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The Table Video

Eleonore Stump

Vulnerability, Narrative, and Making Sense of Suffering (Eleonore Stump)

Professor of Philosophy / Robert J. Henle Chair in Philosophy, Saint Louis University
March 19, 2018

Philosopher Eleonore Stump and CCT Director Evan Rosa discuss the role of narrative in making sense of suffering. Dr. Stump explains how failing to include a place for narrative in a theory of suffering is bound to leave that theory sorely lacking. She also acknowledges how the experience of suffering forces us into a vulnerable state, thus often driving us into unexpected community with one another.

Eleonore, I think this is a good spot to ask about the role of narrative and understanding that personal relation to God and the kind of closeness of human relationships that matter so deeply to us. If that sets the stage for both the possibility of suffering and the good that can emerge from suffering even though suffering itself is not intrinsically good, I wonder if you would introduce the role of narrative in your understanding of answering the problem of suffering.

See if I say what I have just said to you about suffering and the good that it can bring, the general response of people is skepticism or outrage. Do you mean to tell me that for every bit of suffering that goes on in the world and so on, it looks like an implausible thesis, highly implausible or outrageous thesis if you just look at it in a flat kind of a way, but when you look at it in that flat kind of way, you’re missing half the data which go into the story. So sometimes I have been asked can you condense your 660 page book on the problem of evil into just a couple of minutes for us. [laughing] And then I…

I hope you say no.

And then I do it like this. I say I’m one of those people who hates talking to people on a plane. I get on a plane, I pull my book out real fast so you know I’m not available for talking to you. I don’t want a conversation with you. I wanna be by myself alone and I want you to stay away. But if that plane starts to go down, I will talk to anybody. And now you begin to understand. It is something about the nature of suffering and the terrible thing that suffering is that opens us up.

It’s an opening.

It opens us up. In those circumstances we will reach out to one another and we will reach out to God too. And without that we will be inclined to withdraw into ourselves into a kind of will loneliness that seems to us both comfortable and safe, but that is in the end the real toxic thing for us.

I recently heard a quote by the author Junot Diaz who wrote The Brief But Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He said that vulnerability is the precondition to contact.

I believe that that is true really, but I would turn it just a little. I would say it’s your own perception of your own vulnerability. That’s the precondition because the vulnerability we all have constantly, but a lot of us prefer not to recognize it or not to accept it.

We remain and that leaves us remaining closed.

That is correct. And here I just need to say one more time. Nothing about this makes evil at all a good thing. Doesn’t turn the world upside down in that way. Suffering remains lamentable and each of us has a duty to do whatever we can to alleviate it, prevent it and so on. And the whole earth is soaked with the tears of the suffering and that is a horrible fact, but one thing we’re just noticing is it’s a horrible fact about us. That’s who we are. We perpetrate such ghastly suffering on one another. That’s part of the story, that’s part of the story. That’s part of the vulnerability we have to recognize too. We are prone to do these things to one another and that kind of recognition is also important for the problem of suffering. So think about our great heroes. So for me a great hero is Harriet Tubman. I have great admiration for her. I have awe at what she accomplished as a human being. I think her life is splendid and luminous. And I think it is in part because of the terrible things she suffered. Does that make me feel any more friendly towards the people who enslaved her or the people who afflicted her? It doesn’t. On the contrary it makes me… I don’t know what. It makes me hate them. They deserve that kind of hatred because there is… In the evil that was perpetrated on the slaves in this country, there is an evil really worth rejecting with as much vehemence as you can manage. Nonetheless it is the case she is a luminous example of a human being.

So with vulnerability as our context with being open to relationships, I wonder if you’d say a little bit about story and narrative and reading these lives as a way of helping us to understand and answer and I realize this is a multifaceted component of your work in the book, but could you go there?

That’s where I was starting when I was saying to you if you just look at these things in a pedestrian way as philosophical claims, they have very little purchase on you, but when I tell you the story about the plane, all of a sudden the point comes home to you. Well in the same way when we hear a story, if it’s a good story, if it’s a well done story, we see the myriad details that go into a human life. So I told a little thin story about Harriet Tubman but if you actually go to look at any particular detail of her life, it’s the details that are necessary for thinking about whether God was justified in allowing her suffering. She herself thought he was and if you look at the way in which she herself understands her life and the details of the things that she suffered and the details of the heroic actions she undertook and so on and all those details, you might say the problem of evil lives in these details about human life. And you aren’t gonna get details in abstract philosophical prose. That’s the point.

Certainly not.


In fact that’s what leads many people to respond to attempts at theodicy or attempts at answering the theoretical problem of evil. It leaves us understandably feeling cold, feeling unsatisfied.

Or angry or angry and offended and insulted and I understand that reaction entirely and often this I think is also part of the story here. Often these plain philosophical approaches to the problem of suffering, they think just in terms of character formation or they think just in terms of some individual intrinsic good related to human flourishing that can be got out of suffering. And then people feel in their hearts that this is an inhuman way of thinking about human suffering and you can see it if you think about, if you think about Job. So if you think that the point of suffering is character formation, then here’s what you’re saying to Job. Hey, Job, I’ll take all your kids and kill them all, but don’t worry, I’m gonna trade you something for this and here’s what I’m gonna trade you for. You’ll have a much better character than you otherwise would and now… Yeah, and now any decent person would say keep your stupid character formation and let me keep the kids.


Yeah, so it is important to understand that suffering has got a lot more human detail, a lot more human complexity to it than something as simple as intrinsic individual valuable characteristics of a person. It’s also important to see the details of what a trade could be in any individual life. When what you lose in suffering… Or think about it this way. In suffering you lose something that you care about and now if God is gonna be justified in allowing that suffering, it has to be that somehow you get more of what you care about than you would if you hadn’t suffered.

We say the devil’s… Oh, go ahead.

Well I was just gonna say see one way to think about the story of Job here is to notice that Job has the longest face to face conversation with God of any character anywhere in the biblical stories ever, ever. Yeah and that’s part of the story too. If you leave that out, it’s harder to understand what’s going on in that biblical book.