Jesse Couenhoven on Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ

Publication Year: 2013


Matthew Puffer: Jesse, first, I’d like to register my gratitude for the many substantive contributions your work brings to Christian theology and ethics — furthering our understanding of Augustine and his development, engaging in critical conversation with several doctrines of original and inherited sin while advancing your own constructive account, and rendering human responsibility simultaneously more capacious and more humane. It’s quite an impressive set of achievements gathered into one book.

I am particularly interested to know what admonitions you might offer to scholars and other interlocutors who engage Augustine’s writings for various projects and purposes that claim the moniker “Augustinian.” You project begins by identifying five main elements in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, and you focus primarily on the third element, inherited sin, in reconstructing an “Augustinian” account of original sin. Throughout, you affirm those features in Augustine’s writings that you find salutary and point out those that you find unpersuasive. And, in occasional asides, you note that interpreters of Augustine are led astray at times by insufficiently nuanced readings of his works (21-22, 60, 193). I wonder if you might share a bit about your own interpretive commitments that guide your readings of Augustine and what, if anything, you try to keep in mind as you write. Perhaps this is a separate but related question, but given your own wrestlings with Augustine’s claims regarding original sin—as you discerned which to “ignore,” which to “reject,” and which to “retrieve” or “revise” (109)—how do you think about what the term “Augustinian” conveys or, perhaps, ought to convey? [I had in mind this sort of turn of phrase: “account of responsibility that I take to be Augustinian, though it is not Augustine’s” (110).]

Jesse Couenhoven: Because his thought is so important, and because his writing can be so eloquent, Augustine is of interest to people from many backgrounds. This has led to a great many readings of Augustine’s work, but most readers focus only on a few texts, especially the Confessions. That sort of snapshot approach is understandable—Augustine’s corpus is so large that even Augustine scholars cannot read all his major works, let alone the sermons, letters, and commentaries. But it can easily lead to a distorted picture of a figure whose thought was both fairly systematic across texts and continuously being developed. So it is important to read Augustine’s texts in conversation with one another. Readers also have a tendency to think of Augustine as a theological and literary figure, but they often miss the philosophical complexity of his work. Augustine’s less eloquent texts can be conceptually very interesting—even if they are also sometimes tedious. Those are some points I keep in mind as I read Augustine.

A lot of rather different parties have called themselves “Augustinian” in recent years, so the term has been used in many ways. One of the things Augustinians have common is a recognition of a debt we owe. We might disagree with Augustine in significant ways but we also rely on Augustine for some idea that is fundamental to our topics. An Augustinian account engages in sympathetic retrieval. I call my work on freedom and agency Augustinian because it is more indebted to Augustine than to any other intellectual figure. I also do so to emphasize that my work on controversial soteriological issues does not take a “party line” that could be identified with particular Protestant or Catholic approaches. Augustine comes before all that. He also inadvertently starts many controversies, but that is a sign of the fertility of his thought.

What was your inspiration for this project?

Few people in recent decades have praised Augustine’s views about original sin. It seems pessimistic to say that everyone is in bondage to evil, and worse to then blame them for it. But when I read Augustine in college, Augustine’s picture of human nature struck me as honest and insightful. Augustine does not teach that everyone is completely evil. Rather, he suggests that we are beings who find ourselves stuck with flawed attitudes and desires that we did not necessarily choose to have, and that that condition leads to imperfection even in much of the good we do. The idea that we inherit flawed loves and beliefs that we only partially control is the core of his doctrine of original sin. Augustine also argues that even when we become trapped by our imperfect character we do not entirely lose the agency that makes us accountable for those imperfections.

When I saw Augustine saying that destructive inclinations lie deeper in our personalities than our choices can often manage, I thought—that describes the lives of a lot of people I know. We have a tendency to be both agents and victims of the things we desire or believe. Alcoholics are a classic example since that drink they want, which they think makes their lives bearable, also wrecks them. Most of us are not alcoholics, but in my experience most of us do have character flaws that we discover in ourselves rather than choose to have. As I became aware of the complexities of people’s lives in high school and in college, I was not sure how to respond to them—should I feel pity when people are trapped by their own personal inclinations, or would it better to show “tough love”? Augustine raises profound questions about how we are and are not responsible for who we have become, and for the good and the bad that we do. One of the main reasons I went to graduate school was my desire to further explore those ideas.

Why should the general public be interested in this work?

Here are two reasons. The questions about agency, blame, and freedom taken up in my book are questions that confront each of us every day. We all have an interest in them. When we deal with questions about who to praise or blame, how much, and for what, our society tends to push us towards a false dichotomy of either seeing ourselves as victims who lack agency and are not responsible, or seeing ourselves as autonomous agents who can always make a better choice. My argument is that we really do lack control over significant aspects of who we are, and thus over much of what we do, but that we are active, accountable agents nevertheless. These are ideas that a lot of people want to hold together, but it has been hard to do so because our culture is so deeply indebted to a libertarian framework that encourages us to see ourselves as self-determining. My work offers an alternative way of thinking about freedom and about our agency, one that emphasizes our dependent and social nature.

Second, Augustine’s legacy continues to shape the West for good and ill. He continues to be a hugely popular conversation partner, mentor, and whipping boy. But on some of his most important contributions, especially his teaching on freedom, sin, predestination, and grace, his views are widely misunderstood. My writing draws on texts that were historically quite influential but which have been ignored by modern readers. I argue that Augustine is more philosophically sophisticated than most of his readers have thought, and that his views are more insightful than they have been credited with being. I also try to clarify how the various aspects of Augustine’s theology are related. We often think that all of Augustine’s ideas about sin or grace stand or fall together, but I argue that we might want to appropriate some of his claims even if we think we should leave other aspects of his thought behind. We could, for instance, appropriate his ideas about original sin without taking a stand on his claims about a historic Adam and Eve.

In the second half of the book your constructive account of original sin explores a range of issues from legal punishment to psychological disease, coercion, character formation, and sexism. You disaggregate concepts often conflated in contemporary religious ethics: libero arbitrium, freedom, responsibility, culpability, and punishment. The discussions of freedom and responsibility are particularly prescient, distinguishing between libertarian notions of freedom in which choice is an essential feature and compatibilist notions in which choice is not constitutive of a human freedom that, like divine freedom, is construed in terms of love for goodness (73-85). Drawing on this work, you show how sexism is justly blameworthy even if one’s sexist beliefs and desires are ignorantly and involuntarily inherited. I remain responsible for my sexist beliefs, desires, and (in)action even if I cannot avoid inheriting these attributes. I wonder what, in your estimation, are the most salutary implications of this more expansive and more humane account of responsibility within American public policy? Put differently, what institutions or social structures are in greatest need of disruptions and renewals informed by this revised “Augustinian” doctrine of original sin? 

If freedom is tied to what is good for me, bad choices can make me less free. This means that it might really be conducive to my freedom for friends or perhaps even my community to push me towards what they think is clearly best for me (if they aren’t sure, that is a different matter). Some have started to call this idea “soft paternalism” (though I’d like to find a better term). Here is a compelling example: talk about medical decision-making continues to focus on respecting patient autonomy, but when you actually ask patients you find that they want decisions to be strongly guided by physicians, who have more experience than they do, and are not in the midst of the emotional turmoil a diagnosis can bring. Patients often feel oppressed rather than freed by the pressure to decide and the charade that physicians don’t guide the process in subtle ways. So we need to talk about something other than patient autonomy here. I think the view that I call “Augustinian Compatibilism,” the view that freedom and responsibility can be compatible with certain kinds of determinations, is a helpful alternative.

Our thinking about punishment, in and out of the legal system, would also be changed if we thought about the shape of our sin and the nature of our agency differently. We have a tendency to be either too harsh to those we blame, on the presumption that their involvement in evil was entirely up to them, or too lenient when we see the ways in which perpetrators are also victims. We need to find ways to punish and to blame that offer a more subtle combination of grace and retribution that fits the kind of agents we are. We do not want to give up on the claim that average human agents are indeed responsible for their good and bad actions and character, but we should become more sensitive to the likelihood that their responsibility is somewhat weak. Often, we need to see more clearly the ways in which responsibility is shared among groups of people. I hope to publish more on these ideas in the future.

What is one question that you wish someone would ask you about your work, and how would you answer?

One question that people often ask me about my work on original sin is why someone would waste time on an idea that seems negative and abstruse. One reply is that my work is focused as much on the nature of human agency as on sin; in writing about sin and grace I am trying to understand human moral psychology a little better. In order to do that we have to think about what drives the good and the bad in human actions. It is not pessimistic to write about crime, since doing so can help us understand crime and respond to it better. The same is true about the doctrine of sin. Talking about sin is talking about bad things we consider human agents culpable for. These can be everyday peccadillos; when I speak of evil I simply mean things that we consider wrong or bad in some way. It can be helpful to think about the nature of small and large agential evils because that helps us deal with them.

Thinking about things like the nature of sin, of freedom, and the psychology of human agency can seem abstract but these are topics of everyday importance. Like medical problems, they can get complicated quickly, but that does not mean we can ignore them. We all regularly blame or praise ourselves and the people around us for many actions and attitudes, and we can hardly stop doing so. Thus, it is essential for us to do the hard work of thinking about the presuppositions implicit in our practices of rewarding, blaming, and punishing. We need, for instance, to think about the significant role that luck plays in people’s successes and failures. A lot of politicians are given credit for accomplishments that they had less control over than they try to make it appear; a lot of prisoners may likewise have had less control over their having become “bad eggs” than we like to admit. Thinking about these questions can help us treat one another better.

A question I wish more people would ask concerns the medical metaphors in the title of my book—being stricken and being cured are not typically associated with agency but rather with being acted upon. Augustine uses such metaphors regularly in order to highlight such questions. Engaging them made the second half of my book a reflection on how we should think about the images of disease and therapy that we often use when we talk about actions being “sick” and people “needing help.” Social scientific research suggests that we often are passive in ways that these metaphors reach to express. That is a reality we must grapple with as we consider how to respond to our friends and communities.

Jesse Couenhoven

About Jesse Couenhoven

Jesse Couenhoven is an Associate Professor at Villanova University. He is currently finishing a book on the development of doctrines of free will and predestination in the Augustinian tradition.

Matthew Puffer

About Matthew Puffer

Matthew Puffer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the UVa Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a Research Associate at the UVa Center for Global Health. He holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia and an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Matthew Puffer

Matthew Puffer

Matthew Puffer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the UVa Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and a Research Associate at the UVa Center for Global Health. He holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia and an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary.

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