The Nought of Sin and the Blindness of God

“Sinne is no dede,” Julian of Norwich calmly states (LT 11), yet who would be so insensitive and cruel to tell that to the families who lost loved ones in last week’s massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas. When Devin Kelly aimed his Ruger rifle at the members of First Baptist Church and pulled the trigger, he very much committed a “dede,” an evil, despicable, and heinous deed. Twenty-six men, women, and children were brutally murdered, twenty more wounded. The consequences of this violence will be felt for generations. Yet in her revelations of the Crucified, Julian sees no sin: “Therefore it seemed to me that sinne is nought, for in alle this, sinne was nought shewed me” (ST 8). Surely Julian knew the sins and evils of the world, and surely she knew the pain, grief, and loss of evil suffered. But when she is given to apprehend the saving death of Christ and the Father’s providential will for humanity, she does not perceive sin. She sees only the good and righteous working of God, who “doth alle thinge, be it never so litile” (LT 11).

Julian is fully aware that her vision of sin and divine providence contradicts normal human experience. We weigh our deeds in the scales of morality. Some tip the scales toward the good, others toward evil. Yet the work of God, Julian assures us, is always good:

For man beholdeth some dedes wele done and some dedes eville, and our lorde beholdeth them not so. For as alle that hath being in kinde is of God’s making, so is alle thing that is done in properte of Gods doing. For it is esy to understand that the beste dede is wele done. And so wele as the best dede is done and the highest, so wele is the leest dede done, and all in the properte and in the order that our lord hath it ordained to fro withoute beginning. For ther is no doer but he. I saw fulle sekerly that he changeth never his purpose in no manner of thing, ne never shalle without end. For ther was nothing unknowen to him in his rightfulle ordenance from without beginning. And therfore all thinge was set in order, or anything was made, as it should stand without ende, and no manner thing shalle faile of that point. For he that made alle thing in fulhed of goodnes, and therfore the blessed trinite is ever fulle plesed in alle his workes. (LT 11)

For a man regards some deeds as well done and some as evil, and our Lord does not regard them so, for everything which exists in nature is of God’s creation, so that everything which is done has the property of being of God’s doing. For it is easy to understand that the best of deeds is well done; and the smallest of deeds which is done is as well done as the best and the greatest, and they all have the property and the order ordained for them as our Lord had ordained, without beginning, for no one does but he. I saw most truly that he never changed his purpose in any kind of thing, nor ever will eternally. For there was nothing unknown to him in his just ordinance before time began, and therefore, all things were set in order, before anything was made, as it would endure eternally. And no kind of thing will fail in that respect, for he has made everything totally good. And therefore the blessed Trinity is always wholly pleased with all its works. (Showings)

This might suggest that Julian believes evil to be an illusion, but such cannot be her view. She is too faithful to the teaching of Holy Church and too well acquainted with her own sins: “And thus in alle this beholding, methought it behoved nedes to see and to know that we be sinners and do many evilles that we oughte to leve, and leve many good dedes undone that we oughte to do, wherfore we deserve paine, blame, and wrath.” (LT 46). Yet when she contemplates the finished work of Christ, she sees nothing of evil: “But I saw not sinne. For I believe it hath no maner of substance, ne no part of being, ne it might not be knowen but by the paine that it is cause of” (LT 27).

The image that comes to mind is that of a black hole. We cannot observe a black hole in itself, for light cannot escape its gravitational pull, but we may infer its existence by observing its effects on nearby matter. Analogously, perhaps we might say that while God creates the freedom by which a rational creature performs an evil act, and indeed sustains the act itself, and knows the suffering caused and endured, he neither sees nor does the evil itself, for “sinne is nought.” Again Julian:

A, wriched sinne! Whate ert thowe? Thow er nought. For I sawe that God is alle thinge: I sawe nought the. And when I sawe that God hase made all thinge, I sawe the nought. And when I sawe that God is in alle thinge, I saw the nought. And when I sawe that God does alle thinge that is done, lesse and mare, I sawe the nought. And when I sawe oure Lorde Jhesus sit in oure saule so wyrshipfully, and luff and like and rewle and yeme alle that he has made, I sawe nought the. And thus I am seker that thowe erte nought. (ST 23)

Ah, wretched sin! What are you? You are nothing. For I saw that God is all things: I saw nothing of you. And when I saw that God has made all things, I saw nothing of you; and when I saw that God is in all things, I saw nothing of you; and when I saw that God does all things that are done, greater and lesser, I saw nothing of you. And when I saw our Lord Jesus sitting so gloriously in our souls, and loving and liking and ruling and guiding all that he has made, I saw nothing of you. And so I am certain that you are nothing. (Revelations)

Julian invokes a common patristic theme—evil as the privation of being. In his Confessions St Augustine declares: “Evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being” (VII.12). And St Maximus the Confessor: “Evil never was and never will be on its own, for it has exactly neither substance nor nature nor hypostasis nor power nor energy in beings.” If darkness is a hole in light, then evil is a hole in the act of existence. Yet the perplexing fact remains that the actions that cause so much suffering and disorder in our world are themselves caused by God, as Denys Turner explains:

God causes sinful actions in that they are actions, because God causes everything that there is. But God is not and could not be the cause of my actions in that they are sinful, because there is nothing but failure in the nature of sin, it is only failure that can cause it. … Nor should we suppose that—as if in some raw, pre-moral, omnipotence—God could cause sin, but that he is restrained from doing so by some supervenient moral inhibition. God does not have the power to cause sin, and that is because sin is not something that any power could cause. And it is here that Julian’s reliance on the Augustinian-Thomist ontology of evil as privation is explicit. When Julian describes sin as being without “substance,” she means that sin is always failure. And it goes together with that conception of sin that it is not power, but only failure of power, that is the cause of sin. … But God cannot fail, not because God lacks the power to cause sin, but because it is only lack of power that can cause sin, and there is no power that God lacks. Neither do I, who sin, possess some power to do so that God lacks: I cause my sins because I lack a power that only I, and not God, can lack. So, after all, it does seem at least consistent to say that God does everything except sin because, as Julian says, “sinne is no dede.” (Julian of Norwich, Theologian, pp. 63-64)

We are thus presented with the counter-intuitive notion that human evil, which we certainly experience as a destructive, freely-chosen act and energy, is essentially a failure of the human being to choose the good that is presented to him at any given moment. And with this failure comes the nought that Julian cannot see.

(Go to “The Behoveliness of Sin”)

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