#10 Julian of Norwich, Theology by Denys Turner (My Top Ten Reads for 2020)

The 14th century Christian mystic, nun and theologian Julian of Norwich is one of my favorite writers in the Church community. I have read her classic, Revelations of Divine Love, twice as part of my daily devotional reading.

This book, published in 2005 by Professor Deny Turner, is s a beautiful accomplishment as in it he concisely and masterfully summarizes Julian’s theology and in doing so demonstrates she is much more than just a “medieval mystic” but that she truly is a theologian. He places her in context, often comparing her ideas to those of contemporaries such as Dun Scotus, Dante and Aquinas, as well as connections to older writers like Augustine.

Turner shows how Julian’s theology revolves around two stories: the story sin tells and the story God tells. The story sin tells is false, which is how she can say sin is not real even though it certainly is experienced as real (honestly, this idea was better explained in this book than any other I have read). In terms of suffering and evil, we live in the middle of the story. Like any story, once we get to the end, everything in it will make sense. Living in it though, it is hard to see. It is in this context that she can have confidence and faith to declare “all shall be well”.

Overall, a great book. If you are interested in historical theology, then you should certainly read Julian and this book is a magnificent secondary source.

Honorable Mention – Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor by Hans Urs von Balthaser.

Another of my favorite theologians whose work has been profound and enlightening to me is Maximus the Confessor, who lived in the 600s.

Maximus was someone we barely learned about in church history. I suspect this was because he lived a bit too late for the Early Church History class and too early for the Medieval class. Besides, Maximus lived and wrote in the East and the story of f church history we read here in the west is told from a Western perspective, Augustine was the culmination of the early church and anything after him was lesser. That said, I suspect Maximus has become more known in the past decade as eastern writers have gotten more reading by theologians and pastors in the west. At least that’s my experience, maybe I should email my professor from back in the day and ask.

Anyway, I know that for me, reading folks like Maximus has been almost paradigm shifting. The more I have read eastern writers from Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus, the more I realize these guys were brilliant and vitally important. Don’t get me wrong, Augustine was also brilliant. But so much that was and is wrong with the western church (Catholic and Protestant) is rooted in the worst of Augustine. I mean, if Luther and Calvin had looked to people like Maximus, how much different would the Reformation have been?

I digress again. This book by the brilliant theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, is a fantastic analysis and summary of Maximus’ work. Balthasar has a depth of understanding of the early church that is mind-boggling: he regularly cites Evagrius. the Cappadocians and others to place Maximus in his context.

The biggest point I learned in this book is that Maximus’ work is always rooted in the Council of Chalcedon’s declaration that in Jesus the human and divine are united “without confusion”. Through this, Maximus achieves a synthesis between East and West that is unique in the history of religion. Eastern thought focuses on the unity of all things in the one (think Hinduism or Buddhism where all of us are like drops being absorbed into the sea). Maximus works with this unity while at the same time, keeping the value on the individual which the West brings into play. Western thought, rooted in Greek philosophy (and Judaism) sees the value of the individual. Maximus sees these two truths (unity and individuality) as held together in Jesus. The incarnation reveals to us the One Unified God who is also Trinity. Through this, we humans are united to God but retain our individual personalities.

There is a lot more here. Maximus, following Dionysius, emphasizes we cannot ever fully know God. The language we use falls short. God is beyond all our understanding, even as God reveals to us. We cannot help but use words, though even these words fall short. In the face of the indescribable, all creation falls down in worship.

Maximus describes a God it is hard to imagine anyone not wanting to worship: a God from whom we call come and who is bringing us all back into relationship. A God who works all things to the Good, for God is Good. A God who is an outpouring of love, for God is love. A God bringing creation back. Within this, there are lots of questions Balthasar deals with which will give the reader a lot to think on (how Maximus is different from Origen plays a large role too, while Maximus also is a disciple of Origen). All that to say, if you like theology and want a feast, and want to learn from two brilliant writers (Maximus and Balthasar) then read this one.

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