Julian of Norwich on God’s Meaning

Julian of Norwich’s fourteenth-century works are the first recorded by a woman in the English language. Her two surviving texts recount her extrordinary series of religious visions that she had as a young woman whilst she lay ill apparently on her deathbed. They mostly concern the figure of Christ as he hangs on the cross, his wounds and his blood and what these things represent about God’s love for humanity. But they also constitute a myterious parable of a Lord and his servant, which she later realises is a picture of the fall of man and of the incarnation, viewed both at once from God’s perspective.

The visions and their interpretation are incredibly beautiful and to me have the ring of authenticity. I think that the spiritual insight she gained from them is quite incredible, especially considering her social standing.

Julian is perhaps still so popular today because of the hopefulness and the sanguinity of her writing. There is a constant tension that runs through Julian between what she has seen of God and what she knows the Church teaches. She is most famous for saying that everything will be well and all manner of things will be well. In the end, according to Julian, we will see everything that is currently wrong put right. But at one point she wonders about the way that the Church teaches that many will be punished by God in hell for their wickedness. It is at this point that she has a further insight about the future: God will do a great deed at the end of time that will put all things right. And so all things will be well, but we just do not know how, because we do not know what the nature of this great deed will be. And in this way she avoids saying anything that explicitly contradicts the teaching of the Church, whilst maintaining the coherence of her vision.

When one reads Julian, one is in the presence of a God who is not angry and demanding of mankind, but who is full of love and grace, who is not harsh but tender and merciful and, interestingly, one who is repeatedly referred to as ‘courteous’ – as in polite and chivalrous. Julian even goes so far as to say that God never needs to forgive us because he is never angry with us. She is at pains to stress that, although we should hate sin in us more than the fires of hell itself, when we do sin we should be cheered by the love of God and by the recollection that God judges us more leniently than we judge ourselves, and we should most certainly not look upon the sins of others in anything but compassion.

The most moving section of the book for me is the final chapter, in which Julian, having thought about her visions for many years, wonders finally what was their overall meaning. What was God trying to say to her? The final paragraph of the book gives us the answer: his meaning was love.

And from the time that this was shown, I often longed to know what our Lord meant. And fifteen years and more later my spiritual understanding received an answer, which was this: “Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.” This is how I was taught that our Lord’s meaning was love. And I saw quite certainly in this and in everything that God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall. And all his works were done in this love; and in this love he has made everything for our profit; and in this love our life is everlasting. We had our beginning when we were made but the love in which he made us was in him since before time began; and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen.

Advertisements

St Benedict on the Path to Justice

The Rule of St. Benedict was written around 540, five years before Benedict’s death in 545. It is a very simple outline of what, according to Benedict, it takes to set out on the path to a righteous life. The first and most obvious thing to say is that it takes total commitment, and not in an esoteric or cognitive sense, but in an actual embodied handing over of one’s possessions and one’s person to the monastic community. It is very sobering to read this book and to imagine the sense of loss and stripping away that would occur if the reader were to take it seriously and embark upon this road. 

But the basic thrust is to provide a manual for the monk to fight against the work of the devil in his soul. Benedict is, let us say, not sanguine about human nature. He sees the soul as a battleground between the forces of good and evil. Which will win is dependent upon whether the monk will choose the path of humility or of pride. The fires of pride are stoked by envy and gain, so possessions are not permitted and everyone must have the same. Pride is tempted by position and rank, so if a brother is promoted he must be chosen because of his humility and if his promotion causes him to behave in a haughty manner he must be cautioned and demoted. Pride is manifested in laziness and disobedience; so if a monk repeatedly displays these things he must be warned and, if he does realign himself to godly behaviour, he must be beaten. The monk must pray and read and rise during the night to sing Psalms with the other brothers, this to continully focus his mind upon God and so to triumph over his own miserable condition.

What is remarkable about this is that it is a compromise for St. Benedict, who had started a monastery many years previously but had imposed a rule upon his monks that was so demanding and punishing that the brothers had conspired to poison him to death. He had realised that, although he was capable of the most incredible feats of endurance and abstinance, the normal man simply was not, and so a rule for that normal man. But a rule all the same that appears challenging to the modern ear. The final section of the work is entitled ‘The rule is only a start on the path to justice’:

We have written this rule so that by living by it in accordance with the monasteries we may demonstrate that we are to some extent living virtuously and have made a start on the religious life…But we are lazy and live reprehensible and careless lives, and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Whoever you are then, who are hurrying towards the heavenly country, observe this little rule for beginners which I have written with Christ’s help, and then with God’s protection you will at least reach the greater heights of wisdom and virtue I mentioned earlier in this work.

James K.A. Smith on A Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto

In my previous post on Radical Orthodoxy, I sketched the theological background, which is taken by Smith to be the confrontation between the liberal theology of the Tubingen School and the neoliberalism of Karl Barth’s Basel and his successors. The school most associated with RO is Cambridge, and I begin with a quote by one of the key three figures, Catherine Pickstock. She writes, “There are no sharp boundaries between RO and other identifiable tendencies within what one might call post secular theology.” For ‘postsecular’ here we could simply use ‘postliberal’, to mean those theologies (Barth etc.) which confront and oppose the theologies that identified themselves with the secular Enlightenment project. The main difference, or development, between, for example, RO and Karl Barth (that I can see, at any rate) is that Barth’s theology is a kind of complete denial of the presence of the divine within creation and all disciplines that are not explicitly based upon the Christian revelation. Therefore, Barth doesn’t do philosophy, because he doesn’t think that we can find any truth apart from the particular revelation of God in Christ. One of the great strengths of RO (in my view, and as we shall see) is that RO calls into question the opposition between faith and reason and sees reason as a participation in faith. We could simplify this by saying that both Tubingen and Basel oppose faith and reason to each other as enemies; Tubingen buys into the secular Enlightenment project and ultimately opts for autonomous reason over faith, whereas Basel rejects the Enlightenment so thoroughly that it ends up denying a role for reason in human knowing altogether and so ends up with what could be construed as an almost blind fideism. RO, however, rejects this antithesis wholesale and says that true reason is always and must be a participation in faith.

Smith then sketches five distinctive aspects of this movement that could constitute a kind of introductory manifesto.

1. A critique of modernity and liberalism

John Milbank writes, “The end of modernity…means the end of a single system of truth based on universal reason, which tells us what reality is like.” This is a critique of modernist epistemology which holds that in order to have knowledge we must have a kind of scientific certainty. This claim frames the conversation about faith and reason discussed above, and must be rejected as too constrictive a definition of human knowledge. Truth is always a participation in belief of some sort and therefore reason is always
a participation in faith.

RO is also a critic of liberalism because of “its assumptions regarding human nature (as in Thomas Hobbes, for instance) and its atomistic account of the social sphere.” Milbank famously critiques the political philosophy of, for example, Thomas Hobbes and Machiavelli (or whoever really) as being fundamentally anti-Christian because they take as their starting point a belief in a primordial war of all-against-all. Milbank, however, very powerfully argues that Christian theology posits the belief in an aboriginal peace, grounded in the loving difference of the Holy Trinity and its overflow in Creation. (This is also a claim of one of my favourite theologians David Bentley Hart in his wonderful book The Beauty of the Infinite.)

2. Post-secularity

As we saw earlier, post-secularity calls into question the modern distinction between faith and reason. Politically, the implications of this claim is that religious faith is not a private matter which can be ostracised from the public sqaure. One of the key claims of RO is that everyone is a confessional theorist,  and a religious believer of some description. Smith writes:

The hope is that, once the theoretical foundations of secularity are dismantled…the spaces for public discourse…will provide new opportunities for the expression of a properly theological or Christian account of reality.

What are the practical implications of this? As far as I can tell this is still a very open question.

3. Participation and Materiality
This is RO’s metaphysical model for understanding Creation. In contrast to the flat, materialistic and nihilistic ontologicy of modernity and postmodernity, RO has ‘a participatory ontology – in which the immanent and material is suspended from the transcendent and immaterial’. This metaphor of the suspension of Creation from the transcendent illustrates a kind of stretching or deepening of creation that creates space for difference and harmony. Modernity and postmodernity are implicitly nihilistic, and can create only an immanent sphere, in which there is no depth and hence no room for true difference or meaning. Only a participation in the transcendent can ‘stretch’ Creation so that is has depth and meaning.

4. Sacramentality, liturgy and aesthetics

Because of this participatory ontology, central to RO 

…is a renewed appreciation for the liturgical or doxological character of creation and the role that liturgy plays in leading us to the divine…A particular consequence of revaluing embodiment is an emphasis on aesthetics and the arts as a medium of revelation and worship…RO’s aesthetic correlate might be that outside the liturgy there is no visible, such that only a doxological account can underwrite the arts.

5. Cultural critique and transformation

RO calls into question the extent to which the world is under the sway of the devil. Again, Tubingen implies that the world is not under the Dark Prince’s sway at all, whereas Basel claims that everything under the sun is in his thrall. RO has a very positive view of creation – claiming that the fall is basically redeemed by God almost immediately after its occurence – whilst not wanting to make Tubingen’s mistake of capitulating to the faithless secularity of the liberal project. There is quite a diversity within RO concerning the relationship of the church to the state, raning from Milbank’s remnant Christendom theology – which advocates the gradual subsumption of the state into the church as the church is increasingly succesful in its witness – to Ward’s more conciliatory Anglican approach, to the anarchic oppositionalism of William Cavanaugh.

So, there you have it, a brief sketch of the Radical Orthodoxy manifesto. As you can see, this movement makes enormous claims about theology, philosophy, history, politics, aesthetics, the arts, the church, pretty much everything really. As such, understanding RO is like trying to absorb a holistic and diverse, sophisticated worldview, so this account is necessarily extremely brief and oversimplified. Sorry about that.