Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering,
OUP, hb, £55.00
Eleonore Stump does not set out to write a theodicy, the traditional term for Christian discussion of the problem of evil, but a ‘defence’. People who take this approach follow the philosopher Alvin Plantinga in holding that the actual reasons for God allowing evil will always remain mysterious. A defence sets out to provide reasons why God might permit evil in a possible world that bears a strong resemblance to the one we live in without claiming to know with absolute certainty everything about this world or God’s intentions.
This book is based on lectures Stump has given at a number of universities, including the Gifford Lectures she delivered at Aberdeen. But although it will be placed on the library shelves next to other works on the philosophy of religion it also has the makings of a spiritual classic. This is a book that is packed with insights into the meaning of the Christian faith and the mystery of suffering.
At one stage Stump quotes a philosopher on the need for patience in analysing philosophical arguments. “Serious philosophy is always likely to bore those with short attention-spans,” she warns us. But although Stump’s reasoning demands careful attention, she does not use abstruse philosophical concepts or lapse into unfamiliar jargon.
The book leads up to an exposition of St Thomas Aquinas’ view of the problem of suffering. Stump admits that Thomas does set out to provide a theodicy but still insists that what she is offering is a defence. For Thomas suffering is for the benefit of the people who suffer. It is designed to lead people closer to God, to promote the greatest good in the life of any human being: union with God. Ultimately the union of love with God reaches its fulfilment in heaven. The Thomist view of suffering makes no sense without belief in life continuing beyond death.
Set out in these bold terms, Thomas’ views are likely to provoke all kinds of objection. Stump deals with many of them in her discussion of Thomas’ work in the final section of her book. But she leads up to her exposition of Thomas by an analysis of four biblical narratives, examining the light they shed on suffering.
Some critics have objected that too much of her case rests on her own, at times idiosyncratic, reading of the texts but I have to confess to finding her exegesis fascinating and usually convincing. In the case of Job, Abraham and Sampson, what she has to say makes a great deal of sense. Only in her examination of Mary of Bethany does she fail to convince with her claim that Mary felt betrayed by Jesus because of the time he took to respond to the call to help Lazarus.
Looking at the story of Abraham as presented in Genesis, Stump argues that Abraham has to learn to trust God’s promise to make him the father of a great nation, not to try to gain that inheritance by his own efforts. When he agrees to sacrifice Isaac, his great hope for the future, he shows that he has learnt at last to trust God. Stump claims that Abraham is ready to obey God, knowing that in the end he will not be required to plunge the knife into his son.
Stump does not see her discussion of the biblical narratives as providing a total answer to the problem of suffering. She wants us to read them with her to gain the experience of a different worldview, to enrich our perceptions by entering into a different way of thinking. The analogy she provides is travel in a foreign country. Someone who has had the experience of visiting China will have gained a feel for the country it may not always be possible to put into words.
This distinction is a good example of the careful way Stump approaches the issue of human knowledge. In the first part of her book she draws a distinction between ‘Dominican knowledge’, which she sees as analytical, and ‘Franciscan knowledge’ found in stories and through our interaction with other human beings.
In this book Stump displays both ‘Dominican’ analytical skill and a ‘Franciscan’ knowledge of the human heart. Somehow she manages to convince us that while we cannot explain suffering away, it can never be the last word. She even provides examples from the lives of non-believers where suffering leads to consolation and regeneration.
The Church’s Other Half: Women’s Ministry:
SCM, hardback, £19.99
Trevor Beeson’s latest book is on the ministry of women within the Church of England down the ages, and on the Church’s evolving understanding of that role. The first part is a historical overview, the second and larger part being devoted to biographies of pioneering churchwomen. To suggest that it sits on no fences would be a heroic understatement. As stated in the preface, Beeson views this history through the prism of what he considers “the process of liberating women for leadership” expressed by the ordination of women priests and now Bishops in the church, that subject being returned to in the epilogue.
As ever Beeson writes with panache, his biographies depict women from all walks of life and all traditions, from Anglo-Catholic nuns to charismatic evangelicals, although with the exception of Florence Li Tim-Oi , the first woman priest, all are British. It is a pity that Beeson did not include more stories from overseas, given that the Church of England has penetrated far beyond England’s shores thanks in part to missionaries such as Florence Allshorn, whom he covers.
This focus on Britain does give a somewhat provincial impression that belies the international nature of modern Anglicanism. However, he deserves praise for writing with an admiration that avoids hagiography, noting for instance the pioneering deaconess Elizabeth Ferard’s autocratic side or Kathleen Bliss’s “highly strung” personality. His portraits are all the more real and loveable for their warts.
He also makes many shrewd observations, such as the Church’s alienation from the working class in relation to the Church Army‘s ministry. It is when he embarks on controversy that things go awry. He exudes the typical smugness of the establishment liberal. Paul is dismissed, Augustine of Hippo’s conversion is dismissed as “disastrous,” the discredited slur of sex-hating neuroticism used against a noted defender of marriage. Unlike Rowan Williams, whom Beeson lambasts for it, he never allows the possibility that those who disagree with him on women’s ordination, including some of the women in his book, might not necessarily be fools or naves. Indeed any suggestion of dialogue with “patriarchal” opponents is deemed a sick joke.
What is in many ways a brilliant work is maimed by an unChristian polemicism that has hijacked this debate on both sides. Thus what is a readable book that is excellent in places ultimately fails its subject.