God’s Presence is a book adrift. This isn’t to say that it lacks purpose or direction—it has both—but rather to note the relative ease with which it glides across vast oceans of discourse, near harbors historical, pastoral, homiletical, philosophical, and poetic, without ever docking. Its buoyancy is, to extend the metaphor, afforded by its methodological engine: Frances Young thinks the task of theology better performed as exploration than explanation. Hers is an exploratory journey, then, an “endeavor to expound patristic theological argument” whose central purpose is to “cross boundaries within the discipline of theology in a search for integration.” Young charts a course navigated principally by patristic thinkers—Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Macarius, and their like—whose work severally and collectively represents the kind of integration she thinks modern theology places under erasure. What that integration entails is on Young’s account nothing less than a recovery of theology as a first-order discourse. So construed, theology has proper to it not only intimacy with and entanglement in the life of the church, but also an acknowledgement of prayer and preaching as its primordial font. That theology seldom recognizes this is a deep lack, Young thinks, and so it’s to an awareness of such that her book is ordered.
The exploration Young navigates proceeds along eight lines of inquiry, each of which form a chapter whose first draft formed one of the eight Bampton Lectures she delivered at Oxford in 2011. She begins with chapters on theology’s first principles, on the doxological shape of Christian cosmology, on the creation and restoration of the soul, and on the imago Dei and theological anthropology, all of which marshall patristic insights for contemporary debates about theodicy, emergentism, evolution, and so on. The last four chapters render other systematic themes (soteriology, pneumatology, mariology, and Trinity) in vivid shades: we get, for instance, a subtle ecumenical reflection on the ordination of women centered around patristic models of Mary as ‘type’ of the church. Nowhere throughout does Young’s fixed attention on prayer and preaching as the stuff of theology stray: a sermonette and a poem (sometimes two) crown each chapter. There, exactly because the theological patterns sketched in the chapters are embroidered with homiletical and poetic accents, we get the sense that Young means more to show than simply to tell us why and how prayer and preaching are among theology’s paradigmatic exercises.
The broad spectrum of theology’s topoi on offer here invites diverse response. Ilaria L.E. Ramelli speaks with Young’s text in a largely historical key, which is to say she appreciates and offers dubia—the last belongs properly to the first—about Young’s reading of patristic texts. She sees in Young’s synthesis of historical, pastoral, and systematic thought, further, a way of going on; a model, that is, for retrieving and redisplaying patterns of patristic thought for use and delectation. John W. Wright takes up one of the dubia Ramelli flags, namely what both take to be Young’s sometimes ambiguous relationship with her patristic sources. To appropriate or translate these texts with an end toward rendering them more palatable to or resonate with contemporary concerns, Wright worries, is already to admit of (post)modern bifurcations. He wonders, too, reflecting on a recent loss of his own, whether the witness of Arthur doesn’t already transcend these and other bifurcations. Hannah Hunt sees in Young a fellow laborer in fields patristic and poetic whose trade-tools are words. Words gather Hunt’s reflections, then, about the non— or extra—verbal language, about Ephrem’s poetics, and about biblical naming. Tamsin Jones, last, reads God’s Presence as an apologia in the classical sense, a bit of rhetoric meant to render seductive the cosmos that patristic texts create and lovingly burnish. It’s exactly because Jones finds Young’s reception of patristic thought so persuasive (because so careful) that she wonders if scientists of the sort Young addresses will find their tradition as delicately portrayed, too. Only a book like Young’s can stimulate such varied conversation in so open a space.
“The sublime Word plays in all kinds of forms,” Gregory Nazianzen wrote—a description Maximus Confessor took as an overture for the Christian to imitate and participate in divine revelry. She never mentions this bit of ancient wisdom, but Young’s work embodies it: God’s Presence is a protracted performance of theology whose revelry contributes to (instead of detracting from) its rigor. Her cool indifference to fixed genres of theological style, too, is as refreshing as it is stimulating; it’s the kind of theological writing, I suspect, that only a long and deep intimacy with patristic texts, sustained by a longer and deeper intimacy with Arthur, can yield—a suspicion confirmed in part by her poignant epilogue. Read Frances Young for that playfulness, then; read her for her expert know-how. But read her.
Ilaria L.E. Ramelli
About the Author
Frances Young previously served as Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology, Dean of Arts, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Birmingham. She is the author of The Making of the Creeds (1991), Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (1997) and Brokenness and Blessing (2007). She is co-editor of The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature (with Lewis Ayres and Andrew Louth, 2004) and the first volume of The Cambridge History of Christianity (with Margaret M. Mitchell, 2006).