Suffering for Human Flourishing – By Thomas D. Senor

Thomas D. Senor on Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness

Eleonore Stump, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering, Oxford University Press, 2010, 640pp., $110
Eleonore Stump, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering, Oxford University Press, 2010, 640pp., $110

Saying that Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering is a book on the problem of evil is like saying that the Hermitage is a building containing pretty pictures: each is so much more. As many treatises before it, Wandering in Darkness defends theism against the problem of suffering: How can suffering be reconciled with the conviction that the universe is created and sustained by an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent Creator? But Stump has signed on to a particularly formidable task: she wants not only to defend against the charge that no suffering at all could exist in a world overseen by God but also to show that the depth and breadth of human suffering is consistent with theism.

In other words, Stump provides a defense rather than a theodicy. Mounting a defense requires her to explain what justification God could have for allowing the kind, amount, and distribution of suffering that we find in the actual world. We do not need good reason for thinking that the key points of the defense are true; she just needs to show that they do not conflict with other things we know to be true. A theodicy is more ambitious project that requires that we have good reason to think that the explanation for why God allows suffering really is true. So Stump is taking the somewhat easier path, but let’s keep matters in perspective: saying it is easier to provide a defense against the problem of suffering rather than a theodicy is a like saying that it is easier to climb K2 than it is to climb Annapurna.

For all that I have said so far, Stump’s book sounds like a standard reply to the problem of evil, of the sort one finds in analytic philosophy. Not so. Standard philosophical defenses of theism spend their pages focused on the possible goods that can be had only if God allows evil. They state and defend principles that, when taken together, they contend show that there is a possible world in which God and suffering coexist. Wandering in Darkness contains some of this, but it is not the typical philosophical fare.

Even the table of contents reveals that this book is more than a standard defense. Only one of the five sections — the last one — applies to the problem of suffering. Stump announces early on that, while her project will be relevant to discussions of the problem of evil in analytic philosophy, she will approach the issue with a nonstandard methodology. Three interrelated components of Stump’s defense set her view apart, and understanding them is crucial to understanding her defense of theism.

Philosophy as Narrative: Typical replies to the problem of suffering are decidedly the products of left-hemisphere thinking; the goal is to state and defend detailed, precise principles that would justify God permitting the suffering we experience and observe. Stump does not denigrate this practice, but she does argue that it is needlessly limiting and that there is reason to look at more right-hemisphere approaches to human knowledge, particularly knowledge of other humans. Progress can be made if we add to the standard analytic methodology what we can learn by reflecting on narratives — in particular, biblical narratives. While Stump recognizes that the narrative approach will come with the cost of a certain amount of rigor and clarity, she believes that not all knowledge can be reduced to propositional knowledge.

Dominican versus Franciscan Knowledge: Stump marks a distinction between what she labels “Dominican” and “Franciscan” epistemologies. The former emphasizes abstract properties and abstract designations, and is in keeping with the methodology of standard analytic philosophy. All Dominican knowledge is propositional, and is generally grounded in reasoning or argument. In contrast, Franciscan knowledge cannot be reduced to “knowledge that”; it groups knowledge not according to abstract properties and designations but according to relations to persons. While I don’t find this description of the Franciscan methodology particularly clear, Stump gives a helpful example of the way the two approaches might differ regarding the exegesis of a biblical text: a Dominican approach would emphasize historical and lexical scholarship in determining the meaning of a passage, while the Franciscan method can be seen in the way that African-American slaves in the United States made use of passages in the Hebrew Bible to shape their political and theological reflection.

Second-Person Knowledge: The third aspect of Stump’s approach consists of her claim that second-person knowledge — knowledge of other persons rather than knowledge about other persons—is importantly distinct from knowledge in the third person. What we learn about the characteristics of other people can be had via the Dominican methodology; one can know that one’s spouse, for example, is a certain particular height and weight, prefers Thai food to barbeque, and has an advanced academic degree. But knowing a person’s complete biography doesn’t entail knowing the person. Long ago, Bertrand Russell made a helpful distinction between knowledge by description (propositional knowledge) and knowledge by acquaintance. Second-person knowledge, in Stump’s view, is irreducible to knowledge by description. We can get second person knowledge only through being aware of a person as a person, which can only be obtained through direct contact with that person. Given that we have second-person knowledge from our experience with persons, we make use of narrative to convey aspects of persons that would be difficult or perhaps impossible to state in explicit, Dominican terms.

In essence, we can say that Stump builds her defense on her belief that the use of narrative can convey important — and yet almost entirely overlooked in the field of analytic philosophy — Franciscan, second-person knowledge. It will surprise no one familiar with Stump’s research that the meat of her defense comes from her reading of Thomas Aquinas, specifically Aquinas’s account of love in general and divine love in particular. The relevance of the discussion of love is that human flourishing is at its greatest when humans are united in a loving relationship with God, and such a relationship is their hearts’ desire. The essence of Stump’s defense is that suffering is allowed because it enables the sufferer to move toward this relationship with God.

Trauernde Frauen, Koloman Moser. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Trauernde Frauen, Koloman Moser. Image via Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of Wandering in Darkness are fascinating accounts of four biblical narratives: the stories of Job, Samson, Abraham, and Mary of Bethany. In each case, Stump brings her considerable knowledge of biblical studies and her creative interpretative skills to bear on the texts, making a compelling case for the redemptive nature of the suffering of the protagonists. Given her view of the role of narrative in producing Franciscan knowledge of persons and personal relations, Stump is able to explore aspects of these stories to convey how suffering contributes to the ultimate flourishing of these biblical characters and to their achieving the desires of their hearts. By considering these narratives, Stump believes, we can gain insights into the nature of suffering and its role in our redemption that a Dominican, philosophical analysis of abstract properties and principles cannot deliver.

While Stump is striving to give a successful defense, she is clear that there are limitations to her project. She does not think we can explain all forms of evil — or even pain —by the relationship they bear to moving persons into right relationships with God. Yet she rightly notes that there is no a priori reason to think that there should or must be a single justification for God allowing every kind of evil. Her defense is limited to offering a reason that, for all we know, God might have in allowing the suffering of mentally fully functional adult human beings. In the context of Stump’s defense, suffering is not to be equated with pain. To suffer, for Stump, is to have one’s flourishing undermined, to fail to have the desires of one’s heart, or both. The general problem of pain for all sentient creatures falls outside the domain of her defense.

With all of this as background, we can lay out the essence of Stump’s defense rather succinctly. Recall that the burden of a defense against any form of the problem of evil is not to offer reasons for thinking that achieving a certain end is God’s actual reason for allowing that evil. The goal is more modest: to describe a possible scenario, consistent with what we know about the world, in which God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing the bad state of affairs in question. The world Stump describes is, essentially, the world Aquinas takes to be actual. Humans are born with a predisposition toward moral wrongdoing. But having one’s will not aligned with the good is to fail to have a properly integrated psyche, since one then both wills the good for oneself and yet wills what is not good at the same time.

The good for humans is to be in a mutual relationship of love with God. But to be in such a relationship requires both that one will what God wills and that one be united with God. Yet inasmuch as we fail to will the good, we fail to will what God wills. For humans to truly flourish — to live in the right relationship with God — they must be justified and sanctified. And that requires that our will be set right. Given our predisposition to have a will that regularly opposes the good, however, we must be moved from our fallen natural state to a state in which our will is aligned with God’s.

Enter suffering. In our suffering, we are given the opportunity to reconsider those aspects of our psyche that are out of line. (Stump says that suffering can be “medicinal.”) When the desires of our heart do not line up with the good for ourselves and for others, suffering can lead to an altering of those desires for the good. Sometimes this will take the form of simply leading one to have a greater closeness with God. Because one’s flourishing necessarily involves the psychic integration that only comes with one’s willing the good (and one’s willing to will it), closeness with God leads to one’s flourishing.

The most natural objection to the claim that human suffering — even horrendous suffering — is justified by its redemptive effects is that it so often fails to have those effects that allegedly justify it. Not only that, but serious suffering sometimes produces not the healing, but the crushing of one’s soul. Stump offers a tripartite response to this objection. First, she points to the psychological literature on trauma that suggests suffering tends to lead people to make changes in their lives that they take to be for the better. Second, she argues that, on Aquinas’s view, God wants our union with him to be a free act; if suffering automatically produced the redemptive result, the process would be manipulative. So the suffering enables the redemptive process in which our will must have a part, even if it is only the passive role of not putting up resistance to the internal work of the Holy Spirit. Finally, Stump argues that being drawn nearer to God need not be recognized by the sufferer, and that one can be drawn closer even while not explicitly acknowledging the existence of God.

As with any ambitious volume of philosophy, there are many passages in which the reader (particularly if she is an analytic philosopher!) will be inclined to say “Hold on.” I’ve not explored those here because articulating objections should come only after a philosophical work has been given its due. Wandering in Darkness is unique in the philosophical literature on the problem of evil in both its fascinating exploration of suffering in various biblical texts, and its insistence on the distinctive knowledge that can be had through narrative. Stump’s underlying idea — that human suffering is fundamentally redemptive — is not itself wholly original inasmuch as it is a species of what is known as “soul-making” responses to the problem of evil. As such, its success will ultimately turn on the plausibility of the claim that suffering is restorative.