In Wandering in Darkness Eleonore Stump offers a new approach to theodicy by means of a unique combination of medieval metaphysics and biblical narrative. The work is divided into four parts. In the first part Stump presents her methodology arguing for the need to combine analytic and other means of knowledge. In the second part she presents the presuppositions for her theodicy, drawing on Aquinas’ thought. In the third part she outlines four biblical narratives of suffering and presents a detailed analysis of them. Finally, in the fourth part Stump draws both strands of the discussion together offering an account and defence of the Thomist theodicy.
In the first chapter Stump sets out the nature of her project. She argues that the central issue that any theodicy must concern itself with is not the problem of evil per se but rather the problem of suffering, into which all questions of natural and moral evil ultimately reduce. In this light any adequate theodicy must produce a morally sufficient reason why a perfectly good God would allow suffering. To answer this however requires a philosophical analysis of the nature of suffering, something which Stump suggests has rarely been undertaken. Her own analysis – central to the argument of the rest of the book – is that suffering has both an objective and subjective component. Otherwise put, suffering is contrary to human flourishing (objective) and to the desires of the human heart (subjective). She also indicates as highly significant the fact that suffering is often not transparent to the sufferer but remains opaque – a point that she returns to at the end of the work. In responding to the challenge of such a nuanced understanding of suffering Stump suggests that medieval theodicies – specifically that of Aquinas – represent an important but neglected source. In light of this Stump presents her own project as employing Thomistic and biblical resources to elaborate a possible morally sufficient reason why God might allow suffering. In terms of modern analytic philosophy this represents a defence and not strictly speaking a theodicy, since it refers only to possible worlds and not the actual world that we live in.
In the next three chapters Stump sets out the methodology for her project. While an analytic philosopher herself she argues in chapter 2 that the debate over the problem of evil has become too analytical and as such has become detached from real-world concerns. In particular she suggests that analytic philosophy is not adequate to cope with relations among persons, holding that for this one needs narratives. In chapter 3 she elaborates on this point, arguing that there are two kinds of knowledge, which following a medieval trope she terms Dominican and Franciscan. While Dominican knowledge is propositional and belongs to the domain of analytic philosophy, Franciscan knowledge is personal. Central to Stump’s argument is the fact that knowledge of persons cannot be reduced to mere knowledge of propositions. She illustrates this by means of a clever thought experiment. Suppose Mary by some miracle is able to know everything about the world and about the people in the world but has lived her whole life cut off from human contact. If Mary were then to meet her mother, while she would already know everything about her propositionally – that is, in a Dominican mode – she would only now come to know her as a person – that is in a Franciscan mode. In arguing this Stump’s person is not to denigrate Dominican knowledge but simply to argue that in many cases it must be supplemented by Franciscan knowledge.
In chapter 4 she attempts to probe this Franciscan knowledge further, arguing that it corresponds to what neuroscientists call ‘social cognition’ – the awareness of another person and his or her thoughts and desires. As we now understand, such social cognition occurs through our mind copying precisely the neural patterns of other persons we encounter by means of what are called ‘mirror neurons’. Stump calls this a second-person experience, distinguishing it from both first- and third-person experiences. Connecting the various threads of her discussion together she then equates this second-person experience with the kind of knowledge we gain through hearing or reading personal narratives. Since she believes that stories convey Franciscan knowledge it is her hope that through studying biblical narratives relating the interaction between a loving God and those who are suffering we might gain important insight into why God allows their suffering; insight that we could not gain through Dominican knowledge alone.
In part 2 Stump turns to give a detailed account of the elements of Aquinas’ thought which are relevant to the theodicy she will present in part 4 of the work. Central to this is Aquinas’ discussion of love which she discusses in chapter 5. Here she contrasts Aquinas’ thought favourably with prominent contemporary accounts of love, which seek to ground it in either personal response or volition or relationship, arguing that these have enormous problems accounting for the kind of love that Dante had for Beatrice. For Aquinas, however, love is for the sake of goodness, and thus ultimately for the sake of God, and so while connected to personal response and relationship has an objective grounding that goes beyond these. As she suggests, love for Aquinas involves both desire for the good of the beloved and desire for union with the beloved. While desire for the good of a person depends only on a certain state of will of the lover, desire for union is responsive and highly dependent on one’s personal characteristics. In chapter 6 she turns to consider in more detail the nature of this union. Aquinas’ model for this, she says, is friendship and he holds that what is necessary for union is both personal presence and mutual closeness. Such closeness is expressed in need for a person and the desire to share oneself with that person, in the case of friendship through sharing one’s deep thoughts and feelings which are representative of oneself. Here Stump insists that friendship requires that a person should not be alienated from him- or herself, arguing that a person’s alienation from both self and others is entirely inimical to love.
This theme of self-alienation is one that Stump takes up in chapter 7. Engaging with Frankfurt’s psychological analysis of selfhood, she argues that personal flourishing involves psychic integration around a higher-order desire. Against Frankfurt she argues that integration cannot take place around what is evil but only what is morally good. In this sense, as Aquinas argues, evil represents a kind of interior fragmentation. Apart from evil, Stump also argues that shame, even innocent shame, has the power to fragment a person. This fragmentation, whether resulting from guilt or shame, she terms a ‘willed loneliness’, because in both cases it involves a repudiation of a desire for union. Her conclusion is that only one who is internally integrated is able to love. According to the Christian worldview, however, everyone is fragmented in this way, and Stump suggests that human propensity to moral evil is something evident to all.
In chapter 8 she therefore considers Aquinas’ account of the remedy for this ubiquitous condition which he set out in his doctrines of justification and sanctification. Stump describes Aquinas’ doctrine of sanctification in terms of the cooperation of God and man. It is what happens when a person desires to do the good but the will is too weak and so in response to that person’s higher-order desire God provides the necessary grace to enable him or her to do what is right. As Stump suggests, this begs the question of how the person obtains this higher-order will in the first place, the answer to which is found in Aquinas’ account of justification. Aquinas holds that a sinner is justified through faith as including this higher-order desire that the will should not will evil but should will good. This faith he holds to be a gift of God’s grace worked in him by God alone. While some have suggested that this involves Aquinas in a kind of theological compatibilism, Stump dissents from this conclusion. She argues that what is important for Aquinas is that justification involves a kind of suspending or quieting of the person’s own will, which can only happen through free decision. It is only once he or she chooses to surrender to God that he infuses his justifying grace into that person. As she outlines, such surrender involves the sought for remedy to guilt and shame. To surrender to God is to accept that you are loved by God and thus to begin to move out of the debilitating state of ‘willed loneliness’. As Stump will explain in part 4 this movement is crucial for a correct understanding of Aquinas’ theodicy.
In part 3 Stump offers a detailed analysis of four key biblical narratives on suffering. In chapters 9 and 10 she retells the stories of Job and Samson, as examples of innocent and self-inflicted suffering respectively, which lie at opposite ends of the spectrum between guilt and shame. Stump distances her treatment of Job from the common view that when God responds to Job he only emphasises his power and not his goodness. Instead, she urges the need to reread Job with an attention to the complex network of divine relationships in the story: to the whole of creation, to the angels, to Satan, to Job himself and to his family and friends. When this is done, God’s character as a loving father of his whole creation, even those parts of it which are rebellion from him, becomes manifest. It is through his suffering that Job comes to realise God’s deep love for him and in the end God vindicates Job rather than his comforters, giving him double what he had before. The case of Samson is different for here there is an example of someone who was called by God for a purpose, but who through his sin frustrated this purpose and brought great suffering upon himself. Through a sensitive engagement with John Milton’s Samson Agonistes Stump argues that Samson’s great sin was in abandoning God. When he finally told Delilah the reason for his strength he indicated his distance from God and so the Spirit of God left him. Yet it was through his intense suffering that Samson was brought to a point of surrender to God and in that moment he was able to fulfil the purpose he was born for, to deliver his people from the Philistines. Thus, it was through suffering that God brought Samson back into relationship with himself, saving him from a far greater evil.
In chapters 11 and 12 Stump turns to the more complex stories of Abraham and Mary of Bethany, which are neither stories of entirely innocent or entirely self-inflicted suffering but occupy a position on the spectrum between the two. In her discussion of Abraham’s offering of Isaac she takes issue with Kierkegaard’s famous account of the conflict between God’s goodness and his commands. Taking a larger view of Abraham’s story, including especially his troubled family relationships with Hagar and Ishmael, she argues that Abraham’s flaw was always his double-mindedness concerning the promises of God. On the one hand, he received these great promises of a son and heir, yet on the other hand he always tried to take into his own hands their fulfilment. It was only through the anguish of being told to sacrifice his only son – his heart’s desire – that Abraham learned what it was to truly trust in the goodness of God and thus finally received the precious gift of faith. Stump argues that a similar pattern can be seen in the story of Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ sister, whom she tentatively identifies with the sinful woman of Luke’s Gospel who anoints Jesus’ feet. Mary’s suffering was her heartbreak at losing her brother and even more at what seemed like Jesus’ betrayal of her. Yet it is through this intense suffering and rejection that she comes to realise just how much Jesus loves her. In this way she herself comes to reflect the glory of God, for Stump argues that when we give glory to God we ourselves are made more beautiful in character.
In part 4 Stump elaborates on Aquinas’ own theodicy, illustrating it and illuminating it by means of the biblical narratives of suffering she has already taken such pains to unpack. Chapter 13 sets out the basic premise of his theodicy, that through suffering God gives the sufferers a gift they are willing to trade their suffering in order to receive. Crucial to this theodicy is that the benefit given through suffering must outweigh the suffering itself, that it must be received by the sufferer primarily and that it must have been the best way of deriving this benefit. In these terms Aquinas holds that God is justified in allowing suffering either because through it a greater evil is avoided, or because through it a greater good is given. In order to understand this properly Stump says we must realise that for Aquinas the greatest evil is permanent alienation from self, others and God – the state of Hell – whilst the greatest good is union with God to the highest degree of closeness. She emphasises that since Aquinas is not a compatibilist God cannot determine the will of any man. In these terms it is morally sufficient for God to allow suffering, that in every occasion of suffering he holds out a real opportunity for the sufferer to move closer to him. However, while we can account generally for God’s permission of suffering, Stump is clear that we usually cannot give an account of why God allows suffering in particular cases. This is not so much because God’s purposes are inscrutable but because suffering itself and the benefits that come through it are often opaque. In this sense suffering always remains a mystery to us.
In chapter 14 Stump turns to a possible objection to Aquinas’ theodicy. This is that it seems to be self-defeating. For Aquinas internal integration is necessary to love, but by pitting the higher-order desire for flourishing (the desire for union with God) against the desires of the human heart, even suffering construed as medicinal plunges the psyche into disintegrating conflict. One response to this is what Stump calls the ‘stern-minded attitude’ that spiritual flourishing involves giving up the desires of the heart, but she emphatically rejects this and argues that Aquinas would do so, too. The solution to this, she suggests, can be found in the biblical narratives. For in these both Abraham and Mary receive their heart’s desire, although in a form and manner they did not expect. In these terms the benefit of suffering is that it allows our heart’s desires to be refolded and reintegrated with the deepest desire of our heart which is for God. In this way the benefit we receive is greater than the loss we incurred. While we continue to grieve for the heart’s desire we have lost, we are comforted and transformed by our closeness to God.
In the final chapter Stump turns to an evaluation of Aquinas’ theodicy – what she calls a ‘defence of the defence’. She suggests that the strength of the Thomist defence is that it relates suffering and the benefits received from it to the subjective desires of the human heart as well as to objective human flourishing. However the real test for Aquinas is whether his defence can translate into a real-world theodicy. Here we must confront two questions applicable to both flourishing and the desires of the heart: First, whether suffering allows a benefit which outweighs the loss of these things, and second, whether suffering is the only way in which such a benefit is available. The difficult case for Aquinas is those situations unlike the resurrection of Lazarus when people lose irrevocably what they have set their hearts on. However, Stump challenges the notion that anything good can be irrevocably lost with respect to God. She points out that while Job’s lost children were not restored to him in his own lifetime they were restored to him in the eternal life of heaven. Crucial to Aquinas’ theodicy is thus the immeasurable benefits of heaven which not only outweigh the suffering of earth but truly give back what seemed lost forever. Even for those who eternally refuse God’s love, such as Satan, God continues to hold out love to them. As Stump poignantly concludes in a quote from Aeschylus, ‘grace often comes violently from the gods’.