To what extent would it be meaningful, or even coherent, to think of the moods and experiences of a human lifeits solitude, fears, sufferings and joys, from birth to deathas spiritual events taking place and reverberating within God? Is there not something unyielding about the conditions of life, the inexorable here-and-nowness of the world, that denies us the eternal relief and satisfaction of a God’s-eye view of ourselves? Whose perspective, after all, is truer to experience, or more productive of human well-being, God’s eye or our eye?
Bernard McGinn, professor in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and author of a highly regarded history of Western Christian mysticism, The Presence of God (three of whose projected five volumes have already appeared), has now, in anticipation of the fourth volume in the series, produced a monograph on the medieval Dominican theologian, Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1328). This study, rich in erudition and clarity of exposition, will surely take its place as the best comprehensive introduction in English to this renowned, yet troubling, mystical preacher and teacher. McGinn presents the case that for Eckhart characterizations, such as the one above, pitting the human against the divine in a contest between the immediacy and depth of finite and infinite perspectives, are serious misrepresentations of the relationship inextricably binding the one to the other. The eye in which I see God, Eckhart famously preached, is the same eye in which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye and one seeing, one knowing, and one loving. My eye is God’s eye, my seeing is God’s seeing?
Though there is considerable rhetorical power to the image, what precisely is the nature of the identity being ascribed here to human and divine acts? More provocatively in a sermon entitled How the Soul Went Her Own Way and Lost Herself, Eckhart seems to advocate a kind of spiritual and intellectual asceticism that would render the soul not only free of all earthly attachments, but of God himself: As long as the soul has God, knows God and is aware of God, she is far from God...the greatest honor the soul can pay to God [is] to leave God to himself and to be free of him. McGinn is at his best when he draws attention, in his careful and suggestive readings of both the Latin and the German sermons, to the theological intention of a preacher who was both an astute metaphysician and a spiritual guide of souls. Eckhart often uses a form of homiletic shock therapy in which he makes outrageous statements that taken at face value are almost blasphemous in character.
Eckhart’s innovative attempt to retrieve linguistically a vision of the ultimate unity of all things centers on what McGinn calls the master metaphor of a ground in which both God and the soul prior to all differentiation are mysteriously one: God’s ground and the soul’s ground are one ground, a refrain of many sermons, echoes the claim of union in knowing and loving cited above. The key question, however, is not so much how God is able to unite the soul to himself, but what does it mean that God himself has a ground, albeit one that is itself groundless and unintelligible? The picture emerges in McGinn’s account of a ground boiling up within to become the persons of the Trinity before flowing over into the world, especially into the rational soul as its most fitting image.
McGinn highlights Eckhart’s extraordinary assertion that God must become who he is only to undo his own becoming. When I enter the ground, Eckhart acknowledges, the bottom, the flood and source of the Godhead.... There no one misses me, and there God unbecomes. God unbecomes suggests that God relinquishes temporal ways of appearing so as to undermine the conceptual categories that we affix to our fluid encounters with the divine. Placing potentiality above actuality, Eckhart radicalizes not only divine, but also human freedom. Here whatever speculative tendencies a reader might indulge are held in check by McGinn’s deft reminders of Eckhart’s aim of encouraging his listeners to return to the unmediated awareness of the divine ground within and to live and act out of this ground without a why. Living without a why means not only living without concern for one’s own advantage, but also living without either psychological or theological constructions about God and the soul.
Yet a suspicion persists that the double role of mystic and spiritual director might in fact lie at cross purposes. The extraordinary effort of the sermons to sustain a point of view conveys, at least to this reader, a disquieting knowingness, hinting at self-dramatization. That God is God, of that I am the cause.... McGinn urges a reading of the sermons that frees the self from all particular contentnot for the sake of a mature loving relationship with Godbut for the sake of a complete transformation of the self into fused unity with the Godhead.
McGinn guides us expertly to the point of paradox about the soul’s identity and the harmony of divine action with human freedom without providing answers. What he does provide, a splendidly researched and argued work, contains sufficient insight to allow readers to ponder such questions on their own.