Julian of Norwich is not even the woman’s name – it’s the name of the church where she lived, St. Julian’s in Norwich, England. But in his essay – “Sin Has Its Place, but All Shall Be Well: The Universalism of Hope in Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-c. 1416),” Sweetman describes what we can discern from Julian’s thoughts about sin, soteriology and the nature of God. Although not ultimately a subscriber to universal salvation, Julian’s showings led her to get as close as she could to such a belief without crossing the consensus of the church she loved.
In 1373, Julian received a series of 16 visions, which she pondered for 20 years before she felt she understood them all fully and began to write down her interpretation of them. The first 15 came in the context of a near-death experience, and the 16th came later to confirm the validity of the others after she had initially dismissed them as hallucinations.
Julian was surprised by the visions, particularly about how little evil there was in them. “It was the more surprising that I should see the Lord God regard us with no more blame than if we had been as pure and holy as his angels in heaven,” she wrote. This led to some internal struggle about how God views human sin, which the church taught was a primary human failing. But, she asked, if that were true, “how is it that I cannot see this truth in you, my God and Creator, in whom I long to see all truth?” (69-70)
In response, Julian receives a vision about a lord and a servant. In keeping with her training, she analyzed all aspects of the story in depth to divine its true meaning. As was common in her day, Sweetman tells us, “The Christian reader accessed the edifying kernel hidden below the narrative surface by attending to the narrative surface in all its many details” (73).
Before Sweetman gets into the vision itself, he goes back to talk about Julian’s writing leading up to her description of it. “In her view, human life is rooted in love, and there is no life for us apart from love’s grounding,” and her showings impressed upon her that, in her words, “it is absolutely impossible that God should be angry. Anger and friendship are mutually opposed” (74).
Although Julian does not approach her questions philosophically, she arrives at similar conclusions as Gregory of Nyssa: “Nothing happens by luck or chance, but all is through the foresight and wisdom of God. … Hence it follows that we must admit that everything that is done is well done, for it is God who does it.” Just as Gregory argued God’s goodness permeates all of creation, Julian finds that God’s goodness must also permeate everything that happens in creation. But what about sin and evil?
Julian recognizes this problem. She wonders why God decided to allow sin, and in response she receives this promise, which provides the title of the book we’re studying: “Sin has its place – but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (76).
Yet dilemmas remain for her. While discussing the 14th showing, Julian talks about two judgments – the “high judgment” of God and the “low judgment” of the church. Sweetman writes:
In the high judgment she does not see God assigning any manner of blame. And this has made her uneasy, for she had previously learned from holy church “that I must recognize myself as a sinner. … For the higher judgment God himself showed me, and I necessarily had to accept it. The lesser judgment had been taught me previously by Holy Church, and for that reason I could not dismiss it.” (77)
The emphasis of Julian’s showings is this, Sweetman argues: “God’s unwillingness to blame us for our sin.”
If one accepts Julian’s “showings” as a true and sufficient revelation, one would tend to draw conclusions about the nature and reality of sin, punishment and blame that push one in a universalist direction. Of course, such a direction would entail setting aside the pastoral and ascetic emphases within Julian’s ecclesiastical and religious context. Above all, she would have had to ignore the central spiritual axis of contrition, confession and humble, ameliorative satisfaction for which she was well known in her day, an axis presupposing the contrary expectation of our blameworthiness. This setting aside or ignoring was not something Julian herself was minded to do. (78-79)
As a result, Julian falls back on the limits of human understanding, arguing that her visions “only underline the mysteriousness and hiddenness of the things they reveal.”
In her 14th vision, the one of the lord and the servant, she sees a lord send a servant on an errand. The servant is so excited to do his master’s will that he races off too fast and falls into a ditch and is injured. The servant believes he suffers alone, but the lord is close by, knows what happened and “determines to lift him up and reward his faithful intent.” The lord makes the servant one of his own family. Julian sees the lord as God and the servant as humanity as represented by both the first and second Adam. This presents quite a unique view of the nature of human sin:
The first Adam’s fall is cast not as corruption but as unbridled enthusiasm to serve his Lord in love. His suffering is very real, and it profoundly distorts his view of the world and his relationship to his Lord. His ditch becomes a hell of pain and sorrow, but it is a hell entered in stumbling innocence through a child’s devil-may-care enthusiasm. (84)
Likewise, the love of the second Adam – Jesus – is no less excessive than the carelessness of the first, “for it too … wreaks havoc on an order of sorts, entailing a suffering let loose in his love’s “chaotic” wake.” As Paul writes, Jesus knew no sin but took on its form so humanity could become the righteousness of God. And this explains how Julian could discern that God finds humanity blameless. “After all, if our suffering is a result of the excess of love, how are we to be blamed by the God who reveals Godself to be love?”
In the end, Julian never really resolves her dilemma but confirms the “Christian obligation to live in the hope that [hell] is or shall be an empty place, so that in the end, as Julian never tired of saying, all shall be well.” Sweetman writes:
It is as if she acknowledges the limits placed on all our capacity to see how these two contrary sources of understanding can be resolved and says, However impossible it is to understand: woe turns to weal, health emerges from the heat of hell. Do not fear to trust Christ’s promise – wonders such as this happen all the time. (85)