Today in 1329 Pope John XXII issued a bull condemning some writings of Meister Eckhart as heretical. In todays pod we look at his writing and his preaching, why was it so popular? What were the effects of it and why has he made a resurgence in the last century?
Johannes Eckhart, was German theologian, philosopher, and mystic, and a member of the Dominican order. He was known as Meister as a sign of the esteem he was held in locally, and also a reference to the Masters in Theology he had been awarded in Paris. Like many mystics, his writings tested the boundaries of Orthodoxy and therefore created anxiety in those who were responsible for governance. Some of the novel concepts Eckhart introduced into Christian metaphysics, clearly deviated from the common scholastic canon of the time, in Eckhart's vision, God is primarily fertile. It was out of an overabundance of love, the fertile God gives birth to the Son, the Word. Influenced by the philosophy of Plato, Eckhart had imagined creation not as a "compulsory" overflowing but as the free act of will of the Trinity. Another bold assertion was Eckhart's distinction between God and Godhead. Anything that appears to soften the precise claims of monotheism is also challenging orthodoxy. 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." But these seem to be attempts to help people understand their experience of God taking them away from the dry metaphysical language of Scholastic philosophy.
Meister Eckhart was also controversial because of the manner of his teaching, he preached often in the German vernacular, trying to share with ordinary audiences some of the experience and understanding of God which had been reserved for priestly scholars and theologians. Defending himself later at his trial, he said that his sermons were meant to inspire in listeners, above all, the desire to do some good. However, he frequently used exaggerated language or seemed to stray from the path of orthodoxy. His publications in the vernacular attracted a wide audience, but also made church authorities suspicious and uneasy. Even though he was tried for heresy in the final years of his life and died before a verdict was reached, he considered himself a submissive child of the Church until the end. The intriguing question is what happened as a result of his writings. It is possible that his practical communication of mysticism is behind the influential 14th-century "anonymous" Theologia Germanica, which was disseminated after his disappearance, written by an unnamed member of the Teutonic Order of Knights living in Frankfurt. Although it didn’t receive an imprimatur from the Church it became hugely influential in Germany for the next two centuries – including with Martin Luther at the peak of public and clerical resistance to Catholic indulgences – and some historians consider was possible key in provoking Luther's actions and the subsequent Protestant Reformation.
Eckhart was largely forgotten from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, but German Romantics started paying attention to his writings again although recently there had been a debate about whether he should be considered as genuine mystic or a mediaeval philosopher. More recently however he has become very popular in modern spirituality, particularly through the work of the American theologian Matthew Fox a former Dominican and an early and influential exponent of a movement that came to be known as Creation Spirituality. Fox has written a number of articles on Eckhart and a book titled Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation. A renewed academic focus on Eckhart has attracted favourable attention to his work from contemporary non-Christian sources. A famous quote, "The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me", is commonly cited by Buddhists, as a point of contact between them and Christian mysticism.
However his status in the contemporary Catholic Church has been uncertain. The Dominican Order pressed for his full rehabilitation and confirmation of his theological orthodoxy. Pope John Paul II voiced a favourable opinion on this initiative, even going as far as quoting from Eckhart's writings, and when Timothy Radcliffe, was the Master of the Dominicans he received a letter from the Vatican and summarized the contents as follows: We tried to have the censure lifted on Eckhart ... and were told that there was really no need since he had never been condemned by name, just some propositions which he was supposed to have held, and so we are perfectly free to say that he is a good and orthodox theologian