The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries sowed the seeds of the Reformation: Louis of Bavaria, Wyclif in England, Huss in Bohemia, rehearsed the play for Luther, Henry VIII, Calvin, and Knox. In Scandinavia the rapidly rising wealth of the clergy, exempt from taxation, became an irritating burden to the people and the state. Critics alleged that the Church owned half the land of Denmark, holding a fief on Copenhagen itself.15 Nobles looked with ominous envy upon possessions protected by only a creed; and even the orthodox were anticlerical. In Switzerland the proud independence of the cantons was a prelude to Zwingli and Calvin. In 1433 Magdeburg expelled her archbishop and clergy; Bamberg revolted against episcopal rule; Passau besieged her bishop in his citadel.16In 1449 a professor in the University of Erfurt (where Luther was to study) addressed to Pope Nicholas V a defense of general councils as superior in authority to the popes.17 Echoes of the Hussite revolt in neighboring Bohemia spread through Germany; here and there Waldensian congregations furtively preserved old heresies and semi-communistic aspirations.18 Piety itself tended toward a mysticism that hovered near heresy.

In Johannes Eckhart mysticism became a pantheism that by-passed the Church and almost ignored the defined creed. This Dominican friar was so learned that the title Meister became part of his name. His philosophical writings were phrased in such scholastic Latin that had these been his sole works he would never have come to any harm or fame. But in his monastery at Cologne he preached in epigrammatic German the audacious pantheism that invited the Inquisition. Following Dionysius the Areopagite and Johannes Scotus Erigena, he struggled to express his overwhelming sense of an omnipresent God. This all-bathing ocean of deity Eckhart conceived as not a person or a spirit, but only “absolute bare unity .. . the abyss, without a mode and without form, of the silent and waste divinity... where never was seen difference, neither Father, Son, nor Holy Ghost, where there is no one at home, yet where the spark of the soul is more at peace than within itself.”19 Essentially only this formless divinity exists.

God is all things, all things are God. The Father begets me, His son, without cease. I say more: He begets in me Himself, and in Himself me. The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.... My eye and God’s eye are one eye.20

In each individual there is a fragment of God; through it we can communicate directly with Him, and can identify ourselves with Him. Not through church ritual, not even through the Bible, but through this cosmic consciousness alone the soul can approach and see God. The more one renounces individual and worldly aims, the clearer and more farseeing this divine spark becomes, until at last God and soul are one, and “we are totally transformed into God.”21 Heaven, purgatory, and hell are not places; they are states of the soul: separation from God is hell, union with Him is paradise.22 Some of these propositions smelled of heresy to the Archbishop of Cologne. He summoned Eckhart to trial (1326); Eckhart affirmed his docile orthodoxy, and proposed that his statements should be viewed as literary hyperboles. The bishop condemned him nevertheless. The friar appealed to Pope John XXII, and then escaped the faggots by a timely death (1327).

His influence was spread by two Dominican pupils who knew how to keep his pantheism within safe bounds. Heinrich Suso tortured himself for sixteen years with ascetic austerities, cut the name of Jesus into his flesh over his heart, claimed to have received into his mouth blood from the wounds of Christ, and wrote his Little Book of Eternal Wisdom in German because, he said, it was in German that God had revealed it to him.23 Johannes Tauler called Eckhart his “most holy Master,” and preached at Strasbourg and Basel the doctrine of mystic union with God. It was to Tauler that Luther ascribed a book, Deutsche Theologie, which moved him deeply with its simple creed: God, Christ, and immortality.

The Church looked with some concern upon mystics who ignored most of her dogmas, neglected her ritual, and claimed to reach God without the help of priests or sacraments. Here lay in germ the Reformation doctrines of private judgment, and every man a priest, and justification not by good works but by transcendent faith. The Church held that supernatural revelations could come from demons and maniacs as well as from God and the saints, and that some authoritative guidance was needed to keep religion from disintegrating into a chaos of individual visions and theologies. That difference of view still divides honest men.

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