Forgiveness as a Virtue | An Interview with Goodwin Prize Winner Joseph McCrave

Awards for the Goodwin Prize are given to graduate students whose essays demonstrate creative theological thinking, excellence in scholarship, faithful witness to the Christian tradition, and engagement with the community of faith.

The $2,500 prize was awarded to Joseph McCrave (Boston College) for the essay, "Forgiveness as a Virtue for Transitional Justice Contexts: Towards a Constructive Account."  McCrave’s faculty advisor receives an award of $500.

What inspired you to pursue an advanced degree in theology?  

I originally entered into theology reluctantly -- it was a mandatory counterpart to philosophy in my undergraduate program. During these studies, however, I came to understand the intellectual heritage of the Christian tradition to be rich and complex; sometimes troubling yet also more sophisticated than I had previously imagined. Having experienced this look "inwards" at Christian theology, I wanted to pursue graduate study to look "outwards," at the relationship of theology to life, with two broad questions in mind. Firstly, what insights does theology present for the practical attempt to live a good life? Secondly, what is the relation of these specifically theological insights to other ways of looking at the world which are found in pluralistic societies? I.e., how should I live and who cares what I think about that? My Ph.D. program at Boston College, then, is in theological ethics, specializing in political ethics. 

What do you hope to do with your degree? 

I hope to be able to teach, write and continue to live with these questions.

Where do you see connections between your personal faith, your intellectual work and the other aspects of your life? 

As an "ethicist" I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "the virtues." Of course, the trouble with this is that sooner or later you have to try to embody them! Fortunately, I have had wonderful teachers who have shown me that doing so is compatible with academic life. 

Inspiring moments of faith can certainly drive me to live better and think better about how to live better. More often, I find myself readjusting and reshaping my understanding of faith as I'm challenged by encounters with new theological (and other) ideas and voices.

How would you summarize your paper for someone without a theological background? 

In the generation since the landmark projects of "political reconciliation" of the 1990s, such as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "forgiveness" has exploded as a research topic across the humanities and social sciences. The practical and social impact of forgiveness is now undoubted even as its promises and pitfalls continue to be debated. In order to understand forgiveness more clearly, both advocates and skeptics have focused on the act of forgiveness and how it may or may not work at the political level. A relatively neglected mode of analysis -- but one latent in some strands of the Christian tradition -- is to understand forgiveness first as a personal quality or virtue, which leads to action. In the paper, I suggest that in order to have a better understanding of what we do when we forgive (even in political contexts) we should first think about who we are when we forgive. What kind of people do we want to be when it comes to responding to wrongdoing? I draw on the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and his understanding of mercy to suggest that forgiveness -- being forgiving -- is a virtue. Possessing this virtue does not mean forgiving everything all the time but rather forgiving "well", e.g.: at the right time; in the right situations; and for good reasons. Furthermore, it is a virtue but it is not the only virtue. It is interwoven with others such as justice, prudence and self-care. All of this does not answer the hard questions about forgiveness and when it is right but it re-frames the question in what I see as a helpful way.   

How might this award make a difference in your life? 

On an existential level I am grateful for this recognition and it inspires me to keep working. 

On a practical financial level, my laptop is quickly dying/journeying towards laptop heaven, even as I write this, so I'm very much looking forward to updating it! Thank you.

How do you spend your time when you are not studying? 

When graduate study is not all-consuming, my interests include playing football (soccer) and watching movies. When graduate study is all-consuming, I sneak in time to listen to podcasts about soccer and movies. 

Any other comments? 

I would like to thank the people most directly responsible for helping me to produce the paper. These are my teachers at Boston College, in particular professors Stephen J. Pope, Lisa Sowle Cahill and James F. Keenan. Their courses and personal feedback provided the formative influences for the content. I'd also like to thank Katia, my wife, for her constant support amidst her own demanding life as a Ph.D. student, especially for putting up with the many late nights spent writing papers such as this one over recent years.