On Mysticism, Ontology, and Modernity

A Theological Engagement with Secularity

by Christopher Shaw (Author)
Monographs XII, 324 Pages


This new study offers a serious and long-overdue examination of the unstable bifurcation between theology and secularity. Rather than understanding these two formative elements of culture to be in a constant state of opposition, the author chooses an alternative path toward their reconciliation. In this way, a constructive relationship is developed between secular and theological ideas wherein they symbiotically challenge one another in such a way as to create new and/or re-examined opportunities for thinking about God, the world, and, indeed, the self.
The book first of all embarks upon a hermeneutical reading of Meister Eckhart’s defining statement that «Being is God» and ultimately arrives (via Kant, Hegel, Gadamer, Henry, and others) at a mystically informed understanding of God’s presence both in the world and in the «heart and mind» of the human experience – an understanding that defies conventional categories and static cultural identities. It is an important study of the history, the present, and the future of religious thought, presenting a hopeful image of unity and love in a world that has been for too long divided by difference.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I: Introduction and Methodology
  • Introduction: On the Hermeneutic Application of Eckhart’s Mystical Ontology
  • Chapter 1: The Hermeneutic Method (Hans-Georg Gadamer): Interpreting Eckhartian Mysticism and The Fusion of Horizons
  • Part II: Toward an Ontological Interpretation of Eckhartian Mysticism
  • Chapter 2: Mysticism as a Modern Category of Theology
  • Chapter 3: Contemporary Theological Interpretations of Eckhartian Mysticism
  • Part III: The Ontological Turn: Post-Kantian Approaches to Eckhartian Mysticism
  • Chapter 4: On Mysticism and Ontology in Post-Kantian Thought: Landmarks of the Modern Philosophical Horizon
  • Part IV: Theology and the Problem of Secularity: A Hermeneutic Application of Eckhartian Mystical Ontology
  • Chapter 5: Theology, Mysticism, and the Problem of Secularity: Alternative Approaches
  • Chapter 6: Engaging Eckhartian Mysticism in a Secular Context
  • Chapter 7: Conclusion: Eckhartian Mystical Ontology and the Contemporary Moment
  • Appendix: Being is God: Toward a Secular Understanding of a Divine Ontological Principle
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← viii | ix →


This book is the product of my doctoral studies at the University of Oxford – and both this degree and the book would have never come about if it were not for the extraordinary support of my family. I would especially like to thank my mother and father, Kathleen Elizabeth and Mark Eugene Shaw, and my wife, Guadalupe Pardi. I will be forever grateful for the patience, support, and sacrifice that each of you constantly demonstrated in order for these rare opportunities to become a reality.

I would also like to thank the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture of Regent’s Park College and its curator, Dr Nicholas Wood, for their generous support of my doctoral studies. In addition to this, I wish to recognize and thank Prof. Dr Dietmar Mieth, the Universität Erfurt, and the Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien for affording me access to such truly unique resources and for providing me with an office and living space during my time in Thüringen. I also would like to extend my deepest sense of gratitude to Prof. Dr Notger Slenczka, in particular, and the Theologische Fakultät of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, as a whole, for supporting my work during its final, crucial stages. Indeed, my residency in Berlin provided the perfect combination of both inspiration and concentration that was needed for the completion of my DPhil.

This project has also benefited tremendously from the wide-ranging expertise, steady guidance, and moral support that were regularly exhibited by my doctoral supervisor, Prof. Mark Edwards. Additionally, I would also like to acknowledge the work of Prof. George Pattison and Dr Simon Podmore for having created a mode of culture at Oxford that promoted creative thought and the free pursuit of intellectual curiosities in the context of theology and the philosophy of religion. This book is surely a reflection of their causes and efforts to that end. Finally, I would like to thank Prof. William Desmond for his on-going mentorship and encouragement – both of which have remained steadfast throughout the course of several graduate degrees, and all the pains and the joys that come with them. ← ix | x →

← x | xi →


Introduction and Methodology

← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →


On the Hermeneutic Application of Eckhart’s Mystical Ontology

This introduction will present the main concepts and arguments for this project. I will then move to situate these concepts and arguments within the context of the theological problem of secularity. Next, my interpretive use of Meister Eckhart’s medieval thought will be introduced as it relates to the challenges facing theology at the dawn of the third millennium. Following this, I will present a concise statement of the aim of this book, as well as a brief schematic of how this aim will be carried out and demonstrated over the four main parts of this work.

Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Ontology: Esse est deus

The principal theological concept that will be addressed over the course of this work is that of the mystical ontology of Meister Eckhart (ca.1260–ca.1328). Mystical ontology is a concept that refers to the special union that persists between God and the individual soul. This union is mediated through a shared sense of being; that is to say, an ontological foundation that equally substantiates both God and the individual soul. This unique focus on ontology within the framework of mystical theology, or mysticism more broadly, is at the center of Eckhart’s thought. Moreover, as this study will show, it is also a theme that has been continually drawn to the fore and re-presented under the philosophical guise of post-Kantian thought. What is clear, in this case, is the fact that both Eckhart and many of his post-Kantian predecessors have made ontology – the nature of being – a ← 1 | 2 → primary point of concentration in their works. What is more contestable about this description of Eckhartian theology, as such, is its unique predication of ontology with the, at times, abstruse concept of mysticism.

The concept of mysticism has become highly contested in contemporary scholarship. It has been employed to denote a whole range of thought that, all too often, only vaguely revolves around the relationship of the human to God, the absolute, or divinity of some nature. To be sure, the modern reconstructions of this term have evolved to take on new meanings and contextual references. Nonetheless, the roots of this word have a long history in Christian and pre-Christian thought. Today, mysticism is often employed haphazardly as a general term to speak about spirituality, perennial theology, and/or new and emerging religious movements. There is, of course, some legitimacy to these quite idiosyncratic employments of the word. However, this project aims to take a much narrower route in exploring this complex category of thought. I will do so by looking to the concept’s more specific development as a category of Christian theology and its association with the history of the greater Christian tradition.

In summary, the etymological sources for the terms mysticism and mystical theology can be traced to pre-Christian thought and rituals. However, the manner in which the term has evolved and been employed in modern times is, primarily, a consequence of certain theological interests that arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Acting from a pivotal point in the evolution of the meanings and expressive character of the terms at play, early modern theologians began to demonstrate a set of definitions and approaches to mysticism that more closely reflect the now well-established contemporary denotations. In Chapter 2 this study will briefly consider these modern characterizations of mysticism and mystical theology. By way of this effort, I will announce one of the more authoritative presentations of what is now referred to and/or classified as mysticism and mystical theology. In particular, I will look to the theologian, Meister Eckhart, as one of the foremost custodians of this unique tradition, and as a thinker who can demonstrate unparalleled conceptual precision in this style of theologizing.

Though Eckhart and his contemporaries did not involve the actual terms mysticism or mystical theology as a part of their normal vocabulary, ← 2 | 3 → what we find in Eckhart, conceptually speaking, aligns rather congruently with the more precise and controlled use of this term that exists today. As a point of orientation, I will now turn to the Oxford English Dictionary to provide a working definition of the term ‘mysticism’, and, especially as it relates to ‘mystical theology’:

Mystical theology; belief in the possibility of union with or absorption into God by means of contemplation and self-surrender; belief in or devotion to the spiritual apprehension of truths inaccessible to the intellect.1

Stating a definition of ‘mystical theology’ presents a host of issues,2 and many scholars simply avoid the task of doing so altogether. However, using a fundamental working term without a definition can lead, as William James (1842–1910) notes in his study of ‘mysticism’, to the employment of that term with little to no contextual or referential value. Thus, concerning definitions, he tenders his aim to “keep it useful by restricting it”.3 While James is not one to try to oversimplify the meaning and history of ‘mysticism’, he is, at the very least, offering his reader a point by which to establish a common understanding of a crucial term within his study. This does not mean that in my choice to use the OED definition of ‘mystical theology’ I am neglecting to recognize that the term is, as Louise Nelstrop points out, “subject to modern theoretical debates”,4 and even more, that ‘mysticism’ ← 3 | 4 → appears “to cover a very diverse set of devotional activities”.5 It is more that with any attempt to control the definition of the many “different facets of Christian mysticism”, one begins to find that the “boundaries … seem strained to bursting.”6 These are indeed important points. However, what makes this project in a sense exempt from such complications, is the fact that it is not focused on writing a history of mystical theology, but instead focuses on a single theologian and the mystical theology that he espoused. Interestingly then, and in congruence with Nelstrop’s problematization with definitions per se, is the fact that Eckhart’s own mystical theology does not overlap with complete symmetry with the OED definition offered above. Nonetheless, that definition was presented with the aim of offering a basic guideline for understanding how it is that mystical theology will be broadly used over the course of this work. Although such a definition carries clear limitations (along the terms noted by Nelstrop), it is far more important that both author and reader can share in a common understanding of the term as a basic guideline for dialogue. From that point forward, areas of contention and dissent can be noted accordingly and used in such a way so as to further develop this conversation. Notably, then, minor points of denotative distinctions are permitted (as will be shown below). 7

The above definition allows for the terms mysticism and mystical theology to be used interchangeably, and, importantly, this convention will be followed throughout the course of this project.8 A convincing argument for using the two terms interchangeably is presented by Mark A. McIntosh9 in stating that the semantic separation of mysticism from mystical theology ← 4 | 5 → will result in a greater estrangement between the two terms. The fallout of this estrangement is unproductive in that mysticism could be (and certainly has been) easily associated with a wide variety of ideas and practices that can undermine the validity and continuity of the long-standing and historically important sub-field of mystical theology. These points will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 2, where both the ancient and the modern uses of these terms are considered in respect to both their points of continuity and divergence. There, among other things, it will also be argued that keeping the word mysticism tied to theology, or leaving mysticism to also imply mystical theology maintains the distinctiveness and legitimacy of this particular category of thought.10

In the case of Eckhart, and in echoing the points made above, it should be noted that the first element of this OED definition is especially of interest. This is because Eckhart, as a Dominican, held that the intellect qua contemplation was the agency, or intellective power, through which this union or absorption into God would take place; although notably, the nuance in both the definition and use of the term ‘intellect’ clearly varies a great deal between Eckhart’s medieval context11 and the modern English one. This is because, for Eckhart, the intellect has a function beyond the formation of determinate concepts (and the execution of judgments, thereupon). In fact, for Eckhart, the crucial capacity of the intellect is its distinctive function as the conduit through which one might realize one’s indeterminate union with God.12 Notably, it is the relation between indeterminacy (in ← 5 | 6 → respect to one’s ability to experience God, as such) and determinacy (in respect to one’s ability to both formulate and attach concepts to things) that divides the medieval from the modern understanding of this faculty. Bearing these points of distinction in mind, it will be made clear that the concept of ‘mystical ontology’ (as it relates to and is inspired directly from Eckhartian thought) that I am forwarding here and in what follows, can and indeed does overlap quite readily with the above-noted definition of ‘mystical theology’. The difference is that ‘mystical ontology’ will be employed in this book to denote: a belief in the possibility of union with or ← 6 | 7 → absorption into God by means of a correct understanding of the essence of one’s own being and of the essence of being in general.13 This slight modification of the OED definition of mystical theology encapsulates my use and meaning of the concept of mystical ontology, as it relates to Eckhart’s theology. Further, my engagement with the concept in this way should be read as an attempt for clarification of the latter concept by means of its consistency with and its further specification of the former.

Although mystical ontology was not a term that was used by Eckhart himself, nevertheless, his theology is more than sufficient for such a classification insofar as he definitively declares that “Being is God” [Esse est deus].14 This single distinctive phrase speaks volumes on Eckhart’s understanding of ontology. Quite simply, it becomes apparent that he had an understanding of God that was predicated by his special use of the term ‘being’.15 As a scholastic master and a vernacular preacher, Eckhart’s ruminations on the ontology of God are captured in both of his Latin and his Middle High German works. Both of these contributions will be read in tandem in order to offer a philosophically and linguistically robust account of his thought on the fundamental nature of all being as it relates to God.

For example, in a Latin text, Eckhart comments: “God alone is in the proper sense being … Every other thing is this being, for example, a stone, ← 7 | 8 → a lion, a man, and so on ….”16 As a complement to this, in his vernacular preaching he develops his philosophical notion of being and converts it into an ethical standard when he states:

God as being pours himself out into all creatures … This is a good lesson to us to love all creatures equally with all that we have received from God, and … we should favor them equally out of divine love … Thus God loves all creatures equally and fills them with his being. And, thus, too, we should pour forth ourselves in love over all creatures.17

Eckhart begins and ends this comment with the metaphor of pouring out and pouring forth. The repetition in his use of this verb is not coincidental. Rather, it highlights the reciprocal nature of God’s being as the same being that substantiates – or is the essence of – the world and individual souls. So much so that there is a constant interchange between the two, and when one is poured out, the other is filled, and vice versa. Finally, and quite importantly, it should be mentioned that it is love that actualizes this pouring.18 Ultimately, what emerges from the teachings and sermons of this medieval master is a concept of being that describes the essential union between God and the soul. It is precisely this union between God and the soul that can be defined as mystical.19 Further, as a result of Eckhart’s constant emphasis on being – the being of the soul and the being of God ← 8 | 9 → – as the common principle that facilitates this union, it is quite right and accurate to describe this variety of theology as a mystical ontology.

This book will in part argue that it is precisely this theme of mystical ontology that we find in Eckhart that has been preserved through the ages, and that has also been revived in post-Kantian thought. Bearing this trend in mind, I will then move to show how Eckhartian thought can be hermeneutically re-presented and applied toward the end of creating a constructive space for dialogue between Christian theology and secular thought.

Mystical Ontology and the Problem of Secularity

In what follows I will briefly introduce the overall aim of this project in respect to how Eckhart’s mystical ontology can be used to treat the theological problem of secularity. I will largely rely on Charles Taylor’s (1931–) work, A Secular Age,20 in presenting the framework for the development of my arguments pertaining to secularity in general.21 To begin, I will now introduce the crucial terms and context that will highlight my approach to the theological problem of secularity.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term ‘secular’ as: “[o]f or pertaining to the world.”22 Adding to this, Charles Taylor examines the meaning of this term from a more etymological perspective; he writes: “‘[s]ecular’… comes from ‘saeculum’, a century or age.… People who are in the ← 9 | 10 → saeculum, are embedded in ordinary time, they are living the life of ordinary time; as against those who have turned away from this in order to live closer to eternity.”23 Taylor’s description is useful because it complements the OED definition by stressing the role of time in relation to secularity, and more precisely, one’s experience in and of time24 in the world. In compounding these two definitions it becomes clear that, when considering the meaning of this term, there ought to be an emphasis both on the world and on ordinary time. As a further complement to and elaboration of these points, Harvey Cox explains that:

From the very beginning of its usage, secular denoted something vaguely inferior. It meant ‘this world’ of change as opposed to the eternal ‘religious world.’ This usage already signifies as ominous departure from biblical categories. It implies that the true religious world is timeless, changeless, and thus superior to the ‘secular’ world which is passing and transient. Thus the vocation of a ‘secular priest,’ one who served in the ‘world,’ though technically on the same level, was actually thought of as someone less blessed than that of the ‘religious’ priest who lived his life in the cloister, contemplating the changeless order of holy truth.25

To summarize and clarify his point, Cox adds that: “[i]n its first widespread usage, our word secularization had a very narrow and specialized meaning. It designated the process by which a ‘religious’ priest was transferred to a parish. He was secularized.”26 Bearing this in mind, I will repeat this project’s definition of the ‘secular’ as concerning matters, ‘[o]f or pertaining to the world.’ ← 10 | 11 →

In their respective discussions both Taylor and Cox express a degree of uniformity in their discussions that is consistent with the OED definition of ‘secular’, and as a measure of consistency with other key terms at play, this book will do the same. Taylor’s etymological investigation brings an important point to the fore, one that must be clarified from the outset of this project: my reading and hermeneutic analysis of the mystical ontology of Meister Eckhart will not be employed in order to argue for any direct symmetry or absolute agreement between Eckhart’s medieval theology and secularity. Simply put, there are crucial and irreconcilable factors that separate these two categories from one another, not least of which are Eckhart’s discussions on eternity (or to use Taylor’s vocabulary, ‘higher time’ over and against ‘ordinary time’). My aim here is far more modest: I am interested in showing that there are simply points of contact and intersection between Eckhart’s theological presentation of mystical ontology and certain defining principles of secularity. I will demonstrate these points of contact with an eye toward creating a space for constructive dialogue between these two categories.

First however, in order to gain a better understanding of how secularity has come to such a position of prominence in modern culture and the implications that this has for theology today, I will turn again to Taylor’s seminal work, A Secular Age. As a point of orientation, he presents the reader with his guiding motive, which is to trace the transition from “a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.”27 Following Max Weber,28 Taylor characterizes this shift in understanding as moving from an “enchanted”29 world (here referring to the world before the year 1500)30 ← 11 | 12 → of belief to one that is “disenchanted”,31 or highly rationalized, scientific, and exposed to a plurality of beliefs (religious and otherwise). According to Taylor: “[i]t is this shift in background, in the whole context in which we experience and search for fullness, that I am calling … a secular age”.32

The question as to why this secular age, or secularity in general, poses a problem for theology is one that needs to be explored.33 Taylor sees the shift to secularity as a problem for theology insofar as it “consists … of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”34 For Taylor, the implications of these changes and shifts in the general cultural attitudes of the modern West are reducible to the imposing problem that any notion of transcendence might be relegated to obsolescence when attempting to understand the greater human experience.35 Prominent secular thinkers ← 12 | 13 → such as Richard Dawkins36 and Sam Harris37 see this shift as a positive one. Taylor takes a slightly different path however: he does not simply perceive this secular age as marking the end of the search for “fullness”38 (a fullness that in the past has been provided by religion), but rather as one of the complete transformation of this search. Despite the secular conditions that in part define modern culture, he writes that: “[o]ur age is very far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief.”39 As I stated earlier, my orientation to the theological problem of secularity is one that follows closely in step with the picture of the modern world as it is presented in Taylor’s writings. That is to say, I agree with his estimation that this secular age has made it increasingly difficult to embrace and/or believe in God; especially a concept or an idea of God that presents God as being outside of and/or metaphysically distinct from the world.

The challenges that are posed by secularity to theism are many and they are complex. However, despite these challenges, it is Taylor’s view that “Christian life today will look for and discover new ways of moving beyond the present orders to God.”40 I am in full agreement with Taylor on this front, and it is at this point that I will present one of the key aims of this work in terms of its discussions on the mystical ontology of Meister Eckhart and its potential for application to and meaning in and for this secular age.

This project will present the mystical ontology of Meister Eckhart as a means of theologizing that conceptualizes God as, among other things, the essential fabric of the world and the here and now. Simply put, for Eckhart, God was not limited to certain places and/or sacred spaces. For Eckhart, God was in no way outside of time in a distant and entirely transcendent realm. Rather, Eckhart understood God’s being as equally and ubiquitously present in the world and in all things. In this way, the vernacular ← 13 | 14 → preaching of this medieval theologian is especially striking in the context of our modern secular world.

Even so, in this current secular age, the horizon of meaning in which one receives and interpret Eckhart’s words is entirely different from the latter’s own late medieval context. One cannot be given free rein in interpreting his thought while at the same time striving to maintain a meaningful hermeneutic connection to the past and the flow of tradition, and it is for this reason that a careful reading of Eckhart ought to be executed. However, this does not preclude the possibility of drawing out new meanings and possibilities for the application of his thought when it is interpreted in and for another historical horizon. In fact, the latter situation speaks to the living and indeed the classic quality and depth of Eckhart’s thought, whereby it remains pregnant with the possibility to bear fresh and innovative thoughts when given new referential points for engagement.

This text will present a number of those referential points as they relate to the present secular age. In other words, I will look to excavate any theological insights that Eckhart’s mystical ontology might be well-suited to offer to an age in which people are concentrated almost entirely on matters: “[o]f and pertaining to the world.” This ‘immanent focus’ is the problem posed by secularity that I will be addressing over the course of this project.

A Prolegomenon to Theology in the Third Millennium


XII, 324
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
Theology Mysticism Secularity
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2018. XII, 324 pp.

Biographical notes

Christopher Shaw (Author)

Christopher David Shaw holds a DPhil in Theology and Religion from the University of Oxford. His main academic interests are in medieval mystical theology, classical German philosophy and the philosophy of religion, modern religious thought, secular theology, and pedagogy.


Title: On Mysticism, Ontology, and Modernity