The Linguistic Imagination: Meister Eckhart's Poetic and Speculative Use of Scripture

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The Linguistic Imagination: Meister Eckhart’s Poetic and Speculative Use of Scripture
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  Eckhart Review No 17  9 The Linguistic Imagination: Meister Eckhart’s Poetic and Speculative Use of Scripture Joseph Milne It is often said that the mystic struggles against the limits of language, because language cannot capture or convey what the mystic knows. Because of this limited nature of language, the mystic will sometimes resort to strategies that try to overcome these limits. One of these strategies is the direct negation of language itself, through the assertion that the highest knowledge of God lies wholly beyond language, and that words must give  way to silence before the ineffable.Parallel with this negative overcoming of language is the negation of the ‘world’ or the created order. So long as we think or perceive created things  we cannot know God. As with language, the created realm is finite and temporal, and therefore wholly unlike God who is infinite and beyond all time.One can see why these two negations are asserted about the mystics, or about mystical knowledge. Clearly the knowledge of God must be utterly distinct from the knowledge of created things, since God is their srcin and end. Also the manner in which the created order is spoken of cannot be the same as the manner the uncreated can be spoken of. God is not a creature among the creatures, nor a thought among thoughts, nor a concept among concepts. Having said all this, there is a limit as to how far we should pursue it if  we are to remain faithful to the mystics, and in particular to Eckhart. The negations that properly belong to coming to the presence of God, or to the ground, are more to do with the manner in which the mind beholds things than with things themselves. The via negativa  is not so much a way of negating the world or language, but of overcoming any false relationships  with the world and with language. The aim of the via negativa  is to arrive at participation in the divine knowing of all things. And this means overcoming the division between the created and the uncreated, the spoken and the unspoken. For Eckhart there are no distinctions in God in Himself and the creation. Distinctions belong to the creaturely view of things, not to the divine, or to the knowledge of the divine.In so far as language is concerned we need to bear in mind that the  10 Eckhart Review No 17 primary form of revelation in Christianity is through Scripture. The entire theological tradition has arisen from the contemplation of the Scriptures, and Meister Eckhart is as central to this theological tradition as any of the great Christian theologians. So when we consider the limits of language in communicating the highest mystical knowledge, we need to be aware that language is essentially revelatory, and that from the scriptural point of  view it is not language that is limited but rather our capacity to hear and understand what is there revealed.In Sermon 6 Eckhart speaks of the episode of the cleansing of the temple in Matthew 21. He says that all the merchants must be cleared from the temple so that Jesus may speak there, and that the temple is the soul. He says: But if Jesus is to speak in the soul, she must be all alone, and she has to be quiet herself to hear what he says. Well then, in he comes and starts speaking. What does the lord Jesus say? He says what he  is . What is he, then? He is a Word of the Father. In this same Word the Father speaks Himself, all the divine nature and all that God is, just as He knows it, and He knows it as it is. And, being perfect in knowledge and power, so too He is perfect in speech. In speaking the Word, He utters the Word and all things in another Person to whom He gives the same nature that He has himself. And he utters all rational spirits in that Word as equal to that Word according to their image as it dwells within (Him). (Eckhart, 1979, pp. 59–60)  Jesus, having entered the temple of the soul when all else is removed, speaks ‘what he is’, and what he is, is the Word of the Father. He is the Father speaking Himself. ‘He utters the Word and all things in another Person to whom He gives the same nature that He has himself’. What Eckhart is saying here is central to the doctrine of the Divine Trinity. Jesus, the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, is given the same nature as the Father. He is the utterance of the Father, and what the Father utters is the Father. The Word, then, is the manifestation of the Father in the Son. The Son is the form the Father takes in manifesting Himself as He is in Himself. Here we get a glimpse of the metaphysical necessity of the Trinity. The Father not only dwells eternally within Himself and as Himself, knowing and being Himself to Himself, but the Father also bears Himself out of Himself and communicates Himself completely in the Son, the Word. This bearing forth of Himself is important because it overcomes the limited notion that God may live in total transcendental isolation. This kind transcendentalism sometimes seems implied in the tradition of the via negativa  stemming from Dionysius the Areopagite. And often in Eckhart it seems that we might come to God only insofar as we have blotted out the creation, or our own selfhood. In this very sermon it is a condition of Jesus coming into the temple that all else is dispelled from the temple and that the soul is alone:  Eckhart Review No 17  11 Be sure of this: if anyone else would speak in the temple (which is the soul) but Jesus, Jesus is silent, as if he were not at home – and he is not at home in the soul, for she has strange guests to talk to. But if Jesus is to speak in the soul, she must be all alone, and she has to be quiet herself to hear what he says. ( Ibid. ) Thus, only when the soul empties itself of all dealings or all other discourse can it receive the Son, hear the Word uttering itself. In this empty condition the soul is receptive and the Son is communicative. The total emptiness of the soul is the complement to the total self-communicability of the Son. That is to say, the Father is at once wholly ineffable self-being and self-knowing, and at the same time wholly communicative and disclosive of Himself as He is in Himself. In God absolute transcendence and absolute immanence coincide. In some way these two are the same.  And for this reason ultimately the via positiva  and via negativa  are the same.The essential thing here is that God alone can say Himself. There is no disclosure of God save God’s own disclosure of Himself. The Word comes entirely from the Father and entirely reveals the Father. This means that so long as there are other words or ‘strange guests’ in the soul, or other kinds discourses in the temple, the  Word cannot be uttered. Which is to say that disclosure, revelation itself, where revelation and revealed are the same, cannot be disclosed save as what it is in itself and through itself. I would like to draw out some important implications from this. We well know that, for Eckhart, the mystical coming of the soul to God is an act that only God performs. The soul can only empty itself or naught itself, but the birth of the Son in the soul is solely a divine act, a work of God. And even  when the soul comes to know God, it is God knowing Himself in the soul. It is never the soul grasping God. This means that all act and all agency belongs to God. The things the soul thinks it owns, or can do, it does not own and cannot do. As Eckhart says, ‘For what they are, they are from God, and  what they have, they get from God and not from themselves’ (  Ibid ., p. 56). The thought at the heart of this is that the soul, which is to say the created, does not have agency from itself. It can neither act nor know by its own self-srcinating power or autonomy. To suppose it can makes it one of the merchants in the temple who would bargain with God, or  who would imagine they can arrive at God out of their own will or power or discernment or merit. But the soul does not have this autonomy, not because of a deficiency, but because all that it is or has was given to it from the self-communicability of the Father. Aquinas puts this same foundational truth of being in a slightly different way. For him God’s act of knowing the creatures is the actual existence of the creatures. They are known into being, and only so long as God knows them in Himself do they have existence.This means that, in real truth, all being, all knowing, all willing and all act are essentially God. God is not another entity outside visible entities.  12 Eckhart Review No 17 God is that alone which is. Thus we may say that, in so far as anything is, it is by virtue of God’s being and God’s act of knowing. And yet that  which has being or knowing has it in itself as  given  to it from God. It is not merely negated into God. This means, again, that what God is, even if we should not say the word is  in reference to God, is fully communicable to the creatures, and is primordially communicated to them in their very act of existing.  What we are saying here is essential Christology. The communicating power of God is the Word, the Son. Whatever stands forth in presence stands forth in presence in and through the Word. In the most profound mystical and metaphysical sense everything is manifesting God, not as an entity alongside things, but as the essence of all things in their srcination and their end. The universe is ‘the Word made flesh’. And by virtue of the Word things are not only brought into being but also brought to their knowledge of themselves in God’s utterance of them.Now I would like to pose a question. In what sense is the manner in which this is being said symbolic or metaphorical? The theological language of the Father and the Son has been questioned by some modern theologians. Likewise the theology of the Word or  Logos . Here I would especially like to remark on the theology of the Word because it seems to me that misunderstanding about the Word leads to the confusions about the Father and the Son. In what we have discussed so far it is clear that the Word is the Son, and that all that the Father is, is communicated in the Son, and that the Son is the utterance of God’s perfect speech. This is not only central to Meister  Eckhart, it is central to Christianity as such. The incarnating Word is the Christian event. Eckhart, as we know, goes straight to the spiritual meaning of this. In the sermon we have been drawing from Eckhart asks why it is that Jesus casts out all those who bought and sold in the temple. He says: What is the meaning of this? This temple, in which God would rule with authority, according to His will, is man’s soul, which He has made exactly like Himself, just as we read that the Lord said: ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness’ (Gen. 1:26). And this He did. So like Himself has God made man’s soul that nothing else in heaven or on earth, of all the splendid creatures that God has so joyously created, resembles God so much as the human soul. For this reason God wants this temple cleared, that He may be there all alone. ( Ibid  ., p. 55) Straight away he has discounted the literal or historical sense and taken up the allegorical sense. The temple ‘is man’s soul’. The meaning of the cleansing of the temple episode now becomes universal, an event in the mystical now of time and not merely historical time. Likewise the historical place of the event, the temple in Jerusalem, ceases to be that mere material  Eckhart Review No 17  13 place and becomes the inner spiritual life of the soul. Eckhart is following the theological convention of his time in moving from the literal to the spiritual sense of the Scriptures. But I wonder to what degree we hear this as his audience did then? Over the last two hundred years a tremendous amount of effort has been given by biblical scholars to the search for historical evidence of the life of Jesus. The disputes about the ‘truth’ of Christianity have centred on this search for the historical Jesus. This concern for historical facts has arisen from a profound shift in Western thought that came with the  Enlightenment. With the rise of the new empirical sciences the ground of the philosophical tradition shifted. The conception of truth that had endured from the Greek philosophers, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, that ‘truth’ was the essential actuality of things was lost. It was replaced by the empirical notion of truth, that is, inference from evidence. This kind of truth – which in fact was always known – cannot touch upon the metaphysical dimension of reality, and for that reason it cannot touch upon the spiritual reality of things. Philosophy, criticized for being purely contemplative and therefore of no practical use, was somehow compelled to follow the reign of empiricism. Thus arose the various rationalist schools of philosophy, and in our modern era logical positivism.This shift from the contemplation of the metaphysical essence of things to empirical evidence marks a shift in human orientation to reality as such. The ‘real’ was not that alone which was subject to measurement and calculation, and subsequently to manipulation. The ‘real’ that the ancient philosophers contemplated, and the Christian theologians, became simply incomprehensible. The Platonic One, knowledge as communion with reality as such, the providential order of the universe, these all became inscrutable ideas – even superstition of the pre-scientific age. One consequence of all this is that for the modern Western mind the ‘real’ or the ‘truth’ of things can be located only in the measurable contingency of the material realm. Any kind of intelligible order to all this is dismissed as speculative theory at best, or ancient superstition at  worst. But this modern location of truth is at the opposite end of reality to that which preceded the Enlightenment. The ‘real’ then was that which eternally subsisted and out of which arose the lawful order of the visible realm. And the visible realm itself communicated its source and moved always towards the good or to fuller being. This is the metaphysical view to which Eckhart’s thought belongs. There was then no great discontinuity between the ‘historical’ realm and the divine, because the historical revealed the universal order behind contingent events. The concern of Eckhart’s time was rather the relation between the highest metaphysical philosophy (mostly that absorbed from Plato and Aristotle) and that which could be
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