As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
The past 100 years or so have yielded a handful of commanding, single-authored, multiple volume works of historical theology. Adolf von Harnack’s History of Dogma comes immediately to mind, as do Ernst Troeltsch’s The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Friedrich von Hügel’s The Mystical Element of Religion, and Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.
It’s not too much to say that Bernard McGinn’s magisterial project, The Presence of God: A History of Western Mysticism stands in that illustrious company. Part one of the sixth volume appeared in 2016, Mysticism in the Reformation. Parts two and three of that volume are on schedule to follow.
McGinn is the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor emeritus of Historical Theology and the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, where he taught for 34 years. McGinn has also published numerous other works of historical scholarship including studies of Meister Eckhart, apocalyptic traditions in the Middle Ages, and the figure of the Anti-Christ through history.
McGinn worked on volume two of his history of mysticism, The Growth of Mysticism during a residency at the Collegeville Institute in 1992. The following interview with McGinn by Sara Miller appeared March 22, 2003 in the Christian Century, and presents a solid overview of McGinn’s project.
You’ve edited and translated a number of collections and editions of Meister Eckhart’s sermons and theological writings over the years, and you’ve just written a full-length study of him. Why is he important to you and perhaps to anyone seeking a deeper spirituality today?
He certainly is very important for me. He’s fascinating historically because he was a very prominent scholastic and Dominican administrator who was charged with heresy and condemned posthumously. So he has this whiff of danger about him. Of course, I think the condemnation was incorrect in every possible way. Even the Dominican order has petitioned the pope to revoke this judgment.
We think of the medieval people as very simple—many of them were illiterate and so on. But Eckhart preached very difficult sermons to general audiences, not just to clergy. And even today, despite the complex nature of his preaching, he has a powerful impact on people. In fact, the Eckhart Society, which began in England in the 1980s, was founded by an Anglican man and Catholic woman who previously had been very attracted to Buddhism. Their spiritual director, a famous Buddhist scholar, told them not to become Buddhists but to go read Eckhart! And so they remained Anglican and Catholic and were able to find in Eckhart what they had been missing in some forms of Christianity.
That arresting subtitle, The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing, suggests that Eckhart had an elevated kind of insight or status.
That phrase is actually from a contemporary description of Eckhart, and one of the reasons I used it is that it’s profoundly ironic and paradoxical. It seems to single him out, but if you put it in Eckhart’s framework of thinking about God, it shows his commonality, because God hides his nothingness from all of us. We’re all essentially in the same boat. And of course the mystical life, the mystical search, is the search for the God who is nothing. It’s the realization that God is a hidden god.
You say in The Presence of God that mysticism is an original, essential element of Christianity—is this because of the “hiddenness” of God?
I think the fact that God is a hidden God puts mysticism at the center of Christianity, but what I emphasize is that mysticism is one element of religion. I’m profoundly dissatisfied with the notion that mysticism is a kind of true religion, or the hidden core of the true religion, while institutions and teachings occupy some kind of periphery. I think it’s much better to see religion as a complex of beliefs and practices in which mysticism plays an essential role. Mysticism doesn’t float free of religion—with the exception of the past hundred years, when the dissatisfaction with organized religion has led some people to turn to mysticism as a kind of private religion.
The idea that mysticism floats free is something that Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other religions would react against because their mystical teachings are a part of the complex of being a Christian, Jew or Muslim, and they coexist with practices, beliefs, institutions and so forth. Even Eckhart’s notion of inwardness and detachment didn’t lead him outside the framework of medieval Christianity. That’s why he’s so terribly upset when he’s accused of being a heretic. I cannot be a heretic, he says, because being a heretic is a matter of the will, of wanting to persist in an incorrect view. I can be mistaken intellectually—show me where I’ve made a mistake and I’ll retract it.
Despite Eckhart’s emphasis on detachment from the self and the will, his account of the soul’s pursuit of God makes the soul seem decidedly willful and forceful—it’s the soul that compels God, that calls the shots, that conquers. Eckhart even says of God, “He cannot shut me out.”
Eckhart does talk about compelling God, but you compel God by your emptiness and by getting rid of all your selfishness and by total detachment. Eckhart and his followers often use what we would call a gravitational model—that is, water has to flow downhill, but it can only flow into what’s empty. So it’s in the process of emptying yourself of your self-will that you compel God, because God can’t come in if there’s something else there, meaning yourself.
And the self here means the selfish self. Eckhart and his disciples are always preaching to get rid of the self that’s concerned with its own desires, wishes, characteristics, success, fulfillment—everything that centers on us. That’s what they’re talking about when they talk of detachment, which is the cutting off, or of a “releasement.” Eckhart uses both those terms.
Other mystics talk about reaching God through purification, or an attitude of humility. Are detachment and releasement just different terms for these traditional notions or are they new concepts?
Here’s the way I would summarize Eckhart and his followers’ preaching: People think they know what humility is—acting humble. People think they know what purity is—avoiding this, avoiding that. But those are practices, whereas detachment and releasement is something much, much deeper. It is ultimate humility and total purification. It involves a much deeper annihilation of the self. And then, paradoxically, if you can do that, the self returns to you, but it’s no longer the selfish self. It’s the purely spontaneous good self.
This is the notion of Eckhart and some other 13th-century mystics of living “without a why.” “Living without a why” means that you don’t ask, What’s in it for me? or Why am I doing this? You just do the good spontaneously, the way that God acts. God doesn’t act because of the why or for any interest of his own.
Many of the mystics start with small practices, like prayer, or ascetic habits, or meditation on a passage of scripture, and gradually work their way up to a transcendent state or a God-consciousness. With Eckhart it appears to go the other way. Is that correct?
There are not a lot of concrete things that you do in Eckhart’s form of mysticism. What Eckhart is most concerned with is this change of attitude, which he says can happen instantaneously if you can just get into the frame of mind in which you give up the self. Eckhart is in some ways pretty impractical, and that’s evident in his constant speech about how if you’re using ways to find God you’re finding ways and not God.
To some people, of course, this sounds extremely challenging—and it is, in a way. But Eckhart was not a radical. He lived as a group monk, prayed his office and practiced penance, and did all the things he was supposed to do. But his point would be that these things in themselves mean absolutely nothing. They have meaning only if the attitude in which you do them is the attitude of detachment.
In his treatment of the Martha and Mary text (Luke 10:38-42), Eckhart defends Martha’s focus on the tasks of hospitality. Is that a striking departure from the traditional understanding?
Yes, Eckhart is the first commentator to elevate Martha above Mary. The earlier commentators tried to show that both Martha and Mary were necessary, though Mary’s approach is higher. Eckhart says that Mary is the one who’s still learning, whereas Martha is the one who has learned perfectly because she combines contemplation and action—though Eckhart doesn’t use those words—in an unselfish, detached way. She can now operate as the soul “without a why” and be effective spontaneously without losing that contact with God. Mary’s just on the way to that. She needs to learn life.
I get the feeling that living spontaneously in God, or living without a why, is a lot like living the Christian life generally. At some point it becomes second nature, and goodness and holiness seem effortless. But getting to that point is the hard part.
Eckhart’s radical formulations are sometimes found to be impossible. But he very deliberately tried to wake people up out of a kind of moral and dogmatic slumber, to wake them up to the possibilities of recognizing that the union with God already exists in the soul—and recognizing it in order to live it out. When you reach that realization, the things that seemed impossible, paradoxical and outrageous somehow take on a new light. I think Eckhart felt that the kind of shock therapy of his preaching was the only way to wake people up to that message, because it was so easy to get lost in the ordinary round of pious activity and to think that through this activity we are pleasing God. That’s why we get those famous phrases of his like, “Well, if you think you’re finding God better in the church than in the stable, you’re wrapping God in a towel and stuffing him under a bench!” The point is not that God isn’t in church, but that he’s also out in the stable—if you learn to live in the proper way.
Copyright © 2003 by the Christian Century. Lost in God: What can we learn from mystics? by Sara Miller is excerpted by permission from the March, 2003, issue of the Christian Century. To read the full article, click here.