Sculpture of Eckhart by Lothar Spurzem, 2012, via Wikimedia Commons

There was an excellent talk on Meister Eckhart at St Brides Liverpool this morning. The talk was given by Dr Duane Williams of Liverpool Hope University. We had time to ask questions, and after the service we carried on talking about it as long as we could – until the Annual Meeting took over.

I went home puzzling over what it has to say about modern attitudes to possessions and wealth.

Meister Eckhart was a German living in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, and is now considered one the greatest Christian mystics. Duane told us that he taught people to seek a bare mind, letting go of self-will, resigning ourselves, becoming free of all things so that the space would be filled by God, and eventually – paradoxically – even being free of God. He had a negative, ‘apophatic’ theology, emphasising what God is not. Here are some quotes:

It is a fair and equal exchange: to the extent that you depart from things, thus far, no more and no less, God enters into you with all that is his, as far as you have stripped yourself of yourself in all things. It is here that you should begin, whatever the cost, for it is here that you will find true peace, and nowhere else.
Whoever possesses God in their being, has him in a divine manner, and he shines out to them in all things; for them all things taste of God and in all things it is God’s image that they see.

The questions came. Isn’t this the wrong message to people who are driven to extremes of poverty and starving? What about people who work hard to help those in need, like refugees – should they be departing from what they do and the possessions that enable them to do it? Isn’t it easier for people to give things up towards the end of their lives, rather than for younger people who don’t yet know what life will bring and what they will need? Duane answered with great sensitivity. Eckhart’s sermons were addressed to nuns in convents. They had no wealth, but by looking after each other they had security.

This left me wondering what he would have made of modern economic theory if he had been alive today. We have now had centuries of dictators and governments determined to impose their will because they were over-confident that they knew what needed to be done. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot could all have done with a bit of Eckhart’s spiritual practice, letting go of self in order to have more of God. The Panama Papers got mentioned: they, if anything, point to the temptations that come with power and the need for a discipline of renouncing self-centredness.

So I guess Eckhart would not have supported any of the grand projects of social engineering, whether left wing or right wing. Would he have been more sympathetic to the main alternative with which we have learned to live, economic liberalism?

Liberalism can mean different things, but what I’m referring to is the theory that replaces social engineering with a ‘free market’ system. Different individuals want different things, and we can’t all get what we want. So governments, instead of deciding what needs to be done, should establish a free market to let us negotiate against each other, each of us choosing to spend our money on what matters most to us. The more you want something the more you are willing to pay, and if lots of people want it, it will be worth more people’s while to produce it. In this way fluctuating prices and wages will do the negotiating between individuals all trying to get what they want.

I think Eckhart would object to this theory just as much, if not more. Perhaps it would work very well, if everybody constantly had the same amount of money; but as the last 40 years have shown, in practice it makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. It prevents people working to provide for the needs of people who have no money, and instead redirects labour to providing luxuries for the rich.

Even if it worked in practice, this kind of free market economics provides a philosophy of humanity which sounds to me like the exact opposite of what Eckhart taught. It tells us that we are all self-seeking individuals, so our economic activities are all about getting as much as we can in competition against other people. In Eckhart’s day such obsessive and selfish individualism had not yet been developed into a theory, let alone taken for granted as the way we inevitably relate to each other. Worse still, it treats our values, our preferences, our wants as foundational. It accepts them as given, in the economic market-place. Duane’s talk on Eckhart stressed that the spiritual task is to let go of all this, to make room for God.

So what’s the alternative? An obvious model springs to mind: those nuns in their 14th-century convents. Firstly, by looking after each other they had the medieval equivalent to a welfare state. The basics were provided. They had the security which liberated them from anxiety about the next meal and the rent. Secondly, they developed the discipline of redirecting their desires. What they wanted, what they valued, could be changed, as they let go of their natural self-centredness and made space for God to enter their minds.

We all have different needs and different hopes. We have different skills and can make different contributions. To be at our best, the commitment to let go of our self-centredness and contribute to the common good is needed as much as ever.