…. I was at a lecture by … [a philosophy teacher] a few months ago, and he insisted that Meister Eckhart was a pantheist. When I found your website I searched for Meister Eckhart in it (knowing the Dominican connection) and I was surprised to see that you often quote him - and always approvingly. Was he knowingly a pantheist or is this the most recent understanding of his theories? Can a Christian be a pantheist in any sense of the word? I’d like to hear your views on this. Brendan C.
I deleted the name of your lecturer so that he could not be googled under this heading. I don’t want to help ruin his career!
No, Meister Eckhart was not a pantheist, though it’s easy enough to understand how someone would get that impression.
Pantheism is a philosophical view, a theory; but Meister Eckhart, though he had been an academic theologian, was speaking not from theory but from religious experience. These two perspectives are quite different from each other, and it is very interesting to look at this. Most of the confusion about mysticism is due to a failure to see this difference.
With very few exceptions the philosophical view is a view from the outside. Philosophers join hands with journalists in what Swift called "the tribes of Answerers, Considerers, Observers, Reflectors, Detectors, Remarkers." A German philosopher, Jünger, called this kind of seeing “an act of aggression.” The great sponsor of this kind of seeing was an earlier German philosopher, Kant, who elaborated a view that made contemplation impossible in principle. The mediaevals had distinguished between the active and passive functions of the mind; they called them ‘ratio’ and ‘intellectus’. ‘Ratio’ is the discursive mind, while ‘intellectus’ is the intuitive. But Kant dismissed ‘intellectus’ as mere confusion and lent all his weight to ‘ratio’. The mind’s proper activities, he said, were analysing, distinguishing, comparing, relating, abstracting, deducing, demonstrating…. These were “work”, he said; it was serious, while the contemplative view was self-indulgent. He was the common ancestor of Swift’s tribes. Many a philosopher (or even a philosophy teacher) surveying a subject is like a butcher surveying a carcass. I know that look, because I was a philosophy teacher myself for a number of years.
When Meister Eckhart said that at the deepest level of spiritual life, “whoever sees God sees nothing but one,” or when his follower Johann Tauler said the soul “knows nothing of difference from God,” they were not giving expression to a theory they had arrived at by thinking – just as when Julian of Norwich wrote, “I saw no difference between God and our substance, but, as it were, all God,” she was not giving us a conclusion she had reached through study and reflection. It is easy to understand how such expressions scandalise people who are unaware of the distinction between ‘ratio’ and ‘intellectus’.
Julian was more careful than Eckhart in explaining herself. Having just said that she saw “no difference between God and our substance,” she immediately added: “and still my understanding accepted that our substance is in God, that is to say that God is God, and our substance is a creature in God.” Her first expression is from ‘intellectus’, the second from ‘ratio’. This is how the two functions work together, as the mediaevals understood.
Eckhart too can be careful when he wants to. He repeatedly says (like Julian) that “the creature is in God,” and “God is in every creature.” This is no more or less than what the great multitude of Christian writers have said throughout the centuries. Someone coined a word for it: panentheism. Pantheism would be the belief that everything is God; this could never be an orthodox Christian view. But panentheism is the belief that everything is in God; this view is perfectly orthodox.
It is interesting to see Eckhart’s younger contemporaries defending and explaining him. Johann Tauler said to a group: “There was one great teacher who taught you and told you about these things; but you did not understand him.” And Henry Suso refers to “the sweet teachings of holy Meister Eckhart,” and said to someone, in reference to Eckhart’s teaching: “Your problem is without doubt that you do not understand the distinction previously mentioned about how a person should become one [with God] in Christ and yet remain distinct, and how he is united though perceives himself to be one and not just united.”
These people were trying to put words on their experience, much as St Paul tried to put words on his experience on the road to Damascus. During the time when we are completely absorbed in something – even a sunset or a piece of music – we perceive no distinction between it and ourselves. It is the same with moments of absorption in God. Then, in Tauler’s words (quoted above in part), the soul “loses itself, and knows nothing of God or of itself, of likeness to Him or of difference from Him, or of anything whatsoever.” Then we return to ordinary consciousness and become well aware of the difference.
I hope these thoughts will help to clarify the confusion sown by your philosophy teacher. And I hope the effect of his teaching is not to inoculate you against thinking. Good luck.