SHARE
Eleonore Stump is a vis­iting lec­turer. | YouTube

“Where were you when I laid the foun­da­tions of the earth?”

It’s a good question, and philosopher Eleonore Stump thinks we misread God’s answer to Job’s ques­tioning of his goodness. We often say, with Job’s friends, that God tells him to sit down and stop asking ques­tions: “Just,” stoic Christian sol­diers say, “suffer. Faith is dark; on this side of the veil, keep the faith.” 

But that only makes Job’s ques­tions more pressing: “The question posed to reli­gious belief by the problem of suf­fering is whether there is a morally suf­fi­cient reason for God to allow suf­fering,” Stump writes in “Wan­dering in Darkness,” a work of ana­lytic phi­losophy and the­ology that, through the theodicy of Thomas Aquinas, wrestles with the question that is the greatest chal­lenge to Chris­tianity — and also its answer: If God is good, why do we suffer?

Stump has spent much of her career devel­oping medieval answers to the problem of evil in light of modern phi­losophy, psy­chology, and the­ology:  “Even in the hardest of cases, then, on the Thomistic defense there is a point to the suf­fering; there is both flour­ishing and ful­fillment of the heart’s desires.”

How? This Friday, Stump will visit campus to address two ques­tions that flow from Job’s theodicy ques­tions, and ours: In her lecture “Guilt and For­giveness,” at 4 p.m. in Phillips Audi­torium, she will ask, through an analysis of Simon Wiesenthal’s “The Sun­flower,” whether those who cause great suf­fering (here, the Holo­caust) must always be for­given. At 7:30 p.m., she will expand a theme from “Wan­dering in Darkness”: the “desires of the heart” that, when they are denied, cause Job’s descen­dants to chal­lenge God’s goodness.

“Dr. Stump is a leading expert on the work of Thomas Aquinas, medieval phi­losophy, and phi­losophy of religion,” said Vis­iting Assistant Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy Ian Church, who worked with Stump at Saint Louis Uni­versity for two years on her project about intel­lectual humility. Her approach to the problem of evil through the lens of Christian phi­losophy and Scripture is part of a recent res­ur­rection of reli­gious thinkers’ role in theod­icies: “Eleonore is working out of an ana­lytic, Thomist per­spective,” Church said. “In the early 20th century, the philo­sophical climate was such that it was almost impos­sible to be a Christian philosopher who was read with interest in the secular academy; after the fall of logical pos­i­tivism in the mid-20th century, the philo­sophical lit­er­ature saw a renais­sance of activity from Christian philoso­phers.”

This revival reached Hillsdale’s campus long before the philosopher herself; last fall, stu­dents inter­ro­gated Stump’s theodicy in a Col­le­giate Scholars Program seminar on Stump’s “Wan­dering in Darkness,” taught by Assistant Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy Blake McAl­lister. In the work, Stump argues that the Bib­lical stories about the Israelites in the Old and New Tes­ta­ments address the problem of suf­fering in great psy­cho­logical depth through the lit­erary mode, one that presents God’s per­sonal rela­tionship with his people, his desire for their growth, in Aquinas’s terms, of their under­standing of the goodness of God and their desire for unity with him — pre­cisely through their struggles with under­standing and con­forming them­selves to his plan. 

“What I appre­ciated [about “Wan­dering”] was the orga­ni­za­tional aspect — her sys­tematic approach was a good framework. It’s not like I learned some­thing that I was totally unaware of, but I was trying to under­stand things I have felt and seen in others,” sophomore Michelle Reid said. “Nar­rative is helpful because it’s not just the problem of evil in the abstract, but within the full context of the suf­fering. It’s easy to dis­tance our­selves from the problem and talk about a the­o­retical genocide or rape, but outside the person’s nar­rative, we’re not talking about the same thing. We’re not dealing with the depths of the suf­fering.”

Stump calls this a “second-person” approach; readers of Bib­lical nar­rative enter the place of a char­acter and expe­rience, through the story, their indi­vidual suf­ferings, dis­cov­ering that the “desires of their hearts” (a Stumpian concept) are redeemed and glo­rified.  

“What does it take to redeem suf­fering — to defeat evil, as philoso­phers say?” Stump write in “Wan­dering.” “What looks per­plex­ingly blank in the abstract has hand­holds for our thought when we think about the question in con­nection with a story … If, in the end, Mary Mag­dalene herself would prefer her life to the suf­fering in it, if she would be unwilling to lose what the loss of the suf­fering would take from her, then, for her, the suf­fering is surely redeemed.”

Abraham’s test brings him more than he knew he wanted: a son, a nation, a cer­tainty that he is a chosen man of God. Samson, after a life of rebellion, redeems his legacy in a gallows of his own fab­ri­cation. Mary of Bethany is ele­vated for her faith in anointing Jesus, and after: He treats the lowly woman as a special friend. Job receives a per­sonal answer from a God whose power, he feared, over­shadowed his love.

God’s people flourish; they know God.

Stump, then, expands on the core of Thomistic theodicy — that God’s love means sharing his goodness and bringing them into union with him; this is per­sonal and orders each indi­vidual around the good — to ask how suf­fering can make sense in the hardest cases. What about unan­swered prayers? What about people whose suf­fering breaks them? What about Job’s first family?

In one of our last classes, we talked about how when Samson was in prison, he went through a change of heart. He was changed by his suf­fering,” Reid said. “That’s all well and good, but what about people who go through suf­fering without a change of heart? What causes someone to turn to God and someone else to turn away from him?”

And in heaven? “Stump is not just trying to justify the suf­ferings of direct evil against people; she’s also trying to deal with the suf­fering that comes from losing heart’s desires: these things we want in this world and don’t always get,” junior Gill West said. On Stump’s model, these desires are “refolded” into their fullest desire — Christ — after death. They are given back.

“You have a desire for a spe­cific thing, like, ‘I want to go work at this company,’ and then you never get the job at the company,” West said.

You pray for a spouse; you die single. You lose a child. You lose your sight, your sanity. You are Job, and your family is chosen as a holo­caust. 

“I’m still having trouble under­standing how it is that desires that seem so attached to this world can be ful­filled in the same way that they were desired in this world,” West said of his reflec­tions on the Stump seminar. “It seems not true that even when you’re in union with Christ, that spe­cific desire is ful­filled even though you have all you could ever want in union with Christ.”

There’s more to it than this — theodicy is larger than we are, but that doesn’t mean we shy away from ques­tioning God, phi­losophy, religion, Job.

And there are partial answers, ones that illu­minate our lives. Reid invoked Stump’s dis­cussion of shame and guilt as some­thing oft felt, but never so well expressed: “Her def­i­n­ition of shame was so helpful in dealing with people who are expe­ri­encing it, whose shame makes them think, ‘I don’t deserve good things. People don’t want to be in union with me.’ And people who suffer from guilt think, ‘I’m bad because I’ve done bad things,’” she said. “For­giveness is an answer there. You tell the person, ‘You are lovely, and you are worthy to be loved.’ This is what our souls crave, and as an indi­vidual inter­acting in a com­munity, it’s a helpful way to love each other better.”

For­giveness, guilt, suf­fering, are insoluble in the abstract; approachable in the inter­per­sonal. But, as will be clear in Stump’s Friday lec­tures about human limits in for­giving genocide, of con­soling the desires of the heart, the cosmic plan is still obscure.

The answer, as the foun­da­tions of the earth shake so vio­lently, was best expressed in a wall carving at Auschwitz by an anonymous poet whose hard-earned theodicy now serves as the epi­graph to “Wan­dering in Darkness”: 

“There is grace, though, 

and wonder, on the way.

Only they are hard to see,

hard to embrace, for

those com­pelled to wander in darkness.”