Professor Jacob Needleman
Critique of Christian Mysticism
In this paper I will analyze the meaning of a passage from The Essential Writings by Meister Eckhart, “The darkness neither received nor comprehended the light… and understood nothing.” (1, p.104) As a disclaimer, I am a novice on this subject, however, I will attempt my best to fairly describe both Christian Mysticism and the traditional Christianity based on the Synoptic Gospels. As a Christian, I am compelled to trust that the Synoptic Gospels presented in the Christian-Judeo bible, presents the accurate depiction of ultimate reality, namely, that Jesus is the only way to God. Therefore, I will argue that Eckhart’s mystical interpretations of this key passage from the Synoptic Gospels cannot be trusted because they are taken out of context.
To open, we shall briefly define mysticism and explore it’s implications pertaining to the passage we will analyze. Derived from the Greek, the word ‘mysticism’, which means “to conceal”. (4) The attractiveness of mysticism is the belief that there were hidden meanings or secrets embedded in scriptures. If an individual were to uncover the secrets and hidden meanings, they will have access to special privilege, such as a mystical experience. A mystical experience can be defined broadly as, “A (purportedly) super-sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are not accessible by way of sense perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.” (4) Examples of these type of experiences would be when one experiences their body undergoing temperature changes and feel an invigorating sensation within one’s body; and when one experiences the sensation of God or their divine idol or being. In summary, mysticism concerns itself with utilizing secret meanings in scripture as a tool for mystical experiences. Now we shall roughly introduce the motive of Christian mysticism and why it is unreliable.
Christian mysticism is not reliable because it postulates hidden interpretations of the of scriptures in the Synoptic Gospels. The Christian mystic’s main premise is to achieve experiential factor through discovery of hidden meanings in scripture. They hope to use the hidden knowledge to experience union with God or identity with God. Union with God reminisces the doctrine of Shankara’s advaita vedanta, which refers to one’s true Self or identity as Atman-Brahman or pure consciousness. (3) Union with God involves bridging the distance or separation between an individual and God (4), it differs from Shankara’s advaita vedanta because it doesn’t suppose absolute identity with God. However, the second distinction clearly states identity with God. Meister Eckhart is a Christian mystic who seems to advocate for this type of experience. (4) This type of experience involves the process of the individual-consciousness being fully merged with God. In this sense, the experience can be analogous to the air contained in a glass bottle being released to merge with the surrounding air once the glass bottle shatters or is opened.
The key issue with Christian mysticism is that their sources are usually based on the Apocryphal Gospels. Key characteristics of these sources are as follows:
“The author claims to offer new, and maybe even suppressed, interpretation of who Jesus really was… This new interpretation [of Jesus] is provocative and even titivating, for example, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene or was the leader of a hallucinogenic cult or a peasant cynic philosopher… The truth about Jesus is said to be discovered by means of sources outside the Bible which enables us to read the Gospels in a new way which is at odds with their face value meaning.” (5)
For example, the Gospel of Thomas is one of those alleged Apocryphal Gospels, which was also part of a collections of Gnostic documents. Gnosticism holds the belief that the physical world is evil and the spiritual world is good, moreover, it taught that salvation comes throughs secret knowledge of the spiritual realm, which liberates the soul from the physical world. (5) The reason why the Apocryphal Gospels cannot be trusted is because they were written almost two centuries after the historical Jesus. Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas is as old as AD 200, most scholars date that the original documents could be written in the latter half of the second century after Christ. (5)
In contrast, the original Synoptic Gospels are more reliable for five reasons: first, there was insufficient time for legendary influences to contaminate the historical facts; second, the Gospels are not equivalent to folk tales or urban legends; third, the Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was highly developed and trustworthy; fourth, there were significant restraints on the embellishment of traditions about Jesus; and lastly, the Gospel writers have a proven track record for historical reliability. (5) The Synoptic Gospels as a whole convenes a stark contrast to the Apocryphal Gospels, in that, they consistently portrait Jesus as the Son of Man who died on the cross for the sin of humanity and resurrected, whereas, the Apocryphal Gospels mystified the persona of Jesus. With this background information, we understand why Eckhart’s interpretation of God using the Synoptic Gospels as a reference is problematic.
Eckhart’s inappropriately uses accounts from the Synoptic Gospels to justify his mysticism. The purpose of the Synoptic Gospels does not revolve around sensational experiences of the divine, rather its about who Jesus was and what he accomplished. He misquotes the intentions of the original intent of the Gospel of John. The original intent of the passage, John 1:1-5, was to testify to Jesus’ deity. In context, the previous verses describes Jesus as the divine ‘Logos’ that the Stoics associated as the force behind the universe that held it together. (1) The author of the Gospel of John made this point clear for his audience who knew the philosophies pertaining to the cultural milieu. Furthermore, this passage explains that Jesus and God are the same, hence, deifying Jesus. In relations to the Logos, Jesus is the cause of all things and the sustainer of all things. In the ESV translation, verse 5 is written as, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) In this respect, this verse speaks of Jesus’ authority and sovereignty over evil.
Straying from the original intent of the Gospel of John, Eckhart employs this verse to support his attempt to explain identification with God through the analogy of light and darkness. He writes, “for light and darkness are incompatible, like God and creature. If God is to get in, the creature must get out… When one turns to God, a light at once begins to glimmer and shine within, instructing one in what to do and what not to do… which previously, one was ignorant and understood nothing.” (2) Ringing the teachings of Shankara again, Eckhart’s intent is the soul-God realization or identification. In another place he writes, “Where is he that is born king of the Jews? …It takes place, as I have so often said before, in the soul, exactly as it does in eternity and with no difference, for it is the same birth and occurs in the essence, the core of the soul.” (2) Just as in Shankara’s vedanta taught that one had to realize Brahman within one’s inner Self, the Atman, Eckhart offers the similar teaching. In order for an individual to realize Brahman, they have to let go of themselves and their duality because what they seek is non-duality or pure consciousness. On the same note, the individual who seeks God must get out of God’s way, just as darkness flees before light, in order for the individual to experience God.
In this respect, it is obvious the usage of key scriptures from the Synoptic Gospels in Eckhart’s Christian mysticism is not justified because his application of the scripture is outside the intent of the original writer. There is a vast difference between Eckhart’s interpretation of the traditional Christian scriptures and what the traditional scriptures truly meant. To reiterate, the purpose of the Gospel of John is to tell us the divinity of Jesus and about his life and ministry, namely, dying on the cross and resurrecting on the third day for the forgiveness of sins and salvation for mankind. On the contrary, Eckhart’s interpretation of the text used in the Gospel of John is for a different purpose, namely, using the verse as an analogy to serve as an example for how an individual can obtain God-identification.
In conclusion, we have seen why we cannot take Eckhart’s interpretation of the verse in the Gospel of John seriously. First, Eckhart irresponsibly interprets the original intent of the author of the Gospel of John; and second, Christian Mysticism is grounded on unreliable sources, namely, the Apocryphal Gospels and Gnosticism’s interpretation and usage of the Synoptic Gospels concerning the teachings of the historical Jesus which stray away from the original message of who the historical Jesus was and what he taught and how he lived.
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- Blakney. Raymond B. (1941) “Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation”. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
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- Gellman, Jerome. (2014) “Mysticism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/mysticism/>.
- William, Lane Craig. (1998). “Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: The Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar.” Faith and Mission 15.