Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Eleonore Stump – Wandering in Darkness [Review Essay]

Page 3: Eleonore Stump – Wandering in Darkness

The second narrative that Stump examines, that of Samson, is a little more straightforward. This is because his suffering is clearly a deserved suffering. Samson, who once was gifted with an intimate relationship with God as well as great strength from God, slowly moves away from God. Time and again Samson chooses to satisfy himself, his sexual desires, and his own pride over and against his relational commitment to God and the people of Israel. He uses that which was given to him for Israel’s liberation (his strength) for his own selfish ambitions. In the narrative, the intimate relationship between Samson and God begins to disappear from Samson’s language as time passes. Eventually, Samson is imprisoned, blinded, and humiliated by his enemies. This deserved suffering, including the loss of his strength, is, Stump argues, a medicinal suffering. Because only when he has experienced it is he able to recover the intimate union with God through prayer with the result that he ends his life by fulfilling his original vocation, the liberation of Israel.

Abraham’s suffering differs from that of Job and Samson. Abraham does not endure the loss of a physical or relational good that he does have. Instead, what he experiences is the privation of the greatest desire of his heart—to be the father of a great nation. The most insightful contribution of Stump in this section of the book is her reinterpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac. The personal suffering that Abraham experiences in the scene of the sacrifice of Isaac is justified not simply because God allows Isaac to live, but because Abraham perseveres in faith that God is good despite the command to sacrifice his son. Contrary to Kierkegaard’s famous reading, Stump argues that there is no teleological suspension of the ethical here. Instead, it is precisely through Abraham’s faith that God is good that allows for him to become the “father of faith,” and therefore to be granted the desire of his heart in an abundance that was unimaginable to him.

The final narrative that Stump examines is that of Mary of Bethany, who experiences the suffering that comes from being personally betrayed and disappointed. She argues that Mary’s anguish at the failure of Jesus to arrive in time to heal her brother is overcome, not simply by the raising of her brother, but by the second-person encounter that she has with Jesus. Her “betrayal” by Jesus, made right through the resurrection by her brother, unites her even more closely to Jesus, as seen in the famous scene of her anointing of Jesus’ feet.

Having examined these four stories, Stump is prepared to offer her defense in light of the theodicy of Aquinas. Stump relies here, as well as throughout the book, on the helpful distinction, first made by Alvin Plantinga, between a defense and a theodicy. A theodicy is an attempt to defend the rationality of religious conviction in light of the undeniable presence of suffering in the world. A defense, on the other hand, is an attempt to give a logically consistent reason as to why God would allow suffering by describing a world that is sufficiently like the world we actually inhabit to be possible. In other words, a defense differs from a theodicy in that it never asserts that the world that it is describing is the actual world, only that it is possible that it is the actual world. In this book, Stump makes it clear that she is only offering a defense, but those with a religious conviction might choose to read it as a theodicy.

Building on her earlier discussion of love and loneliness, Stump contends that any suffering a person endures, if it results in their union with God, is justified. Indeed, in the end, after having experienced a greater union with God, the sufferer would readily accept the suffering that they experienced to bring them to that place. According to Aquinas’s theodicy, which she is appropriating, “God is justified in allowing human beings to endure suffering such as that experienced by Job, Samson, Abraham, and Mary in the stories, because, through their suffering and only by its means, God gives to each of the protagonists something that these sufferers are willing to trade their suffering to receive, once they understand the nature of what they are being given” (375).

Heaven and hell play a prominent role in Aquinas’s theodicy. Hell is created by those who have willed themselves in loneliness such that not even God can bring them to integration around the good. Because of their own will, they remain eternally divided against themselves. Heaven, on the other hand, is union with God and is open to all of those who have not willed themselves into complete isolation. Some may die closer to union with God than others, but the process of increased integration around the good will continue for both after death. In Stump’s engagement with Aquinas she contends that heaven is an absolute necessity for defending God in light of the suffering of the world. For the purposes of a defense, hell is not necessary. In fact, hell (understood as eternal non-medicinal suffering) actually creates a number of problems.

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