Narrative philosophy of religion with an apologetic orientation has much in common with narrative theology. Both enterprises appeal to religious stories, principally in the form of biblical scripture, to support the viability of faith in the face of “the challenges of Enlightenment thinkers to the cognitive plausibility of Christian doctrine” (Oakes 1992, 38), and central among these is the challenge to the belief in a God of love that results from the pervasiveness of evil and suffering in the world. Eleonore Stump situates her major work, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (2010), within the field of philosophy of religion, though it is no less an attempt at Christian apologetics than are the numerous products of narrative theologians.
Early on in her project, Stump ventures an incisive critique of much of what passes for philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition. While recognizing its virtues of argumentative rigour and logical precision, Stump cautiously concurs with those who complain of the “aridity” and “narrowness” typified by this style of philosophizing (2010, 23). A particular weakness that Stump highlights, citing Bernard Williams as a critical ally in this regard, is the apparent inability of many analytic philosophers to do justice in their discussions to the intricacies of interpersonal encounters and relationships. Instead of invoking “complex cases drawn from real life or from the world’s great literature,” Stump charges, such philosophers typically make do with under-described thought-experiments featuring perfunctorily sketched characters (with generic names such as “Smith,” “Jones,” etc.) (2010, 25). To overcome these deficiencies, Stump proposes a marriage between standard methods of analytic philosophy on the one hand and “the study of narrative” on the other (ibid.). Articulating this marriage in terms of a union between two modes of knowledge, she designates these modes “Dominican” and “Franciscan” respectively (after the Catholic religious orders of those names).
In Stump’s vocabulary, Dominican knowledge is what is commonly referred to in philosophical parlance as propositional knowledge or “knowledge that” (i.e. knowledge that such-and-such is the case); it is a type of knowledge that is acquirable via the methods of analytic philosophy. Franciscan knowledge, meanwhile, is gained by acquaintance, and among its varieties is knowledge of persons. Characterizing this latter knowledge as “direct, intuitive, non-propositional,” Stump adds that, though normally enabled by direct acquaintance with a person, it “can also be transmitted to a greater or lesser extent by stories” (Stump 2012, 199). Stump’s central claim concerning biblical narratives is, then, that these provide the attentive reader with Franciscan knowledge both of the characters in the story and of the lifeworld they inhabit, much as visiting a foreign country facilitates knowledge of its people and places (2012, 198). For Stump’s purposes, the crucial consequence of this is that the insight gained into the world of the narrative enables one to understand how the suffering of certain characters is redeemed: it is redeemed on account of its engendering a deepened relationship with God on the part of the characters in question. Moreover, it is in “the details of the narrative of a life” that we learn how suffering can, at least in some circumstances, be received “as a gift” (2010, xviii).
Stump’s exposition and analysis of four biblical stories is too extensive and elaborate to be discussed in detail here. In order to explicate the contrast that I wish to make between apologetic and pluralistic narrative philosophizing, I shall focus on her treatment of one biblical narrative, the story of Job; in doing so, I borrow a line of criticism from Wes Morriston.
In her discussion of the Book of Job, Stump is careful to acknowledge that “interpretations of texts can invite one to see the text in a certain light, but they cannot compel assent as philosophical arguments are meant to try to do” (2010, 178). Nevertheless, the light in which Stump invites us to see the story of Job is liable to strike many readers as excessively one-sided in its sanguinity. Focusing especially on the passages in which God is portrayed as speaking directly to Job, Stump maintains that these speeches “suggest that God’s relationship to all his creatures is personal, intimate, and parental” (191). Even in the difficult case of a passage about female ostriches, which are described as incompetent mothers who forget that leaving their eggs on the ground could result in the eggs’ being trampled by wild animals, Stump discerns a “loving” and “tender” insinuation. There is tenderness here, Stump opines, because it is God who reminds the ostrich and safeguards the eggs that she “so forgetfully left vulnerable” (189). If we read the biblical passage as a whole, however, we see that the ostrich is described as dealing “cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers,” and as lacking fear because God has deprived her of wisdom and understanding (Job 39:16–18).Footnote 6 It is hard to see how Stump’s insistence on God’s parental tenderness could be made to fit with such descriptions.
Similarly, when God asks Job rhetorically who it is that “provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food” (Job 38:41), Stump zeros in on the phrase “cry to God” as exemplifying how intimate the relationship is between God and the animals he has created (Stump 2010, 189). As Morriston points out, however, the feeding of young ravens—in cases when they are fed at all—is part of a broader context in which prey animals are killed by predators, since the ravens scavenge from the carcasses that the predators leave behind (Morriston 2017, 233). The natural world, as depicted in the Book of Job, is a place of violence and death at least as much as it is one of nurturing love and benevolence, and yet Stump downplays the violence and accentuates what she perceives as the caring relationship in which God stands to his creatures. Morriston thus regards Stump as reading the text through the filter of her own assumptions concerning God’s providential plan and its portrayal in the Bible rather than as making a genuine effort to do justice to the narrative itself (2017, 229).
Morriston’s critique of Stump’s idealized and romanticized interpretation of God’s speeches, and of other aspects of the story of Job, is well taken. By exaggerating the extent to which God is depicted as a loving parent in the story, Stump presents a one-sided construal that, in the absence of a counterbalancing reading such as Morriston’s, risks obscuring the variety of interpretations to which the text is amenable. While there is nothing inherently wrong with propounding a partisan interpretation of a narrative source, it is essential that readers of the interpretation remain alert to the interpreter’s agenda, which in Stump’s case is decidedly apologetic and theodicean.
Before moving on to consider a pluralistic narrative orientation, it will be instructive to note a deep tension in the book of Stump’s that we have been examining. The tension concerns Stump’s attitude towards discussing the Holocaust or Shoah in the philosophy of religion. As important background for pinpointing the tension, two elements of Stump’s book may be mentioned. First is the fact that she chooses as the book’s incipit an anonymous poem, found on a wall at the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, that declares grace and wonder to be “hard to see, / hard to embrace, for / those compelled to / wander in darkness” (quoted in Stump 2010, xx).Footnote 7 It is from the poem’s final line that her book’s title, Wandering in Darkness, is derived. Second is Stump’s assertion that the Holocaust is among the evils that “are not fit subjects for the academic exploration of the problem of evil,” for to treat it “as one more example or counter-example in academic disputation” would be “unspeakably awful” (2010, 16). The tension that interests me is not, strictly, between Stump’s use of the poem from Auschwitz and her refusal to discuss the Holocaust directly, since it is one thing to pay homage to victims of the Holocaust in an epigraph and another to dwell upon the terrible details of their suffering as part of one’s argument. The tension, rather, is between, on the one hand, Stump’s apparent recognition that there is something baffling about the horror of the Holocaust—a horror that renders attempts to incorporate it into philosophical discourse inadequate at best and downright offensive at worst—and, on the other hand, the claim of her book as a whole to have supplied a response, by means of interpretations of biblical narratives, to every form of suffering there is.
While acknowledging that instances of suffering more horrendous than those recounted in the biblical stories she has discussed occurred during both the Holocaust and the era of American slavery, Stump maintains that, considered together, the four stories with which she deals—namely, those of Job, Samson, Abraham, and Mary of Bethany—afford a comprehensive typology among which “[a]ll modes of suffering” may be found, “even if many of its species are missing” (2010, 375). Given that she regards her overall argument as amounting to a “defense”—in the technical philosophical sense of an account that shows, not the truth of, but the coherence of the claim that God has reasons for allowing suffering that are “morally sufficient” to “defeat” the negative value of the suffering itself (see Stump 2010, 13)—the contention Stump is making on behalf of her project becomes puzzling. The contention seems to be that, without having discussed the Holocaust or American slavery directly, a defence has nevertheless been provided of how the “modes” of suffering endured by victims of those, and other, dreadful historical events could be consistent with the propitious designs of a God of love. If this is not a fair summary of the claim Stump is making, then it becomes unclear how the argument of her book amounts to a defence at all, for if paradigms of extreme suffering such as those experienced by victims of slavery or the Holocaust are to be left aside (on the grounds that discussing them in this context would be “unspeakably awful”), then in what sense has a defence that “defeats the badness of suffering” (2010, 13) been supplied?
The difficulty of understanding the intended scope of Stump’s argument derives from a clash between her totalizing apologetic ambition and her recognition that certain “species” of suffering are simply not appropriate subjects of philosophical “explanation” or “defense.” What I have also contended in this section is that an apologetic orientation to narrative philosophy of religion encourages a one-sided interpretive approach. This in itself need not be problematic, provided it is balanced by readers’ having access to alternative interpretations of the relevant narrative sources. What a pluralistic orientation actively fosters, however, is precisely such a two-sided, or multisided, approach, thereby encouraging a richer appreciation of interpretive possibilities. Insofar, then, as one values an appreciation of this sort, one has a reason for approving of a pluralistic orientation, which I shall now elaborate in relation first to Sutherland, second to Phillips, and third to O’Flaherty.