Theologizing with Julian of Norwich

In his book on Julian of Norwich, Denys Turner makes an extraordinary claim: the long text of Julian’s Showings ranks as “one of the great works of medieval theology in any language,” standing alongside the contributions of St Anselm, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Bonaventure, and St Thomas Aquinas (Julian of Norwich, Theologian, p. x). An extraordinary claim indeed! If it had been advanced by some specialist in “spirituality,” it might be excused as enthusiastic exaggeration. Dame Julian has become a favorite among those who read the mystics, yet even today she is rarely referenced in the theological literature. But Turner is a respected theologian in his own right. Not only is he well-acquainted with the Western mystical tradition (see, e.g., The Darkness of God), but he is also knowledgeable in the theology of the Angelic Doctor (see, e.g., Thomas Aquinas). Hence his judgment must be taken seriously. If Turner is right about Julian, we should come to the Showings with different expectations than we otherwise might and be willing to put to her the same kinds of questions that we put to St Maximus the Confessor, Sergius Bulgakov, and Karl Barth.

Yet it remains difficult for us to think of Julian as a “theologian.” Her Showings does not fall into typical categories, even by medieval standards. She writes neither in the monastic style, with its sustained meditation upon Holy Scripture, nor in the scholastic style, with its concern for dialectic and logical reasoning:

Julian does not exactly invent a new form of theological writing unfamiliar to readers of her age, for others write in similar ways. Nonetheless, hers is distinctive. Unlike the typical monastic theologian, whose starting point and method of procedure are typically and explicitly scriptural, or the school theologian, who sets out theologically from a carefully formulated statement of a problem or questio, Julian’s theological reflections are elicited through a process of progressive intensification and complex elaboration of particular and personal experience. Hers is not a theology derived deductively, inferentially extruded from some set of general theological principles, nor one derived directly from an intensive exploration of explicitly cited scriptural sources. Situated in time in precisely recorded detail (Julian tells us the date and circumstance—she is, so far as she knows, dying), the raw material of her theology consists in a set of sixteen “shewings” revealed to her in person: sometimes in visual image, sometimes in the form of words spoken to her directly by the Lord, sometimes in the form of “understandings” given to her, some bidden, some unbidden. All three forms of showing are but starting points for Julian’s interrogation of them for their mutual consistency and degree of correspondence with the teaching of the Church or her own experience concerning one key issue, the problem of sin (the core issue addressed by this book). For prima facie, she sees conflict rather than concordance between the two. The style of her elaborations is often that of one puzzled by her theological data and is consequently of a problem-solving character. But more generally, her style is much like that of the variation movements of classical sonata form. Having announced her first shewing, each of the succeeding fifteen is, she says, in one form or another, a variation on the first, and, in the end, all fifteen return to it. Moreover, in each of them Julian is to be found testing, exploring, expanding, and releasing the potentialities of the basic thematic material, often modulating away from it into distant and apparently unrelated keys, or transforming the tiniest melodic features of each shewing into major thematic developments of theology. (pp. x-xi)

I purchased my copy of the Showings back in the early or mid-80s and read the short text (the brief record of her sixteen revelations) sometime thereafter. I found it … curious. I shelved the book with my other books on spirituality, telling myself that “one day” I really should read the long text, too. Clearly I was not ready for Julian, lacking both the theological knowledge and spiritual maturity to engage her work. Since then my theological knowledge has increased a fair bit, and as far as my spiritual maturity … well, only God and my wife can judge.

This past Summer I received a strong prompting to finally read the long text of Dame Julian’s Showings. I’m not sure why, though I suspect that my recent rereading of T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” may have contributed. So I began reading Julian, a few chapters a day. I soon found myself captured by her meditations, both intellectually and spiritually. Here was something new and surprising. I honestly do not know how to describe this book. I probably should reread it before blogging on it, but having just finished Turner’s book, I deem it best to compose my initial thoughts on Showings before they disappear along with the rest of my fading memory. Hopefully you will find this series of articles of interest.

(Go to “Revelation of Love”)

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3 Responses to Theologizing with Julian of Norwich

  1. Denys Turner says:

    A short comment. It is less surprising to treat the Julian as a theologian if first you do not start with Thomas Aquinas as a paradigm in the high Middle Ages and consider Dante writing poetry as a theologian or Meister Eckhart preaching as doing theology. When you do that you (among other things) allow ina large number of women into the company of the theologians who otherwise secure a presence in the canon only as “spiritual” writers, somehow less rigorous and less “intellectually demanding than the men. My aim was to present Julian as every bit as rigorous as the university men of her time, but also as more skeptical and open than many. A game-changing theologian, therefore. Insofar as one still today doubts Julian’s theological credentials the evidence is still there that we think of theology in scholastic and broadly “male”‘terms.

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    • Thomas says:

      Or one might distinguish between theology in the strict sense as a science from theology in a broader sense, which would include the less academic (but arguably more spiritually rich) writers like Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich. And one can do so without associating an academic approach and experiential approach with either the male or female genders respectively.

      Those who would criticize the rigorous sciences (whether theology or physics) as being masculine come very close to saying women are less adept at rigorous thought, evoking a long and sexist tradition that women are more emotional and men more rational. Edith Stein was no less a rigorous thinker than Thomas Aquinas, and both John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich can be spiritual masters.

      Not to say that is what you are advocating, Denys. But it certainly seems to me that one can hold to a normative view that the sort of theology practised by Aquinas and Scotus is paradigmatic for theology as a science, while also holding that scientific thought is no more intrinsically masculine than feminine, and that the broader forms of mystical and poetic theology have their own positive place.

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