Eckhart and Materialism

In the early fourtheenth century Meister Eckhart, the Dominican mystic, didn’t have to contend with the sense of doom that confronted the sixteenth century Reformers. The neo-Platonic mysticism that dominated his thinking seemed impervious to institutionalized guilt. Unlike Luther and his Catholic colleagues two centuries later who were forced to find mechanisms to circumvent the permanent “original” alienation of the Augustinian worldview, Eckhart was able to ground intimacy with “God” on what the science of his day — scholasticism — had asserted about the very nature of reality itself. No by-pass mechanism was necessary. For creation was not only “God’s” doing, it was “God’s” very Being. Union with “God” was innate, primordial, permanent and inalienable.

I contend a metaphysics based on modern materialism supports the same conclusion.   The relationship between the human organism and its existential source is genetic.

As a scholastic, Eckhart understood both creation and spiritual transformation to be a function of participation in being. We are not familiar today with the Platonic pattern of locating existence primarily in the conceptual “genus” or over-class (the idea) and in the individual only derivatively. The super-essential or super-generic idea of being ― which was taken to be “God” ­― defined and characterized the individual. If you existed, you shared “God’s” essence which was existence itself. In fact, in this arrangement, you were a very minor partner: “God” defined both what and that you were.

In Eckhart’s world no one had their own being. The shared concept was the precise mirror-image of the shared reality. There is only one “being,” and it is not only owned by God, it is “God’s” own. It is not only God’s; it is “God.”

Relationship to God, therefore, in the scholastic system, was not a personal choice on our part nor is it in any way dependent on our consequent behavior or God’s. It is not a human achievement. It cannot be lost. It is not created by redemption, merely “upgraded.” It is not voluntary. It comes first; it is our very existence itself. The “act” in which we exist is “God.”

This helps explain why accusations of “pantheism” always dogged the theology of the high middle ages. Many said such ideas naïvely assumed oneness with “God” and ignored the distance created by divine transcendence and human depravity. When the Black Plague hit Europe in 1350, it was a cause of great disillusionment. People came to believe that their former clarity about God’s forebearance was benighted. “God” was suddenly a dark and brooding presence: even more wrathful and punitive than Augustine had warned. Christians began to march to a different drummer; it led eventually to the Reformation.

A Material Universe

Things have changed. “Ideas” are no longer believed to create and shape reality as they did in the middle ages. In our time science has discovered that the cosmos is made of a homogeneous energy substrate that takes various forms some of which we have traditionally called “matter.”   Because all of its manifestations are made of the same underlying energy packets, I call this substrate matter’s energy or material energy. It is all there is. Everything is made of it.

Matter’s energy is existence in our modern scheme of things. The spiritual “essence” or immaterial idea no longer explains what something is nor is it believed to be the conduit for existence. Living organisms differ from one another because each species is brought to maturity and sustained in its uniqueness by a controlling bio-chemi­cal template called DNA derived from the parents and passed on by sexual reproduction. DNA is entirely material. It has been clearly established that DNA, which performs the functions once attributed to “essence” in the Platonic system, is an endogenous product of matter’s energy, self-elaborated over eons of geologic time by the successive generations of material ancestors that preceded the current phenotype.

While DNA controls the development of progeny, it was itself constructed bit by bit by the inclusions of successful variations that resulted from the living organism’s drive to survive. In other words, it was the fortuitous survival of evolving organisms that created a DNA that now allows their inheritors to survive. DNA does not suddenly appear full blown out of the blue … or out of the Mind of God. In the modern view survival, i,e., existence, is the driving factor, DNA, essence, is the derivative.

What needs to be emphasized is that the two “systems,” the modern and the mediaeval, the materialist and the idealist, are totally incompatible with one another. Either some version of Plato is right, or some version of modern science is right. Either “matter” is dead and mindless and it needs a living “Spirit” to populate the universe with a myriad of things by implanting spiritual “ideas” (essences) into it, or matter is itself alive, evolving on its own in order to survive, and by evolving creates the substructural combinations later used to elaborate the almost infinite number of species of living organisms visible on earth including those, like us, with mind.


Some will insist that something needs to explain why there is such a thing as evolution capable of forging both a material substructure and later living species. “God,” they say, designed evolution as a tool to accomplish his creative will.

The suggestion shows that its proponents do not understand how evolution works. Evolution is the result of survival, it does not create it. What survives is what happens to remain after a variety of experimental modifications were launched to confront a particular environment. Those organisms with variations that failed, cease to exist. Those that survive do so because the changes they incorporated permit them to continue in existence. Species evolve because they pile up modification on top of modification, each one the key to survival for the organism in some environment hostile enough to have wiped out its sister modifications. Evolution necessarily produces what survives or the phenotype would not be here. The process is entirely after the fact and therefore does not require a designing intelligence to explain it.

Furthermore, why would a rational “God” who is supposedly Pure Spirit ever design a process like evolution that works entirely on random — irrational — and material factors. Is “God” trying to disguise who he is and how he works? If we define rationality as the use of purpose in the pursuit of goals, there is, besides survival itself, clearly no purpose evident in evolution and therefore no rationality. Evolution is exclusively about existence and its energy, the blind urge to be. Evolution will produce terrifying dinosaurs as quickly as gentle butterflies. The only thing evolution does not produce is non-being. On our own planet it has created an earthful of organisms that heartlessly feed on one another to survive. A rational loving “God” could hardly be said to have created a world such as ours in order to display his rational and benvolent nature. The predation inherent in the food chain is a fatal scandal for many. “Atheists” adduce it as evidence against the existence of “God,” or at least the “God” that we have imagined.

I agree with them. There is no such “God.” Our universe is not the result of “ideas” generated by an “Intelligent Designer.”


Yet it is teeming with life. Both life and the rationality seen in humankind are the result of the same evolutionary groping for survival as every other material modification among living organisms. They suggest that matter’s drive to survive — its insistence on existence — is an energy more fundamental than mind or rationality.

This is difficult for us to accept. We tend to apotheosize mind as far superior to any other thing in existence. We used to think mind was immaterial spirit. We did not realize until very recently that mind was elaborated by matter out of some unseen potential deep within its own wells of energy. And if, as I claim, intelligence is the mirroring of the nature of organic reality as the source-paradigm of the “one and the many” (multiple specimens generated by the same DNA) then from an evolutionary point of view the emergence of mind from matter becomes comprehensible. Mind is not primarily a “seeing:” a disinterested “spiritual” contemplation of objective reality. It is rather a sub-function of human survival that enhances the individual organism’s ability to thrive in a world dominated by biological life. By the increasingly accurate identification of individuals as members of species, the human being with mind was better able to defend against predators and gather and multiply food. Mind — the ability to grasp the “one and the many — was a modification that worked.

I am inclined to pause here and point out the parallels in the two systems — platonic idealism and modern materialism — that we have been comparing. For even though they are internally incompatible, the overriding conceptual structures are similar. This isn’t coincidental. They both have identified the source of all existence, and that source in each case has to perform a similar function within its respective system.

Consider: matter’s energy performs a function in the modern paradigm that resembles the role of esse in se subsistens (self-subsistent being) in the mediaeval paradigm. Keep in mind that for Eckhart esse was “God.”

All things are created by matter’s tireless energy to continue on in existence and always remain exclusively itself no matter how elaborate the evolution. Being may be fairly considered the conceptual mirror of matter’s energy. The material substrate, analogous to being, is potentially eternal because it is neither created nor destroyed. It is obsessively focussed on existing (being-here) and every new version of itself shares that obsession. (That explains the presence of the conatus in all organismic life.) Existence is proliferated by the internal sharing of matter’s energy with ever-new versions of itself and so its creativity may be called “maternal” in the sense that it passively allows itself to “be partaken of,” it does not pro-actively generate objects that are “other” than itself. If something is not built of matter’s energy in our universe, it does not exist. Since everything is matter’s energy, it can be said that the only “thing” in the universe is matter’s energy not unlike the way Spinoza said that Being, “God,” was the only “substance” and everything else was a “modality” of “God.”

Please note: this quick sketch limns a new image of “God” not as Father but as a Mother who creates by allowing her children to autonomously extrude themselves from her substance. This passive supplying of her substance gives an entirely new non-interventionist meaning to the word “providence.”

In the scholastic system that Eckhart thought of as “science,” all these same functions were ascribed to esse in se subsistens, “being,” another word for “God.” Just as all things elaborated by matter’s energy share the fundamental qualities and features of the substrate, so too in the fourteenth century all existing things shared in the existence that was the essence of “God.”

While these parallels are analogous, they are not identical. Any direct comparison would reveal major discrepancies due to the radical difference in metaphysical content. The cosmo-ontology I espouse is a materialist philosophy germane to modern science; it is completely contrary to a platonically harmonized Aristotelian idealist scholasticism.

But mysticism goes beyond philosophy. Mysticism is the human resonance of a relationship. It is Eckhart’s mystical message that puts on display the similarities between how the ruling concepts function in each system. The imagery he uses when talking about “the Godhead beyond God,” as we will see in the next post, is quite remarkable and may be said to derive from his neo-Platonic scholasticism centered on the concept of being. I believe the fact that “being” plays a role analogous to that of matter’s energy, accounts for the perennial appeal of Eckhart’s writings. The imagery he generated to describe the “being” he encountered in the depths of his own conscious existence — an existence that was primarily that of “being” itself and only secondarily his own — can work for us as a guide as we try to descibe our experience of the material energy we share with everything else in the universe — a material energy that is so available to us that we use it to produce our very selves.




2 comments on “Eckhart and Materialism

  1. Brian says:

    Very helpful. Thanks very much.

  2. Noel McMaster says:

    Maybe something on information/communication as the way an original redundancy (as the full initial/material message) is realised in us, and then furthered by us in this anthropocene epoch, would help us understand our humanising characteristics and whence they come.

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