Once in a while you pick up a book and know from its first pages you’re entering a conversation destined to change you in deep ways. From Nicaea to Chalcedon (2nd ed. 2010) was my first (apart from a few articles here and there) exposure to Frances Young’s scholarship and thinking. Loved it. Her Face to Face: A Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering (1986), in which she shares her journey of faith in caring for a severely disabled son (whose care has continued for some 40 years now). Neither of these works is the book I mean when I talk about knowing you’re picked up one of those ‘game changing’ books. The book I mean is her most recent God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (which is a much expanded version of her 2011 Bampton Lectures) in which she takes “a stab at a systematic theology which has contemporary coherence but is informed not by the usual dialogue with contemporary philosophers or theologians but rather by engagement with the theology of the early church fathers,” a “conversation in which the interests and anxieties of [her]self and [her] contemporaries influence the selection and reading of past texts, yet allow sometimes strange ideas to contribute to shaping our own understanding.” Sounds a bit dry. But nothing Young writes could be dry.
Reviewing it is some time in the future, but I did want to share a few paragraphs from her introduction—
“Each of the eight chapters might stand alone as an essay on a particular theological topic, yet together they provide a consistent overview of the subject. Recurring motifs shape the over-arching theological perspective.
- a reading of the Bible as essentially a transformative text, the Creator God being presented in scripture as constantly at work to bring order out of chaos, good out of evil, and inviting human actors into this activity
- the inadequacy of the ‘Craftsman’ or Demiurge analogy for God’s creativity (with attendant consequences for ‘intelligent design’)
- the sense of ‘creatureliness’ as a fundamental constituent in theological reasoning in the Christian tradition, as well as in liturgical and ethical responses to life’s giftedness
- the wisdom of intellectual humility: the limitations of created intelligence, human language and conceptuality — the potential for idolatrous language and conceptuality — the hybris of attempts at theodicy — the privilege of ‘liminal’ experiences and utter weakness as access to the deepest theological insights
- the apparent will of the transcendent God to accommodate the divine self to the human level, to work through particularities and the constraints of history, paradoxically exercising power through weakness
- the sacramental perspective which seems to shape and unite the incarnation, the scriptures as Word of God, the eucharist, the church, enabling the discernment of the Creator through the creation, of the Spirit in ordinary, physical dailiness, of God in God’s human image and the human community of the Body of Christ
- corruption optima pessima — fall and redemption as an over-arching narrative that rings true to the way the world is, with all its ambiguities, and the way human persons experience their innermost selves and actions
- the inseparability of truth, beauty and goodness
- true love as without power or possessiveness — apatheia/detachment as essential to love, and the fundamental significance of that for understanding God’s oikonomia, as well as human response to the love commandments in contemplation and action
- the significance of facing the ‘other’ for theological, ethical and spiritual transformation
- the ‘otherness’ of God — we know something of God through the divine activities, but not the divine essence — God’s utter transcendence yet universal episcopē — the paradox of God’s concurrent absence and presence
- the mystery of the Trinity as the all-embracing, overflowing wisdom of divine love.”