meister-eckhart

 

 

As I have been reading Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), I have noticed that he attempts to be both the Neoplatonic philosopher and the Christian theologian, and he tries to bring together the ideas about the One as found in Plotinus with the Christian idea of God as being triune. How does he do this when at first glance it seems as though these two conceptions about God (or the One) seem to be at odds with each other? Eckhart first wants to teach his readers that God is One, and that there is no distinction or multiplicity within him. Multiplicity and distinction are characteristics of finite beings, whereas God is an infinite being, indeed he is the source of all being itself, and indistinct from all things.[1] For the Meister, God is Existence itself and existence is by definition indistinct from all things. Indeed, nothing that exists or even can exist as distinct and separate from existence. Therefore, nothing that is can exist apart from God. Distinction is considered to be a quality of finite creatures, because it refers to the differences between these beings, their limitations and boundaries, their “thisness” and “thatness.” God has no limitations, however, no boundaries of which to speak. God is not distinct from finite beings because you cannot really define him as such, except by using negative language that you then have to qualify. For example, God may be seen as “distinct” from finite beings in the sense that he is indistinct from them. Now Eckhart goes on to say that it is because of the fact that God is existence itself that there cannot be more than one God. If you admit that there is more than one God, then either none of them are God or only one of them is, because you cannot have more than one source of existence, otherwise every being would actually be two beings.

Now, after saying all of that, the idea that the One God could also be Triune seems to be a little impossible at first glance. How could the One also be the Three? Eckhart says that there exists a relation within the Godhead. He tells us that while multiplicity and inequality are properties of created things, unity and equality are proper to God and divine things in as far as they are divine. A created thing is distinct, unequal, and many, and by its descent from the One and Indistinct God it becomes distinct and hence unequal. But this is not true of the Uncreated. The Uncreated does not fall or descend and therefore remains within the fountainhead of unity, equality, and distinction. And it is for this reason, says the Meister, that the three person of the Godhead, although they are plural, they are not many but one, and he even says that this would be true even if they were a thousand persons![2] It is this idea that the three persons all partake in the One divine substance fully that makes this true. He borrows the Neoplatonic ideas about emanations here in his explanations of the three persons, using the Latin term bullitio (meaning a kind of bubbling out or boiling over) to explain the generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit.[3] This overflowing does not produce something like itself, but that which is one and the same as itself. That which is “born” from God is God. Eckhart relies upon Johannine language to describe how in the very beginning, the First Principle, that is the Father, was with his Logos or Word i.e. his Son, and that this divine word cannot exist without its breath or spirit I.e. the Holy Spirit. I am still thinking over Eckhart’s explanations, but so far I can see where he is coming from here. It is a complicated explanation, but I suppose the Trinity is a rather complicated doctrine to begin with. To quote St. Gregory Nazianzus: “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.”[4]

[1] Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 166.

[2] Ibid. 154

[3] Meister Eckhart, The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 37.

[4] Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 40, On Holy Baptism.

 

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