There is no greater intellectual and practical objection to Christian faith than the problem of evil. Analytic philosophy offers powerful tools of logical analysis to explain the precise nature of the problem and offer positive solutions. At the same time, analytic philosophy can be (or more correctly, often is) ahistorical, reductionistic, bloodless. At its worse, this leads to the protest that particular analytic treatments of evil might even add to the very problem they aim to explain.
These strengths are embodied, and the weaknesses overcome, in Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness. The book seeks to address the desperately difficult problem of evil with the rigor of analytic philosophy, but complemented by Stump’s profound knowledge of medieval philosophy and theology as well as a dazzling ability to read and engage with biblical narratives.
The result is substantial: With endnotes and appendices the book weighs in at 668 pages. You might take Stump’s quotation of Timothy Williamson as fair warning: “Serious philosophy is always likely to bore those with short attention-spans.” (204) All who open this cover better be prepared to abide awhile.
The book unfolds in four grand movements. (Stump refers to them as four “parts”, but that doesn’t capture the holistic, artful tone of the whole. So I’m sticking with “movement”.) The first movement outlines the nature of the project. Stump begins by introducing the problem of suffering and clarifying the distinction between theodicy (an account of why God [defined as a being who is omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good], allows suffering) and defense (a possible account of why God allows suffering). Stump will be presenting her argument as a defense but she leaves it open to the reader to apply it as a theodicy if they are sufficiently persuaded.
In chapter 2 Stump turns to the role of narrative in philosophy. As she says, “I do not know if Isak Dinesen was right when she said, ‘All sorrows can be borne if you … tell a story about them’; but I hope to show that philosophical reflection on suffering is better with the help of a story.” (25) She concludes the chapter with an observation regarding the limitations of analytic philosophy: “Insofar as analytic philosophy is one of the pattern-processing arts, it will be incomplete at best when it comes to describing the parts of reality including persons.” (38) The humanizing role of narrative thus provides an essential enriching complement to analytic reflection.
In chapter 3 Stump takes us deeper into this dynamic relationship as she explores two different types of knowledge. Philosophers commonly distinguish them as “propositional knowledge” and “acquaintance knowledge”. But Stump applies the commitment to narrative’s enrichment of analytic reflection as she analyzes the two in terms of the life histories of two medieval monks, Dominic and Francis of Assisi: “There is all the difference in the world between understanding one’s mission as converting the unbelieving by good arguments and understanding it as answering Christ’s personal call to help him call persons to himself.” (45) The two different lives illumine two different types of knowledge, the propositional knowledge that (Dominican knowledge) and the experiential knowledge of (Franciscan knowledge). The latter is so important precisely because “There are … more things in heaven and earth than are captured by analytic philosophy.” (62) (Wittgenstein famously ended the Tractatus with the observation “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” The positivists errantly assumed that the silence was meaningless. Here we are reminded it is, instead, a sphere of unexplored horizons of meaning.)
Chapter 4 turns to address just what the knowledge of persons is and how it illumines Franciscan knowledge of. Stump begins with a fascinating discussion of autism as a segue into discussing the role of “mirror neurons” (a field of study previously wholly unknown to yours truly) and the way that the properly functioning human mind can provide us with immediate knowledge of other minds wholly apart from Dominican knowledge that. This leads into a discussion of second-person experience as the product of the knowledge of the mirror-neuron system. Person A has a second-person experience of person B just if A is aware of B, A has direct and immediate personal interaction with B and B is conscious (see 75-76). Stump summarizes the argument at the end of the chapter:
“In fully functioning human beings, such knowledge has a source in the mirror neuron system, which enables a person to know the actions, intentions, and emotions of another person in a direct, intuitive way analogous in some respects to perception. Such Franciscan knowledge of persons is gained paradigmatically through second-person experiences. And, although Franciscan knowledge of persons gained through second-person experiences is not reducible to knowledge that, it can be made available to others who lack the second-person experiences in question by means of a story that re-presents the experience. A story is, then, a second person account.” (80-1)
And so ends the first movement.
The second movement, titled “The World at Large: Love and Loneliness”, begins with a discussion of the nature of love in chapter 5. The chapter provides an excellent overview of contemporary philosophical theories of love — in particular Frankfurt and Kolodny — while defending the view of Thomas Aquinas. According to Aquinas, love includes both the desire for the good of the beloved and union with the beloved (91). The desire for the good of the beloved “is not responsive to anything in the beloved”; but the desire of union is (99). Stump explains how this Thomistic view of love as including these two desires avoids the problems faced by other contemporary accounts of love.
Chapter 6, “Union, Presence, and Omnipresence,” expands on Aquinas’ account of love in accord with the notion of a union of love that occurs in the context of friendship (109). Stump includes an excellent discussion of the requirements for personal presence to another in both minimal and significant senses. She focuses in particular on the role of “second-person experience and shared attention” (112). This isn’t rocket science. Think, for example, of a father and son going to a baseball game and communing with each other through the joint attention of watching the game. The love of friendship requires both personal presence and mutual closeness. For significant personal presence to occur, one must have a direct and unmediated cognitive and causal contact with another. This applies to God as well and his relationship with creatures. Personal closeness with another also requires personal integration: “If Jerome is not integrated within himself, then Paula’s ability to be close to him is limited or inefficacious, no matter what she chooses to do. This point holds even if it is God’s closeness to Jerome, rather than Paula’s, that is at issue.” (127)
This brings us to chapter 7 and a discussion of “Willed Loneliness.” Stump notes that on Aquinas’ view the person is to be identified psychologically with their higher-order desires, and these must in turn be united with one’s lower-order desires to ensure the psychological integration requisite for true presence and relationship. This is not something that God can accomplish in us simply by force of will: “Significant personal presence of God to a human being requires mutual love and mutual closeness, and what is mutual cannot be produced unilaterally.” (138) True integration can only come when one is centered on the moral good. Stump then looks at the problems of guilt and shame as obstacles to integration (“it is common to take guilt as a person’s negative reaction to what he does and shame as a person’s negative reaction to what he is.” (142)) Persons of shame and/or guilt expect repudiation on behalf of the loved other in anger and punishment or rejection and abandonment. Guilt finds healing through forgiveness while shame is healed in the embrace, processes that can heal internal disintegration and bring about the kinds of persons able to engage in deepened relationships.
In Chapter 8 “Other-Worldly Redemption” Stump exposits Aquinas’ view of sanctification and justification as the chosen means God uses to bring about the internal healing of the fractured individual. The biggest challenge, not surprisingly, is to heal the will which is precisely the source of internal conflict, loss of integration, and inability to find union and love with others. The first step is found in the “passivity of surrender” as individuals learn to give up control and allow God to work in their lives. The lynchpin is justification, the point at which “refusal gives way to a state of quiescence in the will as regards that person’s volitional attitude toward his past moral wrongdoing and God’s goodness.” At this point God infuses grace in the individual thereby forming “the global higher-order desire that detests his own past wrongdoing and desires the goodness of God.” (167) Therein one finds the beginning of healing.
Here ends the second movement.
The third movement consists of four narratives of particular suffering: Job (chapter 9), Samson (chapter 10), Abraham (chapter 11) and Mary of Bethany (chapter 12). Each illumines a particular aspect of suffering and God’s response to it. Job’s “heart-cracking grief” is the basis of a poem for the ages. But while countless people have puzzled at God’s seemingly harsh response, Stump illumines the narrative as a collection of nested second-person accounts illustrating God’s personal relation with all creation in providential governance, with Satan in the great counsel, and ultimately with that of Job himself in the midst of his personal suffering: “The book of Job is thus like an illustration in an art book that consists in a detail, greatly enlarged, taken from a much bigger painting that is outlined in a small box at the bottom of the page.” (219) Stump believes the text provides a second-person account of the redemption of Job’s suffering:
“It is not the primitive morally repugnant folkloric story which the framing story is often enough thought to be–namely, that Job is a pawn heartlessly used in a wager between God and Satan. On the contrary, the nested stories of Satan and of Job show us God’s providence operating in a fractal way, to deal with each of God’s creatures as an end in himself, even while interweaving all the individual stories into one larger narrative.” (225)
Stump’s readings of Samson and Abraham are equally thought-provoking and illumine complementary aspects of the problem of suffering … and the divine solution. But for the sake of time I’ll skip down to chapter 12 on Mary of Bethany. Here the difficult question is why Jesus tarries when he receives word of Lazarus’ illness. And how can broken-hearted Mary be healed of the pain of her loss when Lazarus dies and the disappointment she experiences in the teacher who treated her with such callousness? Stump argues that Jesus’ late arrival is attributable to his desire to provide Mary, Martha and Lazarus the occasion to achieve the honor and renown in society that they’d never known:
“By staying where he is until Lazarus is dead and then raising Lazarus in an astounding miracle, Jesus will increase both the honor and the excellence of his three friends to such an extent that this change in their stature and status will be something to marvel at.” (333)
The picture comes into place for Mary as her brother is resurrected to new life:
“She must see that Jesus had in mind both giving her the very thing she wanted, her brother Lazarus, and also giving her something beyond her imagination to desire, her own greatness and honor.”(351)
Here ends the third movement.
The fourth and final movement draws together the previous four hundred pages in Stump’s proposed defense (or, if you prefer, theodicy). At the beginning of Chapter 13 Stump stresses that the narratives of suffering and redemption should not be reduced to mere premises in a (Dominican) philosophical argument. Instead, they should be treated as providing their own (Franciscan) insight as second-person narratives of suffering and redemption. These four narratives provide an “iconic representation of the panoply of human suffering” (375) and in these narratives we witness God bringing the suffering protagonists through to wellbeing whilst granting them the desires of their heart”, that is, “something that matters greatly to a person but that need not be essential to her flourishing.” (441) Stump then spends thirty pages exploring the various nuances of Aquinas’ theodicy. The conclusion is that the theodicy offers a consistent treatment of suffering (and thus succeeds minimally as a defense), at least as regards the acquisition of wellbeing through suffering.
However, Aquinas’ theodicy is weak on the subjective (or person-relative) side of suffering, namely the acquisition of the desires of one’s heart. It is in danger of representing a “stern-minded attitude” that pays little heed to the person-particular loves and desires that we long for in the midst of suffering. Stump believes that the fullest answer to suffering requires the divine concern to see those who suffer find the desires of their heart, and she devotes chapter 14 to a discussion and defense of this theme. Of especial interest here is Stump’s exploration of the notion that the objective (wellbeing) and subjective (desires of the heart) scales of value merge at the deepest point in the desire for union with God. In other words, the ultimate source of wellbeing and the ultimate desire of one’s heart is to be reconciled with the source of all being and goodness. But this reality doesn’t diminish other loves; instead, it reframes and enlivens them in a “refolded heart”. (In other words, one doesn’t love the world less because of their love for God. Rather, their love of God invigorates their love of the world to a greater degree like breath blown on a flickering flame.)
In the final chapter Stump turns to objections to her proposal. She passes quickly over the objection of inconsistency based on the reasonable conclusion that it has already been rebutted. Next, she considers the interesting objection of palatability (453). In short, can we stomach the implications of a theodicy? Stump doesn’t believe this objection is sustainable against her proposal either and I certainly agree. Ultimately the most significant objection rests on the question of “whether there is a morally sufficient reason for God to allow suffering.” (455) She states the question more fully as follows:
“Does God’s allowing the evil a human being suffers enable her to flourish, or enable her to have the desires of her heart; and is her suffering the best available means, in the circumstances, to achieve those ends?” (455)
Like a true analytic philosopher, Stump breaks this question down into four specific questions and considers each of them through the remainder of the chapter. While she provides a powerful “defense of her defense”, she also recognizes that some skeptics will remain unpersuaded. However, she effectively counters by observing that “there can be ideology in the promotion of despair as well as in the raising of hope.” (479) In other words, the Stoic acceptance of nihilistic despair is no more true philosophy than a hopeful embrace of ultimate redemption. Stump then adds an additional warning: “In seeking the moral high ground, moral scorn can fall short of a sufficient regard for truth.” (479)
Stump closes, appropriately enough, with reflections on her four paradigmatic cases of suffering and how, despite all the suffering endured, greater good still came through them. She then closes with words of profundity befitting such a magnum opus:
“There is grace, then, and wonder on the way, but they are hard to see, hard to embrace, for those compelled to wander in darkness.” (481)
By the time I completed the book I had compiled a page-length list of objections and quibbles. But then looking back at the journey I had to concede that they really were all quibbles. Does one instruct Edmund Hillary how he should have ascended Everest? Better, I think, to let bygones be bygones and marvel in the achievement.
I could bestow many accolades on this volume, but let me simply note that it is the most profound treatment of the problem of evil I have yet read; a work of vast learning, intellectual boldness, and aesthetic quality, a true classic in the making.
Upon closing the cover my mind immediately went to that great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Among his many accomplishments, Lewis is widely recognized as having written one of the most influential theodicies of the twentieth century, The Problem of Pain. After Lewis’s beloved wife Joy died, however, he found himself unable to find consolation in that great work. And so he wrote a second book, A Grief Observed. This book is very different in tone, pastoral rather than analytic, gentle rather than austere, stumbling rather than secure. And then I realized that Wandering in Darkness embodies the best of both. A book rigorously analytic and yet gently pastoral, as much food for the mind as a balm for the soul, a fitting companion for those who reflect on the darkness as well as those who journey through it.