After stroke, theologian explores 'goods' of society

After stroke, theologian explores ‘goods’ of society

After stroke, theologian explores ‘goods’ of society

The door of John Perry’s office at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Perry recently survived a stroke, and his “Stroke Victim of the Week” messages remind his students how common strokes are in the world. (Credit: Courtesy to Crux.)

John Perry is a Senior Lecturer in Theological Ethics at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and directs the Initiative in Science-Engaged Theology. Recently, he survived a stroke. He spoke to Crux about his work, and how his stroke affects his work.

[Editor’s Note: John Perry is a Senior Lecturer in Theological Ethics at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and directs the Initiative in Science-Engaged Theology. Recently, he survived a stroke. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his work, and how his stroke has affected it.]

Camosy: Before your stroke, I didn’t realize how prevalent this terrible scourge was. And it seems you were lucky, as difficult as this is for me to process, to escape death. It is a sobering reminder of how fragile all of us are and that life is such a precious gift.

Perry: My stroke was unusual because it had a traumatic cause, in my case, a minor car accident. Most strokes have a cardiovascular cause, such as a lifetime of high-blood-pressure. One of the ways that this affected my recovery was that I was far younger than most of my fellow patients on the stroke ward. Because I was only 41 at the time, my prognosis was more optimistic than if I had been older. Still, most of my doctors and therapists doubted that I would ever write academically or lecture again.

For the first months, I was entirely unable to speak. I understood others’ speech, but I could not formulate the words in my own head, and even if I could formulate the ideas, the right side of my mouth was so impaired that I couldn’t make the sounds. The day of the stroke was all together bizarre. For example, as I was on the ground waiting for the ambulance, I could only think in French and the only alphabet I could recall was Hebrew!

I know how hard you’ve been working to get back to work and do the things you love. Last time we had contact you mentioned that you are back teaching in the university classroom–and have even managed to co-author a published peer-reviewed article! How have you negotiated the roadblocks the stroke has put in your path?

My doctors’ prediction has been proved partly right, at least so far. I will most likely never lecture to a large audience again due to my slowness of speech. Writing has been better. I need someone to type as I speak. This is a slow process, but it works. Since then I have published one academic article and begun writing more chapters on my book that was half-done when the stroke hit.

Part of what was so difficult for me is that I didn’t know any other stroke victims like me. Either their strokes were fatal, or they recovered more easily than I am recovering. When eventually I got back to my office – 6-9 months after – I put a sign on my door saying “Stroke Victim of the Week” as a way to remind myself, as well as my colleagues and students, just how common strokes are. My kids helped me find pictures of real stroke victims including the actress Aubrey Plaza and more recently, Luke Perry, together with fictional characters such as Noirtier de Villefort from The Count of Monte Cristo, and the Yes Man from The Simpsons! You can see what I mean by the examples of the actors: Luke Perry’s stroke was fatal, and Plaza sounds like she never had a stroke at all. I haven’t found many people that had my recovery trajectory: People who, like me survived, but were disabled.

You’ve also been successful in securing grants for interesting research projects. Can you tell us more about your recent Templeton award focusing on teaching and research in “science-engaged theology”?

I realize that using science as a resource in theology might not sound so innovative to a Catholic audience, given the long history in Catholic thought of learning about the world and God’s creation from any source that could be of use. I explain this to my undergraduates, half-jokingly as “theological promiscuity.” Wherever you can find knowledge, use it! For complicated reasons, it has never been the same in Protestant thought.

My initiative in Science-Engaged Theology is not at all concerned with some of the usual suspects that you could imagine we will study, like the origins of the universe or evolution. Instead we seek to encourage the responsible use of scientific resources in theology when it is required by our theological questions. As a sort of trivial example, consider that the Church teaches that gluten-free bread cannot be consecrated. To correctly apply this rule, you need to at least know what gluten is, how it effects the consistency of bread, and so on. We need theologians and priests who understand at least enough science to think responsibly about those issues. In this initiative, we will study more weighty questions, of course, like the evolutionary origins of sex differentiation and causes of cognitive impairments such as autism. Some very pressing theological questions rest on the answers we give. Our program was created to help work at that intersection by funding innovative courses via our Syllabi Design component, and research via our Summer Workshops hosted by the University of St. Andrews.

I deeply miss our regular conversations about U.S. politics, not least because I always learn so much from your deep expertise, cultivated over the years with a PhD at Notre Dame, a postdoc at Oxford, and now as a senior lecturer at St. Andrews in Scotland. But let me ask you this now: What do you make of the turn, particularly of Evangelicals, to Donald Trump? As you know, we are gearing up for another election over here and Evangelical support is holding steady, with some even predicting such support will increase in 2020.

The simple, obvious answer is Evangelicals support Trump because of tribal loyalties. That is, they support him for the same reasons you support Aaron Rodgers; Because you are a Packers fan! How did Trump earn their support in the first place? Who knows? (Are you only a Packers fan because you are from Wisconsin?) I suppose that Evangelicals began being fans of Trump because of visceral hatred of the Clintons and Trump’s promise to get Roe v Wade overturned. But simple, obvious answers are uninteresting.

What I consider far more interesting is the phenomenon of Evangelical opposition to Trump. In spite of all of the all-too-obvious reasons for conservative Christians to support the Republican candidate, we should really pay attention to what makes it possible for some of these Christians to cut across their tribal loyalties and declare, “As a follower of Jesus, I must welcome the immigrant.”

I see two reasons for that phenomenon, both of which the Christian worldview makes possible. The first is Christians have, or ought to have, a higher order of loyalties than the national. I am thinking here of some Southern Baptist leaders speaking out in defense of refugees, mostly in challenge to their own congregations, and similar stories about Catholic parishes and dioceses refusing to obey laws that pose a tension with their higher loyalties to God. I am so encouraged by such accounts! If someone from Milwaukee is a Packers fan, that isn’t even news. But if the same person cheers for the rival Minnesota Vikings, that is news! We would want to know what on earth makes that possible.

The second reason is how the current news cycle is terrifically short, and the Church has, or ought to have, an eschatological ‘news’ cycle. This means that the Church can think far more long term than what we saw posted on Twitter this morning, or what the talking heads on cable news cared about last night. I was particularly encouraged by your response to Trump’s candidacy given your long-term opposition to abortion. Even though prolife voters currently feel good about how their fight is going, they — if they are Christian — are in this for the long haul. It is not at all clear to me that their approach would reduce abortions in the long run.

Ironically enough, thinking about this reminds me of one time that you visited me when I was teaching at Oxford. We went to a debate with Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams. Dawkins was banging on about trends in religious belief from the last year, or five years, or even a generation. The archbishop shook his head and said something like, “Richard, the church has been at this for a long time.” That really stuck with me, even more so given some of the changes we have seen because of instantaneous social media. It is so tempting to magnify the importance of the Now. I feel like Christians need to learn how to shake our heads and say, “Donald, the Church has been at this a long time.”

One of your primary areas of expertise is on John Locke and the relation of liberal democracy to deep religious commitment. For a small-but-growing number of Catholics, Locke and liberalism are turning out to be the bad guys–with folks like Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, Gladden Pappin, Sohrab Ahmari, and other serious Catholics disavowing Lockean-style liberalism in favor of something else. For some, like Deneen, the “something else” isn’t clear, while others are boldly–and somewhat shockingly–arguing in favor of “integralism” between the Catholic Church and the state. They argue, among other things, that a state cannot function as an authentically human community without attending to questions about what is ultimately good and true about human life. Suspicion and even disdain for liberalism has been brewing for some time within certain circles of academic theology, but is its current traction in some other Catholic circles something which surprises you? What do you make of it?

The “something else” is key! I have lost patience with thinkers that simply diagnose. Diagnosing is easy and cheap. At the same time, you were right that I have been among those in theology painting Locke as the bad guy, or at least as a not wholly good guy. I agree with the anti-liberal Catholics you mention (I would add the Orthodox thinker, Rod Dreher) that a state, and the culture which supports it, cannot be neutral, by which I mean a political theory that brackets out all questions of the good life. Maybe we should use the term Modernity Critics rather than anti-liberals, as a way to include MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Milbank, and O’Donovan. Regardless of the term, we all agree on this: No one who isn’t currently enrolled in an Intro course on John Rawls thinks it is feasible to bracket out all questions of the good.

Especially since moving to Europe, I have changed my mind about whether anyone ever believed this neutrality was possible. The closest is perhaps some early Enlightenment thinkers’ quest for a moral and political science that would eliminate all disagreement from ethics as Newton’s had done for physics. That was Hobbes’ quest, and Locke wrote that way in a couple places, but this is not a viable position today.

Instead what you will encounter in any Western democracy is debates precisely about the good life. If you pay attention to the debates in Ireland about abortion, France about multiculturalism, and Germany and Sweden about immigration policy, you will hear all sorts of visions of what basic goods comprise an authentically good life. Will many of them be mistaken views? Of course, but the objection of many of the Modernity critics, that liberalism makes it impossible to debate goods (as opposed to rights or procedures), is misguided. As examples think of the UK’s commitment, which is a political and moral commitment to healthcare for all, and of the EU’s commitment to the free movement of people. Those are contested views that depend on certain things being true for the human person. However, it is not at all clear that those contested views are ruled out by liberalism as such.

In the past, you’ve espoused a complex view about the relationship between serious Christian religiosity and liberalism. Do you still hold that view? Can you offer Catholics a “third way” (as it were) to think about the relationship between liberal Democracy and integralism.

You are now asking what is my “something else!” Fair enough. If what I have said above is on the right track, it should be possible to get sophisticated conversations going, in which people with very different views about ultimate meaning or, as you put it “theology,” debate each other with candidness and charity. My recommended starting point to those conversations is focused unashamedly on what each of us thinks the good life entails. The anti-liberal trope has always been, “The liberals will not allow us to discuss meaning or the good life.” Well, let’s see if that’s true.

One of the things the Modernity critics get right is that answering this question requires an objective account of the good for both the individual and the community. A subjectivist utilitarian account, whether Bentham’s pleasure or Singer’s preferences, is too thin to help us. So, what is the good life for humans?

Lying half-paralyzed on a hospital bed gives you lots of time to think about this question. I had provided the starting of an answer in my reply to Peter Singer (written before) and my (controversial, it turned out) book review of Milbank’s The Politics of Virtue, which was the first thing I got published after my stroke:

A place to live, reliable access to enough food to feed myself and those in my care, a basic measure of safety from crime and natural disaster, an opportunity for productive labor and exchange, time away from work to enjoy other goods including occasional holidays, friendships including ways to stay in contact with those distant, freedom to worship God, opportunities to express devotion (to one’s faith, people, and perhaps other objects of loyalty such as excellent athletes or artists), sufficient medical care to avoid an early death (ideally, living to see my children begin to raise their own), opportunity to appreciate the non-human world, living in a community that honors the above such as by esteeming faithfulness or diligence in the face of obstacles or by honoring excellent achievement in art, such as film or music.

You do not have to go full Steven Pinker to see that far more people in the world now lead lives resembling this than ever before. I would really, really want to read an article by someone like Deneen or Dreher simply spelling out what the good life is for them, and seeing what sort of politics would make that life possible. My suspicion is that their “something else” would be something awfully close to what we have now.


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