Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Meister Eckhart, an "Eastern" father in the West

Meister Eckhart, the 14th century German Dominican monk, may be called an "eastern" father in the western soil. He is often referred to as a great mystic in the western world. A mystic is often defined as someone who has personal mystical experience. Eckhart doesn't tell us if he had one such experience. In fact, he doesn't even speak favorably about such experiences. He sounds more like an ancient church father, who speaks profoundly of God. We may safely claim that he was a 14th century church father like Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite or Gregory of Nyssa. He repeated almost the same kind of things these ancient eastern Greek fathers said in slightly different language with slightly different emphases.
A doctoral degree (Meister) from the University of Paris prepared him for his career as a theologian. He also served as an administrator in his order of monks. But he became well-known to his contemporaries and to the moderns for something else he did-- he preached to the common people about the deep mysteries of God. Toward the eve of his life, he had to face the inquisition, and later he was tried as a heretic before the Pope himself. He passed away at the age of 68 even before his trial concluded. The Pope judged that Eckhart's views were evil-sounding and suspect of heresy. However, he himself was not condemned as a heretic. Eventually, Eckhart's views resurrected through the writings of his disciples, and today he is recognised a great mystic and original thinker.
Speaking of God, he explains using metaphors how the world is related to God. Imagine a container with water boiling-- this is like God. As water boils, it spills outside the container. The spilled water is world. The world is an expression of God, and there is no world without God. God alone is self-existent, and the world depends on God for its existence. Being like a boiling container, God remains creative. The world is the result of God's creativity. This view is different from the popular understanding of God as the creator of the world, according to which, creation happened in the beginning, and the crated world exists as a self-dependent mechanism.
Eckhart makes a clear distinction between the real God and our view of God. Eckhart calls them Godhead (real God) and God (our view of God). Godhead is utterly incomprehensible to us, so we can't say anything meaningfully about Godhead. Whatever we think or speak cannot be true about Godhead. This is the apophatic view as explained by Pseudo-Dionysius. But we speak positively about God-- cataphatic view, for this is how we imagine Godhead. When we speak of God as one or three, it is cataphatic-- our imagination, for the real God cannot be limited within our number system.
Eckhart also speaks clearly about the relation between God and us, human beings. Just as we don't understand the real God as He is, we don't understand our own reality as well. We have to distinguish between the real humanity and the humanity as it appears to us. Humanity as it appears to us is separate from God. However, the real humanity and the real God are not separate from each other; they share the same ground. This calls for a breakthrough. We need to break open a coconut to get to the meat inside. We need to break open the appearance of God and humanity to get to the reality. 
So, what does Eckhart tell us? In a nutshell, Eckhart advises us to go beyond appearances and seek after the truth of God, of world, and of ourselves. Our search will eventually lead us to the realization that everything shares the same ground in reality. We realize that our life is one with God's life. This lets us overcome the fear of death forever. We also realize that we are one with all other beings, which lets us care for all.
It seems that Eckhart is among a handful of people in history who have had the privilege to grasp the essence of Christianity so well. It is very hard to find someone else like him in western Christianity-- someone who could see the reality so clearly and articulate it so effectively. But we see a few people who come very close to him in eastern Christianity-- Pseudo-Dionysius, the Areopagite and the Cappadocian fathers like Gregory of Nyssa. He was certainly an "eastern" father in the west.

Harmless, William. (2008) Mystics. New york: OUP P. 107 -134

No comments: