Beyond the Notion of God The first point that should be made in connection with Eckhart’s view on the status of doctrine is that he firmly rejects the notion that God can be circumscribed by any concepts or descriptions. He repeatedly emphasizes the necessarily apophatic nature of all “less inadequate” statements about God; whatever is positively attributed to Him is unavoidably and immeasurably short of the mark: “Whatever we say God is, He is not; what we do not say of Him, He is more truly than what we say He is”. Nevertheless there are important aspects of this apophatic doctrine that are susceptible of communication, even if their main function is to clear the ground for, and enhance receptivity to, the higher and necessarily incommunicable nature of the Divine.

Thus: “Whatever can be truly put into words must come from within, moved by its inner form: it must not come in from without, but out from within. It truly lives in the inmost part of the soul”. If received opinion, “coming in from without,” is not going to be ‘truly put into words,” this is because its inner form is not alive in the soul: it is not realized there. Hence any verbal formulations, however technically accurate they may be, will not “truly” convey the reality in question; inner realization must come first, and then verbal expression deriving therefrom will effectively convey, if not the thing itself, then at least that aspect of the realization which is communicable. But if verbal expression is thus predicated on realization, comprehension by the hearer is also dependent upon a degree of realization; for example, in discussing the deepest meaning of poverty—to be dealt with more fully in the final section of this chapter—Eckhart pleads with his listeners: I beg you to be like this in order that you may understand this sermon: for by the eternal truth I tell you that unless you are like this truth we are about to speak of, it is not possible for you to follow me. In other words, a particular mode of being is the prerequisite for understanding. Something “like” the poverty of which he is to speak is thus a kind of opening through which the meaning of profound poverty may enter the soul, and help bring to fruition that partial mode of poverty that is already existent and which prefigures, by its very intention, the complete or integral poverty in question here. Effective communication, then, depends on the realization both of the speaker and the hearer—albeit in lesser degree for the latter.

Also relevant here is the following statement: “He who has abandoned all his will savours my teaching and hears my words”. This point will be elaborated further in Part Ill. Turning now to address directly the question of whether any particular conception or doctrine about the Absolute is either useful or necessary, Eckhart says categorically that all such conceptions, being incommensurable with the reality of the Absolute, must be excluded from consciousness if the highest realization—the Birth—is to be attained: The question arises, whether a man can find this birth in any things which, though divine, are yet brought in from without through the senses, such as any ideas about God being good, wise, compassionate, or anything the intellect can conceive in itself that is divine…. In fact, he cannot. He adds that it is God who knows Himself in this Birth; and this principle implies that there is a necessary hiatus between all things creaturely—even though they be conceptions of the Divine—and the reality of the uncreated Absolute; to the extent that creaturely knowledge subsists in the soul, in that very measure God is excluded.

The distinction between the extrinsic functions or “powers” of the created intellect and the intrinsic mode of the uncreated intellect within man will be dealt with in the next section; at this point, the relative aspect of all conceptions, qua human categories of thought, is being emphasized, in order to show the unbridgeable gap between created and uncreated knowledge. Human conceptions of the essence of the Divine constitute so many veils over it; to think of it as good, just, wise, etc., is to project something of one’s own understanding of these attributes onto That which transcends all such limitative attributions; even to attribute some kind of “nature” to the essence is to do it an injustice, since: It is its nature to be without nature. To think of goodness or wisdom or power dissembles the essence and dims it in thought. The mere thought obscures essence. That the essence comprises the intrinsic realities noetically intended by such conceptions is not being denied here; it is the mental understanding of, for example, goodness that veils the essence of this and all other positive realities; the essence, then, is not incompatible with goodness as such: rather, it is incompatible with the human thought which delimits and thus distorts the true nature of this goodness. If this may be said to constitute the subjective aspect of incommensurability between concept and reality, the objective counterpart, within the divine order itself, is found in the fact that any particular and thus distinctive attribute that is held to pertain to God is a specification which is transcended by the essence.

Thus: For goodness and wisdom and whatever may be attributed to God are all admixtures to God’s naked essence: for all admixture causes alienation from essence. In regard to the relationship between doctrine and realization, then, it would appear that, far from positing as necessary any particular conception of the divine reality, Eckhart on the contrary emphasizes that the essential precondition for the highest realization is precisely the absence of any limiting conceptions, for the sake of a state of pure receptivity to the divine influx. It would be misleading, however, to leave the matter there; for it appears that Eckhart is extolling, as the ideal starting-point for the highest realization, a complete ignorance—or absence—of all conceptions of God, while this is not exactly the case. This is an ignorance that is to be methodically precipitated, on the basis both of a clear understanding of the reasons for this spiritual necessity, and of a certain necessary knowledge of fundamental doctrine concerning religion. It would be more accurate to say that this ignorance is advocated exclusively to those already in possession of a preexisting set of ideas about God and also a way of life corresponding thereto; in other words, he takes it for granted that this knowledge—albeit relative and provisional—is present as a basis to be transcended by “ignorance.” This is clear from the following extract which comes after a declaration that “real union” can only take place when all images are absent from the soul; his words are meant, he says, only for the “good and perfected people” in whom dwell “the worthy life and lofty teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ.

They must know that the very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within” Only those who have assimilated the “lofty teachings” of Christ should be taught of this necessity of ignorance; prior to the realization of union, then, aspirants thereto must have assimilated a certain degree of doctrine and, moreover, they must be “perfected” in their life of virtue deriving from this doctrine. So if Eckhart, at a higher stage in the spiritual life, and having transcendence in view, belittles and excludes all narrowly human conceptions as hindrances, this is only on the assumption that these same conceptions have been comprehended, at the level appropriate to them; the level in question being the human individual in the face of the teachings revealed by “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Therefore, it is fair to conclude that, for Eckhart, the integral assimilation of the basic data of revelation constitutes the indispensable qualification for starting the journey along the path towards union, even if the next stage of this path calls for an unknowing and a “forgetting,” in order to transcend, not revelation as such, but one’s own inescapably limited grasp thereof; for the transcendent aim is to be one with the essential content and source of revelation itself, the Word. Union with the source of revelation thus presupposes an emptiness of all conceptions, even those derived from the data of revelation itself. These points will be dealt with in more experiential and methodic terms.

At this juncture the central conceptual distinction between God and the Godhead needs to be addressed. From God to Godhead A useful starting point is Eckhart’s statement about the limits to which the natural intellect can go; this is illustrated by means of Aristotle’s conception of the angels gazing on the “naked being of God”: This pure naked being is called by Aristotle a “something.” That is the highest that Aristotle ever declared concerning natural science, and no master can say greater things unless prompted by the Holy Ghost. I say, however, that the noble man is not satisfied with the that the angels cognize without form and depend on without means—he is satisfied with nothing less than the solitary One. In other words, Aristotle, here personifying all purely natural science, goes only so far as the level of Being; Eckhart, evidently fulfilling the condition— inspiration by the Holy Ghost—for saying a “greater” thing, affirms the transcendence of this level by the “solitary One,” which thus implicitly stands for what is “beyond” Being. Elsewhere, he says that “Being is the first Name” and this can be readily understood in relation to the “first effusion” or self-manifestation, by which God is rendered “Father”: “The first outburst and the first effusion God runs out in is His fusion into his Son, a process which in turn reduces him to Father” God qua Godhead is thus neither Father nor Son, taking these in their aspect of personal affirmation; but in His first outpouring, God becomes intelligible as the Principle of all subsequent manifestation—divine and creaturely; here, the Godhead can be referred to as “Beyond-Being,” Father as the Principle is the level of Being, and Son as the immediate source of universal manifestation, is the Logos “by which was made all that was made.” This interpretation is supported by the following: God is a word, an unspoken word…. Where God is, He utters this Word—where He is not, He does not speak God is spoken and unspoken. The Father is a speaking work and the Son is the speech at work.

At the plane of God is”—the Word is spoken, whilst on the plane of Beyond-Being—«where He is not” —there is silence, no-thing. That this does not mean “nothing” in the sense of the negation of Being, but rather nothing as That which surpasses and comprises all “things” as well as Being itself, is clear from the fact that Eckhart says: “God is spoken and unspoken.” The “unspoken” therefore is not equated with nothingness pure and simple, but rather with that dimension of God which transcends the realm of Being and existents: the Father being the “work” of God that speaks, the Son being the speech of God that works; the first pertaining to the articulation of the principle of supra-manifest potentiality at the level of Being, the second relating to the principle whereby particular possibilities are transcribed from that level into the domain of universal manifestation. The idea of a principle or a reality that transcends the Trinity, conceived as a hypostatic determination of that reality, would certainly have been problematic to many of Eckhart’s listeners; but he clearly establishes the unity of essence by which the three Persons are but one God, even while asserting the transcendence of the Essence in relation to the distinctive affirmation of the Persons as such. On the first point: For anyone who could grasp distinctions without number and quantity, a hundred would be as one. Even if there were a hundred Persons in the Godhead, a man who could distinguish without number and quantity would perceive them only as one God. [Hel knows that three Persons are one God.

Eckhart seems to be expressing here the possibility of making distinction without the concomitant of separation: the three Persons are distinct on the outward plane, without this implying mutual exclusion on the inward plane; each is identified with the other two by virtue of its inward identity with the Essence, while being distinct from the others by virtue of its mode or function which deploys the Essence, without this implying any numerical or material differentiation from it. There is here the application of a principle which plays a role of the utmost importance in Eckhart’s perspective, and to which discussion will return repeatedly: everything pertaining to the spiritual realm is inclusive and unitive by nature, whilst matter is by its nature exclusive and implies separative particularity; the more spiritual a thing is, the more inclusive and thus universal it is, and the more material a thing is, the more it excludes other things by the very rigidity of its specific contours. As for the second point, the transcendence of the Essence, Eckhart speaks clearly on the basis of his own spiritual experience when he says, in the course of describing the “citadel” of the soul: [So truly one and simple is this citadel, so mode and power transcending is this solitary One, that neither power nor mode can gaze into it, nor even God Himself God never looks in there for one instant, in so far as He exists in modes and in the properties of His Persons…. This One alone lacks all mode and property…. For God to see inside it would cost Him all His divine names and personal properties: all these He must leave outside….

But only in so far as He is one and indivisible (can He do this): in this sense He is neither Father, Son, nor Holy Ghost and yet is a something which is neither this nor that. It should be noticed that the “citadel” in the soul is described in terms identical to those relating to what was beyond the “bare being” attained by means of “natural” science: the “solitary One” is the Absolute that is both transcendent and immanent, residing in the innermost essence—the “citadel”—of the soul as well as surpassing the level of Being, the plane presupposed by the modes, properties, and names of God. That the citadel is here described as a “place” which cannot be entered or even “peeped into” by any but the pure Godhead leads one to the conclusion that Eckhart’s conceptual distinction between God qua Trinity and God qua Godhead could only have been the fruit of a concrete realization of this Godhead; and it is exclusively in the light of that transcendent level that the relativity of the Trinitarian hypostasis is discernible. Elsewhere, one finds another daring formulation which is fully explicable only in terms of the above distinction: “Intellect forces its way in, dissatisfied with goodness or wisdom or God Himself… It is as little satisfied with God as with a stone or a tree”. One should understand that the “God” with which the intellect is not satisfied is the aspect of Divinity that is intelligible as the immediate principle of creation, at the level of Being, as opposed to the Godhead with which alone the intellect is “satisfied” because it is its own essence. In an extremely important passage this distinction is clearly enunciated: While I yet stood in my first cause, I had no God and was my own cause…. I wanted nothing and desired nothing, for I was bare being and the knower of myself in the enjoyment of truth…. I was free of God and all things, But when I left my free will behind and received my created being, then I had a God, For before there were creatures, God was not “God”: He was That which He was. But when creatures came into existence and received their created being, then God was not “God” in Himself—He was “God” in creatures. The “I” in question in the first paragraph can clearly be identified with the Self as Essence or Godhead and not to Eckhart’s personal self, or his “created being.” The term “bare being” is here to be identified with unconditioned Being or “Beyond Being,” in keeping with the above points. Eckhart as Self “had no God” because there was no creaturely “I” over whom an uncreated God held sway: in the Godhead there are no such distinctions. But at the stage of acquiring created being, the existentiated individual is subject to the transcendent Divinity as the absolute principle of his relative existence: thus God is distinctly definable as such only in relation to the existence of creatures. In Himself, God is neither transcendent nor immanent, acquiring these extrinsic aspects only in regard to creatures: to say He becomes “God in creatures” means not just that He is immanent within them, but also transcendent in regard to them, thus God “in relation to” creatures as well as “in creatures.”

Here, one can also understand the “eternal abysm of God’s being” as implicitly referring to Beyond-Being: hence, if the intellect is capable of conceiving of this transcendent Essence, it must be because it is not other than it, and therefore it cannot be satisfied or fulfilled by anything other than, or below it; and “God,” defined as such in relation to creatures, is below this Essence of Godhead, hence the dissatisfaction of the intellect. This can be seen as a metaphysical version of the classical ontological proof of God: whereas for St. Anselm, the reality of God is proven by the human capacity for conceiving Him, for Eckhart, the relativity of God qua Creator is proven by the intellectual capacity for conceiving the Essence, which surpasses the level of being proper to that aspect of God; and this intellectual capacity, in turn, proves or expresses the spiritual capacity for realizing identity with that Essence. This aspect of realization anticipates the discussion; here, it is important to further substantiate this manner of interpreting Eckhart’s key distinction between God and Godhead in terms of the ontological distinction between Being and Beyond-Being. In focussing and commenting upon relevant extracts pertaining to this question, further aspects of the meaning of the concept “Beyond-Being” will be brought to light. There are many sentences dealing with the supra-ontological aspect of the Divine; what follows is an attempt to select and comment upon the most important ones. First, one may cite this: God and Godhead are as different as heaven and earth…. God becomes and unbecomes. God works, the Godhead does no work: there is nothing for it to do, there is no activity in it. It never peeped at any work. Insofar as there is activity or manifestation on the part of God, in that measure there is change, and change implies a “becoming,” which in turn implies an “unbecoming”; only the non-acting, thus non-changing, Godhead transcends all process of becoming and unbecoming, remaining eternally what it is, and is thus as different from God as heaven is from earth: just as the earth manifests impermanence and change in contrast to the permanence and immutability of heaven, so the acting God manifests, and by this very manifestation is distinguished from the non-acting, unmanifest Godhead which nonetheless comprises within itself the principle of all being and manifestation. Here again, one observes that the spiritual principle of inclusive unicity is not contradicted by the affirmation of manifest diversity. Rather, there emerges a hierarchical vision of the planes of reality, intrinsically one, but extrinsically ordered according to the degree of manifestation: for even though heaven be “permanent” in relation to earth, it is in its turn subordinated to its principle, God, thus representing a degree of relative impermanence in relation to the principle of Being; and this principle in turn can be viewed in its aspect of relativity from the perspective of its Essence, Beyond-Being, or the non-acting Godhead. Several key points on this question are found in Sermon 67.. Firstly: “God is something that necessarily transcends being…. God is in all creatures insofar.

as they have being, and yet He is above them. By being in all creatures, He is above them: what is one in many things must needs be above those things”. All things that are, by that very token, “have” being, but are not equatable purely and simply and in every respect with Being; this distinguishes them from Being and from each other. Being is thus common to all existents, and is itself endowed with a degree of relativity in relation to its principle, Beyond-Being, even while representing the Absolute in relation to relative existents; in regard to the Godhead, Being is thus the first relativity, precisely on account of its positive determination, which allows one to say of it that it “is”: of the Godhead one cannot predicate any such determination, for determination is limitation. This line of interpretation coheres with the following statement: “God works beyond being… and He works in non-being: before there was being, God was working: He wrought being where no being was”. In other words, God’s first “act” was to establish being, this corresponding to the Father as the “working speech,” noted above, and also to the notion that “Being is the first name of God.” Since this first act necessarily derives from something of God that “is,” the question may be asked: how can God’s act establish the being that is presupposed by that act?

The answer to this question helps to clarify the necessity of understanding the rigorously metaphysical concept of “Beyond- Being.” For it is clear that the God that acts to determine Being must in some sense also “be,” but this in a “mode above modes,” in a mode, that is to say, which has no common measure with that being that is the common factor in all entities which “are”; thus, when Eckhart says that “God works beyond being” this would appear to mean that the “work” of Beyond-Being is to establish Being, and this, in a place “where no being was”—thus, He works also “in non-being.” Speaking in accordance with Eckhart’s temporal and spatial imagery, one could say that Being crystallizes in an intelligible, not existential, “space” formerly occupied by nothingness, and it is by the very fact of the conceivable opposition between Being and the non-being that it replaces or displaces, that the relativity of Being is manifest; conversely, the impossibility of opposing non-being to Beyond- Being proves the absoluteness of Beyond-Being. Therefore, Being is not only relativized by virtue of serving as the common substratum underlying and unifying all relative beings, it is also relativized by the fact that it is susceptible of negation—albeit in a purely intelligible manner— by non-being or nothingness. This may be understood as a metaphysical interpretation of the creation exnihilo: taking note of the earlier principle of God “becoming” and therefore “unbecoming,” one could say that God becomes Being, where previously there was nothing, in order to unbecome; this unbecoming flows not into the emptiness of non-being but rather rejoins the plenitude of Beyond-Being. One is also reminded here of a dictum to be met with later in this chapter: God became man that man might become God. Continuing with this sermon, Eckhart says:

The angel and midge exist and thus both participate in, and are qualified by, Being; but the great qualitative distinction between them must be transposed to the distinction between Being and Beyond-Being. From the simile used by Eckhart one understands that Beyond-Being comprises Being, and thereby all that it contains, while transcending the delimitation attendant upon the determination of Being: Being is in Beyond-Being as traces of copper may be in gold, without this meaning that gold in itself loses any of its value in regard to the value of copper; insofar as copper—or Being—stands apart from gold—or Beyond-Being—it is in that very measure devalued—or relativized. Being is thus exalted in Beyond-Being, finding therein an unconditioned plenitude not attainable on the determined plane of its own affirmation as such, conditioned as this plane is by its immediate relationship with those existents which it transcends in one respect, but with which it shares a common attribute in another respect, that of Being itself.

These considerations highlight the necessity for the apophatic dialectic when dealing with the Godhead: having nothing in common with anything at all, no positive attribute can be predicated of it, not even that most fundamental and seemingly indeterminate attribute which is Being; for even though it be the most indeterminate of all attributes, it remains nonetheless an attribute, which as such, inescapably constitutes a determination, hence a limitation, which the Godhead infinitely transcends. A further nuance to the relationship between work, act, and being is found in the following extract; here, Eckhart speaks of the soul being borne up in the Persons, according to the power of the Father, the wisdom of the Son, and the goodness of the Holy Ghost—these three being the modes of “work” proper to the Persons; following this come two further stages, transcending this plane of activity: Three levels are thus to be discerned within the divine Nature: the first level of the Divinity is here represented by the Persons as agents whose activity derives from the plane of Being; the second level is where Being is itself “work,” prior to any particular modalities of activity: the “act” is Being itself, which means, in passive terms, that it is the “enactment” of its principle, Beyond-Being, and, in positive terms, its activity is constituted by the potentialities which it comprises

and which flow therefrom. The Persons are “suspended” at this level of Divinity, meaning that they do not manifest their particular properties. At the final level, “above all this,” is to be found the “pure absoluteness of free being”—understanding by “free,” the notion of unconditioned and non-delimited Beyond-Being. Deprived of all being and beingness”: it is deprived, dialectically speaking, only insofar as Being itself constitutes a limitation in relation to this highest degree, so that to be deprived of this limitation is tantamount to being deprived of all possible deprivation, and thus to “be” infinite plenitude. It should now be easier to comprehend Eckhart’s paradoxical statements about the “nothingness” both of the creature and of God. In regard to the former, he declared, in a thesis condemned in the Bull of All creatures are pure nothing, I do not say that they are a little something, or anything at all, but that they are pure nothing. The creature is nothing because in itself it is an implicit negation of all that which is excluded by its own limitations: to negate that which is unconditionally Real is to be negated by it, hence to be reduced to nothingness. On the other hand: One is the negation of the negation and a denial of the denial.

All creatures have a negation in themselves: one negates by not being the other but God negates the negation: He is one and negates all else, for outside of God nothing is. Only the negation of all negation is the supreme, unconditioned affirmation— all other affirmations are but affirmations of negation inasmuch as their very specification implies limitation and hence negation: not being all other things nor the One transcending all things, the particular creature, in its own right and standing apart from God, is but the expression of the principle of negation, hence, in Eckhart’s elliptical dialectic, “a pure nothing.” Moreover, since “outside of God nothing is,” the creature is strictly nothing only in the measure that he is envisaged apart from or “outside of” God; and this gives a clue as to the converse truth, relating to God’s immanence in creatures: if God’s transcendent and exclusive unicity negates all that is other than it, His indivisible and inclusive totality encompasses and thus affirms all that there is, so that the creature is nothing apart from God and only a “something in God. Finally, if the creature is nothing in one respect, so too is God—though in a very different respect—a nothing which is a non-being, in the sense which has by now been sufficiently established as Beyond-Being; the Godhead surpasses— and thus in one sense negates—Being from above, while the creature’s separative affirmation limits—and hence negates—