Bwog Guide to the Weekend Editor Sara Jane Panfil attended last night’s 2008 Thomas Merton Lecture about “The Problem of Evil in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.” Justify your midterms anguish with Aquinas!
There’s no better time than midterms time to ponder the meaning and existence of human suffering. After all, it doesn’t seem to make much sense, logically, that an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God would allow us mortals to undergo such strife. Especially when you’re a medieval Christian philosopher like St. Thomas Aquinas.
Luckily, Thomas Aquinas was a clever guy. He outlined two criteria for human suffering: humans suffer when we are not able to be who we “ought” to be—when we’re not able to realize our full potentiality—and when we are kept from the desires of our hearts. Physical pain, the obvious candidate for a definition of suffering, isn’t a necessary component. After all, there are different kinds of physical pain, and not all of them are bad.
But no matter your kind of suffering, don’t despair, says Aquinas: there is indeed a morally sufficient reason that God allows for human agony. The lecturer, Professor Eleanor Stump of Saint Louis University, explained it eloquently, invoking the technical and precise language of philosophy, the authority of anecdotal evidence, and referencing the overlapping research and practices common to the modern psychological and medical communities. In short (since the entire program took a bit over an hour and a half), God allows us to suffer because it brings us closer to our full potential and to the desires of our heart, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.
Now of course, since this is Christian philosophy, this is a theodicy that requires consistent Christian paradigms. Professor Stump found herself repeating this premise in the question-and-answer portion when people still weren’t convinced that there exist “good” reasons to suffer. She also made the point—which she ended up repeating in the Q&A—that Thomas Aquinas, or indeed any philosophy about suffering, is never sufficient to explain suffering away. We, as feeling human beings first and foremost, must always give suffering its proper respect, and must always use our mortal powers to actively counter-act or prevent it. A philosophy about the utility of suffering, no matter how convincing, should never excuse us from taking action against it.
Overall, the good-sized crowd gathered in St. Paul’s Chapel received her lecture well. Granted, it was a lecture of limited scope (Thomas Aquinas wrote prolifically, and the contingent nature of suffering provides infinite avenues of challenge), but certainly worked well as a concise summary on the topic. Thomas Aquinas has created a flexible philosophy on this and many other subjects. Professor Stump encouraged those in attendance to expand it; with all the different kinds of heartbreak and woe in the world, it makes for a worthy challenge.