Beyond the Ultimate: the impossible proposition at the core of Meister Eckhart’s unique teaching, and why he remains so consistently misunderstood

Abstract: Eckhart proposed that the ultimate of ultimates was not a perceptible God reachable through mystical experience, but an inconceivable and unfathomable ‘something’ beyond all human possibility. His proposition rests on an important

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    Abstract :   Eckhart proposed that the ultimate of ultimates was not a perceptible God reachable through mystical experience , but an inconceivable and unfathomable ‘something’ beyond all human possibility. His proposition rests on an important distinction between the mutually exclusive paths of mysticism and spiritual knowledge. Eckhar t’s  teaching is analysed as if it were an independent metaphysical proposition, detached from its historical and scholarly context. The overall explanatory perspective is that of a dedicated interest in metaphysical gnosis, as part of a quest for the resolution of the human condition. Eckhart provides some valuable assistance in this regard, identifying the ‘ Intellect  ’   –  the principial force behind ordinary intellection - as a crucial spiritual capacity. Eckhart is likely to remain misunderstood and misinterpreted because those who are attracted to his teachings have no authentic metaphysical grounding of their own, and are therefore unable to recognise and appreciate –  let alone elucidate - the key features of a spirituality that extends beyond mystical experientialism. Introduction Eckhart von Hochheim (c.1260 –  c.1328) better known as Meister Eckhart, was a German Dominican monk who lived and taught in various scholarly institutions in Germany and France. He wrote extensively on advanced metaphysical subjects, and left behind a large body of writings in Latin and German, some of which has yet to be translated into English. His ideas were expressed in the religious idiom of the day, and illustrated with simple parables. Towards the end of his life, Eckhart was charged with heresy –  and with good reason, if you understand his actual message - but he died before a final inquisitorial decision could be reached, and he himself - as an ever loyal foot soldier - always denied the charge. Rome has recently decided, after some persistent lobbying by his supporters, that Eckhart’s  teachings might not be as unorthodox as they srcinally thought, but the whole heresy debate is by the bye, and of no real consequence. And a fter his death, Eckhart’s name all but disappeared. Then towards the end of the 19 th  century some of his teachings were picked up again, and began to be promoted by various New Age luminaries, from Rudolf Otto to Aldous Huxley to D. T. Suzuki, who were keen to portray Eckhart as offering an authentically western version of the type of mystical thinking much favoured in the East. And as a direct result of his endorsement by the New Agers, he is now being favourably reassessed by the Catholic Church, as well as Christianity at large. None of this has any bearing on the topic at hand, but it is always worth reminding ourselves of the revolutionary impact New Age religion has had on all aspects of modern spirituality, especially in the creation of an extensive ‘ religious marketplace ’ , where previously impossibly hard-to-find  esoteric doctrines are now freely available to all. This has to be one of the truly great advantages of the modern era.   This short study is intended to identify and delineate the most interesting and provocative idea at the core of Mei ster Eckhart’s teaching, and then to discuss some of its major implications. This will be done from the perspective of a serious interest in achieving genuine metaphysical gnosis, and not with the desire to add another turgid conceptual analysis to the ever growing body of turgid and misleading Eckhart Studies 1 . Eckhart attracts both mystics and scholars of mysticism, and the discernments they bring to the table tend to be either invitations to mood music 2 , or complicated conceptual analyses 3 ,  undertaken in the vain hope that by engaging with philosophical intricacies we will somehow edge towards a clearer picture of what Eckhart was actually trying to say 4 . Methodological perspective We are going to approach Eckhart’s key teaching as if it were a standalone testament, completely detached from any historical, scholarly and theoretical context. This is to avoid getting sidelined into worthless discussions about textual accuracy, or philosophical contextualisation, and all manner of other irrelevancies. We will treat Eckhart as if he were a contemporary figure whose ideas are perfectly easily understandable if we are prepared to make the effort to work through them purposefully and systematically, concentrating on their actual meaning, and not digressing into examining their contextual interrelationships with other philosophical and theological doctrines. We have no interest in the finer points of medieval scholastic theology, or in the disparate philosophical systems that it is composed of. And interestingly, the approach we will take here can even deal successfully with the potential criticism that, as ‘ inadequately qualified outsiders ’, we haven’t got anywhere near the ‘real’ Meister Eckhart, and are seriously misguided in our belief as to what we think he said, or what we think he meant. This is because we are not interested in the ‘ Eckhart  ’  of accurate, forensic and meticulous scholarship, we are interested only in one or two of the key ideas which emerge from some of his writings, whether or not they have been accurately translated, and whether or not he actually wrote them, or whether or not he meant something else when he did, or whether or not we have the least idea of the finer points of the complex philosophical systems Eckhart was relying on to organise his ideas. It is quite possible that Eckhart’s theories are no more than a mishmash of ideas from the Neoplatonists, Aquinas and Maimonides, and that their coherence is entirely accidental. It doesn’t even matter to us if Eckhart had no idea what he was talking about, or was the secret mouthpiece for someone else, or was simply addicted to wild and suicidal theological ramblings, the kind that could get you murdered by the church. It may even turn out that a tranche of new writings of his are discovered which completely contradict –  in terms of testimony –  everything that we intend to argue here. None of this is critical: we are only interested in a certain key teaching which can be seen – rightly or wrongly – to be present in his writings, and which, once defined on its own terms, becomes completely independent of anything that may happen to Eckhart scholarship, now or in the future. And as regards our overall perspective, we should point out that the most interesting possible question we can ask of Eck  hart’s teaching - at every stage in the analysis, and irrespective of how successful or unsuccessful our presentation turns out to be –  is not whether or not it his propositions are philosophically coherent, or doctrinally valid, or theologically attractive , but simply whether or not they are ‘true’. In other words, is what Meister Eckhart is proposing an accurate portrayal of the metaphysical state of affairs that we actually face, or is he  just another waffling religious fantasist ? Is the reality of ‘ God and the Godhead ’  exactly like he says it is, or is spiritual metaphysics just an opportunity to talk impressive-sounding nonsense ? This gets right to it. Unfortunately in a study as short as this, we can only frame these questions, and not do them any justice 5 . Eckhart’s unique and crucial metaphysical proposition So what exactly is this crucial proposition ? Basically, that ‘ God ’   –  as the Ultimate of ultimates –  covering any and all designated ‘ultimate s ’, whether in the guise of the Buddha-Mind, or Non-dual awareness, is not the last word in any genuine quest for the last word. ‘ God ’ –  in any conceivable shape or form, including shapelessness and formlessness, suchness or nothingness - is not the end of the road of any quest for metaphysical gnosis, nor is it anywhere approaching it. Because there is a ‘something else’   –   which Eckhart termed ‘the Godhead’, or ‘the Principle’   –  which is beyond God, and beyond any union with God, and beyond any Nirvana, and beyond any conceivable perfect experience, and beyond any conceivable fathomability. And this ‘something else’   –  the Godhead - is not some kind of conceptual necessity, merely holding a fanciful doctrine together, it is the most crucial element in all existence, without which nothing of any conceivable shape or form –  including God, or the Buddha-Mind and every other conceivable conception –  could possibly have any perceptibility in the first place. The implications of Eckhart’s  elemental metaphysical proposition are immense but, as we shall see, most Eckhart devotees –  of whatever stripe –  simply do not have the metaphysical insight to be able to explain, and clarify, and help us get closer to the reality of his ideas, and so are obliged instead to portray Eckhart as really just another fully-paid up mystic of the old school, peddling the usual ‘God is Love’ stuff  . Any statements in his writings which appear to contradict this can be attributed to an idiosyncratic style, or to medieval conceptual schemes, and then given a new gloss. What did Eckhart actually say about ‘ God ’  and the ‘ Godhead ’ 6  ? The following are a few representative quotations, chosen for their cogency from very many similar possible examples: When I stood in the Principle, the ground of Godhead, no one asked me where I was going or what I was doing: there was no one to ask me. . . . When I go back into the Principle, the ground of Godhead, no one will ask me whence I came or whither I went. There no one misses me, there God-as-other passes away. [Walshe, Sermon 56; emendations by Kelley (1977).] Yet again I will say what I never said before: God and Godhead are as different as heaven and earth. …Everything that is in the Godhead is one, and of that there is nothing to be said. God works, the Godhead does no work: there is nothing for it to do, there is no activity in it. [Walshe, Sermon 56] Indeed I will say more, and this may sound surprising: I say by eternal truth that it is not enough for this Light to disclose the impartable, immutable divine Being, which neither gives nor takes; it will rather disclose that from which this Being comes; it will penetrate directly into its unconditioned Principle [the Godhead], into the silent desert, in which no distinction ever  enters, neither Father, nor Son, nor Holy Spirit. Only there in the Innermost, where no individualized one (or other) abides, is the Light fulfilled, and it is more within [the Principle] than it is in itself. For the Principle is purely unmanifested and wholly immutable and unaffected in itself; but from this immutable Principle are all things manifested. [DW II 416-420, as quoted in Kelley (1977) p.136] The Godhead in itself, identically the All-inclusive, is comprehensible by nothing other than itself. Neither speech nor thought can ever attain it, and this explains why no man can fathom or describe it. [Q 360, as quoted in Kelley (1977) p.109] Therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of God [ie of all possible conceptions and experiences of God] that we may gain the truth and enjoy it eternally, there [in the Godhead] where the highest angel, the fly, and the soul are equal. [Walshe, Sermon 87; emendations mine] God is something that necessarily transcends being. Whatever has being, time, or place, cannot reach God: He is above it. God is in all creatures, insofar as they have being, and yet He is above them. [Walshe, Sermon 67] God is nameless because none can say or understand anything about Him…He is a transcendent being, and a superessential nothingness…Nor should you (seek to) understand anything about God, for God is above all understanding. One master says, 'If I had a God I could understand, I would no longer consider him God’… So, if you understand anything of Him, that is not He, and by understanding anything of Him you fall into misunderstanding, and from this misunderstanding you fall into brutishness, for whatever in creatures is uncomprehending is brutish. So, if you don't want to become brutish, understand nothing of God the unutterable…as He is: a non -God, a non-spirit, a non-person, a non-image; rather, as He is a sheer pure limpid One, detached from all duality…And in that One may we eternally sink from nothingness to nothingness. [Walshe, Sermon 96] Now the crucial point of interest here is the distinct idea of their being an ‘unfathomable, unm anifest Principle’ beyond anything that could be conceived  of  , as ‘God’. And as can also be understood from this, when Eckhart refers to ‘God’ he is obviously not referring to some kind of personalised conception, he is talking about an experiential Ultimate Unity, the attainment of which would constitute the goal of all mysticism, whether conceived of personally –  as in theistic religions –  or impersonally –  as in non-theistic religions. This ultimate mystical union - as satori 7 , or Unio Mystica, or Nirvana, or Moksha –  wherein the experiential self is experienced in its capacity as the ultimate ground of experiencing, and which is spoken of as a ‘ Union with the Divine ’  in Christianity, or as union with the Ultimate Self in Advaita, or as a Non-Dual awareness in New Age religion , or as Nirvana in Buddhism, would not, in Eckhart’s teaching, be –  in metaphysical terms - anything more than a supremely powerful, and supremely compelling, modification of ordinary consciousness ; in other words, no more than an ‘al tered st  ate’, no matter how cosmic, all-encompassing and significant the experience might appear to be.   In other words, whatever can be conceived of as an ‘ultimate’ can never actually be the actual ‘ ultimate ’ . It might look to be the last word, and you may think it is, but it is not. This is the essence of Eckhart’s most astonishing  testimony. Eckhart is saying that when you ‘ think  ’  you have ‘ perceived ’  as far as you think you can go, you can be sure you are deluding yourself. If you think ‘this perception or perceived non-perception is definitely Heaven, or Nirvana, or Moksha, or God or Nothingness or Suchness, and I have no further realisations to realise ’, then you are most certainly mistaken. Now how can we possibly make sense of paradoxical statements of this sort ? We are certainly knocking at the door of the furthest limits of intelligibility. Is n’t   all of this just grandiose nonsense masquerading as spirituality ? Possibly. And given the capacity of human beings wilfully to delude themselves, more than likely. So we have to take all of the key metaphysical propositions and break them down into their constituent parts, and then attempt to justify each crucial element. The quest for metaphysical insight We can start by outlining a very basic and elemental idea of a ‘metaphysical quest’, and then work forward from there. A ‘metaphysical quest’ begins when an ordinary human being sets about trying to answer the big questions of life and existence, in the belief that, in answering those questions, the profound and persistent dissatisfaction that mysteriously poisons their existence will somehow be resolved, and ended, hopefully in a decisive way. And anyone embarking on this metaphysical quest will soon find themselves heading in the direction of religion. This is not because religion is necessarily the best direction to be heading in, but because it is what we are led to believe, thanks to education, is where the answers lie. ‘Religion’ –  as a generic concept covering the generic features of all the major religions –  has evolved over thousands of years, and contains within it many apparently convincing solutions to the difficulties thrown up by existential questioning. It offers reassuring beliefs, absorbing practices, and ‘systems’ –  like yoga, and meditation, and contemplative prayer - whereby you get a sense of your spiritual self, and then, in time, a sense of how you might deepen your spirituality. Mysticism At the shallowest end, religion offers something you can involve yourself in right away, and this can, by taking your mind of your existential worries, seem to solve the problem, albeit in a very superficial fashion. And at the deep end, religion offers you the possibility of direct contact with the supposed creator and ruler of the universe –  God, the Buddha-mind, or whatever you want to label it –  and this process of direct contact is called ‘mysticism’. Mysticism comes in many forms, from very tangible modes of cosmic consciousness, to very ethereal and subtle cerebral intuitions; though the common denominator to all mystical experiences, rapturous or subtle, is that they are directly apprehendable, and tangible, and graspable, even when they appear to be so refined and delicate and incomprehensible as to defy description. So all mystical experiences are, in a very straightforward sense, ‘ apprehended experiences ’ ; that is to say, experiences which can be identified and labelled, and referred to. If they were not apprehendable experiences, with a measure of objectivity, and with noticeable characteristics, mystics would not be able to characterise them, and refer to them, and mysticism - as an experiential possibility - would not, could not, exist. The other prominent feature of mystical experiences is that they invariably come accompanied by an overwhelming sense of certainty. They have an authority and self-validation
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