Eckhart and Apologetics

Eckhart and Apologetics January 27, 2012

Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century Dominican speculative mystic, is one of my favorite writers. I have two favorite quotes from Eckhart:

“Therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of God that we may gain the truth and enjoy it eternally…” (German sermon 52)


“The truth is such a noble thing that if God were able to turn away from truth, I would cling to the truth and let God go; for God is truth, and all that is in time, and that God created, is not truth.” (German sermon 26)

What I like about Eckhart is that he is so shocking. What does he mean when he says we should pray to God to rid ourselves of God? How could anyone choose to cling to the truth if that means letting God go? What’s going on?

Eckhart is trying verbally to slap us in the face, to get us to recognize that there is a difference between what we think about when we say the word “God” and the ultimate reality, God. There is a difference between talking about God as understood by finite, temporal, contingent beings, and what Eckhart calls the Godhead or the Ground of Being who is beyond Being and Nonbeing. (Paul Tillich borrows this phrase, “Ground of Being,” to speak of God.)

As shocking as these quotes from Eckhart sound, they’re really not so different from what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:14: “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” Whether or not one accepts the existence of Satan as an ontological entity (and I do not), this verse does suggest that not everything that looks like it comes from God is actually from God. God is different from what often passes for God. Moreover, Paul repeatedly points to the limits of human knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12: “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away…. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been understood.”

If I understand Eckhart and Paul correctly, then Christian apologetics is utterly misguided. As you probably know, apologetics is the attempt to defend the faith against (secular) attacks. But what exactly is being defended? Isn’t it really a defense of “God,” the “God” who was created when human beings were created, the “God” comprehended by finite, contingent, historically conditioned human beings? We should welcome attacks on this God, especially if this God cannot stand up to rational scrutiny. We should pray to God to rid us of God in order to be rightly related to the Ground of Being. And if we have to choose between what “God says” and the truth, always take the truth. God is not always found where God is, but God is always found where the truth is.

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  • I love this post. And I loved the one on rationality too. I’ve been needing to converse with someone about these things for a long time! Having grown up in a traditional Southern Baptist family (a veritable subculture all its own) I learned theology in that setting, then went on to Baylor & some graduate study at Capernwray Bible Institute in England. One day, while waiting for a bus in London, it occurred to me to wonder how it would feel to experience 5 minutes without guilt or fear of any kind. I actually stood there at that bus stop and tried to imagine how that would feel. I could not even imagine it. That was when it dawned on me that something was deeply awry with my theology. Looking back now, I suppose that was the moment my attempt at honest spiritual exploration began. That was 40 years ago.

    It has been a sometimes painful, sometimes delightful journey, and I am still on it. It has taken a lot of courage to ask the questions I needed to ask. And there were few people to talk to who could approach theology with any rationality. So it is refreshing to see this blog–and particularly refreshing to see the topic of rationality discussed.

    I have wondered (and still do) how we can rationally defend the doctrinal view that the Bible is “the Word of God.” I wonder how we can rationally believe that an omnipotent, omniscient God would need a physical blood sacrifice in order to forgive sin. I wonder how we can rationally defend as divine justice that a failure to accept the story of Jesus (for whatever reason–even if you never heard it) during a finite human lifetime results excruciating torment for infinity.

    I can see the primitive historical roots, as well as the utilitarian value of each of these precepts in the power structures that encapsulated early Christianity, but how do we rationally defend them today?

    That Jesus lived and died can be historically defended. That he rose from the dead in some form or fashion can even be rationally defended on the basis of 11 disciples that went from freaked out and terrified to boldly putting their lives on the line even to the point of eventual martyrdom. That’s a transformation of such consequence that it’s only rational to assume that something powerful must have caused it..and a resurrected Rabbi would certainly fit the bill.

    But I submit that the doctrinal assertions layered on top of those historical and at least partially rational deductions have gone way beyond what ordinary rationality can legitimately embrace. We can, of course, accept them “by faith”–which means we believe the interpretations handed down to us without question.
    But once the questions begin, the legs on which these interpretations stand seem to me quite wobbly.

  • ME

    Susan, your post touched me, laying bare the journey you have been on. It’s not often someone just puts it all right out there with a vulnerable honesty.

    I’m curious if you believe Jesus rose from the dead based on the rational reasons you mentioned? At one time I struggled greatly with that and abandoned Christianity as a result. It just seemed too “crazy.”

    • Hi Me,
      Yes, I believe that Jesus returned after the crucifixion in some form that was experienced by his immediate disciples and probably others, as well. I base that on the radical, immediate, and otherwise (at least to my mind) unexplainable about-face that his followers did. It was his “resurrection” (in whatever form it took) that initiated the ripple that shook the world. He didn’t teach anything radically different from earlier avatars like the Buddha, so had he stayed dead in the traditional way we understand dead, I doubt if an entire theology based on his personhood/divinity would have taken hold, especially among orthodox Jews such as Saul/Paul. So, as crazy as it sounds, I do think it happened. I also think that over the following decades and centuries, the theological postulations continued to overlay the historical reality in an attempt to explain it and encapsulate it — in other words to “religionize” it. And there were multiple theories vying for relevance. The Council of Nicea was an attempt to organize and synthesize those into a single formulation that could become the core doctrines of the Catholic Church. I don’t necessarily agree that what came out of that was any more valid than some of the other theories that were discussed. But hey, the majority rules, right? Anyway, my personal theories have evolved from reading and my own internal experience. But I do think Jesus of Nazareth came out of that tomb.
      Thanks for asking.

      • ME

        Sorry, my question didn’t come out like I meant it to. I didn’t mean to ask if you believe Jesus was resurrected or not, I was just curious why you believed that, if it was for rational or nonrational reasons.

        Regardless of that, very interesting response. I totally agree that over decades and centuries the theological postulations started to stackup and compete against each other. You can see how often Jesus’ disciples got it wrong while Jesus was still walking around so it’s easy to believe they and everyone else continues to get it “wrong” in some ways, even with the Holy Spirit helping.

        You mentioned you have your own personal theories. I have mine as well, sometimes they are a little out there. One thing I wonder about is where we should start to be concerned about our differences with other people who call themselves Christians. I think some people, like the maybe the Baptist church you grew up in, draw the line way too aggressively. They forcefully and oppressively want you to comply with every bit of their theology. To me this does more harm than good. The gay argument is part of this, to me it’s no worth causing a rift over. On the other hand, I want everyone to believe in Jesus, so if Christians start saying he was not resurrected or that he was just another teacher like the Buddha, I get concerned and am maybe willing to argue over it. So where should we draw the line in the sand, where is it differences become so great they are worth arguing about?

        On another subject, regarding this that you wrote, “I wonder how we can rationally defend as divine justice that a failure to accept the story of Jesus (for whatever reason–even if you never heard it) during a finite human lifetime results excruciating torment for infinity,” my response is below.

        This is my personal, extra-biblical theory, how I am “ok” with the problem you express. I don’t know why God created the world, why God put us in it. But, I have some guesses that I go with. On earth God has made Himself somewhat hidden from us. But he still comes to us and still shows the glory of his handy work. What I think God is doing is creating all these people with free will and then finding which ones love Him. If he fully revealed himself to us we would all choose to worship him but often we would choose to worship him in self-love, not because we really love Him. So he keeps himself just hidden enough to discover which of all these creatures he creates choose him over a life without him. This is how he discloses what’s in our heart. At some point He will create a new creation and bring all those that chose Him to be with Him. The others won’t be with him. Maybe He will give them another chance and rehabilitate them, I don’t know.

        Jesus was God and he walked on the earth and met with people. A lot of people didn’t like him. Didn’t like his version of rationality. Jesus didn’t force them to follow, he gave them the choice and said He and His father would make a home for those who did follow him. It’s a choice whether or not to accept him, I want to point out that it’s not something we can really take credit for, though. I realize a lot of people don’t like a God that would do this. So, I guess they don’t have to be with him.

        • My theory so far is simply that even though there is literally no way to get away from God since “in Him we live & move & have our being” (Paul) & “even if I make my bed in hades, lo, Thou art there” (David)–we can shut Him out internally. Adam & Eve did that in the Garden of Eden tale–choosing to distrust Him & his motives toward them. God was still there–indeed His Energy being their very Life itself–but the relationship was fractured. So my thought is that people are either open-hearted toward God (in which case it is the task of His Spirit to lead them into all Truth) or closed-hearted toward God (in which case they get more & more distant from their true & original Selves as “godlings.”) The only definition of hell I can accept is the one we impose on ourselves when we live “closed off” internally–marinating in distrust & fear & self-absorption. So in my understanding the kingdom of heaven, as Jesus put it, is within us…and if there is indeed a hell, that is also where it would be.

  • Bill S.

    It’d probably be helpful use two names here. But why not let “God” refer to what Eckhart calls the Godhead or the Ground of Being. We can then simply say that most people’s conception of God is, very likely, quite a bit different from the reality, the actual referent of “God”. Likewise, I suppose that many people’s conception of Moses or Mohammed is quite a bit different from the actual historical figures they refer to with these names. Nevertheless, “Moses” and “Mohammed” succeed in referring to the historical figures, however distorted our modern conceptions of these people probably is.

  • I followed a similar path to the above, then found Guttierez, Segundo and a few others who went just a little be further. They look at the words we have been handed down, and they do some serious historical analysis to really understand the symbolism. Understanding something like a steward or a denari requires some work on our part. I no longer bother with the resurrection, I’m pretty sure it was invented later, and has no bearing on what those words we have mean.

  • ME

    Scot, I am going to try to restate your argument as I understand it, and then make a counter-argument.

    In my words, you are saying there is a difference between our perception of God and the ultimate reality that is God. This means our knowledge of God is incomplete and also at times errant.

    We should welcome attacks on the God that we perceive when the God we perceive does not stand up to rational scrutiny. We should pray to God to rid us of our errant perception of Him in order that we know the ultimate and complete reality of Him.

    If we have to choose between the God of our perception and the truth, we should choose the truth.

    My counter argument is this- We have no more complete and no more accurate perception of the truth than we do of God. Are we not viewing the truth just as dimly as we are God? We can’t choose between God and truth because we can’t know one any better than the other to make that choice.

    It’s likely I’m wrong but I sense you think there goggles of rationality we can view our perception of God thru that will filter out the false God. To an extent that may be true, but rationality is just as much a human creation as is our human perception of God and the goggles of rationality are as likely to offer a distorted perception as anything else.

    • Bill S.

      As compared to the sorts of claims that religious people often make about God, aren’t there a great many truths for which we can claim far greater clarity certainty?

      • ME

        Yes, definitely. And I think reason is a very good thing and it can be applied to good use in theology or our understanding of God. But I think the original blog post wanted to take reason and rationality a little too far.

    • I have to agree with Me on this. All perception is personal & subjective and therefore tinted by unconscious assumptions. And even rationality, as I understand it, is my own version of same…(what seems “reasonable” to me,
      which may or may not seem “reasonable” to you) .

      Politics is in my face right now so I see that exemplified in that arena daily.
      What purports to be rational seems ridiculous to me. The “reasons” that prop up their positions are based on assumptions that in my view cannot be justified.

      So ultimately, we believe what we want to believe.

  • They looked into Jesus eyes and saw him raise the dead. And yet they did not believe.

    Non-belief is our default position.

    We ought not get exercised over people’s unbelief when it is the Holy Spirit who opens ears and hearts through His gospel.

    Easy to say. Hard to do.


    • Even non-belief is actually belief.
      We just believe something else.
      The relevant question is: What determines which beliefs we adopt?
      I think that’s a worthy probe.

  • Perhaps we need to examine “rational scrutiny” more closely. Dennett and so on want to peel away everything that can’t be supported as “justified true belief” by “objective evidence”, to only deal with things they can (imagine that they can) wrap in a package … that’s what they say, not necessarily what they do. It turns out (surprise!) that God, or the Godhead, or The Universe, is more detailed and more intricately structured than human imagination can encompass. And subjective experience is real and meaningful.

    If “rational scrutiny” means clear apprehension and clear thought, then rock on.

    Which is to say that we shouldn’t worry about “attacks” on our understanding or the social structures we create to support them; a successful attack shows where the “house on the rock” can be built more strongly. We don’t need to run outside just because the wind is blowing.