Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Eleonore Stump – Wandering in Darkness [Review Essay]

Page 2: Eleonore Stump – Wandering in Darkness

Analytical philosophy, not surprisingly, falls under the Dominican category. The Dominican monastic order has always been the order of abstract reasoning through principles and argumentation. They are concerned with discussing and defending Christian doctrine in light of knowledge that. Knowledge that is the knowledge of facts, that is, the knowledge that a certain statement actually is the case. Stump contrasts this kind of knowledge with Franciscan knowledge. This is the kind of knowledge that derives from personal experience, narratives, and relationship. Stump rightly recognizes that there is a fundamental difference from a stale and exhaustive list of facts about one’s mother and the knowledge that comes from being in the presence of one’s mother. Likewise, there is a philosophically significant difference between knowledge of all of the facts of a character in a novel and the knowledge of that character that comes from the special and non-reducible relationship between reader and character. Stump rightly insists that Franciscan knowledge is philosophically important in the response to the problem of evil and the analytical philosophers have done themselves a major disservice by writing off as unimportant all human knowledge that cannot be reduced to logical propositions.

Having established the philosophical defense for the use of narratives in philosophical argumentation, Stump proceeds by delineating the three different kinds of knowledge that come from narratives. Stump contends that there is a difference between first-, second-, and third-person perspectives on narratives. Second-person knowledge differs from the knowledge of ourselves through our own existence or the third-person knowledge that we gain when learning a story about someone else. To have second-person knowledge of another person requires “personal interaction of the direct and immediate sort.” It is the knowledge that we attain when we participate in a relationship with someone. I might know Karl Barth through a third-person narrative of his life, but I can never know him in the second-person way that I know my own mother.

It is this second-person kind of knowledge that Stump believes can help us explain the problem of suffering. Before arriving at the heart of the book, which is an examination of four narratives of suffering from Scripture, she needs to make one further development. In part two of the book she articulates an account of human existence that takes second-person experiences as foundational to human identity. We are creatures created for mutual, loving relationships with one another and with God. Our greatest and most human desires are not for our own or others separate flourishing, but for union with the beloved. Our flourishing happens when we allow ourselves to be open to love and vulnerability. Conversely, when we refuse to allow our divided will to be internally integrated around the good we enter into a state of “willed loneliness”— the opposite of true human flourishing. This is to say that a human being can shut themselves off from the greatest human good, which is union with God in love. Not even God can force union with an internally divided person. Quite simply then, the greatest good for humanity is the only good for humanity—union with God; and the greatest evil for humanity is the only evil—eternally willed loneliness. Her argument hinges upon this. No matter how great the suffering, if it results in union with God then it is justified. She contends, with Aquinas, that “all suffering is medicinal for the parts of a person’s psyche in need of healing” (399).

The book’s argument rests upon four Scriptural narratives that Stump examines. They are chosen to “give us an iconic representation of the panoply of human suffering” (375). Job, Samson, Abraham, and Mary of Bethany each suffer in different ways and for different reasons. Job experiences a cataclysmic loss of nearly everything good in his life while Samson experiences the suffering peculiar to the suffering of a perpetrator of great evil. Abraham experiences suffering by having the desires of his heart in a continual state of uncertainty or denial, while Mary of Bethany experiences the devastation that comes from social alienation and relational betrayal (when Jesus was late in coming to Lazarus’s aid). Her readings of each of these stories are innovative and intriguing, if not always fully convincing. Because of her concern for the literary complexities in these texts, she views the historical reconstructions attempted by biblical scholars to be of limited use. On the philosophical level, she contends that her interpretations of the stories do not need to be historically accurate to be philosophically convincing. Alternatively, on the theological level, she sides with more traditional readings of the Scriptures in their final form. She finds allies with the medieval readers of Scripture “who also took these texts to be revealed, accorded no special value to the early state of biblical texts because they supposed that not only the initial communication of the biblical message, but also it’s transmission through the ages was under the control of a benevolent providence” (35).

Stump’s reading of Job is quite innovative and is alone worth the sizable price of the book. Her argument is best understood when contrasted with the standard reading. The standard reading of Job is that it contains no answer to the problem of Job’s suffering. Job experiences unimaginable loss, he then understandably complains to God. His friends attempt to provide logical answers when none can suffice. The book climaxes when God arrives on the scene and lectures Job about divine omnipotence. The moral of the story is simply the acknowledgment that God’s thoughts are so far beyond the thoughts of humans that the proper response is humble acknowledgment of both the inexplicability of suffering and the finitude of human reasoning. On this account, Job asks God again and again for an answer for his suffering and never receives one. We learn from his example of faithfulness, but we, like Job, leave the story with no answer to the problem of suffering.

Stump argues that this reading misses the point of story. She presents several textual points to defend this assertion while giving us an alternative reading. The most convincing of these points is that Job himself, after his encounter with God, actually believes that he has received an answer. After God finally speaks, Job no longer feels the need to ask the question. This should be considered in light of the fact that God actually affirms Job and his questioning over against the proposed defenses of God that come from Job’s friends. Indeed, it takes prayers and sacrifices from Job to prevent God from judging his friends. So, what is the answer that Job received that was sufficient to silence his questioning and somehow justify his horrific suffering? The answer comes in the form of a second-person experience between Job and God and not a third-person defense of God through abstract principles. When God appears on the scene and begins to speak, he speaks not of his abilities or status above creation, but of his relationship to creation. In the speeches, God describes the relationship between God and creation through narrative claims, even with plants, animals, and inanimate things. These speeches suggest that “God’s relationship to all his creatures is personal, intimate, and parental” (191). By arriving on the scene and entering into a dialogical relationship with Job, God gives him an answer to his suffering, but this is not an answer that can be reduced to abstract third-person principles. The answer to Job’s suffering is the encountering of God in relationship. God does not provide principles for Job’s suffering, but provides intimacy. Hence, Job’s response to his second-person experience with God: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6 NRSV). As readers, we leave the narrative of Job without an answer to the problem of suffering, because God has not come to us and spoken with us, giving us the kind of second-person knowledge that he gave to Job. However, Job’s story stands as a testimony that God is faithful and will not let us needlessly suffer. As Stump concludes,

If an innocent person suffers, then, it will be only because a good and loving God, engaged in second-person interactions with his creatures, can produce out of the suffering an outweighing good for that person that is otherwise unavailable for him. The inference to this explanation about suffering is available to Job; but, in fact, Job does not need to draw it, since Job has accessible to him something epistemically and psychologically more powerful than inferential knowledge (191-2).

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