bold, Zen-like pronouncements baffling and strange.
Eckhart was certainly one of the most interesting thinkers of the medieval period. Associated with the Rhineland mystical movement in Germany, Eckhart appears to describe in many of his sermons powerful mystical experiences of various kinds, and at times his language seems to indicate he and God are united in essence. For this Eckhart was formally condemned for the heresy of pantheism, the only theologian to have been condemned this way in the medieval period.
This volume of the Classics of Western Spirituality presents some of Eckhart's key sermons, some of his Biblical commentaries, and some of his written works aimed at fellow Dominicans or Christians in his pastoral care. It also includes essays on Eckhart's theology, philosophy and mysticism by Bernard McGinn, one of the world's leading scholars on Christian mysticism and on Eckhart's mysticism in particular.
Eckhart's themes are complex, but appear to revolve around a very personal and intimate experience of the Absolute. Eckhart strongly emphasized the apophatic approach to experiencing God, negating all predicates and names and concepts which might apply to God, leaving behind only a naked, formless 'One' above Being and above concepts, even above the 'Trinity' itself. From this silent, unmoving, and unchanging entity, which is in Eckhart's view, neither 'nothing' nor 'being' but 'a nothing' and 'a something', both the Holy Trinity and all reality emerge, 'overflowing' like water flooding from a bursting spring in the ground. The human mind meets this reality, in its innermost 'ground', a place where the human soul or mind meets God devoid of all concepts, images and forms, but in doing so encounters God's prescence in so powerful a manner the soul fuses into God by a remarkable divinisation which makes the soul so like God all distinction between the soul or the person and God seems to completely vanish. Indeed, in his bolder sermons, God will often equate the 'ground' to the Godhead itself. Eckhart also develops a rich set of metaphors revolving around God's nothingness or darkness, both in terms of his unknowability and incomprehensibility, and his infinity and transcendant being. No other Catholic Christian mystic so strongly developed this theme, except perhaps for St John of the Cross.
Eckhart also boldly describes the birth of the Christian believer into becoming God's son, when the ground becomes alive with its divinisation into God or the Absolute itself, to the point where God has as much joy over this 'birth' as he does in the Trinity itself. Eckhart also lies out a program where this mystical union may be achieved, which includes a profound 'detachment' from wanting, willing, desiring or loving anything in or of this world, until one's will is divinised into that of God himself and the world in all places and states becomes transfigured into God's holy prescence.
Eckhart's philosophy develops these themes somewhat more rigorously and logically along scholastic and Neo-Platonic lines. Indeed Eckhart often simply calls God 'The One', a strongly Neo-Platonic term, and also uses emanative metaphors to describe both the activity of the Trinity and the creation of the universe. He also draws strongly on the Neo-Platonism of Augustine and his notions of God's attributes or ideas such as wisdom, truth, goodness or beauty as being inherent realities reflected in created things, which participate in the ideas or attributes essentially. Yet he also draws strongly on the Aristotlian mindset of Aquinas, and views human life as an opportunity to become divinised into a divine life of peace, contentment and happiness.
Because Eckhart is such a creative thinker, it is hard to pin him down to any particular theological or philosophical school of thought. It is better to say he is a genius, both theological and philosophical, whose complex thought is articulated using the theological and philosophical jargon of his time in creative and innovative new ways.
In a time when many theologians and philosophers are grasping for new ideas, language and concepts to articulate our human experience of the Absolute or God, Eckhart offers an interesting, unique and fruitful approach to which we might re-commence the task of searching for the hidden God and in doing so, find the meaning of Being and existence.