ESN Author Mark Hansard continues his series on faith and reason with an exploration of the problem of evil in the work of contemporary philosopher Eleonore Stump. For the rest of Mark’s series, click here.Â
Eleonore Stump’s book Wandering in Darknessis a unique contribution to the literature on the problem of evil. Stump holds the Robert J. Henle Chair in Philosophy at St. Louis University. She is a Catholic scholar and Thomist, the latter of which means she studies Thomas Aquinas and defends his views. Wandering in Darkness is a fascinating defense of why God would allow evil.
Here I will briefly summarize her book, and then summarize a couple critiques of her argument. She begins by making a careful distinction between a “defense” and a “theodicy.” A theodicy is an explanation regarding the reasons why God would allow suffering to occur, and it claims that this is the way the world actually is. A defense is an explanation for the reasons why God would allow suffering, but in a possible world, not necessarily the actual world. That is, a defense gives possible reasons why God would permit evil, but doesn’t claim these are necessarily the actual reasons. Stump argues that her case constitutes a defense, not a theodicy.Â
Her book is divided into four parts. In part one, she argues for a (unique) philosophical methodology that combines two types of knowledge which she calls Dominican and Franciscan. Dominican knowledge is analytic knowledge, referring to the use of reason and logic used by analytic philosophers today. Franciscan knowledge is knowledge which comes through personal awareness, and is generally ignored by analytic philosophers today. Thus, Dominican knowledge is propositional knowledge, based on reason, and Franciscan knowledge is knowledge we have of persons through direct, personal experience with them. The two kinds of knowledge are not the same, Stump argues, and we need both to solve the problem of evil. The reason we need both kinds of knowledge is that in the problem of evil, there is objective and subjective suffering. Objective suffering refers to the fact that because we are suffering we are not (objectively) flourishing. But we are also suffering because we are not able to fulfill the desires of the human heart (subjective). So, both Dominican and Franciscan knowledge are needed to give a defense of the problem of evil, a solution that would include reason and analysis as well as personal acquaintance with God, how he personally interacts with his children who suffer, and how that affects the heart. Stump’s description of Franciscan knowledge is quite interesting: she discusses “social cognition,” which, according to neuroscientists, is what happens in the brain when we understand another’s point of view and empathize with them. Our neurons “mirror” the neural patterns of others. She defines this as a “second-person experience,” the kind of experience we have when we hear a story and empathize with the characters. She then argues that one important way to have such Franciscan knowledge is to experience and empathize with the narratives of suffering in Scripture, and how God relates to those who suffer in these narratives. All this is an original, and I think, a much needed addition to contemporary arguments.
In Part two of the book, Stump describes Aquinas’ arguments relevant to her defense: his arguments regarding what love is, what union with God is, how union with God is the highest good, and then how we are alienated from God and others. Aquinas’ definition of love is key to Stump’s argument; his view is that love not only desires the good of the one loved, but desires union with them. There is a subjective nature to love in which the lover responds to the qualities of the loved one and desires union, but there is an objective nature too: when we love another simply for their good, we are desiring what is objectively best for them, including union with us. In addition, as God is the ground of all goodness, when we objectively bring about flourishing and goodness in the loved ones’ life, we bring them closer to God, who is goodness itself. If God himself, as the ultimate goodness, is knowable in relationship, then it follows union with him is the highest good we could achieve. It therefore follows that any good (or evil) that is blocking this highest good must be removed.
In Part three, Stump moves on to Biblical narratives, and considers the stories of Job, Samson, Abraham and Mary of Bethany, all in an attempt to present second-person narratives in a way that will moves us and show us God’s role in their suffering. In her discussion of Job, she proffers a fresh reading in which, contrary to many commentators, God does give Job a reason for his suffering at the end. As well, the animals which God cares for in verse 39:13-18 and other places have a second-person relationship with God, who takes care of them, “giving the animals what they need just because they need it.” Again, the second-person relationship with God is the ultimate good, and God is like a good parent, one who does the best for his children by treating them as ends in themselves. “On one common moral intuition, a good parent will sometimes allow the children she loves to sufferâ€”but only in case the suffering confers an outweighing benefit on the child who experiences the suffering, and confers this benefit on him in some way that could not have been equally well achieved without the suffering.” That, Stump says, is precisely what happened with Job. He received the ultimate good of further closeness with God.
Finally, in part four, Stump brings the threads of her argument together. She weaves together the Biblical narratives and the lessons learned there with Aquinas’ theodicy. She says that, foundational to Aquinas’ theodicy is that when a person suffers, they received a gift from him that they conclude is worth the suffering they’ve received. The gift must outweigh the suffering, must be received directly by the person suffering, and must have been the best way to achieve such a gift. Thus, on Aquinas’ view, suffering is justified if a greater evil is avoided, or because a greater good is given. And the greater good, indeed the ultimate good in the situations Stump relates, is the closeness to God that (can) result. Stump’s summary of her argument is helpful:
(C A1) Does God’s allowing a person’s suffering enable her to be willing to let God be
close to her?
(C A2) Is a person’s suffering the best available means, in the circumstances, to enable
her to be willing to let God be close to her?
Stump argues that if these two conditions are met, the suffering is justifiable. And that, indeed, these qualifications are met, within the qualifications she sets.
I believe Stump gives a rich defense for the problem of evil here, one that uniquely includes second-person relational knowledge which gives us further tools to use in our explanatory tool box. And her defense of Aquinas’ theodicy is well-done and helpful.
The responses to her book have been generally positive, although there have been critiques of parts of her argument. William Hasker’s review is quite interesting. He has a very good discussion regarding Stump’s criteria for success (under what criteria she can demonstrate her defense is successful), which we do not have the space to cover here. But he also takes issue with Stump for some of her interpretations of the Biblical narratives, including her discussion of Job. He claims that she ignores some of the major themes of Job in the dialogues with Job’s friends: namely, an “ancient version of the ‘prosperity gospel,'” in which God blesses those who follow him and punishes those who don’t. He claims that Job ‘s friends defend this version of justice in which if a person does evil, he will automatically be punished in this life. I think this is, as Hasker indicates, very likely a major theme of Job, but it seems to me that Stump simply ignored this theme and others because they weren’t relevant to her argument. Even if Hasker is correct, and part of the main theme of Job is a defense of suffering against a legalistic interpretation of God’s goodness, all that is needed for Stump’s defense here is that the suffering Job experienced brought him closer to God. And that is easily defensible from Job. Stump is making a larger argument that, sometimes, the suffering I experience is worth the rapture of nearness to God (or even simple nearness to him). It is a good argument. And her point still stands.
 Stump, Eleonore. Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
 The problem of evil is the problem of why a perfectly good, all powerful God would allow evil.
 For the summary here I am mainly relying on this helpful precis of Stump’s book at the Gifford Lectures website: https://www.giffordlectures.org/books/wandering-darkness-narrative-and-problem-suffering
 William Hasker, “Book Review: Light in the Darkness: Reflections on Eleonore Stump’s theodicy.” Faith and Philosophy, Vol 28, Issue 4. 433.
 Importantly though, Stump claims that if the biblical narratives in the book are “divinely revealed truth, then the defense based on those narratives will also be a theodicy. There is nothing to keep readers committed to the belief that the biblical texts are God’s revelation from taking the defense I construe as a theodicy.” See Stump, 35.
 Stump, 191.
 Ibid., 456.
 See Paul Draper, “Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering.” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, July 27, 2011. And William Hasker, “Book Review: Light in the Darkness: Reflections on Eleonore Stump’s theodicy.” Faith and Philosophy, Vol 28, Issue 4. 432-450.
 See Hasker, 432-435.
 Hasker, 440.
 And other details: such as that the suffering was the “best available means” to bring such closeness about, and that the amount of the goodness of closeness to God was commensurate with the suffering. See Stump, 455-56.
About the author:
Mark is on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Manhattan, Kansas, where he ministers to Faculty at Kansas State University and surrounding campuses. He has been in campus ministry 25 years, 14 of those years in faculty ministry. He has a Master's degree in philosophy and theology from Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA, and is passionate about Jesus Christ and the life of the mind. Mark, his wife and three daughters make their home in Manhattan.