Forgetting and Forgiving: An Augustinian Perspective

Lydia Schumacher

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


In a well-known passage of Scripture, the disciple Peter approaches Jesus and inquires, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers him, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Often, these words are taken to imply that there should be no limit on our willingness to overlook offences committed against us. They supposedly suggest that we must seek to be reconciled with offenders no matter how frequently or egregiously they harm us. To sum up: forgiveness on Christ’s, and the Christian, understanding, is intrinsically self-sacrificial, even self-destructive.

In this contribution, I wish to call the interpretation of forgiveness as reconciliation into question and offer an alternative to it. As an account of Christian forgiveness, it seems contrary to Christ’s purpose of restoring his image in all human beings, thus reinstating the capacity of individuals to realize the potential they receive through his creative work, which is inevitably thwarted by unjust treatment. As I understand it, the common tendency to conflate forgiveness and reconciliation is in many cases attributable to a misunderstanding of the precise way that forgetting factors into authentic forgiveness.

With a view to overcoming this misunderstanding, I will begin by delineating a general account of the way memory operates—first with regard to ordinary objects of knowledge and then in relation to God as an object of knowledge. In this connection, I will show how forgetting can either facilitate or hinder the work of the memory in both contexts. To this end, I will draw heavily on the work of St Augustine, especially his Confessions, and particularly book ten, which includes one of his most famous, focused treatments of memory and forgetting.

In the light of Augustine’s insights on memory and forgetting, I will construct an alternative definition of forgiveness. According to this definition, forgiveness is primarily ordered towards preserving the integrity of forgivers, by making it possible for them to heal and move on from painful experiences. So construed, forgiveness is concerned only secondarily, if at all, with the question of reconciling the offending and offended parties in any given instance. After advancing this argument, I will demonstrate how my fundamental conception of forgiveness plays out in four distinct contexts, namely, through self-forgiveness or efforts to renounce and avoid repeating personal mistakes; through forgiveness amongst individuals; forgiveness between groups and/or institutions; and divine forgiveness, which will be described in a certain sense as the precondition for the other forms of forgiveness.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationForgetting and Forgiving
Subtitle of host publicationAt the Margins of Soteriology
EditorsHartmut von Sass, Johannes Zachhuber
Place of PublicationTubingen
PublisherMohr Siebeck
ISBN (Print)9783161540813
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2015

Publication series

NameReligion in Philosophy and Theology


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