Markus Vinzent's Blog

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

How can God be beyond himself?

A summary of a paper given in the RIST seminar, King's College London

In his Philosophical Consolation, Boethius defined ‘eternity’ as ‘totally simultaneous and perfect possession of interminable life.’[1] Where Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260-1329) refers to this quote,[2] he highlights Boethius’ dynamic concept of life (vita) with a God who simply is present: ‘God is “beyond” eternity because of his presentiality.’[3] Now, how can be beyond eternity,[4] beyond being endlessly divine? Eckhart’s reasoning starts with an explanation of Ex. 15:18: ‘The Lord will reign for ever and beyond.’
This hyperbolic ‘and beyond’, which goes further even than ‘for ever’, caught Eckhart’s attention. To Eckhart, the conventional reading of eternity reduced to a radical presentiality was ‘not subtle enough’. Whereas for Thomas Aquinas neither have there been, nor will there be infinite things in reality,[5] since, as he understands his Catholic faith, generation has a beginning and will have a definite end and therefore cannot be infinite,[6] to Eckhart, Ex. 15:18 ‘plainly and briefly intends to say that God’s kingdom will always and infinitely stand beyond any measure of counting or conceiving’.[7] In what is almost no more than a further allusion, Eckhart adds what turns out to be the core of his explanation: ‘What goes for God’s knowledge is equally true about his kingdom and rule. “We will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and beyond that” (Mi. 4:5).’[8] Whereas before Eckhart was speaking of divine knowledge only in which God understands infinite potentiality and actuality, the reference to Mi. 4:5 transfers divine knowledge to ‘us’, to God’s creatures. God’s being beyond himself means that he is enabling ‘us’ to walk in God’s name forever ‘and beyond’. What this walking of creatures in God’s name entails is further expounded in the newly published first volume of Markus Vinzent, The Art of Detachment, Meister Eckhart: Texts and Studies (Leuven, 2011):

[1] Boethius, Phil. Consol. V pr. VI (CSEL LXVII 122,12): ‘Aeternitas igitur est interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio’, adapted from Plotinus, Enn. III 7,3,37-8.
[2] Eckhart, Expositio libri Exodi n. 80 (LW II 84,3-9).
[3] Eckhart, Expositio libri Exodi n. 80 (LW II 84,3): ‘Deus est ultra aeterna praesentialitate’ (trans. of this and further passages from this Expositio by B. McGinn, in Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher, 1986, 71, trans. altered).
[4] An idea, already present in Proclos, see Proclos, Elem. 87; C.J. de Vogel, Some reflections on the Liber de causis (1966), 78.
[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II/1, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance (Edinburgh, 1957), 567.
[6] Thomas Aquinas, S. c. gent. I c. 69.
[7] Eckhart, Expositio libri Exodi n. 86 (LW II 89,4-6): ‘Ultimo breviter et plane, cum dicitur: dominus regnavit in aeternum et ultra, vult dicere quod ultra quam possit numerari aut cogitari semper in infinitum stabit regnum eius’ (trans. by B. McGinn in Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher, 1986, 73).
[8] Eckhart, Expositio libri Exodi n. 86 (LW II 89,4-6): ‘Et sicut est de scientia dei, sic pari ratione est de regno ipsius et regimine, Mich. 4: ambulabimus in nomine domini dei nostri in aeternum et ultra’ (trans. by B. McGinn in Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher, 1986, 73).

1 comment:

  1. Rashi interprets this verse (Ex 15.18) as meaning two different stages to God's association with humanity. 'Forever' refers to God's exclusive association with the Jews in the here and now while 'and ever' refers to a time where he will be the one sole God of all humanity [Rashi on Deut 6:4]