All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
A Review Essay of
Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering
Hardback: Oxford University Press, 2010. 668 pages.
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Reviewed by Stephen Lawson
How can the classical Christian affirmation of God’s goodness be reconciled with the undeniable and pervasive presence of suffering within the creation over which God is supposedly sovereign? This is a difficult question, but one that cannot be ignored, especially by those who claim to be doing Christian theology or proclaiming Christian truth. Indeed, the theologian Johann Baptist Metz once said that the problem of suffering, “is the question for theology.” Unfortunately many Christians (and not a few of them theologians) are uncomfortable considering this question. Many ignore it, thinking that silence is the best defense against this embarrassing Achilles’ heel of faith. Others answer the question with theological platitudes that sound oddly reminiscent of responses the friends of Job have to his unwarranted and seemingly indefensible suffering. Those posing the question, like Job himself, remain unappeased by these answers. The truth of the matter is if Christians are unable or ill-equipped to respond to this, the greatest of all faith questions, then the Christian has little to offer to a world rife with suffering. It is for this reason that we should be so grateful to Eleanor Stump for her help in equipping us to respond to this question with her remarkable book, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering.
The Christian responses to the problem of suffering have generally fallen into one of two categories. The first of these is occupied by the Christian (or more generically theist) analytical philosophers. Scholars like Richard Swineburne or Alvin Plantinga have long been carving out the theoretical space for the Christian faith to be considered as reasonable. They accomplish this by applying logical rigor and exacting definitions to human and divine freedom together with the undeniable reality of suffering. Their books tend to be full of equation-like paragraphs discussing the principle of non-contradiction and the various possible worlds about which philosophers love to hypothesize. Their writing tends to be, on the one hand, careful, measured and scientific. On the other hand, their handling of human questions can be sterile, distant, and nearly impenetrable to the non-specialist.
The second category of responses is occupied by poets, novelists, and not a few theologians. People like Jürgen Moltmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Søren Kierkegaard, W. H. Auden, Gustavo Gutierrez, or T. S. Eliot come to mind here. While each of these writers has something unique to offer, each of their responses to the question of suffering are not answers in the sense of the above category. Rather their answers are flesh and blood answers. They feel human. Sometimes they respond to the reality of suffering by marveling at the fact that anything good or beautiful can come out of a world so dark and full of suffering. Other times they respond by pointing to the presence of God in Christ who stands with solidarity with his creation in its pain. These writers hold that those who are suffering and dying on the underside of history are not helped by sterile assurances that logic does not require that God is morally culpable for their suffering. The only answer that those who are suffering need is the presence of God with them in their suffering. As Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, “only the suffering of God can help.”
As one can imagine, these two kinds of responses seldom meet and never embrace. This is exactly what makes Stump’s work remarkable. She has the rigorous mind of a skilled analytical philosopher and the heart of a poet-theologian. She learned this, as one might expect, from Thomas Aquinas. It is fitting, then, that early in her book she analytically argues that not all knowledge can be reduced to analytical knowledge. In one of the most brilliant of the many innovations this book contains, Stump posits that there are two types of knowledge: Franciscan and Dominican.
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