Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering

Stump, Eleonore

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Annotated by:
Clark, Mark
  • Date of entry: Mar-10-2017
  • Last revised: Mar-10-2017


Wandering in Darkness is an intricate philosophical defense for the problem of suffering as it is presented by medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas.The work addresses the philosophical / theological problem of evil, which might be expressed as follows:  if one posits an all-good, all-powerful God as creator, yet suffering exists in the world, then (a) God must be evil, since he created it; (b) God is less than all-powerful, since suffering came to be in his creation, and he could not stop it; (c) God is evil and weak, since suffering came to be in his creation, and he did not want to stop it; or (d) suffering is an illusion.  No alternative is, of course, very satisfying. In her book,   Eleanore Stump augments Thomas Aquinas’s theodicy by reflecting upon what she calls “the desires of the heart,” a dimension of human experience that Aquinas leaves largely untreated in his consideration.  Stump explores this dimension by breathtaking exegeses of Biblical narratives as narratives: the stories of Job, Samson, Abraham, and Mary of Bethany.  “Understood in the contexts of [these] narratives,” Stump argues, “Aquinas’s theodicy explains in a consistent and cogent way why God would allow suffering" (22).


This is a daunting but impressively rich examination of the problem of suffering and the ways that narrative engagement is the best and perhaps the only truly effective way of examining the issue.  Against the prevalent tides in biblical studies to use Scripture as historical source material for the understanding of ancient civilization, Stump argues that “it is legitimate to examine biblical narratives philosophically" (xix). In thinking with stories, she undertakes a specific philosophical enterprise: to offer a story that might be true (there is insufficient reason to discount it) and that, therefore, “for all we know, there might also be a morally sufficient reason in the actual world for an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God to allow suffering" (19).  Readers of literature will generally be less interested in the philosophical argument, per se, than the way that Stump uses narrative engagement to contemplate the issue.  And in participating in the process, one can hardly fail to be deeply struck at what a cultural gift the biblical stories are, to the extent that they help listeners share in an untold comfort, communally experienced.

Stump’s readings of the stories of Job, Samson, Abraham, and Mary of Bethany are fresh, intelligent, and insightful, though the richness of them can truly be grasped only through sharing in the progression of the overall argument.  Her discussion of the nested structure of The Book of Job is particularly striking, specifically in her reference to fractals. “A graphed fractal,” she says, is “a picture within a picture within a picture, and so on, each picture of which is similar to the picture of the whole, only reduced in scale" (220).  Pointing to the mathematical Mandelbrot set—where “any detail of the fractal is enlarged, its graph closely resembles the graph of the whole but is not identical to it”—Stump demonstrates that “the details of God’s dealings with Job and also their outcome is very similar but not identical to the details and outcome of God’s dealings with Satan or with non-human animals and the other parts of creation;” and thus, the book of Job appears to be “the second-person [God’s relational engagement] analogue of a Mandelbrot set" (220-21).  The stories of Job and of Satan “can be extended indefinitely in [fractal fashion],” but “they obviously cannot be told in an indefinitely extended way in one narrative.  And so the book of Job gives us Job’s story.  But by explicitly giving us that story as an enlarged detail of a much larger story, it helps us understand the fractal nature of God’s care for all creation and the many stories we are not being given" (221). The much larger story, Stump tells us in her exquisite Prologue, is “that suffering can be redeemed for the sufferer in personal relationship, that heartbreak can be woven into joy through the reciprocity of love" (xix).


Considerable portions of this book were delivered as part of the 2005 Gifford Lectures, the 2006 Wilde Lectures at Oxford, and the 2009 Stewart Lectures at Princeton.


Oxford UP

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