Why a 14th-century mystic appeals to today’s ‘spiritual but not religious’ Americans

The percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religious tradition continues to rise annually. Not all of them, however, are atheists or agnostics. Many of these people believe in a higher power, if not organized religion, and their numbers too are steadily increasing.

The history of organized religion is full of schisms, heresies and other breakaways. What is different at this time is a seemingly indiscriminate mixing of diverse religious traditions to form a personalized spirituality, often referred to as “cafeteria spirituality.” This involves picking and choosing the religious ideas one likes best.

At the heart of this trend is the general conviction that all world religions share a fundamental, common basis, a belief known as “perennialism.” And this is where the unlikely figure of Meister Eckhart, a 14th-century Dominican friar famous for his popular sermons on the direct experience of God, is finding popular appeal.

Who was Meister Eckhart?

I have studied Meister Eckhart and his ideas of mysticism. The creative power that people address as “God,” he explained, is already present within each individual and is best understood as the very force that infuses all living things.

He believed this divinity to be genderless and completely “other” from humans, accessible not through images or words but through a direct encounter within each person.

A sculpture of Meister Eckhart in Germany. Lothar Spurzem, CC BY-SA
The method of direct access to the divine, according to Eckhart, depended on an individual letting go of all desires and images of God and becoming aware of the “divine spark” present within.

Seven centuries ago, Eckhart embraced meditation and what is now called mindfulness. Although he never questioned any of the doctrines of the Catholic Church, Eckhart’s preaching eventually resulted in an official investigation and papal condemnation.

Significantly, it was not Eckhart’s overall approach to experiencing God that his superiors criticized, but rather his decision to teach his wisdom. His inquisitors believed the “unlearned and simple people” were likely to misunderstand him. Eckhart, on the other hand, insisted that the proper role of a preacher was to preach.

He died before his trial was complete, but his writings were subsequently censured by a papal decree.

The modern rediscovery of Eckhart

Meister Eckhart thereafter remained relatively little known until his rediscovery by German romantics in the 19th century.

Since then, he has attracted many religious and non-religious admirers. Among the latter were the 20th-century philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, who were inspired by Eckhart’s beliefs about the self as the sole basis for action. More recently, Pope John Paul II and the current Dalai Lama have expressed admiration for Eckhart’s portrayal of the intimate relationship between God and the individual soul.

During the second half of the 20th century, the overlap of his teachings to many Asian practices played an important role in making him popular with Western spiritual seekers. Thomas Merton, a monk from the Trappist monastic order, for example, who began an exploration of Zen Buddhism later in his life, discovered much of the same wisdom in his own Catholic tradition embodied in Eckhart. He called Eckhart “my life raft,” for opening up the wisdom about developing one’s inner life.