Johannes Eckhart (1260 – 1328), also known as Eckhart von Hochheim and widely referred to as Meister Eckhart, was a German theologian, philosopher, and mystic, born near Erfurt, in Thuringia. Meister is German for "Master," referring to the academic title of Master of Theology that he obtained in Paris. Eckhart preached relentlessly in the German vernacular, trying to give to ordinary audiences some of the experience and understanding of God which had been reserved for priestly scholars and theologians. He offered an explanation of how humanity could experience unity with God, through a connection in the depths of the soul which Eckhart called a "spark." His publications in the vernacular attracted a wide audience, but made church authorities suspicious and uneasy. Near the end of his life, he was tried as a heretic by Pope John XXII. Eckhart admitted his errors, explaining, the reasoning behind each article of his writing which was being challenged, and thus avoided being burned, but he died before his trial was concluded.
Meister Eckhart can be considered a symbol of the intellectual spirit of the late Middle Ages. His teachings had a strong influence on the thinkers of the Reformation, including Martin Luther. Some of his ideas have been compared to Buddhist teachings.
The Dominican theologian known to the world as Meister Eckhart probably was born in the village of Tambach, in the Germanic region of Thuringia (Hochheim) in approximately 1260. He was born to a noble family of landowners, but little is known about his family and early life. Some biographical sketches, of dubious authority, give him the Christian name of Johannes. His Christian name was Eckhart; his surname was von Hochheim.
Eckhart joined the Dominican Order quite early at Erfurt. His preliminary studies probably took place in Cologne at the Studium Generale, founded by Albert the Great in 1248. In 1286, Eckhart went to study at Paris. At that time, he was Prior of the Convent of Erfurt and held the office of Vicar provincial of Thuringia. In 1300, he was sent to Paris to lecture and take the academic degrees, and received a Master of Theology at Paris in 1302. He remained to teach as Professor there until the end of the academic year in 1303.
He returned to Erfurt, and from 1303 to 1311, he was made provincial for Saxony, a province which reached at that time from the Netherlands to Livonia. Complaints made against him and the provincial of Teutonia, at the general chapter held in Paris in 1306, concerning irregularities among the ternaries, must have been trivial, because the following year the general, Aymeric, appointed him his Vicar-general for Bohemia, with full power to set the demoralized monasteries there in order.
In 1311, Eckhart was appointed by the general chapter of Naples as teacher at Paris. Then follows a long period of which it is known only that he spent part of the time at Strasbourg, where from 1314 to 1322, he was known as an increasingly energetic preacher. A passage in a chronicle of the year 1320, extant in manuscript (cf. Wilhelm Preger, i. 352-399), speaks of a prior Eckhart at Frankfurt who was suspected of heresy, and some have inferred this to be Meister Eckhart; but it is highly improbable that a man under suspicion of heresy would have been appointed teacher in one of the most famous schools of the order.
From 1323, Eckhart was a Lecturer at Cologne, and the archbishop, Hermann von Virneburg, accused him of heresy before the pope. But Nicholas of Strasburg, to whom the pope had given temporary charge of the Dominican monasteries in Germany, exonerated him. The archbishop, however, pressed his charges against Eckhart and against Nicholas before his own court. Eckhart now denied the competency of the archiepiscopal inquisition and demanded litterce dimissorix (apostoli) for an appeal to the pope.
On February 13, 1327, he stated in his protest, which was read publicly, that he had always detested everything wrong, and that should anything of the kind be found in his writings, he now retracted it. Of the further progress of the case there is no information, except that Pope John XXII issued a bull (In agro dominico), March 27, 1329, in which a series of statements from Eckhart is characterized as heretical and another as suspected of heresy (the bull is given complete in ALKG, ii. 636–640). At the close, it is stated that before his death, Eckhart recanted everything which he had falsely taught by subjecting himself and his writing to the decision of the apostolic see. This is probably a reference to the statement of February 13, 1327; and it may be inferred that Eckhart's death, concerning which no information exists, took place shortly after that event.
In 1328, the general chapter of the order at Toulouse decided to proceed against preachers who "endeavor to preach subtle things which not only do (not) advance morals, but easily lead the people into error." Eckhart's disciples were admonished to be more cautious, but nevertheless they continued to cherish the memory of their master.
Some of the novel concepts Eckhart introduced into Christian metaphysics clearly deviate from the common scholastic canon: In Eckhart's vision, God is primarily fertile. Out of overabundance of love, the fertile God gives birth to the Son, the Word. Clearly (aside from a rather striking metaphor of "fertility"), this is rooted in the Neoplatonic notion of "overflow" of the One that cannot hold back its abundance of Being. Eckhart had imagined the creation not as a "compulsory" overflowing (a metaphor based on a common hydrodynamic picture), but as the free act of will of the Trinitary God. Another bold assertion is Eckhart's distinction between God and Godhead (Gottheit in German). These notions had been present in the Pseudo-Dionysius's writings and John the Scot's De divisione naturae, but it was Eckhart who, with characteristic vigor and audacity, reshaped the germinal metaphors into profound images of polarity between the Unmanifest and Manifest Absolute.
Eckhart expressed himself both in learned Latin for the clergy in his tractates and, more famously, in the German vernacular (at that time Middle High German) in his sermons. Because, as he said in the defense he gave at his trial, his sermons were meant to inspire in listeners, above all, the desire to do some good, he frequently used exaggerated language or seemed to stray from the path of orthodoxy. His unorthodox teachings seemed suspicious to the Catholic Church, and he was tried for heresy in the final years of his life. He died before a verdict was reached, but considered himself a submissive child of the Church until the end.
It was the German mystics’ intention to apply the theory of Thomas Aquinas to the practical aspects of life. They were not meditative monks, taking a seat parallel to the world, but active clergy who aspired to help ordinary people to also grasp the contents of Scholastic teachings. The German Dominican Meister Eckhart combined extremely abstract scholastic notions. His controversial works can be classified in two groups; those written in the vernacular, and those written in Latin. The works written in the German vernacular were distributed to a wide audience; through them, Eckhart gained a long–standing reputation as a mystic. The works written in Latin, rediscovered in 1886, showed a more academic side of Eckhart.
An important concept in Eckhart’s works was “being.” Eckhart wrote: "Nothing is so near to the beings, so intimate to them, as being-itself. But God is being-itself.” “Being” was not merely a static concept, but a continuous process of change and renewal, which Eckhart called “ flux and return,” or “stream and counter-stream.”
Eckhart explained this more clearly in distinguishing between the divinity and God. The divinity was the base of being where all movement occurs; God was “essentia,” which means the principle of the good and the true. Using this distinction, the theory of the trinity could be described. The first principle was the being which never gives birth or is born. The second was the appearance of the self-object, the Logos, the Son. The third was the self-generation, the Spirit, which creates all things.
To describe divinity, Eckhart applied the terminology of negative theology. Negative theology tries to characterize God by negation, talking of God only in terms of what may not be said concerning of God. St. Paul’s reference to the Unknown God in Acts 17:23 is the base of works such as those of Pseudo-Dionysius. Eckhart describes divinity as the simplest place, the tranquil desert. It is the nature which is beyond any nature. The trinity is founded on God’s leaving and going back to Himself, thus establishing the Logos. The world is in God in the sense of an “Archetype” (the Latin translation of Plato’s “idea”). The essences, the models of all things, are the divine Word and are in the profundity of the divine. Hence, the generation of the Son and the everlasting creation of the world in God are one and the same thing.
Every creature is endowed with being by God, and has nothing in separation from God. The soul is the point at which the creature comes into contact with God. The deepest point of the soul, in which this contact takes place, is the “spark,” which is the heart, the center, and the castle of the soul. It is the light in humans which is not created by humanity itself. In this manner, the Son is born in every soul. This cosmic occurrence is more significant than the specific birth of Jesus. However, all this is only a possibility which must be brought into the actual world. In order for the soul to be born of God, it must set itself apart from the concerns of the material world. In order to achieve salvation, one must deny himself and all things. In the presence of sin and evil, one becomes aware of how distant he is from God. (This concept became a starting point for Martin Luther’s interpretation of salvation.) God is the endless Now, who approaches each individual in his or her particular circumstances. God never requires that a human being first make some effort towards goodness before He approaches, but comes to the each person just as he is. Tranquility is necessary in order to receive God. Good works are not a pathway to God, but a natural outcome of an encounter with God. The movements of German mysticism and nominalism were both precursors of the Reformation.
Although he was an accomplished academic theologian, Eckhart's best-remembered works are his sermons in the vernacular. These were very popular with secular audiences, who could not read or understand the formal Latin used by the church and theologians.The central theme of Eckhart's German sermons is the presence of God in the individual soul, and the dignity of the soul of the just man.
Eckhart's status in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church is uncertain. During the last decade of the twentieth century, the Dominican Order pressed in for his full rehabilitation and confirmation of his theological orthodoxy; the late Pope John Paul II voiced a favorable opinion on this initiative, but the affair is still under discussion at the Vatican.
Although most scholars accept that Eckhart's work is divided into philosophical and theological, more recent interpreters such as Kurt Flasch see Eckhart strictly as a philosopher. Flasch argues that the opposition between "mystic" and "scholastic" is not relevant because Eckhart’s mysticism is penetrated by the spirit of the University, in which he studied and taught. Matthew Fox draws heavily on Eckhart for his theology.
In 1844, Schopenhauer suggested that Eckhart's thoughts were equivalent to the teachings of Indian, Christian, and Mohammedan mystics, Quietists, and ascetics.
If we turn from the forms, produced by external circumstances, and go to the root of things, we shall find that Sakyamuni and Meister Eckhart teach the same thing; only that the former dared to express his ideas plainly and positively, whereas Eckhart is obliged to clothe them in the garment of the Christian myth, and to adapt his expressions thereto (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. XLVIII).
After contrasting the eudemonism of Protestant Christianity with original Christianity and other religions, Schopenhauer wrote: "I say therefore that the spirit of (original) Christian morality is identical with that of Brahmanism and Buddhism." In accordance with the whole view expressed here, Meister Eckhart also says (Works, vol. I, p. 492): "Suffering is the fleetest animal that bears you to perfection" (Ibid.).
In 1891, Karl Eugen Neumann, who translated large parts of the Tipitaka, also found parallels between Eckhart and Buddhism. In the twentieth century, Eckhart's thoughts have been compared to Eastern mystics by both Rudolf Otto and D.T. Suzuki, among other scholars.
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