“Chicken or non-chicken?”
At the insistence of a friend, I dropped by Dr. Peter Augustine Lawler’s office to introduce myself. I was a sophomore in college and still very much finding my identity. Dr. Lawler welcomed me, sat me down across from his desk, and peppered me with a series of staccato questions.
“Umm, chicken,” I replied.
Without feeling the need to explain explain himself, Dr. Lawler had made use of Berry College shorthand that refers to students who are involved in the WinShape College Program--a wing of Chick-fil-A’s non-profit (hence “chicken”). He followed my answer with several more short, get-to-know-you questions as we sat surrounded by the chaos of his office. I glanced around the room taking in the mess. Books and papers were strewn literally everywhere. Mugs stained with who-knows-how-old, stagnant coffee decorated his desk. The mess of Dr. Lawler’s office was a legend in and of itself. Occasionally, a few of his TAs tried to clean it up for him, but the room seemed determined to remain ungroomed and disheveled. Much like Dr. Lawler himself.
Dr. Lawler served as the Dana Professor of Government at Berry for a majority of his career. He was appointed to and served on President George W. Bush’s bioethics council and was the author of numerous books. Intellectually, he was in a league of his own and probably could have taught at any institution that he pleased. Yet he chose to remain at the small and relatively unknown Berry College and to take a personal interest in the lives of his students. While he did not speak of his faith explicitly very often, it was relatively well known that he was a practicing (or at least semi-practicing) Roman Catholic. Personally, I believe that this defined him as a person and a thinker much more extensively than he ever revealed in class. He drank deeply from the western tradition of philosophical thought and was incredibly adept at reaching to the core of arguments and explaining their coherence, or, in other cases, exposing their inconsistencies.
Over the next few years, I took at least four, but probably more, classes in the Government department with Dr. Lawler. Truth be told, I was a mediocre student. Early on in college, I fell into an existential funk, and I entombed myself in a fear of failure and did not apply myself to my studies as I should have. As a result, I cannot wax eloquently about Alexis de Tocqueville’s political theories with the rest of my peers. Despite this, I still consider my time studying under Dr. Lawler as one of the most influential seasons of my life. Most liberal arts colleges seem to have a self-professed goal of teaching students how to think rather than what to think. While I cannot speak for other institutions, I know that my time with Dr. Lawler accomplished this and more by slowly molding me into a person who cares about ideas generally, but more specifically, about ideas that have been grounded in truth that can withstand the fires of scrutiny.
Dr. Lawler wrote me a recommendation that helped me get into Beeson Divinity School where I am currently studying for my Master of Divinity. The last conversation I remember having with him was in January of 2016 in the Krannert Center at Berry College. I was just about to begin my studies at Beeson and was visiting Berry’s campus when I ran into him near Krannert’s coffee shop. After I updated him on my life, and he updated me on Berry’s gossip, he told me to come back to visit often. That’s the last interaction I remember having with him before he died in May of last year.
His unexpected death was a heavy blow to everyone who knew him, and it has forever changed the Government department at Berry. Amidst the dozens and dozens of tributes that have been written on his behalf since then, one particular quote from an email Dr. Lawler had written to his colleague Yuval Levin began to circulate around the internet: “Don’t forget God. Without looking up to something true, none of it holds together.”
My friends Andrew and Anna framed that quote and gave it to me for my birthday this year. It now serves as reminder to me, even in divinity school, how meaningless my theological systems and intellectual exercises are if they are ever separated from true worship of the living God.
I, and I know countless other students as well, miss Dr. Lawler. His writings and his influence are still impacting us even today, and I am sure his legacy will continue for many generations.
Thank you for all you did for us, Dr. Lawler. Requiescat in pace.