Today the birth of God’s son is celebrated. Most people think this child of the Father is Jesus. Meister Eckhart, the medieval Catholic mystic theologian, suggests another possibility: it is each of us.
I find this idea much more palatable and convincing than the traditional notion that Jesus somehow was born miraculously by a virgin woman so that he could die for our sins. Eckhart considers that “virgin” really means “someone who is free of all alien images, as free in fact as that person was before he or she existed.”
This conception points us toward a state of consciousness that everyone can achieve, not just Jesus. There are many problems with modern Christianity. One of the worst is its emphasis on stories of the past rather than transformations of the present.
As we note frequently here at the Church of the Churchless, most Christians feel that if they merely believe in the divinity of Christ, that’s enough: believe and you’re saved. The exact mechanism by which salvation takes place is a mystery. How could the death on a cross of someone over two thousand years ago alter the course of someone’s life (and afterlife) now? What connection is there between the soul of Jesus and the soul of you or me?
Eckhart asks “Where is he who is born King of the Jews?” He answers, “This birth takes place in the soul just as it takes place in eternity, no more and no less. For there is only one birth, and this takes place in the essence and ground of the soul.”
So the virgin birth of God’s son didn’t only happen to Mary in the manger. This is just a metaphor and not to be taken as a historical fact. A recent article in Newsweek, “The Birth of Jesus,” points out that the four gospels don’t tell a common story about Jesus’ birth. How could they? There is no real evidence that Jesus ever spoke of how and where he was born, and neither Mary nor Joseph is cited as a direct source. A court of law would say that the whole Christmas story is hearsay and not to be trusted.
Newsweek says: “The Gospel authors were thus confronted with a literary problem that had to be solved. They wanted to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, but apparently had little to work with. Here, then, is where tradition and theology come in.” The New Testament writers stitched together themes that were common in previous “pagan” and Jewish stories about the birth of great men.
Miraculous conceptions, supernatural signs, and the like supposedly accompanied the birth of many others prior to Jesus’ coming into the world. Thus to embellish the divinity of Jesus’ death, the Gospel authors appropriated common literary devices of their time in an attempt to establish the divinity of his birth.
The sad result of all this fictionalizing has been to distract Christians from the real essence of Christianity—and every other genuine spiritual faith, for that matter. This is the manifestation of God in the human soul. Not Jesus’ soul, for even if that is presumed to have happened way back then to him, he isn’t us and then isn’t now.
Meister Eckhart wants us to detach from long-ago superstition and attend to the present-day reality of our own innermost consciousness. He says, “People think that God became human only in the Incarnation, but this is not the case, for God has become human just as surely here and now as he did then, and has become human in order that he might give birth to you as his only begotten Son, and no less.”
You. Not just Jesus, you too. Whenever I read Eckhart’s sermons, I’m struck by how shocking his mystical inward-seeking Christianity might have seemed to his traditional outward-looking German parishioners. He recognized that much, if not most, of what he was preaching wasn’t being understood, so he often threw in some wonderfully acerbic comments.
Here’s an example: “Whoever has understood this sermon, I wish them well. Had no one been here, I would still have had to preach it to this collecting-box. There are some poor folk who return home and say: ‘I wish to sit down, to eat my bread and to serve God.’ But I say by the eternal truth that these people shall remain in error and can never attain what those others attain who follow God in poverty and in exile. Amen.”
What Eckhart means by “poverty” is an internal condition, not external. It is the poverty, he says, “of someone who possesses nothing…If you wish to know God in a divine manner, then your knowing must become a pure unknowing, a forgetting of yourself and of all creatures…The more you are empty of self and are freed from the knowledge of objects, the closer you come to him.”
Thus one of Eckhart’s favorite themes is detachment, becoming free of ourselves and of all things. This includes concepts about God—all the theologies, commandments, dogma and what-not that most people consider to be the beating heart of religion, but really is a dead skeleton of thoroughly human creations and imaginings. Over and over again Eckhart urges us to cast aside our conceptions of God so we can embrace the real thing:
“Taking leave of God for the sake of God is the greatest act of renunciation that someone can make…As I have often said, there is something in the soul which is so close to God that it becomes one with him and not united. It is one, and has nothing in common with anything else, nor does anything created have anything in common with it. All created things are nothingness, but this is remote from and alien to all createdness. If we were wholly composed of this, we would be entirely uncreated and uncreatable.”
That’s the soul: something uncreated and uncreatable. As I quoted the Bhagavad Gita in yesterday’s post, Birthless and Deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit for ever. Leave aside all that is capable of birth, death, or change, and you’ve become what you truly are: pure soul, one with God.
Such is the inspiring and thoroughly logical message of Meister Eckhart, for which he was accused of heresy by Pope John XXII. In the articles that condemned Eckhart, the Church authorities listed such heretical statements as these:
“10. We are fully transformed and converted into God; in the same way as in the sacrament the bread is converted into the body of Christ, so I am converted into Him, so that He converts me into His being as one, not as like. By the living God it is true that there is no difference.
11. All that God the Father gave his only-begotten Son in human nature he has given me: I except nothing, neither union nor holiness, He has given me everything as to him.
12. Everything that Holy Scripture says of Christ is entirely true of every good and holy man.”
I much prefer Eckhart’s heresy to traditional Christian dogma. Truth gleams from his bold mysticism, while Christianity’s fundamentalist theologies are dark with superstition, anthropomorphism, authoritarianism, and anti-scientific fantasy.
In Eckhart’s times, as today, you have to be heretical in order to be spiritual. For the purportedly godly are far away from God. The supposedly virtuous are anything but. The seemingly wise about divinity are profoundly ignorant.
Reading one paragraph of Meister Eckhart is better than reading the entire Bible. I’m convinced that if we could truly understand these words, we’d understand everything about God:
The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge and one love. That person who is thus rooted in God’s love must be dead to themselves and to all created things so that they are no more concerned with themselves than they are with someone who is over a thousand miles away. Such a person remains in likeness and unity and is always the same.
This is the second of my follow-ups to the “Five Books to Support the Churchless” post where I said I’d share what I like most about the teachings of Vivekananda, Ramana, Eckhart, Plotinus, and the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing.”
All of the excerpts in this post except the articles of heresy are from “Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings,” Selected and translated by Oliver Davies, Penguin Classics, 1994. The articles are from “Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises, Vol. 1,” translated and edited by M.O’.C. Walshe, Element Books, 1979.