Assistant Professor, Moral Theology
Department of Humanities
Jesse Couenhoven earned his bachelor’s majoring in psychology at Oberlin College, a Master’s degree in
historical theology from Yale Divinity School, and his Ph.D. in ethics from Yale’s Religion Department. As a professor at
Villanova University, he has published articles on Barthian, Augustinian, and feminist theologies of sin and grace, on virtue
ethics, and on forgiveness, including the relationship between retributive and restorative justice. He recently finished revising
a book manuscript titled “Determination, Disease, and Original Sin: An Augustinian Essay on Responsibility”, and he is
currently writing about philosophical issues pertaining to the role of grace in the moral life, and the relation between Christian
and non-Christian understandings of forgiveness. Jesse also spends a fair amount of time arguing about the implications of
communitarian philosophies for the concept of patient autonomy with his wife Amy Tsou, a neurologist and Robert Wood<
Johnson fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. They live near Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia.
Virtues and Perils of Forgiveness
In a world where hatred and violence are all too common, there are obvious reasons to promote the virtue of forgiveness.
Yet the embrace of forgiveness by social scientists has been a mixed blessing. Attempts to end cycles of vengeance and limit
self-destructive hatreds can only be applauded. Yet recognition of the benefits of forgiveness should not come at the cost of
instrumentalizing or mass-producing it as a technique to manipulate emotions, for that would be to treat it as something
less than the intrinsic excellence it is. A fruitful avenue for addressing these concerns is dialogue between scientific and
religious traditions that will promote careful consideration of what it means to forgive, and how forgiveness can and should
take place. This proposal suggests two means of pursuing such dialogue. The first is an “ecumenical” conference that would
bring together scholars from a variety of fields, including Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians, as well as psychologists,
political scientists, and philosophers. The resulting conversation would challenge researchers not to be complacent about
the paradigm of thinking about what forgiveness is, or how it should be enacted, to which they have grown accustomed. It
would become apparent, for instance, that psychological discussions of forgiveness in the West have largely taken for granted
a liberal Christian conception of forgiveness as not requiring repentance, a view that Jewish theologians have vehemently
questioned. A second proposed avenue for dialogue is a book on forgiveness that develops a particular Augustinian perspective
on forgiveness in conversation with philosophical and psychological discussions of forgiveness.
Couenhoven’s investigation of the “Virtues and Perils of Forgiveness” during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years sought to counter abuses that turn forgiveness from a virtue into a vice by translating forgiveness’s redemptive hopefulness into a narcissistic focus on maintaining one’s own positive affect. Such misuses of forgiveness are best challenged not merely by critique but by offering constructive alternatives. Thus, he seeks to encourage the development of “thick” conceptions of forgiveness that appeal to and build on the traditions that already form the cultural bedrock of particular communities. His research suggests that since there is no one account of forgiveness to which everyone does or, on pain of irrationality, must agree, it is best to enliven discussion of forgiveness by drawing on the riches of particular traditions of thinking about and enacting forgiveness. Doing so helps to expose the shallowness of many currently popular conceptions of forgiveness, and to provide complex accounts of what it means to forgive, when it is appropriate to forgive, and how forgiveness is morally and psychologically possible.
Couenhoven sought to promote such discussion of forgiveness in two ways during the course of this grant. First, inter-religious discussion of forgiveness was pursued in an interdisciplinary conference on “Possibilities of Forgiveness,” held at Villanova University in February 2012. Second, Couenhoven’s publications and ongoing writing projects are focused on developing the traditional Christian notions that forgiveness is a relational gift offered by survivors who seek to separate sinners from their sin, and sought by sinners who desire to address the injuries and relational rifts caused by their evil.
In addition to organizing the above-mentioned conference on forgiveness, Couenhoven teaches on forgiveness at Villanova University. In development of the idea that forgiveness is a response to sin, he has published reviews of Gary Anderson’s recent history of sin in Modern Theology, and of Emilie Townes’s Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. Oxford University Press will be publishing his book When We Were Yet Dead in Our Sins: An Augustinian Essay on Responsibility, which deals with questions about sin and freedom that form an essential background to his discussion of forgiveness. Couenhoven has also recently published an article on freedom in the International Journal of Systematic Theology and he has completed his research for, and continues to make progress writing, a book manuscript entitled A Severe Grace: Forgiveness, Sin, and Sacrifice. Drafts of the first three chapters of the book begin with an inquiry about what it means to forgive, and then focus on developing the implications of the traditional religious ideas that forgiveness is primarily a divine prerogative, and that God sacrificially saves persons from their sin through the gift of a new identity, as well as systems of penitence.
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