‘Shew’ & Tell

'Julian of Norwich, Theologian'

The anchoress Julian of Norwich (c.1342–after 1416) is the earliest known woman writer in English. She claimed to have received a series of “shewings,” or revelations, which she discussed in two works, usually referred to as the Short Text and the Long Text. The second of these is a much-expanded version of the first, and indicates how Julian came to reflect on her shewings after about twenty years. We know little of her life or of the authors who might have influenced her. She describes herself as being “a simple creature unlettered,” but it would be wrong to take “unlettered” to mean illiterate or ignorant of what others had written. Julian is one of the great authors of the English Middle Ages (she has been compared to Chaucer), and her writings indicate that she had more than a passing knowledge of theological literature. That she was theologically well read seems indisputable, even if scholars differ as to what she actually read and how she came to read it.

In spite of her medieval context, one might say that Julian is quite a recent arrival on the theological scene. Theologians didn’t give her shewings serious attention until the twentieth century. A version of her Long Text appeared in 1670 but did not exactly make her a household name. And it was only in 1978 that readers were able to study the first critical edition of her writings (edited by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh).

So how shall we read her? She has often been described as a “mystic,” yet, as Denys Turner convincingly suggests in Julian of Norwich, Theologian, she is not what most people have in mind when they use that word. Although Julian did not write in the manner of scholastic writers like Thomas Aquinas or Duns Scotus, she was, Turner argues, a sophisticated and consistent systematic thinker who addressed some major theological issues. So why not regard her as someone with whom to engage intellectually now? She seems to have emerged in the wake of an approach that emphasized the importance of feelings when it comes to what matters in the life of a Christian. But her Long Text ends up asking us to think and not to assume that feelings either tell us about God or lead us to him.

It is in this way, for example, that she approaches what is commonly called the problem of evil. There is a lot of badness around (obviously). But how can this be so if God exists? This is a question with which Julian wrestles seriously. Turner suggests that her ways of dealing with it compare very favorably with some things that have been said about God and evil by philosophers and theologians in recent years, and I think he’s right about that. Many contemporary discussions of God and evil work on the assumption that theologians should be offering accounts of God’s morally sufficient reasons for allowing this or that evil. And a number of them proceed on the assumption that bad human choices have to be viewed as merely permitted by God, rather than caused by him. Hence the so-called free-will defense, which argues that God can be exonerated when it comes to the evil of sin because he rightly wishes us to be free and must therefore put up with our acting badly.

Julian does not think in these terms. She does not think of God as acting in the light of moral duties or displaying human virtues. For her, God is the Trinity, which, with no obligation to do so, creates the world in an eternal act of love. For Julian, there is no absurdity in the notion of a world in which no free agents sin. Nor can she accept that things might come to pass that are not caused to exist by God. As she famously observes, God “is in al thing…God doth alle thing, be it never so litile.... Our Lord God doth all” (Long Text, 11). For Julian, to believe in God as creator is to believe that he makes everything that exists to be in all its various forms and for as long as it exists, and this includes our choices. As Turner writes:

It is of course true that I could not consistently say of a human action both that I caused it as a free agent and that some created cause other than I caused it. But God cannot be construed as thus acting upon my freedom to its exclusion except on some idolatrous reduction of the divine causality to that of a created cause.... God’s causing my free actions ex nihilo is therefore precisely what makes them free.

Does this mean that Julian is really a determinist who thinks that there are no free human actions and that all that we do is just a matter of God’s impact on us? To answer yes would be to misunderstand the action of the creator as on a level with the actions of creatures on each other. My pushing you down a flight of stairs compromises your freedom. It leaves you at the mercy of things in the world (me, plus stairs and gravity) that act on you from outside so as to bring changes about in you. But if God makes the difference between there being something and nothing—if God creates everything ex nihilo—his creative act does not modify anything or interfere with it in any way. It makes it to be.

In that case, though, how should we think of sin and its place in God’s world? One might suppose that there has to be a clear answer to this question, one that would allow us to say, “OK. Now I get it—now I can see just how God and sin fit together.” But this is not how Julian thinks. She says that sin has to be thought of as a lack of being (privatio boni in the language of Augustine and Aquinas) and, therefore, not something created by God. But Julian takes sin to be anything but an illusion, and so she worries about its place in God’s world. She ends up saying that “sinne is behovely.”

What does she mean by this, and can what she means be defended from charges of incoherence? Turner spends a lot of time dealing with these questions—and with the coherence of Julian’s theology in general. His discussion is a subtle one that continually aims to blend exegesis of Julian with evaluation of what she says. I find it very persuasive. Turner takes Julian’s “behovely” to mean something like what conveniens meant for Aquinas. As Turner puts it, the assertion that “sin is behovely” is intended to mean that “the narrative within which sin fits is a good one, a narrative of love and compassion within human history.” At one level one might protest that sin should have no place in God’s world—and, at one level, Julian would agree. She never encourages people to sin, and she thinks of sinners as bad. But she cannot think of sin without also thinking of the Cross of Christ and what this reveals about God: that God involves himself in our sinful world by displaying its nature as sinful while offering himself in love to it. Turner emphasizes that Julian does not suggest sin is desirable. Nor does she think that we can know how sin is “behovely.” As Turner paraphrases her,

To know how it could be that sin is behovely would require our knowing now things that we could not know, for they are, for the time being, secrets held within the mind of the Trinity itself and withheld from us until the final Judgment.

Julian’s thinking on sin comes to a head in Long Text, 51, where she reflects on her shewing of a lord with a servant he loves and sends to do his will; in doing it, the servant is gravely injured. Julian, adopting what Turner calls an eschatological perspective, takes the servant to be both Adam, who stands for the whole human race, and Christ, as the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate. Julian ends up thinking of God as someone who reveals himself as loving sinners by willfully making himself their victim. She does not mean that the Incarnation is a matter of the divine nature undergoing change or suffering, or that it is God’s best effort at trying to sort out what went wrong somehow—a “plan B,” in Turner’s words. Her point is that we should focus on the bloody dying of Jesus so as to realize that this is our only image of what the Trinity is.

Does this image explain anything? Julian doesn’t claim that it does; she is not offering what today would be called a theodicy. Rather, she says that it is what we have to keep in our minds when thinking about what God is, and how God and sin relate to each other. In the New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son we read of a parent who takes his wayward son back without reservation while his other son complains and draws attention to his own virtues. The moral seems to be: God is not someone who calculates what is owed to him and acts accordingly. Rather, he accepts us if we want him, our weakness notwithstanding. Julian takes this fact to be shown by the Cross of Christ, and Turner admirably explains how she does so.

Julian is a difficult author to read. She continually aims to address some very hard questions, and one might sometimes wonder just what she is driving at. It has been suggested that her thinking leads her into an unorthodox position, since she sometimes appears to subscribe to the notion of “universal salvation”—the idea that everyone is comfortably tucked into bed with God in the end. It has also been suggested that Julian thought that the human soul is somehow identical with God (an idea that has also been ascribed to Meister Eckhart). One of the many virtues of Denys Turner’s book is that it addresses such interpretations head on, dealing with them thoughtfully and in a way that makes sense of Julian’s own words. Turner makes clear why it would be wrong to think of Julian as believing in universal salvation, and why she couldn’t possibly have thought of our souls as being God (though he also explains why one might think they were). He does all this while writing both as an interpreter of Julian and as a theologian aiming to assess the strength of her arguments.

Julian of Norwich, Theologian is the best theological exposition of Julian to appear so far. It doesn’t pretend to offer a comprehensive introduction to her thinking. Instead, it shows why her thinking is still of value and how one might critically engage with it.

Published in the 2011-11-04 issue: 
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Brian Davies is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University. His books include Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Summa Theologiae’: A Guide and Commentary (2014) and Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Summa Contra Gentiles’: A Guide and Com-
mentary
(2016), both published by Oxford University Press.

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