When Bryan Ellrod 14T 15T 21G glances back at academic work for past Candler and Emory ethics courses, the margin notes from his professor stand out more than the papers themselves.
“More on this in pages to come, I presume. This remark appears on more than a few of my papers,” Ellrod recalls.
It’s a comment that might not mean much on the surface, or with every professor. But if you have been a student or colleague of Timothy P. Jackson, Bishop Mack B. and Rose Stokes Professor of Theological Ethics, its true significance shines forth.
“Too often I mistake academic rigor for searching after the flaws in the work of another,” says Ellrod. “Too seldom I recognize it as searching for the depths of her insights. Generous marginalia on the paper of a confused graduate student is the emphatic assertion that it is the latter.”
Indeed, Ellrod continues in his off-the-cuff exegesis, Jackson’s scribbled expectation is a sign of confidence in the paper and its writer. “If the insight would not show itself immediately, then it would emerge soon enough in the pages to come.”
By now, Tim Jackson has no doubt read countless student papers; he retires from Candler at the end of this academic term after 28 years on the faculty. And though Candler can officially claim him as one of their own, Jackson has made a broad impact in both scholarship and teaching across the Emory community during his tenure.
With roles as senior fellow at both the university’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion and its Center for Ethics, as well as serving as a faculty member in the Laney Graduate School’s Division of Religion, Jackson is arguably the professorial embodiment of Emory’s attention to the study of faith alongside the liberal arts and health sciences.
Reflecting on his illustrious career, he has words of high praise for his fellow scholars and teachers—who are, he declares emphatically, in a class all their own. “I have taught at Yale, Stanford, Harvard, and Notre Dame, but I have never known a finer group of colleagues than the one I have had at Emory. In addition to their significant scholarly publications and commitment to teaching, they are notable for their dedication to interdisciplinary collegial conversation.”
Jackson is known for research focusing on moral philosophy and theology, particularly the relationship between secular and Christian conceptions of truth, goodness, justice, freedom, and mercy. He has written three books, edited two, and contributed to many more. It is these publications and “the many excellent students whom I’ve had the pleasure to help educate over the years” that he takes the most pride in.
And because his Emory experience has spanned schools and units—not to mention a few courses featuring former U.S. President Jimmy Carter as a guest speaker—his interdisciplinary assortment of students has enriched and enlivened every class. “Having students from Theology, Law, Medicine, and Nursing has ensured that the discussions are usually lively and informed by different perspectives,” he says. “It has also kept me on my toes, staying abreast of recent theoretical and practical developments in a number of disciplines.”
Jackson’s courses featured former U.S. President Jimmy Carter as a guest speaker numerous times through the years. Photo courtesy of Jackson.
In 2020, Jackson won Emory’s Crystal Apple Award for Excellence in Professional School Education. Voted on by students, Crystal Apple Awards honor faculty who go above and beyond in their search for knowledge and involvement in the Emory community. Jackson’s nominator was herself a testament to his commitment: Jenna Lasky was then an Emory College undergraduate student Jackson permitted to take his graduate bioethics course.
“Dr. Jackson has opened my eyes to a world of crucial knowledge pertaining to Christianity, ethics, and morality,” Lasky wrote in her nomination. “He doesn’t believe anyone is limited by their age or their background.”
No matter the student or subject, Jackson has maintained strong standards for unpacking different viewpoints amid the emotions that can fly during debates about ethics. And he doesn’t stick to the sidelines.
“I have long acted on the conviction that students benefit when I both articulate the best arguments for each side of an ethical issue and eventually say what I myself believe and why. I invite criticism and make it clear that there is no pressure to agree with me; what counts in seminars and papers is clarity and cogency of reasoning, expressed with civility.
“This pedagogical style has become less popular in recent years,” he goes on. “We often deny the complexity of a question and fail to appreciate that people of good moral conscience might disagree. We also tend to forget the lessons taught by Jesus and practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr. that we must speak the truth and rectify social injustices, but we must also refuse to hate our enemies and ought to be open to forgiveness.”
Those traits of Jackson’s don’t go unnoticed among his students, and often lead to moments of transformation.
Sarah Kothe 18T 26G recalls a debate in Jackson’s History of Christian Ethics course over one question: Should Christian ethics require one to believe in the afterlife? Her ultimate takeaway had nothing to do with who was right or wrong. “What sticks with me were his remarks that we should be wary if our motivation for Christian discipleship and ethical action was rooted solely in a desire for a heavenly reward; instead, regardless of future consequences, we must choose the good because it is itself the reward.”
Now Jackson’s student in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, Kothe holds fast to that day’s lesson. “To be a scholar requires a commitment to see the intrinsic good of researching, writing, and teaching and dedicate one’s energy to these works without the assurance of external recognition. Dr. Jackson is such a scholar, and I am grateful to count him as a mentor.”
“More than a decade after I graduated, I still routinely hear Tim’s voice,” says Bradley Burroughs 12G, who serves as director of leadership and character in academic, civic, and religious life at Wake Forest University. Most impressive, he argues, is “the generosity with which Tim treats his students—especially when they disagree with him.” Burroughs recalls a peer who wrote an essay critical of Jackson’s own work.
“When the paper was returned, my classmate found detailed comments carefully dissecting his arguments and a final comment that read something like, ‘I remain unconvinced, but you have made the argument as well as it can be made. Nicely done. A.’ That willingness to engage seriously but generously is as quintessential to Tim Jackson as bourbon is to Kentucky,” Burroughs says, with a nod to Jackson’s home state pride.
James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership Robert M. Franklin, Jr. calls Jackson “one of the nation’s leading experts on ethical responses to antisemitism, racism, and hate. He has been a terrific public ethicist for Candler, representing us on the nation’s most prestigious platforms.”
Franklin recalls a course he and Jackson co-taught on race, religion, and ethics. “It confronted some of the most complicated and emotionally charged issues at the heart of American history and identity,” he says. “Like Abraham Lincoln, Tim brought his disarming Kentucky wit, knowledge of the Bible and the western classics, and his self-deprecating humor to help everyone navigate forward with compassion, respect, and grace.”
Jackson’s engagement with divergent perspectives has made a mark not only on his students, but on his own personal and scholarly journey. As part of a 2007 Emory-sponsored conference titled “Changing the Way We Die,” he served as a panelist on the morality of euthanasia with Margaret Battin, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Utah. The two debated the issue of physician-assisted suicide: Battin in favor, Jackson against. Done and dusted, that was that. Until it wasn’t.
In 2009, Jackson’s 87-year-old father quickly and painfully declined, bringing the philosophical concept of aiding the dying process into much starker light.
“Seeing Dad slowly expire was like watching a man drowning,” Jackson says. “Toward the end he was in such pain, struggling to breathe, that the hospice doctor agreed to give him increasing doses of morphine every few hours. We more or less intentionally ushered Dad into death—the technical phrase is ‘palliative sedation’—and I was very grateful for the ability to do so.”
The experience moved him to reach out to Battin, two years after they’d debated at Emory, to share that “though I had not fully migrated to her position for legal purposes, I had a new appreciation for its essential humaneness.”
Jackson received an unexpected response: Battin wrote back telling him that after a recent bicycle accident, her husband was now a quadriplegic. “She echoed my remarks, saying that though she had not fully embraced my position, she had a new understanding of the sanctity of human life.
“We had been moving toward each other from opposite ends of the ethical spectrum, and we were both grateful for the candor.”
From exchanges like this, it’s clear that Jackson never loses sight of the flesh and blood humans and their circumstances that make any ethical argument worth having—or able to be had at all. In turn, it’s no surprise that the word students use consistently when describing their interactions with him in and out of class is one he’s explored deeply in his scholarship: love.
Joseph Quattlebaum 18T quotes another Love: Candler’s dean. “Dean Jan Love would often say that the academic study of religion and theology is an act of loving God with one’s mind. Dr. Jackson is a shining example of this love. He consistently reminded us that our engagement with these tough questions was not simply a secular academic exercise, but one that should be informed by our faith.
“I felt that we were not so much learning from him as we were engaging and wrestling with difficult questions alongside him—that we were collectively loving God with our minds.”
Jackson’s focus on agape—the love God holds for humans and vice versa—is not only an academic pursuit, but is inherent to his identity as a person and a mentor.
“He loved to witness my progress and achievement,” says Eunchong Kim 22T. “He spared no words of commendation and praise. He used to say, ‘You deserve it!’ whenever I accomplished something. His encouragement helped me to be more confident in pursuing my studies and will always be a source of great nourishment for me. I continue to cherish the power of love and try to embrace it in my studies by remembering his teachings.”
For Bryan Ellrod, even Jackson’s expectant paper marginalia awaiting a student’s deeper insight tell a small but important part of a larger story. “Tim has not only written that to love is to express an unconditional commitment to the good of the other,” he says. “He has modeled it through the charitable attention he has extended to myriad divinity and doctoral students.”
Upon retiring from Emory, Jackson will head to his undergraduate alma mater, Princeton University, where this fall he will be a Stewart Visiting Fellow in the Council of the Humanities and teach his course “Christianity and the Holocaust.” In the spring, he will serve as a visiting professor in Princeton’s department of religion teaching biomedical ethics.
It will mark a new chapter where students and faculty alike will no doubt encounter the hallmarks of a Jackson education: Vigorous debate undergirded by respect. Tough questions alongside abundant encouragement. Political agape paired with a Lincolnesque Kentucky spirit.
There will surely be “more on this in pages to come,” we presume.
Top photo: Jackson after being installed as Bishop Mack B. and Rose Stokes Professor of Theological Ethics in August 2021.