A sculpture of Meister Eckhart in Germany. Photo by Lothar Spurzem/Creative Commons

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

(The Conversation) — 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. Photo by Lothar Spurzem/Creative Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.

Richard Rohr, a friar from the Franciscan order and a contemporary spirituality writer, views Eckhart’s teachings as part of a long and ancient Christian contemplative tradition. Many in the past, not just monks and nuns have sought the internal experience of the divine through contemplation.

Among them, as Rohr notes were the apostle Paul, the fifth-century theologian Augustine, and the 12th-century Benedictine abbess and composer Hildegard of Bingen.

In the tradition of Eckhart, Rohr has popularized the teaching that Jesus’ death and resurrection represents an individual’s movement from a “false self” to a “true self.” In other words, after stripping away all of the constructed ego, Eckhart guides individuals in finding the divine spark, which is their true identity.

Eckhart and contemporary perennials

Novelist Aldous Huxley frequently cited Eckhart, in his book, ‘The Perennialist Philosophy.’ Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

This subjective approach to experiencing the divine was also embraced by Aldous Huxley, best known for his 1932 dystopia, “Brave New World,” and for his later embrace of LSD as a path to self-awareness. Meister Eckhart is frequently cited in Huxley’s best-selling 1945 spiritual compendium, “The Perennialist Philosophy.”

More recently, the mega-best-selling New Age celebrity Eckhart Tolle, born Ulrich Tolle in 1948 in Germany and now based in Vancouver, has taken the perennial movement to a much larger audience. Tolle’s books, drawing from an eclectic mix of Western and Eastern philosophical and religious traditions, have sold millions. His teachings encapsulate the insights of his adopted namesake Meister Eckhart.

While many Christian evangelicals are wary of Eckhart Tolle’s non-religious and unchurched approach, the teachings of the medieval mystic Eckhart have nonetheless found support among many contemporary Catholics and Protestants, both in North America and Europe.

Fully understanding a new spiritual icon

The cautionary note, however, is in too simplistic an understanding of Eckhart’s message.

Eckhart, for instance, did not preach an individualistic, isolated kind of personal enlightenment, nor did he reject as much of his own faith tradition as many modern spiritual but not religious are wont to do.

The truly enlightened person, Eckhart argued, naturally lives an active life of neighborly love, not isolation – an important social dimension sometimes lost today.

Meister Eckhart has some important lessons for those of us trapped amid today’s materialism and selfishness, but understanding any spiritual guide – especially one as obscure as Eckhart – requires a deeper understanding of the context.The Conversation

Joel Harrington, Centennial Professor of History, Vanderbilt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


  1. “Eckhart embraced … what is now called mindfulness.”
    “Among them, as Rohr notes were … the fifth-century theologian Augustine”

    Augustine was invested in the idea that Satan exists. He likely would have considered Buddhism to be a creation of Satan. Mindfulness is Buddhism; more precisely, vipassana.

    The author does need to add more details, more nuance, to this article.

  2. The Lord Jesus did not refer to “the god within”, but rather said that it is the kingdom of God that is within us. God Himself is distinct from our own selves. His indwelling is conditional on a discipleship characterised by repentance and obedience, and occurs only once we consciously invite Him to enter our hearts.
    John 14: 23-24 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
    Revelation 3: 19-20 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

  3. “Die wichtigste Stunde ist immer die gegenwart, der bedeutendste Mensch ist immer der der dir gerade gegen über steht, das notwendigste Werk ist immer die Liebe.” This translates as “The most important hour is always the present, the most important person is always the one who is right in front of you, the necessary work is always love”

  4. Science has disproved the biblical creation story with more plausible provable facts to replace it. Nowhere outside the bible is there any mention of abraham or moses until after those stories were published. God kills 158 times in the bible, codifies rape and slavery. Just a few reasons why people might walk away from the god of our youth. We are taught almost from birth there is a ‘god’ watching but now we know we are all born moral naturally (except for birth defects in the form of genetic mental illness). That sense that there is something ‘other’ is integrated into us by our parents, not biology. There is no ‘god within’ just what we have through evolution from our ancestors.

    My experience becoming atheist is that that last step, admitting there is no god, is the hardest. But taking off the training wheels gets easier over time and (since we are all born atheists) eventually feels so much more natural and freeing than believing what we were taught that makes little sense. But not being able to make that last move is understandable for a lot of people.

  5. When do you think you will make that last move and admit that there is no god? In the mean time, keep on searching for Him.

  6. My experience was different from yours – I was raised as an agnostic because my mother wanted us to choose for ourselves (my sister is a spiritualist, brother an atheist) and I became a Christian at 19. 36 years later, it is one of the few choices of my youth that I don’t regret.
    As regards creation – for me, the alternative is less believable. What were the evolutionary stages between reproduction by laying a fertilised egg outside the body, and reproduction by growing a fertilised egg within the womb? How did the species in question survive in the meantime?

  7. those questions have answers now. you just chose not to research them. you would rather believe a snake talks then that little evolutionary question has no answer. can you show me a snake with vocal cords? where is the walky talky in the body that communicates with spirit outside the body?

    if ur happy I’m happy for you.

  8. That’s a bit of a non sequitur. My comment questioned whether the spirituality described in the article was biblical. Are you saying that Eckhart was scientific, but biblical Christianity is not? Or that neither tradition is scientific?
    I think that some types of critique are a better fit for particular data than others. Trying to replicate spiritual experiences under laboratory conditions is a bit like saying that Romeo and Juliet is only worth seeing if it proves that E = mc2.

  9. I don’t think any spirit world exists. It’s all just chemicals and brain wiring naturally occuring. You can claim a fart is a message from god if you believe in god and that he sends messages. We can trace the stories in the bible and have found other versions from longer ago. We know most of them didn’t come from god, but from past cultures.

    I think there are unseen things we don’t understand yet, but concluding spirits exist without proof crosses a line for me.

  10. Perhaps you could give me some help in finding the evolutionary answers to the question I posed above, then. You must have researched it yourself to claim that there are such answers.
    The International Standard Version of the Bible translates the Hebrew ha-Nachash as “Shining One” rather than “Serpent”, though it has a footnote suggesting that “Diviner” or “serpent” are possible alternatives. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+3&version=ISV Given that Lucifer is described as a fallen angel elsewhere in the Bible, it may be that it was his moral character that is seen as being serpentine – or that, in response to his action in tempting Eve, God actually does sentence him to look like a serpent later on in Genesis (if he already looked like one, penalising him by telling him that he would henceforth “crawl on his belly” doesn’t make sense – the implication is that he had previously had some other means of locomotion – wings, perhaps?).

  11. Ultimately, the only way to find out whether God exists is to ask Him to reveal Himself to you – if there really is no God, then you have lost nothing, and if there is one, then it may be the most important thing you ever do.
    A friend of mine told me that he became a Christian after attending a gig and listening to the testimony of one of the performers. Some months later, the performer in question contacted him and said “Look, I don’t know how to tell you this, but what I said on stage was all part of a project for college on the sociology of religion – I don’t really believe in any of it.” My friend’s response was “Well, I’m sad for you because my Jesus is real.” In the time that had elapsed between the gig and the man’s confession, he had proved the truth of the injunction to “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8)

  12. Well there was no jesus as depicted in the NT and god was invented in the OT as a character in a book. It’s been right in front of us all the time. good luck.

  13. If you spent the same time researching science as you do researching that book, you would have an equal base in both and be able to make an informed decision. Eve didn’t exist, it’s just a story like Harry Potter.

  14. I used the search term “evolutionary stages from avian to mammalian reproduction” and it didn’t generate any accounts of the transition involved, or of any intermediate forms. Perhaps you could recommend a better search term?
    We will have to agree to disagree on the similarity or otherwise of Moses and J.K. Rowling.

  15. it wasn’t a transition, it was a split. some species generate eggs internally than expel them to grow and hatch externally, some give live births. It was dependant on survival of the fittest. The species that failed died out. You need to study evolution from start to finish from a reputable source. Plenty of them online. If I suggested one you would only find fault. I don’t think your mind is changeable because it isn’t open. goodbye.

  16. “Perennial Philosophy.” Not “Perennialist.” Huxley describes the philosophy, not the philosopher. Great book.

  17. So there was a particular day, when some species laid eggs which produced young which had mutated in a way that caused them to develop a womb with associated menstrual cycle, and mammary glands, and this happened in one generation?

  18. Your links do not address my question (and the third emphasises that evolutionary change is held to be gradual, thus differing from your statement that “it wasn’t a transition, it was a split”).
    So I repeat: What were the evolutionary stages between reproduction by laying a fertilised egg outside the body, and reproduction by growing a fertilised egg within the womb? How did the species in question survive in the meantime?

  19. I asked how it happened, not how long it might have taken.

  20. I don’t know what your motive is, but since you dont believe in evolution that is a stupid question. In science if we don’t know something we can say we don’t know yet. In religion you can say god did it, and that’s enough. This conversation isn’t going anywhere. blocking.

  21. If the observed data conflicts with the theory, a real scientist would revisit the theory. There is no way that evolutionary theory can account for a change from avian reproduction to mammalian reproduction. Changes in physique and capability are one thing; changes in the way in which preborn young are nurtured are quite another.

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