David Pacini: The Best Kind of Tough


Claire Asbury Lennox
May 10, 2021

“Terrifying.” “Tough.” “Gracious.” “Generous.”

When all these adjectives are used to describe one Candler faculty member, who else could they be referring to but Professor of Historical and Philosophical Theology David S. Pacini?

DavidPacini02-crop.jpgPacini, who retires this month, came to Candler in 1980. In the 41 years since, he has cultivated a reputation as the most challenging of professors—with the most gracious of hearts.

“I have learned repeatedly that, when challenged, many students rise to the requirements of thinking deeply, and thereafter crave opportunities to continue in their growth,” he says. “I have the impression that we too often talk down to students and teach them implicitly to do the same with their parishioners.”

Professor Emeritus in the Practice of New Testament Interpretation Steve Kraftchick recalls advisees asking if they should take a course with his friend and colleague. “A Pacini class is not for the faint-hearted, so I would answer with a question of my own: ‘Do you want to work hard and think even harder?’”

Several classmates advised Donnell Williamson 18T against taking Pacini’s HC 503 course “Reformation to the 20th Century” during his first year at Candler. “I’m so glad I didn’t listen to them,” Williamson says now. “Dr. Pacini walked with me through my maturation as an overly eager seminarian to becoming a serious philosopher of religion. At some of my lowest points, he reminded me of the difference my scholarship can have when I remain true to myself and what I believe.”

pacini-story3.jpgAllan Sandlin 89T recalls his first encounter with Pacini as a prospective student during Woodruff Fellowship interviews. “Dr. Pacini had remained silent, though he seemed to be listening intently. I had begun to think I would escape the interview unscathed, but then he leaned into the conversation and posed a particularly pointed and challenging question, and I left the interview feeling a bit unsettled.” So much so, Sandlin says, that when he started classes that fall, “I might have prayed that David Pacini would not be assigned as my faculty advisor. Of course, that’s exactly what happened. He became not only my advisor, but a trusted and wise counselor, and ultimately, a cherished friend.”

“He is tough,” agrees Adam Mathes12T 20G, who began studying with Pacini after three combat tours in Iraq. And yet, Mathes says, it’s more than that. “He expects and demands that his students think. He attracts students who want to be challenged in how they think as much as in what they think. Pacini invites his students to confront the limits of thinking that inform religious commitments. He helps his students to become positioned to think in a new way.”

Pacini served as director of Candler’s Master of Theological Studies degree program from 2015 to 2020. He also coordinated the Theology and the Arts concentration as part of the MDiv program, chaired the Historical Studies in Theology and Religion program in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, and has served on numerous university and Candler committees. In 2019, Pacini received the Eleanor Main Graduate Faculty Mentor Award from the university’s Laney Graduate School, honoring those who set the standard for mentoring excellence at Emory.

He notes that he might once have considered past achievements—including co-chairing a yearlong university-wide exploration of human rights in 1982, publishing three books, and serving Candler and Emory in various administrative appointments—more significant than he does now. But he who insists on hard questions and deep thinking in his students adopts that same approach for himself, and he has reevaluated his accomplishments.

“Over the course of the past four or more decades, I have come to rethink what matters most. At present, what stands out most are the relationships I have made with persons who differ significantly from me,” he says. “I have learned much from them, including how to help them say what is truly of significance to them. Perhaps even more, I treasure the occasions when others have borrowed some of my thinking and have recast it in their own words, in ways of which I am often envious.”

Pacini-LCPacini’s research explores the boundaries and intersections of literature, art history, psychoanalytic theory and philosophical theology in modern European thought. Charles Howard Candler Professor Emeritus of American Religious History Brooks Holifield says Pacini is distinctive in his creative use of the visual arts to stimulate thinking and illumine the history of Christian thought. “He makes the arts come alive for students and helps them see how visual artists of the past and the present gave expression to the Christian spirituality of their age.”

Steve Kraftchick quotes the poem “Poetry is a Kind of Lying” by Jack Gilbert (who, he notes, is one of Pacini’s favorites): Degas said he didn’t paint what he saw, but what would enable them to see the thing that he had.

“It is always easy to tell people things; it is much harder to point them in the direction of discovery and learning,” Kraftchick says. “Through art, music, architecture, and the well-turned phrase, Pacini would point his students—myself included—to the aesthetic nature of doing theology in hopes that they would join him in learning its subtleties and nuances.”

“Through his love of visual art, David has shown his students ways to explore ideas about and experiences of God that go beyond words,” says Associate Professor in the Practice of Youth Education and Peacebuilding Elizabeth Corrie 96T 02G, who claims Pacini not only as her colleague, but as both her MDiv advisor at Candler and her doctoral advisor in the GDR. “What’s more, his mentorship of students has shown them depths to themselves they did not know were there—or did not believe could be valued by the academy or the church.”

Pacini’s dedication to his students and faith in their abilities is broadly known and deeply felt across generations of Candler alumni. “It cannot be overstated, nor should it be underestimated, how much David believes in us,” says Kevin Crawford 14T 17T. “Not only in our coursework, but in our capacity to care for and be a community with one another. It may have sounded like expectation, and those expectations may have felt unreachable. However, I think those expectations are rooted in a faithfulness in God and what God will do in the lives of these students.”

This tenacious commitment to deep thinking applied to faculty and policy decisions as well. “No one on the Candler faculty made me think as hard as David did,” says Steve Kraftchick. “He was always able to ask the question that made me reconsider a ‘given fact that everyone knew.’ David’s gift is that he thinks slant, he changes the viewing angle on what we know, or think we know, and that makes us think again and often to know something better. But it is not facts alone that we reconsider, but how we came to think of them as facts to begin with. We also begin to ask what the grounds for this knowledge are.”

Pacini-MTSFelecia McDuffie92T 00G, who served as associate professor of religious studies at both Young Harris College and Georgia Gwinnett College, describes Pacini as a transformative teacher who became a lifelong mentor, with his passion for knowledge living alongside a welcoming and open heart. “If I had to choose one characteristic above all that I think of when I think of David Pacini, it is generosity,” McDuffie says. “Emory and its students have been privileged to have a man generous in his interests, with his time and concern, and with his enthusiasm for his students and their growth.”

One of many who has seen this firsthand is Associate Professor of American Religious History Alison Greene, who took the reins from Pacini as director of the MTS program in 2020. “David’s extraordinary commitment to teaching and mentoring has created a unique and close-knit MTS program at Candler, one that is a delight for a new director to inherit.” Though Pacini has been on sabbatical during his final year on faculty, Greene says that he volunteered to remain engaged with the MTS program “to support me—which he has done selflessly and generously at every turn—to ensure a smooth transition, and—most of all, I suspect—to send off one more cohort of MTS graduates onto new paths and into new careers.”

For Pacini, staying connected to the MTS cohort has been made even more important amid the isolation caused by COVID-19. “The pandemic has upended all of us, disrupting nearly every feature of our lives. Indirectly, it has rendered us more task-oriented and even less capable of engaging in relationships than we have been in the past,” he says.

Pacini counts relationships as one of Candler’s greatest strengths, and his continued dedication and presence—even over Zoom—have made all the difference for MTS students. “In the time of COVID, Dr. Pacini’s virtual office door has always been open for questions, writing guidance, and life advice as I hurtled through my final semesters at Candler,” says second-year MTS student Alaina Keller, winner of the 2021 MTS Award for Academic Excellence. “He has been an invaluable guide in helping me accomplish goals that, two years ago, seemed impossible: a completed master’s thesis and a PhD acceptance. And, by his example, he has taught me to be a scholar, one who is honest, humble, and always striving to be better.”

pacini-story2.jpg“Humility” is a Pacini watchword that his students carry with them long after they’ve left his classes. “What I loved most about learning from him and with him, as a student and a teaching assistant, was his constant reminder to approach theological inquiry with humility—humility in the face of the One who created all things, in the stories of others, and within our own evolving stories,” says Tavares Stephens 18T. “For it’s in this humility that we’ll find life-giving insight for ministry, a thirst for learning that yields spiritual growth, and the recognition that both our doubt and our faith can be held together in a healthy tension that helps us realize that even our most succinct answers—if viewed closely—are simply gateways to questions that need more exploration. That mindset, which he always encouraged his students to embrace, is in its own way a move of grace that continues to bless me in life and ministry.”

Allan Sandlin says that as he discerned a call to ordained ministry, Pacini’s greatest impact came in his role as Sandlin’s Con Ed supervisor. “In the classroom, David’s students experienced his keen intellect at full throttle. In the context of hospitals and rehabilitation centers, his intellectual capacity took a back seat to his pastoral and more internal sensitivities. While he continued to ask probing questions of his students, he did so from a perspective of one who himself had known loss and pain. We all learned much about ourselves in the hours we spent reflecting on ministry and God with David Pacini—lessons that helped form us in permanent, indelible ways as pastors and priests.”

In 2006, Lance Presley 08T was on his way to Pacini’s “Intro to Christian Thought II” when he got the phone call that his father had died unexpectedly during the night.

“When Dr. Pacini was told what had happened, he stopped class immediately, walked out to where I was, and hugged me for the longest time,” Presley says. “I’m told that when he walked back into class, he led everyone in prayer for me and my family. Fifteen years later, his care still touches my soul.”

Yes, Pacini may have rightfully earned that tough reputation. But as he has navigated how to learn and think in fresh ways alongside generations of students, Adam Mathes says, “He leaves room for grace. Because of this, I believe, David’s work epitomizes what it means to administer theological education. He is the teacher for the brokenhearted. After grace, he helps his students think again.”

Preview photo: Cindy Brown 09T