Meister Eckhart was one of those people who become and remain legends, full of wisdom, mysteries and riddles which will hardly ever be resolved completely. He is rightfully considered an inspirer of European Protestantism and his teaching was a precursor to the basic concepts of humanism, which began to spread around Europe since the age of Renaissance. However, he was probably born too early for his ideas to be at least heard if not accepted by many. Too free, too advanced and, probably, too versatile was his philosophy, so the Medieval Church just could not allow it to blossom and bear fruit.
The Life of Medieval Christ
This sobriquet was given to Eckhart by some later philosophers who referred to his writings and sermons. Indeed, his biography is still cloaked in mystery and his revolutionary views on God and Christianity were clear evidence of his keen intellect, well-developed intuition and, probably, even of his gift for divine visions.
Eckhart was born in the second half of 13th century (circa 1260) in the lands of Thuringia which belonged to the Holy Roman Empire (mostly modern Germany). It is said that his first real name could be Johannes. Also, he was known as Eckhart von Hochheim – the Hochheims were a famous noble family at the time. The title Meister or Teacher was given to young Eckhart when he studied and then lectured in Cologne and Paris.
He joined the Dominican Order of Preachers, who were very influential in Medieval Europe, obtained good education, lectured at popular schools and occupied different but quite important positions in the Catholic church. So, Eckhart had and successfully used the opportunity to share his own ideas on religion and its place in the life of every human being among many people, including both young budding theologians and mature members of the Dominican Order.
A Mystic, a Heretic or a Saint?
Meister Eckhart worked on many treatises and gave even more sermons. A well-educated, influential and just unique person, he could not help attracting a lot of attention. Probably, he was made a foggy legend by those whose reputation and power could have been significantly shaken by his expressive writings and speeches. Circa 1326 Eckhart was accused of heresy. His natural death might have saved him from a more severe punishment, which he did not deserve anyway.
Heretic Teachings of Faithful Clergyman
Meister Eckhart remained forgotten for several centuries. Despite the fact that his teachings had a remarkable impact on the first Protestant movements which took their roots in the beginning of the 16th century, he was not referred to until German Romantics and philosophers (among them Franz von Baader and Franz Pfeiffer) rediscovered his works in the 19th century. So, what was terribly rebellious about Eckhart’s personality and inheritance that many efforts were made to consign them both into oblivion?
Eckhart was one of the first medieval theologians who said that God was not a separate supreme ruler and judge whose laws had to be obeyed and whose punishments mere mortals had to be afraid of. On the contrary, Meister Eckhart tried to prove inseparability of a human soul and God’s spirit. That is to say, according to Eckhart’s teaching, a human being is a bearer of the divine essence. The latter can be cognized if a human being cognizes itself. By the way, this thought sounds similar to the traditional ideas of Buddhism in which the notion of God or Deity is also compared with the notion of absolute knowledge or truth.
According to Eckhart, a human is always free. This very freedom allows it to see the sense and aim of its life as well as to go towards this aim – cognition of its existence. A human has an outer and an inner nature. The outer nature or the body nature is “given” to us, while the inner nature or the spirit is “eternal”. The human’s freedom helps the inner nature prevail over the outer nature, therefore bringing a human closer to the final aim. If we put aside some metaphorization, implied in these words, we will understand better what Eckhart really meant: unless our inner intentions are good and sincere, our actions, including even praying, will be less effective or successful than we want them to be.
Eckhart’s teaching about soul is one of the most original in his practice. Human soul is created by God and hence it has divine, immortal nature. The soul animates the body and gives it a physical image. At the same time, as Eckhart taught, human soul is interconnected with the Deity and aims to merge with it. Every soul has the divine spark which leads a human to perfection and ideal, that is to God. In essence, such idea deprived the church of the right to control people’s minds and moods, because it proved that every person is its own master.
Meister Eckhart believed that the creation of the world became the effect of the colossal divine energy. There was no particular being which created everything, but everything came and would come from that inexhaustible eternal energy. It may be somewhat difficult to understand what exactly Eckhart meant by such view. However, it is clear that he tried to identify God with the energy which had “bore” but not “built” our world. No wonder, the Catholic church did not like that comparison.
Absolute cognition is possible for every mortal. This claim made Eckhart’s philosophy not just unacceptable, but dangerous for the church. What is more, cognition starts from everyday foolery and mistakes. The highest level of cognition which the human spirit can achieve is comprehension of its own nature and hence of God. This comprehension can be provided by profound positive knowledge of images and concepts “born” by the divine energy.
Contribution to the Future
Meister Eckhart is numbered among medieval mystics and Christian Neoplatonists, but will we ever know who he really was? In 1329, after his death, he was said to have denied all his teaching and his 28 “heretic” ideas were denounced by Pope John XXII. Fortunately, during his lifetime, Meister Eckhart managed to write advanced works and plant the seeds of ideas which just bided their time.
He is considered the father of German philosophical tradition, as he was the first clergyman who used folk German language and not Latin to give his sermons and conduct his philosophical research. Besides, he had to coin new German words to define various notions and concepts. Eckhart’s activity and ideas inspired Martin Luther, who was one of the prominent figures in the Protestant movement and the first theologian who dared translate the Bible from Latin into folk language though it was forbidden by the Church.
The Catholic church rehabilitated Meister Eckhart in the late 20th century, but it definitely does not mean that the church accepted his philosophy. Although it should be acknowledged that after he was rediscovered as a theologian and philosopher, since 19th century till these days his ideas have been readily studied, eagerly supported and quoted by different philosophers and writers (among them Arthur Schopenhauer and J.D. Salinger).
Whoever Eckhart was, he tried to teach people how to find God, and it appeared that, according to his sayings, God could be found not in churches but in people’s souls. Unfortunately, the church understood it a little bit earlier than people.