Philosopher Dr. Eleonore Stump addresses problem, purpose of evil
Dr. Eleonore Stump, the Robert J. Henle Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University, shared Thomas Aquinas’ response to the question of why a perfectly good God would allow suffering to exist in this year’s Delasanta Honors Lecture at Providence College.
She presented her lecture, titled “The Problem of Suffering: A Thomistic Approach,” in the Great Room of the Ruane Center for the Humanities. The lecture, sponsored by the College’s Liberal Arts Honors Program, is named for the late Dr. Rodney K. Delasanta ’53, professor of English and director of the program from 1987 to 2004.
Stump, who has taught at Saint Louis since 1992, has published extensively in philosophy of religion, contemporary metaphysics, and medieval philosophy. She has written several books, including Aquinas (Routledge, 2003) and her examination of the problem of evil, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford, 2010).
She began her talk with a warning.
“Nothing in the philosophical discussion of suffering can take suffering away or diminish it one iota,” Stump said. “There is no theodicy that takes suffering away from human lives, diminishes it or anything along those lines, and if you forget those things, we run the risk of diminishing our humanity while we work on our philosophy.”
Some philosophers have claimed that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God. But Stump argued that the premise that there is no morally sufficient reason for God to allow suffering is “eminently debatable.”
However, medieval philosophers such as Augustine, Aquinas, and others weren’t perplexed by the existence of suffering but rather had religiously deep and satisfying views on the reasons for allowing it, she said.
Stump defined suffering not simply in terms of pain but rather as keeping someone “from being what she ought to be” or “from having the desires of her heart, or both.”
The question then becomes whether God’s allowing suffering allows people to be what they want to be, and to have their heart’s desires.
Growing closer to God
A relationship with God is at the top of Aquinas’s scale of values, so the question can be refined to ask whether God’s allowing a person to suffer contributes to that person’s willingness to grow closer to God, and if that is the best available means to instill that willingness.
“For Aquinas, the morally sufficient reason for God’s allowing suffering is the role of suffering in the process, which leads to shared union with God,” Stump said.
Although some would argue that there are some kinds of suffering “that are immoral to treat as a means to an end,” Stump said God is present to all those who suffer. They do not suffer alone but have consolation available to them if they are willing to receive it.
Stump supported this by describing the psychological phenomenon known as “adversarial growth” — thriving and benefiting in consequence of the experience of trauma and adversity — that researchers have documented in quantitative studies.
To answer the “heart’s desire” questions, Stump described the experience of the poet John Milton, who sought to promote Puritan causes but lost his position, property, and social standing when they fell from power. That’s the period when he wrote his greatest works, including Paradise Lost.
“It is hard not to suppose that, in the end, after the downfall of the Puritans, Milton became one of the most powerful promoters of the Puritan cause,” she said, not as a member of Puritan government, but through his poetry.
“The suffering he endured … reshaped him in such a way that he not only flourished, but also in that very flourishing, had his heart’s desire — reshaped, too, but still recognizable,” Stump added later.
Questions and answers
After her talk, Stump fielded questions from the audience, including several from undergraduates. Nally Scaturro ’16 (Garden City, N.Y.) asked Stump what she would tell a child who is suffering. The professor replied that a child who had lost his or her mother needed consoling, not philosophy.
“Hardly ever is a child in need of a philosophy lesson,” Stump said.
Scaturro said she enjoyed the lecture, especially the excerpts Stump chose to illustrate her points, such as a passage from The Siege: A Family's Journey Into the World of an Autistic Child, Clara Clairborne Park’s memoir about raising a child with autism.
“It made more sense to me,” Scaturro said, after hearing Park’s description of a life the author would not have chosen but recognized made her better.
— Liz F. Kay
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