Connect with us

Why a 14th-century mystic appeals to today’s ‘spiritual but not religious’ Americans



The percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religious tradition continues to rise annually. Not all of them, however, are atheists or agnostics. Many of these people believe in a higher power, if not organized religion, and their numbers too are steadily increasing.

The history of organized religion is full of schisms, heresies and other breakaways. What is different at this time is a seemingly indiscriminate mixing of diverse religious traditions to form a personalized spirituality, often referred to as “cafeteria spirituality.” This involves picking and choosing the religious ideas one likes best.


At the heart of this trend is the general conviction that all world religions share a fundamental, common basis, a belief known as “perennialism.” And this is where the unlikely figure of Meister Eckhart, a 14th-century Dominican friar famous for his popular sermons on the direct experience of God, is finding popular appeal.

Who was Meister Eckhart?

I have studied Meister Eckhart and his ideas of mysticism. The creative power that people address as “God,” he explained, is already present within each individual and is best understood as the very force that infuses all living things.

He believed this divinity to be genderless and completely “other” from humans, accessible not through images or words but through a direct encounter within each person.

A sculpture of Meister Eckhart in Germany.
Lothar Spurzem, CC BY-SA

The method of direct access to the divine, according to Eckhart, depended on an individual letting go of all desires and images of God and becoming aware of the “divine spark” present within.


Seven centuries ago, Eckhart embraced meditation and what is now called mindfulness. Although he never questioned any of the doctrines of the Catholic Church, Eckhart’s preaching eventually resulted in an official investigation and papal condemnation.

Significantly, it was not Eckhart’s overall approach to experiencing God that his superiors criticized, but rather his decision to teach his wisdom. His inquisitors believed the “unlearned and simple people” were likely to misunderstand him. Eckhart, on the other hand, insisted that the proper role of a preacher was to preach.

He died before his trial was complete, but his writings were subsequently censured by a papal decree.


The modern rediscovery of Eckhart

Meister Eckhart thereafter remained relatively little known until his rediscovery by German romantics in the 19th century.

Since then, he has attracted many religious and non-religious admirers. Among the latter were the 20th-century philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, who were inspired by Eckhart’s beliefs about the self as the sole basis for action. More recently, Pope John Paul II and the current Dalai Lama have expressed admiration for Eckhart’s portrayal of the intimate relationship between God and the individual soul.

During the second half of the 20th century, the overlap of his teachings to many Asian practices played an important role in making him popular with Western spiritual seekers. Thomas Merton, a monk from the Trappist monastic order, for example, who began an exploration of Zen Buddhism later in his life, discovered much of the same wisdom in his own Catholic tradition embodied in Eckhart. He called Eckhart “my life raft,” for opening up the wisdom about developing one’s inner life.


Richard Rohr, a friar from the Franciscan order and a contemporary spirituality writer, views Eckhart’s teachings as part of a long and ancient Christian contemplative tradition. Many in the past, not just monks and nuns have sought the internal experience of the divine through contemplation.

Among them, as Rohr notes were the apostle Paul, the fifth-century theologian Augustine, and the 12th-century Benedictine abbess and composer Hildegard of Bingen.

In the tradition of Eckhart, Rohr has popularized the teaching that Jesus’ death and resurrection represents an individual’s movement from a “false self” to a “true self.” In other words, after stripping away all of the constructed ego, Eckhart guides individuals in finding the divine spark, which is their true identity.


Eckhart and contemporary perennials

Novelist Aldous Huxley frequently cited Eckhart, in his book, ‘The Perennialist Philosophy.’
RV1864/Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

This subjective approach to experiencing the divine was also embraced by Aldous Huxley, best known for his 1932 dystopia, “Brave New World,” and for his later embrace of LSD as a path to self-awareness. Meister Eckhart is frequently cited in Huxley’s best-selling 1945 spiritual compendium, “The Perennialist Philosophy.”

More recently, the mega-best-selling New Age celebrity Eckhart Tolle, born Ulrich Tolle in 1948 in Germany and now based in Vancouver, has taken the perennial movement to a much larger audience. Tolle’s books, drawing from an eclectic mix of Western and Eastern philosophical and religious traditions, have sold millions. His teachings encapsulate the insights of his adopted namesake Meister Eckhart.

While many Christian evangelicals are wary of Eckhart Tolle’s non-religious and unchurched approach, the teachings of the medieval mystic Eckhart have nonetheless found support among many contemporary Catholics and Protestants, both in North America and Europe.

Fully understanding a new spiritual icon

The cautionary note, however, is in too simplistic an understanding of Eckhart’s message.


Eckhart, for instance, did not preach an individualistic, isolated kind of personal enlightenment, nor did he reject as much of his own faith tradition as many modern spiritual but not religious are wont to do.

The truly enlightened person, Eckhart argued, naturally lives an active life of neighborly love, not isolation – an important social dimension sometimes lost today.

Meister Eckhart has some important lessons for those of us trapped amid today’s materialism and selfishness, but understanding any spiritual guide – especially one as obscure as Eckhart – requires a deeper understanding of the context.The Conversation

Joel Harrington, Centennial Professor of History, Vanderbilt University


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Former Clinton lawyer scolds Trump’s White House counsel on impeachment: ‘we never considered’ behaving this way



On Tuesday, Lanny Breuer, a special counsel who worked for President Bill Clinton's White House, wrote an open letter in the Washington Post to President Donald Trump's White House Counsel Pat Cipollone — telling him that, while he understands an impeachment is a horrible thing for an administration to go through, Clinton and his lawyers would never have behaved the way Trump is now.

"In 1998, we felt under siege," wrote Breuer. "We argued at the time, as you do in your letter, that Congress should provide additional procedural protections to the president ... For example, instead of conducting its own investigation, the committee relied almost exclusively on [independent counsel Ken] Starr’s report, which had serious flaws. The House took only three months to adopt articles of impeachment, and we had only two days to present our witnesses. The president’s personal lawyer, David Kendall, had only 30 minutes to question Starr. We felt this was deeply unfair and a derogation of the House’s constitutional duty to investigate thoroughly whether impeachment was warranted."

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

White House leaked ‘insane letter’ to Fox host — that makes Trump look ridiculously ‘dumb’



President Donald Trump was ridiculed on Wednesday after a letter was leaked that President Donald Trump sent to Turkish President Recep Erdo?an.

The letter was sent a week ago, on October 9th.

A copy of the letter, where Trump warned Erdo?an not to be a fool, was obtained by Fox Business personality Trish Regan.


Commentary on the letter was swift -- and brutal.

Here's some of what people were saying:


Can’t tell if parody of dumb guy trying to cover his tracks or real dumb guy who is covering tracks

Continue Reading


‘You can buy the USA’ thanks to Trump: Counterintelligence expert



Counterintelligence expert Malcolm Nance said during a political discussion Wednesday that the United States of America has clearly become a "pay-to-play" nation under President Donald Trump.

"After 2016, it became clear that the only thing we were really going to look into was Donald Trump's relationships with Moscow.," Nance said in a discussion with SiriusXM Progress host Dean Obeidallah.

"But I think it became pretty clear to the oligarchs that they weren't going after the oligarchs, they were going after Donald Trump and a very specific link to foreign intelligence," continued Nance. "And that meant their money could talk again. You have to understand, these people were doing it to lift these crippling sanctions that Trump fought tooth and nail against."

Continue Reading
Help Raw Story Uncover Injustice. Join Raw Story Investigates for $1 and go ad-free.