Meister Eckhart, God, and the Perils of Atheism

Meister Eckhart, God, and the Perils of Atheism
by Michael Szul on 2008-04-15 08:14:46
tags: meister eckhart, ontology, philosophy

“Whoever possesses God in their being, has him in divine manner, and he shines out to them in all things; for them all things taste of God and in all things it is God’s image that they see.”(Platt).

What problem could a religious philosopher possibly solve? What contemporary philosophical problem could Meister Eckhart possibly contribute to the solution of?

I used to think that Atheism was a problem. But Atheism is no more a problem than my Theism is. They are just two different conditions resulting from a more generalized issue.

What causes Atheism? If it is truly a condition and not a problem in itself, then what does this condition result from. It is not merely a question of does God exist.

Atheism doesn’t come solely from the answer to this question. Atheism is the result of perception. Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism are all the results of our perception of the concept of God. We are all brought up with different notions about what God is and how God is experienced, but they are all little more that just concepts; abstract ideas. A strong understanding of one of these abstract ideas can result in an unshaken belief in God, but a weak understanding of a poor concept (or being weakly taught) can result in extreme skepticism.

The conceptual ideas of God are a major problem in religious communities. A lack of understanding or ability to teach on the ministry’s part can have an adverse effect on the younger members of such communities, and cause abandonment. Eckhart may not have addressed this problem directly in his works, but many of his ideas can be used to solve such a problem.

Truth be told, all religious philosophers live a relatively boring and uneventful life. If you know the history of one, you can just about map out the basic history of every other one. Most religious philosophers get schooled at religious institutions, teach for a time, and also hold various religious posts of little significance at locations that modern humanity wouldn’t even be able to find on a map, or at least positions whose justification is oblivious in the minds of every day human being.

Meister Eckhart was probably born in 1260 at Hochheim (This is not a certainty) (Fieser). He joined the Dominicans at Erfurt and no doubt followed his earlier studies at Cologne, which was common among religious scholars (Fieser).

His first brush with trouble came at the general chapter held in Paris at around 1306 (Fieser). Complaints were made against the provincial of Teutonia and also Eckhart himself concerning irregularities in religious teachings (Fieser).

He later became a teacher at Cologne, when the archbishop, Hermann von Virneburg, accused him of heresy before the pope (Davies xiv). Lucky for Eckhart, he had friends in high places, so to speak, as Nicholas of Strasburg, given temporary charge of the Dominican monasteries in Germany, exonerated him (Davies xiv).

Von Virneburg pressed on in his accusation however prompting Eckhart to call for an appeal to the pope (Davies xv). Pope John XXII would later issue a bull in which he characterized a series of works from Eckhart as heretical, and another as suspected of heresy (Davies xv).

It is recorded that before his death, Eckhart retracted everything which was claimed that he falsely taught, by subjecting himself and his many works to the Apostolic See (Fieser).

Eckhart believed that the greatest need of humanity is to have the soul united with God (Fieser). In order for this to occur, knowledge of God and his relation to the world, and knowledge of the soul, are a necessity (Fieser). Eckhart doesn’t doubt that this knowledge is given in the traditions of the church, but he believed that this alone was insufficient for one who is longing for salvation (Fieser). A person must attain to this with his or her own thoughts and understanding.

Of course, note that unity with God could also be viewed as the ultimate form of happiness, and thus fits in with Aristotelian thinking. Just as Saint Thomas Aquinas Christianized Aristotle, Eckhart found no trouble in borrowing from the ancient philosophers for his own ends.

Eckhart did not move his philosophy along the lines of church traditions like most religious philosophers. He remained independent, and thus he arrived at views that aren’t often in harmony with the teachings of the church (Fieser). However, he was really never conscious of any opposition to church teachings (Fieser). More than likely he believed that his philosophy was completely in sync with church views.

“If I say that ‘God is good”, this is not true. I am good, but God is not good! In fact, I would rather say that I am better than God, for what is good can become better and what can become better can become the best! Now God is not good, and so he cannot become better. Since he cannot become better, he cannot become the best. These three things are far from God: ‘good’, ‘better’, ‘best’, for he is wholly transcendent. If I say again that ‘God is wise’, then this too is not true. I am wiser than he is! Or if I say that ‘God exists’, this is also not true. He is being beyond being; he is nothingness beyond being. Therefore St. Augustine says: ‘The finest thing that we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches.’ Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him you tell lies and commit a sin.” (Davies 236).

This passage is probably one of the most quoted and controversial of Eckhart’s works. It’s clearly obvious how many would misunderstand this and prompt heretical outcries. What he was trying to get at was that the true “Deity” should not be described. Descriptions are not only limiting in their scope, but also, you can always find something to improve upon the description and thus come up with something “better” and eventually “best”. Human language is not capable of properly conceiving of the “Deity” therefore “be silent” else you limit God.

The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu states in its very first passage: “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao” (Mitchell 1). Eckhart is running along similar themes when it comes to the Supreme Deity. For him, the Deity that can be describe is not the true Deity; it is not your true God. The Tao Te Ching also states: “The Tao is older than God” (Mitchell 5). This is not to say that the Tao (typically translated as “the way” or “the way of the universe”) supplants God. It just states that the true Tao, the true way, is much older than the human concepts and ideals known as God. Similarly for Eckhart, God is nothing more than an ideal, a concept. The true Deity is transcendent and beyond space, time, and description.

Also interesting is Eckhart’s passage on the “certainty” of eternal life. He lists two certainties with the first consisting of those occasions when God tells us of its truth; when God’s angels tell us; or when it is revealed through special revelation (Davies 25). This, obviously is not commonplace, so Eckhart establishes the second certainty which occurs when one’s “love is perfect” (Davies 25). According to Eckhart, “This [the acquisition of knowledge of eternal life] happens to those whose love for and intimacy with God is so great that they trust him completely and are so sure of him that they can no longer have any doubts…” (Davies 25).

This passage is powerful, not in its establishment of eternal life, but in its subtlety of God’s existence; in the fact that no doubts remain. We always ask whether someone believes in God or not. But the very word belief denotes acceptance of something on faith alone and without evidence.

Is this really the way we want to think of an omnipotent creator? The great Buddha was a huge detractor of belief (Rahula 3). He didn’t want you to believe in anything that he was saying or preaching (Rahula 3). He wanted you to first understand and then to know. Eckhart was running on the same notion. How do we know life is eternal? How do we know that God exists? First eliminate doubt. Then instead of believing that God exists, you can know that God exists. There is a big difference. This ontological knowledge then leads to other metaphysical conclusions that no longer have to be believed, only known (eternal life; soul theory; etc).

Meister Eckhart was a great thinker. However, it should be noted that where he is said to have had a wealth of great ideas, he was unable to truly systemize them, and occasionally expressed two views that could not be harmonized with one another (Fieser).

In regards to ontology, as addressed earlier, one of the major problems in philosophical and religious thought deals with the ill-adapted conceptions of God.

Most people are brought up with an idea of a white-bearded man in the clouds with naked babies flying around him playing harps. The church rarely deviates from this image and then concentrates on the literal son that this old man begot. When children become older they start questioning things around them, God usually follows after Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Most parents are ill equipped to administer to these questions, and thus the child gives up, and Atheism sets in.

Eckhart shows a different aspect of God. Even if you misinterpret him and take his works for pantheism, it at least shows that there are other concepts of a higher deity that are possible rather than just the traditional image that the church teaches.

Eckhart’s main points are more like Christianized Eastern philosophy with a bit of Jewish Kabbalah mixed in. Earlier we familiarized ourselves with the Tao Te Ching, and we established how that text views “the way” as being much older and more profound than any possible human concept could ever expunge (Mitchell 1).

The Kabbalah takes a similar, though definitely Western approach. Jewish Kabbalah is essentially built on a foundation of symbolism. Perhaps the most dominant concept ever in Jewish mysticism is that of the Tree of Life. Basically the Tree of Life is a symbolic ideology that explains the creation of the universe, the structure of the universe, and is a complete abstract representation of the idea of God (Scholem).

It’s a layered cake essentially. Like the kernel of truth in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or the concentric circles of the Confucian text Da Xue. It begins with an ultimate truth that gets continuously layered upon until it becomes either generalized or obscure.

With the Tree of Life, we start with this ultimate truth until God begins to create itself and the universe (Scholem 88). The Tree of Life is the conglomerate of these many layers that breaks the unity down into the duality (Scholem 96).

The ultimate symbology actually exists beyond the Tree of Life and is referred to as the Three Veils of Negative Existence (Scholem 90). These veils are the ultimate ways of describing God (Scholem 91). The upper most veil is called Ain, which means “nothing” or “no-thing” (Scholem 91). According to Jewish Kabbalah, this is the best description you can give to God (Scholem 94). Why? Because any other description limits God. It’s the same with the Tao; it’s the same with Meister Eckhart; and it’s the same with many other ancient religious traditions.

God is completely transcendent. God is existence beyond existence itself. How can you possibly describe such a being? How could you possibly understand such a being? Human language is created based on human experience alone. How can it describe something beyond human experience? An old Buddhist story tells a tale of the fish and the tortoise: “The tortoise told his friend the fish that he had just returned to the lake after a walk on the land. ‘Of course’ the fish said, ‘you mean swimming.’ The tortoise tried to explain that one could not swim on the land, that it was solid, and that one walked on it. But the fish insisted that there could be nothing like it…” (Rahula 35).

People don’t realize that what we call God is little more than an abstraction. It’s meant to give us an idea and not an actual reality. The more we try to explain, it seems the more we drag this ultimate truth through the gutter of our own ignorance and materialism. Maybe the best we can do is to follow Eckhart’s advice and “be silent” else we commit a sin, or at least a grave error in perception.

When asked about the spirit world, and about death itself, Confucius replied: “You are not even able to serve people. How can you serve the spirits? You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?” (Smith 185). In short, probably the best piece of advice you can get: one world at a time (Smith 185). Maybe we should all take a step back and ask ourselves: How can we possibly master another world, when we don’t even understand this one?

Works Cited

Davies, Oliver. Meister Eckhart Selected Writings. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994.

Fieser, James. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2002. (23 Sept. 2002).

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Platt, Deb. Christian Mysticism. 1999. (20 Aug. 1999).

Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove / Atlantic, Inc, 1974.

Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. New York: New American Library Trade, 1987.

Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Works Consulted

Davies, Oliver. Meister Eckhart Selected Writings. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994.

Fieser, James. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2002. (23 Sept. 2002).

Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey. New York: McGraw – Hill Higher Education, 2003.

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Platt, Deb. Christian Mysticism. 1999. (20 Aug. 1999).

Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove / Atlantic, Inc, 1974.

Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. New York: New American Library Trade, 1987.

Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Stevenson, Jay. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 1997.