A woodcut of Meister Eckhart, provenance unknown. This image is featured on the cover of Bruce Milem’s book, The Unspoken Word: Negative Theology in Meister Eckhart’s German Sermons
I’ve been reading a lot of Meister Eckhart lately. He was a Dominican friar, which means he was not a monk but a preacher (if you ever see “O.P.” after someone’s name, that means they’re a member of the Order of Preachers; that is, a Dominican). And although he an immensely well-read and well-known scholar of his time (13th-14th centuries), Eckhart knew how to preach it. A lot of his sermons survive, and though they would not come across very well to most congregations these days, they are full of humor, deep insight, and clever paradoxes.
Living when he did, Eckhart knew no science, at least not in the modern sense of the term, and had no reason to think that much of the Bible was not literal (although he, like almost every other theologian for the last 1700 years, was aware of its plenteous historical and logical contradictions; and he, like almost every other theologian for the last 1700 years, knew those contradictions were beside the point). Yet he was a master of figurative interpretation. None of his sermons depend on a literal reading, and some of the freedoms he takes with allegory and metaphor may seem overblown and contrived to us today. But that’s just a product of his times and our times.
Eckhart’s sermons are wonders to read. They deal almost exclusively with several themes, and one of them is the profound unknowability of God; Eckhart was one of the most adept “negative theologians” in the history of Christianity. Eckhart’s God cannot be pinned down or fixed or imagined or conceived or spoken. Eckhart’s God is A Very Big God. (Yet, simultaneously, Eckhart’s God is radically immanent; as the Dominican would say, “God’s ground and your ground is the same ground.”) This Very Big God thing is really important, and it is here that Eckhart has something to teach those of us who spend time thinking about science and religion and how the two relate.
[The church has a] terrible case of what may be called “small-god-ism” and this is, unfortunately, encouraged by much popular theology. This theology makes claims about scripture and church practice that reduce God to a cheerleader, or a cosmic vending machine, or some domesticated and pale image of our own confused selves. Such a god is clearly not sufficient to contain all of reality.
Small-god-ism ends up producing things like The Creation Museum and the forthcoming Ark Park, in the rise of people like Al Mohler, and in the introduction of bills like Kentucky’s HB 169. That is, what you get from this kind of tiny god is a completely flattened biblical interpretation and strong resistance to any idea that does not square with this interpretation. In the past, tiny-god-ism looked like flat-earth-ism and geocentrism. And today it looks like anti-evolution-ism. It is a sad situation, because it hurts the church. The church needs a Very Big God, but it tends to cling to a small, wan, feeble, controllable god instead. A god it can keep tabs on.
Such a small god is not big enough to contain all we can think, all we can imagine, all we can say. Such a god is not sufficiently great to contain the facts of astronomy and geology and biology. But Eckhart’s God is plenty big enough for all of this and more. Perhaps his Very Big God was in part a response to the small-god-ism of his own time. In his German Sermon 16b, he states,
Some people want to see God with their eyes just as they see a cow, and they want to love God just as they love a cow. You love a cow for the milk and for the cheese and for your own profit. This is how these people act, who love God for outward riches or for inward consolation; and the do not love God, rather they love their own profit. Yes, I say truly: everything that you put uppermost in your mind, that is not God in himself, that can never be as good, it will be for you a hindrance.
No matter how high a concept you hold of God — even if this concept is above creation, above cosmology, above evolution — it is simply not God. It falls short. In fact, your very best effort at imagining or conceptualizing God is, in the end, no more than a hindrance, a roadblock, a veil between you and God’s living self.
If God is this big; if God is so unlike us that even the terms “difference” and “similarity” do not apply when comparing anything to God; if God is vastly transcends time and space yet is as near to us as our next breath, then God is big enough to contain this universe and everything in it. That’s the God I’m betting on. That’s Eckhart’s Very Big God.
We need folks like the good Meister to remind us that God is not what we think God is; that God cannot be what we think God is. In the apprehension of such a God, silence is the most appropriate response. We do not know God like we know anything else, so it’s best of we take the path of humility and let our words be few.
But, it is true, we have words, and words are God’s gift to us. And sometimes words can be very powerful. With this in mind, I will leave you with two quotes. I don’t remember the names of the people responsible for these; if you, dear Alert Reader, do know, please advise.
A preacher once said, “The universe is one of God’s thoughts.”
A rabbi once said, “The most important rule of the religious life is: ‘Remember before whom you stand.'”
And all the people said, Amen.
We have just stumbled across this wonderful piece at the Huffington Post. Written by Fr. Richard Rohr, it does a beautiful job saying what we’ve been trying to say here at psnt.net for months. Which is: There is a way of seeing the world, a way that all of us have experienced, a way that points to something big, something beyond ourselves.
He posits three kinds of seeing: (1) with the first eye: the surface level of things; (2) with the second eye: the first eye, with the addition of a deep knowledge of the facts underlying things; and (3) with the third eye: the first and second eyes, with the addition of a sense of “underlying mystery, coherence, and spaciousness that connects [the seer] with everything else.”
Here is a selection from his essay, which is required reading for all Alert Readers.
Third-eye seeing is the way the mystics see. They do not reject the first eye; the senses matter to them, but they know there is more. Nor do they reject the second eye; but they know not to confuse knowledge with depth or mere correct information with the transformation of consciousness itself. The mystical gaze builds upon the first two eyes — and yet goes further. It happens whenever, by some wondrous “coincidence,” our heart space, our mind space, and our body awareness are all simultaneously open and nonresistant. I like to call it presence. It is experienced as a moment of deep inner connection, and it always pulls you, intensely satisfied, into the naked and undefended now, which can involve both profound joy and profound sadness. At that point, you either want to write poetry, pray, or be utterly silent.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the separation and loss of these three necessary eyes is the basis of much of the short-sight-edness and religious crises of the Western world. Lacking such wisdom, it is very difficult for churches, governments, and leaders to move beyond ego, the desire for control, and public posturing. Everything divides into oppositions such as liberal vs. conservative, with vested interests pulling against one another. Truth is no longer possible at this level of conversation. Even theology becomes more a quest for power than a search for God and Mystery.
We have just discovered that the essay at HuffPost is an excerpt from Rohr’s latest book, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. So if you like the essay, buy the book!