God’s Presence: A contemporary recapitulation of early Christianity
Church Times Bookshop £18.90
FRANCES YOUNG has given us something unusual and valuable: a profoundly patristic, and profoundly personal, one-volume systematic theology.
She begins by describing her enterprise as an exploration, with “contemporary coherence”, of the “key topics of Christian doctrine”, “informed, not by the usual dialogue with contemporary philosophers or theologians, but rather by engagement with the theology of the early church fathers”. By the conclusion of the book, we see that this represents a “journey”: “a path beyond the [assumptions of] modernity with which [her] journey began”, a moving forward in the company of sources from long ago.
Her book is systematic in the breadth of its themes — creation, sin, redemption, sanctification, Christology, and so on — and also in its attention to the relation between doctrines. That, to my mind, is what sets a good systematics off from simply being a collection of essays on theological topics. At the same time, Young avoids any suggestion that her book offers a complete synthesis. A strong sense of God’s abundance, over and above anything we could say, suffuses the book.
Many theologians today, especially younger ones, are exploring new forms for theological writing. Writing in her mid-seventies, Young shows the same creativity here. She starts chapters by throwing out a list of perspectives and pastoral situations that demand to be considered in relation to the topic at hand. She closes chapters with a sermon (or a condensed tour through the themes and structure of a sermon) and a sequence of her own poetry.
Just as striking and creative — for a volume of doctrinal theology — is Young’s integration of her own experiences. The poems and sermons illustrate that, but so does the figure of Arthur, her severely mentally disabled son, who features throughout the book. Literally, and metaphorically, Young has thought all this through in his presence. Her theological understanding of suffering, for instance, is deeply shaped in this way, as is her appreciation of the figure and role of Mary, as the one from whom God took humanity, and as the suffering mother of a suffering son.
God’s Presence is also autobiographical in that it provides glimpses of how Young’s thought has developed over her life. Of particular significance are her discussions, towards the end of the book, of her two essays in John Hick’s 1977 collection The Myth of God Incarnate. In one, she argued against the language of incarnation, preferring to say that people encountered in Christ the divine realisation of their hopes and longings. Now, however, Young argues that the language of “persons” and “natures” (exemplified in the Chalcedonian Definition) is properly provoked by the biblical witness and by the Christian experience of life in Christ.
In the other Myth essay, she argued against divine impassibility, holding instead that only a God subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune would be credible. In one of the most moving sections in God’s Presence, she discusses how her care for Arthur has directed her towards seeing God as One not mastered by suffering, and how her appreciation of Eastern theology and liturgy has opened up a fresh appreciation that God is not like us: not simply subject to suffering as we are, for instance.
That said, for my part, I find that a raft of such insights, in the chapter on “the Christian God”, need still to be followed through as a critique of her enthusiasm for absence and kenosis (or divine self-emptying), both in relation to the incarnation and to creation.
Another possible criticism would be that some sections simply move too quickly to be fully useful. Passages on the ministry of women and the personhood of God are examples on that front. The writing can also be a little staccato. That said, this is glorious book, remarkable as much for its humanity as its scholarship.
Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.