Woods’ central themes in presenting Eckhart to the contemporary reader are his positions on feminism, the environment and ecumenism, and in each case there is an admitted element of attempting to square the circle given the anachronism of some of these issues as well as Eckhart’s silence on others. The outline of the book consists of an introduction and history of Eckhart, women mystics and the neoplatonic inheritance. This is followed by chapters on his views of creation and incarnation, his method of apophaticism, views on art and suffering, and finally an epilogue on the applicability of Eckhart to a wider ecumenism.
The history and analysis of Eckhart sets out the problems that are wrestled with in the following text, namely how his neoplatonic and disembodied spirituality may be applied to the very embodied themes of feminism, ecology and ecumenism. Following this introduction, in chapter II Woods argues that despite Eckhart’s occasional use of sexist terminology of the time his essential message was one of radical equality because of the incarnation and evidenced in his work with the spiritual direction of the Beguines. In addition Woods makes the evident claim that there can be no thorough understanding of Eckhart without reference to medieval women mystics, particularly Hadewijch II of Antwerp and Hildegard of Bingen among many others.
In chapter IV Woods addresses how Eckhart may be applied to environmentalism. Though admitting that there isn’t very much that he can offer, what he can offer is potent. According to Eckhart, creation is holy, apophatic detachment should always be secondary to love and care for one’s neighbor and the suffering encountered in the world is to be embraced and regarded as transformative.
Woods is most theologically complex in chapter V where he compares Eckhart and Thomas’ views on the incarnation and the role of Christ in soteriology. Both diverged widely not only in their influences, neoplatonism versus aristotelianism respectively, but also in their emphases on Christ. For Thomas the substitutional death and resurrection of Christ plays a central role, whereas for Eckhart the incarnation is central. Woods describes this as Thomas emphasizing Lent and Easter while Eckhart emphasizes the incarnation and Christmas. This is also thematically where Eckhart received his condemnations, in taking Irenaeus and Athanasius’ incarnation views to their logical end which resulted in statements that claimed deification of the human on the one hand and suspected pantheism on the other. Woods’ argument is that despite the condemnations, Eckhart is ultimately more traditional than Thomas, requiring a study of patristic authors to fully understand and clarify his positions. Thomas, in contrast, kept a distance from patristic concepts such as theosis/theopoeis, while for Eckhart these were central to any understanding of the incarnation and humanity. In chapter X Woods addresses this issue in a more detailed discussion on the history of the concepts of the ‘image and likeness’ of God in humanity.
Finally, Woods sums up Eckhart’s most important contribution to contemporary society which is the broad ecumenism that he practiced in his own writings, drawing widely on pagan, Jewish, Christian and Muslim authors. Woods also notes recent scholarship on Eckhart in dialogue with Buddhism and Hinduism.
Woods’ text will be of good use for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on medieval mysticism with a concentration on Eckhart. The introductory chapters provide an excellent overview of the general history and context of mysticism in the period while the latter chapters elaborate clearly and concisely upon deeper theological concepts. Throughout the work Woods makes cogent analyses of Eckhart’s validity for contemporary social issues, noting in particular his radical views of the equality of women based on the incarnation, his creation spirituality and his ecumenism that was as valid in his time as today. Where contemporary themes are anachronistic or poorly addressed in Eckhart’s work, Woods is quick to admit Eckhart’s limitations while still providing scholarship that supports these themes. For graduate students Woods offers an example of how to engage seemingly dusty authors in a vibrant contemporary context. Woods’ final and most important contribution to studies of Eckhart and medieval mysticism is his extensive bibliography of current and earlier authors, clearly divided by topic. Despite the book’s concentrated brevity, Woods’ bibliography is a profoundly useful starting point for more comprehensive research on Eckhart.