Thursday, 12 June 2008
One of the odd things about Meister Eckhart for a 21st Century reader is the way he uses the Bible. His quotations are , to be polite about it, imprecise and he treats the whole Bible as a sort of allegorical source from which to pluck illustrations. He uses the Church Fathers as often as he does the scriptures, and also makes heavy use of pagan philosophers, and these he seems to treat as reverently as he does the Bible. It is all very medieval, which is, of course, precisely what you might expect for someone living in the late 13th Century. His use of the Bible, his methods of scholarship and exposition, his understandings of people and the world are all limited by the culture and environment in which he grew.
Nowadays we know better.
Well, actually, no we don't. Nowadays we know differently. Somebody reading my sermons in 700 years time will no doubt say, "strange way that bloke uses the Bible. Strange way he thinks." If Meister Eckhart could be allowed to look forward in time and read a contemporary Biblical scholar, he would say "strange way that bloke uses the Bible, strange way he thinks." It's not just 13th Century people whose ways of thinking and preconceptions about the Bible are culturally conditioned: it's all of us. All the careful scholarship methods and ways of exegesis I was taught are as much a product of the 20th Century as Eckhart's metaphorical methods are of the 13th.
Now here's the bit that ties our brains up in knots. It's not just the ideas that are culturally conditioned. The ways of thinking we use to get the ideas are also culturally conditioned. So, my logical exegesis is a product of my culture, but so also is the idea of logic on which it is based. Our mental landscape might look like solid ground, but actually it's all just shifting sand; and if we dig down to the bedrock on which that sand is sitting we find - oops, sorry - just more sand. All things are as temporary and ephemeral as a flower, no matter how solidly they appear to us; and the "invisibles" - the ideas and concepts and presuppositions on which our lives are founded - are as much things as trees and houses and petals.
It's as though the truth we want to get to is obscured by a large body of water. We are handed a bucket with which to remove the water, but the bucket itself is made out of water
The Meister says that the soul, by which I think he means our consciousness, is never able to 'take into itself' any thing.' Instead it takes into itself a picture of the thing. In other words, we are never directly aware of reality. We are instead aware of the picture our minds have constructed of reality out of the bits and pieces bouncing off reality and captured and presented to us by our senses. Our senses are not entirely accurate, they are not very precise sometimes, and the way we put that picture together is determined by things well outside of our control: the way evolution has pieced our brains together, and what we have experienced of life so far on the journey. We see the world, as someone has said, not as the world is but as we are.
This idea is all a bit confusing. Thanks for persevering so far. And for those who buggered off five minutes ago to make a cup of tea and watch tv: possibly a good choice, for this realisation often seems like a philosophical party game used to fill in the time of people who don't have a lot to do right now. In daily life, it's not an awareness that can be easily carried around. When paying the checkout girl, for instance, it's time consuming to be reflecting on the temporal and culturally derived origins of the supermarket, the stuff you've just bought, money, the whole idea of buying and selling and the desires which led you to pick whatever it is off the shelf. Instead, you just swipe your card and think about what you're going to cook for dinner the way you usually do. But says the Meister, this realisation is crucial if you are going to encounter God. And, unfortunately, party game or not, once you start being aware of all this temporariness, it's very hard to stop, even if you are in the supermarket.
We inhabit a realm of shadows which are cast by lamps which are themselves shadows. But says Eckhart, there is a light; or to change metaphors to the one Eckhart is most fond of, there is the ground.
The ground is.... well, blowed if I'd know really. And I've trespassed on you patience for long enough, so I'll leave it for another day.