“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.”