Insightful biography of German theologian Meister Eckhart (1260-1328).
Harrington (History/Vanderbilt Univ.; The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, 2013, etc.) makes a worthy effort in building this biography around a man whose life is scantily documented. Eckhart left little behind aside from sermons and theological writings, despite being one of the most learned individuals of his day. The author follows what is known of his career and uses other sources to re-create the situations and circumstances that Eckhart most likely experienced in his youth and early adulthood before moving on to his somewhat more documented later years as a public preacher and ecclesiastical administrator. A Dominican monk, Eckhart attained the rare title of “Master,” or “Meister,” of theology through years of study mixed with periods of leadership in his monastic order. In middle age, he began a monumental theological undertaking only to eventually cast it aside in favor of reaching the common populace (including women) with his insights on communion with God. Eckhart’s ideas—which entailed negative theology (i.e., understanding God’s nature by describing what he is not); “letting-go-ness” (gelâzenheit), a mystical technique leading to spiritual rebirth; and direct access to the divine by even the most ordinary layperson—met with mixed reactions. Some were enthralled by his teachings, some did not understand him, and others felt he was flirting with heresy. He died in Avignon amid a papal trial over the content of his works, after which his ideas and very name were largely buried for centuries, only to be rediscovered in full force in modernity. Not only does the author craft an excellent biographical work based on outside sources, he also does an admirable job of presenting Eckhart dispassionately, as a historical figure, a theological innovator, and an impetus for modern thinkers.
Extremely well-researched and fluidly written, Harrington’s work will serve as a meaningful resource for students of mysticism and of late Medieval Christianity.