An interview with author and theologian Matthew Fox on the radical medieval mystic Meister Eckhart and his encouraging message for us today.
Why did you decide to write this book, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic Warrior for Our Times?
It’s my third book on Meister Eckhart, but my first one in over 30 years, and in those 30 years, I have learned from teaching Meister Eckhart to thousands of adults how transformative he is, how profoundly he touches people’s hearts and minds. I wanted to explore more deeply why that is so, why he is so relevant to today. And as I put out in the book, I think part of it is that he is so interfaith, that is to say that Buddhists call him a Buddhist and Hindus call him a Hindu, and Sufis call him a Sufi. But in fact he was a Christian but he went so deeply into his experience, his own soul, his own lineage that he went to that place of commonality, of universality, between traditions, and I think we are recognizing that today. With our global village and our rubbing of elbows with Buddhists and Hindus and Christians and Jews and Muslims and more, we have to start thinking more universally and less in sectarian terms. I don’t know anyone that has that kind of voice like Eckhart, living or dead, it’s just uncanny how he is able to speak to people of many traditions over the years.
Yet many people in the mainstream Christian world are not familiar with his teachings, are they?
No they aren’t, because he was condemned a week after he died by the Pope. He died in 1329. And so his work kind of went underground and mainstream Christianity has not taken note of it. He speaks from the depth of experience which is, of course, what mysticism is about, it’s about tasting and experiencing, and he is unique in that regard, in that he is so articulate about the spiritual experience. But you’re right, he has not been hailed by the mainstream. But he has influenced so many people on the edges, who have been powerful, for example Carl Jung. Carl Jung quotes Eckhart over 30 times and says Eckhart gave him the key to the unconscious. Dag Hammerskjold, the Secretary General of the United Nations in the 1950s, who was a great mystic and was Scandanavian, drew heavily from Meister Eckhart. And Larry Dossey, the medical doctor, told me personally that in his library at home he has a whole section on Eckhart and that Eckhart is so important to him. Karl Marx was even influenced by Eckhart according to great Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. And in my book I have two chapters on Eckhart and women: Eckhart and the divine feminine. Eckhart was very close to the Beguines, the medieval women’s movement of his time. He is both broad and deep, and that makes him very special and very needed today.
He says that we are all other Christs. And we are also other Marys, he says. We all have to give birth to the Christ in our times and in our person and in our work. Now you can translate this if you are from the East as the Buddha nature. He’s about the Cosmic Christ, not about the Jesus of the individual soul, but about the Christ that holds all things together in the Heavens and the Earth as the scriptures put it. I was in Korea a month or two ago and a Buddhist monk came up to me and said ‘I am delighted to hear about the Cosmic Christ. I am going to talk about the Cosmic Buddha now’. So the idea that the Buddha or Christ nature is in all of us, is primary to Eckhart’s thought.
Some people think that the Cosmic Christ is a stunning new vision of Christianity. Well it seems new to us, but the truth is that Eckhart did not pull it out of the sky in the 14ht century. He actually got it from Paul and the first generation of Christian writers who were excited about the Cosmic Christ, not the psychological Christ if you will. And so he gives us a vision that is really needed today and I think one reason that religion is as dull as it often is, is that we lost this energy that is part of the excitement of the Buddha nature or the Cosmic Christ in all things.
How could he, in his time and age, being surrounded by the doctrines of those days, have such an original mind? What circumstances gave birth to such a visionary thinker who had the courage to go back to the sources?
Well one thing is that he was 13 years old when Rumi died. He was 17 years old when Tomas Aquinas died and 60 when Hafiz was born. Tomas Aquinas was a Dominican like Eckhart was (and like I was until Pope Radzinger expelled me after 43 years in the clergy) and so he stood on the shoulders of giants in many aspects. He is kind of the poet of the Aquinas revolution. And Aquinas was about a revolution, because he was about bringing science into theology and in that day, as in today, there was a lot of resistance from the fundamentalists. And so Eckhart derived a lot of courage, I think, from Thomas Aquinas, but as I said, there was something in the air that gave birth to Rumi, and Hafiz, and Aquinas, that also gave birth to Eckart at about the same time. I think that’s also happening today: there is a lot of mystical awakening happening today in East and West, North and South, and a lot of it is simply the need of the human species to move forward and not settle for old structures, whether they be religious or other kinds of structures that do not serve anyone.
Exactly, and I end the book with two chapers on what I call the ‘Four ‘E’s’, four principles from Eckharts teachings that are absolutely essential for our survival today, including an Economics that works for everyone, for humans and all the other species. We need Education that awakens the soul and all the chakra’s, the right hemisphere of the brain as well as the left hemisphere. In other words, the intuitive, mystical and creative brain has to be nurtured as well as the left brain. We need Ecology, of course; all of us have to be working on what’s causing global warming and climate change, and how we can change our ways of living on the planet so that future generations can enjoy the beauty and the health of this amazing planet. And finally, Ecunamism, the whole dimension of world religions coming together to share their wisdom instead of making war and making converts. That’s needed, too, religion has to clean its act up, and again Eckhart is a leader in all of these areas. He is challenging us to go deeper and live more fully as human beings in relationship with the rest of nature and with ourselves.
Sometimes it’s not so easy to live a conscious life and not be put down by all the negative news outpouring from the mainstream media nor to be discouraged by the politics of division and fear that still dominate our globe. What encouragement does Eckhart give us to create from our heart and to create from our connection with the cosmic Christ in our contemporary world?
The word you use is key: to ‘create’. To give birth. He says ‘what does God do all day long? God lays in a maternity bed, giving birth’. He’s putting creativity forward, and of course the Divine Feminine, bringing the Divine Feminine back, is very important. Because it is about finding the balance in all of us, in men and women and in our institutions, between the masculine and the feminine, between wisdom and knowlegde. We need wisdom schools, not just knowledge factories. Knowledge by itself is very masculine, it’s about power. Wisdom incorporates a sense of the whole, it also incorporates celebration, love of life and a passion for living. So Eckhart is a wisdom teacher, not just a knowledge provider. He would emphasize what you just used, that creativity is our particular empowerment as a species. For example, consider global warming. Now, in India they have invented a car that runs on compressed air. Well that’s a pretty smart thing to do since it doesn’t deliver carbon dioxide and other elements that warm the planet. So our imaginations are amazing and we have to put them to work. Eckhart also teaches about letting go, how important letting go is. In fact, that’s why Carl Jung says that Eckhart gave him the key to the unconscious. So part of creating is also about willing to let go of previous forms, it’s what Jesus talked about: the old wine skins that are leaking. Eckhart is very strong on how we need to learn to let go and of course that’s a very Buddhist notion as well.
Yes, that’s a very important thing and that’s where Jung and Eckhart would be on the same page. The shadow cannot be ignored and Eckhart was living in a time somewhat like ours because of the academic revolution that began in the West in the early 13th century, late 12th century, with the invention of the University. Needless to say this was an exciting and very political invention, because it moved the center of education from the monastery and the country to universities in towns that quickly grew into cities. But by the 13th century, when Eckhart was alive, Academia was running down. It had become quite self-serving and narcissistic. And he was very critical of it. He said ‘the only real university is the university of life’. He quit teaching at the university of Paris and he spent the rest of his years working with the Beguine movement. They were for the most part lower class women who chose not to be married and not to be nuns, and they lived in small communities and served the poor and the young and the sick, and they worked with their hands, as weavers and artisans. He worked with them and I think that’s where he picked up a lot of his feminist language. He really supported them even though the pope condemned them 17 times and threatened to expel priests who worked with the Beguines. But Eckhart had the courage to hold his ground and to not only speak, but walk his talk. This is why he got condemned; he stepped on too many toes of some very powerful people in Cologne where he lived and preached. So he stirred up waters because he lived what he was preaching. That’s why I call him a mystic warrior: he had this strength to him, this courage, this power of warriorhood, as well as the prophetic energy.
Do you consider yourself a mystic warrior?
(laughs) Well I think we should all strive to be.
Yes, in the catholic tradition you have the names via positiva and via negativa. But I have added to them, through the influence of Eckhart, the via creativa and via transformativa, which is about justice. Eckhart says ‘The person who understands what I say about justice understands everything I have to say’. That’s a very powerful statement from the greatest mystic the West has ever seen. So justice is at the heart of his spirituality, and so is compassion, which he says is justice, and is also celebration and interconnectivity.
But yes, the four via’s, I think, are a very healthy way of naming our journeys. We all go through the via positiva of joy and wonder and delight, the via negative of darkness and silence, but also of suffering and grief. The via creativa around creativity and the via transformativa: the struggle for healing and for celebration and for justice. I think that names quite richly what the spiritual journey is all about.
Do you think contemporary spirituality honours all these four pathways or does it focus too much on the via positiva and shy away from the more dark and messy place of the via negativa?
That’s right, and that’s why the shadow or the dark night of the soul is so important and has to be explored. When 9/11 happened 13 years ago, president Bush’s first words were ‘go shopping’. Well, that’s not the real meaning of 9/11 or any other tragedy. It is about looking at the darkness and allowing yourself to be vulnerable to it. And when you do that, you become a wiser person.
And I think today, as a species, we are in a collective dark night: the dark night of our species. Because none of us knows if we are going to survive. This path we are on, with the destruction of the forests, the oceans, and so forth, is not sustainable, and we need, as a species, to wake up and look into this darkness, and not go off on shopping sprees or any other spree, whether it be drugs, alcohol or work or anything else, that is really a veiled attempt to look at the truth.
Have you heard of the initiative to make Ecocide, the mass damage and destruction of ecosystems, a crime against Peace under the Statute of Rome (the treaty of the International Criminal Court)?
Wow, that’s really interesting, because I talked about Ecocide in my book on the Cosmic Christ about 27 years ago. Ecocide is a reality and being able to name something like that is a way of dealing with the darkness and taking a look at it. So I think anything that gets us to look at the folly we are in, in destroying the habitat of not only our future generations but also of future generations of all the other amazing species, is a plus.
Yes, Eckhart says: ‘Every creature is a word of God and a book about God’. In other words, every creature is another Christ, because ‘word’ or ‘logos’ is another name for the Christ. So yes, when we destroy the forest and the rest of nature, we are crucifying the Christ all over again. And understanding, like Eckhart does, the broad meaning of the Christ and the Cosmic Christ, gives us a language and a world view for understanding the depths of the destruction we are involved in. But also to meditate on the beauty. When he says ‘every creature is a book about God’, he means each creature is a Bible. The Bible is not just a 4000 year-old book, it’s every creature. He says ‘when I spend enough time with a caterpillar I never have to prepare a sermon, because a caterpillar is so full of God’. We want to meditate on the beauty of caterpillars, and trees, and lions and rivers because it is through being in love with them that we awaken in us the energy – and it does take energy! – to be a warrior. To defend Gaia and her creatures. It does take strength and courage, like you said, and the strength comes from being in love. We have to fall in love again with creation and all its beauty. I think science helps so much: not only the picture we got from space 45 years ago of the Earth as a glowing mandala and gem, but also the recent picture we received from Voyager One, looking from space onto our galaxy and showing all these pinpricks of light, and one of those pinpricks is Earth. If we were to meditate on that, if that becomes an icon, it would put everything into perspective for all of us on this planet. The wars we have are so ridiculous compared to the unique beauty of our planet and our home, and this is what has to unite us.
So then is falling in love with life and Earth the resurrection we need?
When did last you fall in love?
(laughs) Well I think that’s a daily thing. We should fall in love at least three times a day; not just with a human being but with wild flowers, and trees, and forests and fishes, oceans, animal, birds, poems and music. We are here to fall in love and falling in love three times a day is a minimal requirement for being alive.
Amen to that.
I have a chapter on shamanism in Meister Eckhart: A Mystic Warrior and in it I talk about Eckhart and Jesus as shamans. In fact, some contemporary biblical scholars like Bruce Chilton have gone out of their way to point out that Jesus was a shaman, and how much of his spirituality derived from his relationship with nature. In Mark’s gospel, which is the oldest gospel, it says that after his baptism he went into the desert and wrestled with the wild animals and the spirits and the angels. That’s very shamanistic. So a lot of his teachings and healings were very shamanistic and this has been neglected by many theologians and historians who didn’t understand the real nature-based mysticism of Jesus. Although now scholars agree that it comes from the wisdom tradition of Israel and that tradition is Creation Spirituality, it’s nature based: finding God in nature. These scholars say that Jesus was considered illegitimate in his village, he was not allowed in the synagogue on Sabbath. So when people were praying on the Sabbath, Jesus was out in nature, praying. And you see this in his teachings: his parables are filled with nature images. And as he grew into an adolescent and man, he studied in the wilderness with John the Baptist. And all that is very present in the soul of Jesus: he is very Earth-based, like shamans are.
Actually I used this format in a book I wrote two years ago on Hildegard von Bingen, a great 12th century mystic and prophet who shook up popes and archbishops and abbots alike. I put her in the room with Einstein and Clarissa Pinkola Estes and with other 20th century mystics and prophets. And I felt that as a way to bring these medieval geniuses into the 21st century this really worked. It makes it interesting to put Eckhart in a room as it were with Rabbi Heschel, with Carl Jung, with Thich Nhat Than or Hindu scholar Kumar Swami. Kumar Swami says that reading Eckhart is like reading the Upanishads and that’s the biggest praise any Hindu could give anybody. By bringing Eckhart into the 21st century through these conversations it becomes clear that he has to offer us something crucial.
How would the Church’s teachings look like if the Church would honour and incorporate Meister Eckhart’s teachings?
It would look very different. First of all, seminaries, where ministers and priests are trained, would include meditation to calm the reptilian brain, so that the compassionate brain, the mammal brain, can assert itself. Our training centers would be more around the experience of the divine than around dogma or doctrine or polity in cannon law.
And in a broader context, the education of laypeople, of professionals and students would become infused with soulfulness, with wisdom needed to balance the emphasis on the rational mind and the gathering of knowledge. Education would involve all the chakras, not be so heady, and be more fun. Fun is very important here: we have to enjoy life while fighting for life. And intergenerational wisdom is key as well. The young should not have to carry the burdens of the ecological, economical and spiritual crises alone. They should find allies among the elders too. I did a book a year ago called Occupy Spirituality. It’s about young adults and spirituality. One of the questions we asked was about elders in their lives. And 98% said they want elders but they can’t find them. And when they do find one or two, they talk too much. I think too many elders are out there, playing the golf course or the stock markets, or doing some adolescent things, instead of trying to support the younger generation in this very important but also fun vocation to safe Mother Earth.
Talking about saving Mother Earth, what do you think is the primary collective male wound that needs to be healed and the primary female wound that needs to be healed?
I think there are a lot of young men today who are depressed and confused because the models they have for manhood are mostly reptilian brain models of ‘I win, you lose’. But there are other models, and that’s why I put forth ten models or archetypes for manhood in my book The Hidden Spirituality of Men, like the green man who defends Mother Earth, or the blue man who is all about creativity, or Father Sky, or the spiritual warrior, or the hunter-gatherer. These are masculine archetypes that are healthy. We need to detox our image of what it means to be male. And this is not just a man’s issue. Women have men in their lives – brothers, fathers, lovers, sons – but also, according to Jungian psychology, half of the woman’s soul is masculine, and half the man’s soul is feminine. So the return of the Divine Feminine is a good thing for men, too, but the toxic masculine is very bad for women and men alike. So both women and men have to be engaged in this process of reawaking the sacred masculine.
The primary feminine wound in need of healing is I think the loss of one’s voice. And that’s metaphorical, too, for the lack of empowerment and internalized oppression where one feels inferior because you’ve been told you that are. I criticize very much the ideology of original sin. My book of many years ago was called Original Blessing, because we were born as original blessings, not as sinners. Any group that has been put down, whether they are women, gay people or people of color, unconsciously think that their original sin is that they are female, or gay, or colored. And we have to throw off that internalized oppression in order to stand up and be true to ourselves and bring what we can really bring to the whole enterprise of building community and joy and justice with the rest of creation.
So what’s the best way to free yourself of this internalized suppression?
Well, of course the throat chakra is the birth canal for our wisdom; it’s located between the heart chakra and the mind chakra. I think we have to work on our hearts, to build them up, and also work on our minds. We have to undo the teaching that is one-sided, that is overly masculine, patriarchal and rational, and bring in the right brain as well. Because that’s how you develop your mind: by making a sacred marriage between the left and right brain hemispheres, and not settling for anything less. What happens to women sometimes is when they settle into the system – when they become a lawyer or a priest, they can often be sort of taken over, without continuing the critique and questioning as they move along. We have to continually be alert, because that is what a warrior is. A warrior is alert and questioning. So the way you find your voice is by strengthening the heart, strengthening the mind, and bringing them together in the throat by speaking out.