Origins of the Four Paths Found in Thurman and Eckhart

We have seen how deeply the four paths of creation spirituality play out in both Howard Thurman’s work and Meister Eckhart’s.  

Famous portrait of Catholic Mystic and Dominican Order Priest, Meister Eckhart. Photo originally posted HERE.

Eckhart engaged the world of his time and sought to translate his spiritual experience of compassion into action. Like his master, Jesus, he was, one might say today, a “sacred activist,” or mystic-prophet, or mystic-warrior. He urges us to be the same. The stakes today are high and involve the very survival of our planet as we know it along with the survival of our species. 

If all Jesus or Eckhart had sought to teach was finding “personal peace,” would Jesus have been crucified or Eckhart hounded by the Inquisition and condemned? Of course not. They were, in fact, disturbing the peace — in Jesus’s case the pseudo-peace of an empire that oppressed others; and in Eckhart’s case the pseudo-peace of an ecclesial, patriarchal powerhouse that was dangerously closed in on itself. 

Matthew Fox speaks on “Spiritual But Not Religious…” at the Common Dreams conference.

In my autobiography I tell the story of lecturing on Eckhart for the first time.  It was at the Quaker Meeting House in Highland Park, Illinois, in August 1977.  I remember it well for two reasons.  First, there was a young man there, a mystic-farmer from Nebraska who, raised evangelical, had discovered Eckhart on his own.  On hearing my talk, he canceled his scholarship to Yale Divinity School and joined ICCS in its first year.  

Marvin Anderson has been a good friend ever since.  He introduced me to the idea of the farmer as mystic (he said to me, “every small farmer is a mystic, but this was never alluded to in the churches I attended as a boy.”)  He also introduced me to the writings of Wendell Berry, among others.  

After I ended my talk on Eckhart, the head woman of Quaker House bellowed from the back of the hall, “My God!  He sounds just like George Fox!” (the founder of the Quaker religion).  

Front door of the University of Creation Spirituality in downtown Oakland, CA. Photo taken from the official UCS Facebook Page which can be found HERE.

She was right–Eckhart represented that marriage of mysticism, justice, and political consciousness that went underground with his condemnation but resurfaced in the seventeenth century with George Fox.  Previously, it surfaced with radical Protestants Hans Hut, Sebastian Franck and Hans Denk in the sixteenth century.  These theologians, unlike Luther, did not abandon the peasants and saw in Eckhart’s theology–“every creature is a word of God”–a theology that supported the experience of the poor who worked with animals and the land.

In my edited book called Western Spirituality: Historical Roots, Ecumenical Routes (1981), I wrote for the first time about Eckhart and about the Four Paths.  This represented a big step for me–for years I had been trying to extricate myself and Western Spirituality from the quagmire of the three paths of Plotinus and Proclus, namely those of Purgation, Illumination, and Union.  I felt this way of naming the spiritual journey was sorely lacking–why no mention of delight and pleasure?  of creativity?  of social justice?  Such an unbiblical basis for naming our spiritual journeys.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, p. 22;

See Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest (2015 edition), p. 137.

Banner Image: “Life at a Crossroads”. Photo by Edgar Chaparro on Unsplash.

Do you, like Thurman and Eckhart, deepen from living the four paths of via positiva, via negativa, via creativa and via transformativa?

Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior For Our Time

While Matthew Fox recognizes that Meister Eckhart has influenced thinkers throughout history, he also wants to introduce Eckhart to today’s activists addressing contemporary crises. Toward that end, Fox creates dialogues between Eckhart and Carl Jung, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Heschel, Black Elk, Karl Marx, Rumi, Adrienne Rich, Dorothee Soelle, David Korten, Anita Roddick, Lily Yeh, M.C. Richards, and many others.
“Matthew Fox is perhaps the greatest writer on Meister Eckhart that has ever existed. (He) has successfully bridged a gap between Eckhart as a shamanistic personality and Eckhart as a post-modern mentor to the Inter-faith movement, to reveal just how cosmic Eckhart really is, and how remarkably relevant to today’s religious crisis! ” — Steven Herrmann, Author of Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward

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4 thoughts on “Origins of the Four Paths Found in Thurman and Eckhart”

  1. Avatar

    “Original Blessing” and other books that describe these paths have been a godsend to me and an encouragement to engage in loving activism.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Original Blessing has been a godsend to me too–as well as all of his other books. I remember hearing Matthew speaking the day before he was silenced. At that time he was promoting his book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, and it was the first time I had heard a form of Christianity I could live with–and it still is over 20 years later !!!

  2. Avatar

    Perceptive article on real men and masks. How explain women who exhibit the same behavior? Have they taken on toxic masculinity as a way of being on the world?

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