Five years ago, Bernard McGinn substantially changed my understanding of Marguerite Porete’s mystifying book, The Mirror of Simple Souls. I experienced a similar intellectual transformation when I read this book on the controversial philosopher-theologian-mystic, Meister Eckhart. This opus—the product of almost fifty years of reading, translating, and writing—establishes McGinn as the world’s foremost interpreter of the great Dominican.
McGinn values Eckhart as a source for all Christians seeking deeper consciousness of God's presence, a view I do not share because of the Meister's almost impenetrable dialectics. He also considers Eckhart to be the only major figure in the Christian mystical tradition to integrate Latin mysticism with what McGinn calls the "new vernacular theology." Despite the Meister's originality, McGinn discloses his deep roots in the Bible, medieval scholastic philosophy and theology, Christian neo-Platonism, the Fathers of the Church, Avicenna, Maimonides, and the women mystics of his day. Extremely important to my mind is the skillful way McGinn elucidates the relationship between Eckhart the preacher, spiritual director, philosopher, theologian, and mystic. On the other hand, does McGinn take the Meister as theologian too seriously?
The Dominican aims not at a theological system but at achieving mystical consciousness in the liturgical act of preaching, interpreting, and hearing the biblical word. Claiming to speak from the “ground” (grunt), Eckhart’s apophatic exegetical iconoclasm destroys the boundaries between the interpreter, the text, and the text’s divine author. Thus, the interpreter becomes the text! Because of the Dominican’s goal to make the mysteries of Christ’s life present here and now, he shows an astonishing disinterest in its historical realities.
McGinn argues convincingly that the grunt is the foundation of the Meister’s mysticism. The teaching that “God’s ground and my ground is the same ground” flows from a consciousness different from all other forms of experiencing and knowing. The grunt is the uncreated something in (not of) the soul. It is also the groundless ground of both God and the soul. Neither creatures, nor the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, nor even the divine essence satisfy the grunt. Grunt also connotes the activity of grounding—the event or action of being in a fused relationship.
McGinn understands Eckhart’s “implied systematics” as a “metaphysics of flow,” that is, as the dynamic reciprocity of the “flowing forth” of all thing from God’s hidden grunt and the “flowing-back” or “breaking-through” of the universe into essential identity with this divine source. The Godhead “becomes” God in the flowing forth of creation and God “unbecomes” in the silent, unmoving Godhead. God’s inner “boiling” results in the divine Persons; the “boiling over,” in creation. The precreational existence and oneness of all things in God may very well be the hermeneutical key to understanding the Meister. Because the Dominican focused on a God beyond God “in which distinction never gazed,” McGinn considers his mysticism to be both trinitarian and supertrinitarian. The grunt is both the pure possibility for emanation and the Father as the actual source of the two divine Persons. Thus, the Father’s potentiality for begetting is in the essence not the Paternity; the Father begets the Son but not himself. However, to the extent that the Godhead is the Father, the divine silence speaks the Word.
Eckhart's non-Thomistic view of analogy explains not what something is but from where it comes. His analogy of formal opposition speaks about God dialectically: something affirmed of God must be denied of creatures, at least in a real sense. Moreover, the just man is Divine Justice insofar as he is just. McGinn claims that the underlying law of all speech about God is distinction-indistinction: God is the more distinct the more indistinct he is. God, as the negation of negation, negates everything we know is. He alone is totally one or indistinct from everything. Although no human word is really adequate for speaking about God, unum, esse, and especially esse indistinctum can be used to speak of God. Eckhart's radical apophaticism implies that God's mystery is hidden even from God-clearly an exaggeration.
The preacher taught that every creature has both its "virtual existence" in its essential cause (not the Aristotelian efficient cause) and formal existence in the natural world. Thus, creation is both eternal and in time. God and the creature are one in virtual existence but distinct in formal existence. More controversial is Eckhart's assertion that creation is a "fall" from Oneness, the ground for evil in the world, and ultimately an illusion.
The Word is the true imago Dei; humanity, ad imaginem. However, the Dominican does predicate imago of the human intellect to stress the indistinction of the human and divine intellect. Ad imaginem expresses the distinction of the human intellect from the divine source insofar as it possesses esse formale. Thus, there is something uncreated in the soul insofar as it is intellect. However, it is not of the soul because it does not belong to the soul's created nature ad imaginem.
Taking exception to much in late medieval Christology, Eckhart emphasizes a functional Christology, that is, the Word became flesh for the sake of our divinization. He also espouses a pan-Christic ontology which links radically the incarnation to creation. The Word assumed not a human nature but the human nature common to all, a nature "without image or particularity." By imitating Christ's total self-denial, the Christian becomes a son in exactly the same way that he was. Thus, the Dominican taught the physical and ontological identity between Christ and the believer. The Christological character of grace means that every person can be God's son substantially in him, but adoptively in self.
The Dominican taught the uselessness of trying to find God in "ways." One ought not petition God for anything. In fact, one must be empty of both self and God because absolute self-emptying forces God to fill the vacuum. McGinn maintains that Eckhart melted down through apophatic deconstruction everything he read and recast it into the central mystery of the divine birth in the soul as virgin-wife.
To McGinn, no Christian mystic emphasizes more daringly the total indistinction between God and the soul. His extreme mystical apophaticism counseled not only going beyond the Son as Image but also not having a God at all. Even more, the spirit must die and be buried in the Godhead, in the Father's "preebullitional" sense of self as the potential source of the Son and the Holy Spirit. I maintain that Eckhart confuses the Johannine language of "indwelling" with identity language. On the other hand, he does teach an indistinct union with God in the grunt, but a real distinction from God in our formal being, a distinction that remains even in heaven.
McGinn considers Eckhart's universalizing of the call to mystical union as one of the most important aspects of his mysticism. Living "without a way" out of the grunt is open to all believers. He also does well to underscore a tension in the Meister's thinking: his call to withdraw from the body and matter to live everyday life from the grunt. However, if loving action comes from the grunt, then contemplation and action are one. This is a mysticism of everyday life.