- Julian of Norwich, Theologian by Denys Turner
Denys Turner’s Julian of Norwich, Theologian gives us Julian as a theologian of the in-between. As an anchoress and a woman writing in the vernacular, Julian was positioned between death and life, history and eternity, Latin formality and “vibrant orality” (p. 15), unique as a visionary yet still a common “evencristen.” Writing from the margins, Turner argues, gave her freedom to experiment in responding to the problem of how sin can exist in a world created by love.
Turner’s book is divided into halves, organized around Julian’s two most conceptually difficult showings: the phrase “sin is behovely” (“sin is fitting”) and the story of the Lord and Servant. In the first half, Turner sets out the terms for investigating Julian as a systematic theologian rather than a mystic in the Jamesian sense. Her revelation was neither incommunicable nor a direct insight into the divine: Julian had to fit “sin is behovely” with what she understood to be true. Her theology therefore proceeds [End Page 629] as a dialectic between the showings, which affirm the unreality of sin, and the teachings of the Church on sin and Julian’s own experience of its human reality. Turner is careful to emphasize that Julian understands this to be an epistemological problem only and further identifies Julian’s “behovely” with arguments from the conveniens, or fitting, used by Ss. Anselm, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and others; her “behovely” is like scholastic dialectic and monastic lectio divina together, an open-ended deepening of inquiry through the repetitions of meditation.
The second half turns to the Lord and Servant and Julian’s soteriology. “Sin is behovely” does not preclude the existence of hell, and Julian, Turner suggests, did not believe in universal salvation. At the same time, her vision of the Lord and Servant precludes a retributive soteriology: it collapses all the events of salvation history into one story of an absolute love that does not condemn. Turner shows how this impasse refocuses Julian’s theology on the problem of how to live in the tension of eschatological in-betweenness. Theologians will find chapter 6 useful for its clarification of the sensualite and substance, her anthropology of a humanity divided into a fallen self, living in time and vulnerable to sin, and an unfallen self untouched by sin. However, here Turner makes excursions into Julian’s relative orthodoxy that are unnecessary, historically vague, and also give the impression that her theology is more homogenous than it is.
This points up a limitation to Turner’s approach: there is little precise sense of how Julian may be responding to her predecessors or contemporaries. If she reads like Aquinas in some ways and like Dante in others, those similarities are more “in the air” than in her thinking. Medievalists and theologians both might wish that Turner had drawn on contemporary writings in Latin or in the vernacular or taken more from recent scholarship such as that by Elisabeth Dutton, David Aers, and Nicholas Watson. This absence of attention to historical context reinforces those misconceptions that Turner works to dispel: that Julian wrote alone, as if with a direct line to God, alongside but not part of a community, responsive to her evencristen in only the most abstract ways. Readers should also note that, although the book is aimed at students, it is not an introduction to Julian’s writings. However, its value to anyone with an interest in Julian’s writings, vernacular theology, or late-medieval theology in general cannot be overestimated. If it does at times read more like Turner’s own sermons than like Julian of Norwich, this book nevertheless resonates with the best in her theology: thorough but lucid, intellectually impressive but accessible, deeply humane, and often beautiful to read.