In a 2006 work on the writings of Julian of Norwich, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins describe Julian’s A Revelation of Love as “a work with no real precedent: a speculative vernacular theology, not modeled on earlier texts but structured as a prolonged investigation into the divine, whose prophetic goal is to birth a new understanding of human living in the world and the nature of God in his interactions with the world, not just for theologians but for everyone” (quoted in Turner, 219-220). Fittingly, these words could in many ways be used to describe Denys Turner’s recently published book on Julian. If Turner’s work departs in one significant way from the above description, it might be in terms of the breadth of his audience. Whereas Julian addresses her theology to her “evencristen,” Turner’s reflection on her writings possesses a level of conceptual difficulty that might limit its readership to trained theologians. In saying this, I hope that I am not scaring off any potential readers, because those who do have the patience to work through Turner’s monograph will be richly rewarded for their efforts.
What makes Turner’s engagement with Julian’s theology so effective is his unwillingness to collapse the tensions that exist in her Revelation. For example, in the chapter on sin Turner seeks to demonstrate how Julian can assert that she sees neither blame nor anger in God, while simultaneously affirming the Church’s teaching that “there is punishment for sin, that there is hell, and that ‘many creatures shall be dampned…’” (69). Ultimately, the way that Julian navigates this tension is by having recourse to the classic Augustinian trope that sin has no part in being, but is only a privation of the good. In Turner’s words: “For Julian, as for Dante, what is ‘real’ is the divine love. Sin, in being the refusal of that love, is the refusal of reality… As Julian says, peace is ‘always in us.’ And the only thing that can separate us from that peace is the ‘wrath’ that is only ‘on man’s side,’ not at all on God’s” (93). By framing the matter in this way, Julian seeks to take seriously the harmful effects of sin without diminishing in any way God’s providential care for the world. In short, Julian upholds both truths, stubbornly refusing to let one overwhelm the other. Turner honors Julian’s theological method by following the basic contours of her approach, steadfastly resisting the temptation to make Julian’s theology more palatable for modern readers by explaining away the tensions in her thought.
Turner follows a similar strategy when dealing with other themes in Julian’s thought, as can be seen in his engagement with Julian’s reflections on prayer and providence (chapter five) and also in the conclusion to the book, which treats Julian’s soteriology. Throughout the work, Turner demonstrates his readiness to grab the nettle by the thorns, even in the most difficult of cases, such as with Julian’s contention that “sinne is behovely” (see 37ff.). Like Julian, Turner consistently grounds his theological reflections in the concrete data of Christian revelation, that is to say, in the narrative of Scripture. The most potent example of this facet of the work is Turner’s commentary on Julian’s theology of the cross: “[I]f it is alone in Jesus that the Trinity is revealed to us, [as Julian claims], then it is in his dying on the Cross that revelation is given. In short, what Christians know of the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead they know from the Cross of Christ… At the heart of the structural unity of Revelation as text is that which is at its theological center point: the paradox that the visibility within history of the Triune Godhead, which is love, is to be found in the historical defeat of love by sin” (133). Passages like this one help to ward off sentimental appropriations of Julian’s theological insights, as, for instance, when phrases like “alle manner of thinge shall be wel” are sometimes ripped out of their context and employed without an acknowledgment of the harder sayings in Julian’s works.
By preserving the essential character of Julian’s theology, and on account of his expertise regarding medieval Christianity, Turner effectively mediates Julian’s thought for a contemporary audience. As noted above, Turner’s work is not for everyone, and a full appreciation of its content will require an advanced level of theological training beforehand. Thus, I would caution against assigning this text to undergraduates, though graduate students in theology should find it immensely rewarding. Within the graduate school context, Turner’s monograph could serve either as a supplementary text for a medieval survey or as a launching pad for extended discussion on key theological motifs, such as the nature of human freedom, the “logic” of God’s salvific plan, and the place for prayer in light of divine providence. Turner’s work, like Julian’s, frames these topics in a compelling manner and resists providing simplistic answers that would fail to do justice to the mystery of the Christian faith. In this respect, his monograph is a true homage to one of medieval Christianity’s most fascinating historical figures.