Scholar Spotlight: Stewart Clem

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In the fall of 2018, former CTSHF graduate student fellow Stewart Clem accepted a position as

Stewart Clem

Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology at Valparaiso University. As a full-time faculty member, Clem will be developing his research in Christian ethics and teaching courses in theology and the Valpo Core program. His course, "The Christian Tradition" investigates the history of biblical interpretation and the development of Christian doctrine. Valpo Core is a two-semester interdisciplinary course that draws upon resources in the humanities and social sciences to examine aspects of human life, our societies, and issues of justice.


Laura Donnelly (LD): What sparked your particular interest in moral theology and virtue theory?


Stewart Clem (SC): It really began when I was an undergraduate at Oklahoma State University studying philosophy. I read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for a course in moral theory and I was immediately taken with Aristotle’s approach (even though I was puzzled by certain aspects of it), and it just seemed so much more comprehensive and humane than the modern moral philosophy I had been reading. I hadn’t read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue yet, which basically champions Aristotelian virtue ethics over against the Kantian-influenced moral philosophy that dominated 20th century philosophical literature. I then discovered Thomas Aquinas, who inherits Aristotle’s ethics but transforms it in light of Christian theology – especially in light of the Pauline virtues of faith, hope, and love. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was embarking on a journey that would take me through three different graduate programs. And even though I’m a theology professor now, I am still on that journey and currently working on a monograph on Aquinas’s understanding of the virtue of truthfulness.


LD: You are also an Episcopal priest. Has that shaped your research in any significant ways?


SC: Absolutely. I am sure that it affects my research at a subconscious level, but some of the connections are pretty obvious. Christian ethics and moral theology are, by definition, inherently practical. Ordained ministry, by definition, is a practical vocation. They are both concerned with questions about how we should live our lives. At times it can feel like I am living in two separate worlds – the academy and the parish – but I am grateful for the fact that my vocation is defined by the task of making theology real for people, whether they are fellow academics or Christians sitting in the pew on Sunday morning. The nature of my scholarship means that my work can get very philosophical and theoretical at times, and, since I work on Aquinas, I can sometimes get lost in the medieval world. But I stay grounded thanks to my work in the church, and my writing always comes back to the fundamental question, “What does this mean for us today?”


LD: The Human Distinctiveness Project, of which you were a part, focuses on research at the interface of anthropology and theology on the topic of the evolution of wisdom. Did you have much experience and/or knowledge of evolutionary anthropology before joining the project?


SC: Only as an amateur. I initially encountered the works of evolutionary anthropologists second-hand, through the writings of theologians like Sarah Coakley and Celia Deane-Drummond. I had also been reading the works of Michael Tomasello (a comparative psychologist), and his theories of the evolution of human language and cognition really got me thinking about the normative aspects of language. So, for example, questions like “What does it mean to flourish as a language user?” and “What role does truth play in human language?” can be considered from a variety of perspectives: theology, ethics, anthropology, evolution, etc. I was interested in the intersection of these perspectives. I did not want to consider them in isolation – I wanted them to be in conversation. This is what I was trying to sort out when I first joined the project.


LD: Has your research been impacted by the project? If so, how?


SC: Definitely! I have learned a lot of things since joining the project, but if I had to choose one thing to highlight, I think I have learned to be conversant with scholarship in fields that are usually considered “off limits” to theologians. Often scholars in the humanities are dismissive (or afraid) of scholarship in the social sciences and hard sciences, because they assume that these disciplines are not concerned with questions of value or meaning. That is true, to some extent, but I think if we are honest with ourselves, this reticence has a lot more to do with the fact that few of us have time to keep up with the scholarship in other disciplines. It is hard enough to keep up with our own fields. What I have learned is that, as a theologian, I do not have to be an expert in evolutionary biology or linguistic anthropology to incorporate the insights of these disciplines into my work. All I need are people who are equally interested in cross-disciplinary conversations. As long as we are committed to learning from each other, then we can have meaningful, focused conversations that actually advance each other’s scholarship. That is the real value of a project like the Human Distinctiveness Project: we recognize that it is nearly impossible for one person to become an expert in several disciplines, but by working together, our work is stronger than it would have been otherwise. I feel that now, wherever I may find myself institutionally, I know how to initiate and sustain those cross-disciplinary conversations.


LD: Was there a scholar or professor on the project who challenged your understanding of human distinctiveness in a way that you had not considered before?


SC: Agustín Fuentes was especially helpful in broadening my horizons in evolutionary anthropology. Throughout the project, he was continually challenging me to consider the insights of recent work in the field as it related to the claims I was making about the value of truthfulness in human communication. He introduced me, for example, to the work of Thomas Scott-Phillips and Michael Arbib, and I ended up incorporating their ideas on the origins of language into my writing. His feedback on my presentations and writing projects helped me to nuance my arguments – and temper some of my claims – which, in the end, made my arguments stronger. 


LD: What is your next major project?


SC: I have a couple of major projects in the works. Which one gets finished first will depend, in part, on where I find myself institutionally within the next few years. One project focuses on the problem of free speech and the resources that Christian ethics can bring to bear on contemporary debates in our current context. We seem to be at an impasse between those who are fundamentally concerned about liberty, freedom, and democracy, and those who are fundamentally concerned about hate speech, harm, and protecting vulnerable members of our society. Both are based on legitimate concerns. I am developing my work on the virtues of language – as well as these cross-disciplinary conversations on what it means to be human – to suggest that there is a better way forward. The other project develops an account of sin that takes seriously the claim that we live in a fallen world. If this claim is true, then it has significant implications for the way we should think about moral dilemmas and the concept of moral tragedy. I think it is an exciting project, and it sits right at the intersection of philosophy of religion, moral philosophy, and theology. Like I said, I plan to develop both of these, but I’ll wait until I can better assess the needs and fit of my department to decide which one will get my full attention first.