December 14, 2020
Nancy J. Duff is a Christian ethicist renowned for helping students wrestle with tough topics like physician-assisted death and abortion.
But this Princeton Theological Seminary professor says her particular calling came as a surprise.
Duff was completing her PhD in systematic theology in 1985 when she landed a job teaching ethics at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth.
“It was stunning to me that I was teaching courses on medical ethics and human sexuality,” Duff says. “But I came to love it, almost immediately.”
She quickly found her voice, teaching and writing on an array of moral issues that had come to the forefront amid medical advances, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution.
“Nancy came into her own at a critical time, paid attention to the important issues, and then moved these issues forward in ways that made her a significant voice,” says a former student, Mark Douglas, ThM ’94, MDiv ’93, a professor of Christian ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia.
Now, after three decades of helping Princeton Seminary students confront the key ethical questions of our era, Duff is retiring at the end of the fall semester.
“It's a privilege to teach here,” said Duff, the Stephen Colwell Associate Professor of Christian Ethics. “I'll really miss the classroom. Students in the classroom feed what you do with your scholarship.”
Duff was drawn to ethics as a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary, where she did her dissertation on the Protestant theologian Paul L. Lehmann, an ardent supporter of civil liberties and an opponent of McCarthyism.
“He was a theological ethicist, affirming that what you believe theologically has immediate implications for how we're to live responsibly in the world,” she said.
Duff built on that foundation at Princeton Seminary, creating compelling courses like “The Ethics of Resisting and Accepting Death,” as well as classes on the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Black liberation theologian James Cone.
“There was energy around what she was doing,” Douglas said of his former professor. “She gave students the ability to understand moral issues in theological ways.”
With students tackling thorny issues, Duff required them to understand and respect different points of view. Students had to complete papers stating the opposing position thoroughly, clearly, and fairly.
“I invite disagreement, but it can't be disrespectful, she said. “You have to understand what the other person is saying before you disagree.”
And no matter how difficult the topic, Duff taught that compassion is one of the highest forms of ethical action. In her “Ethics of the Ten Commandments” course, she showed how the first three commandments focus on strengthening humans’ relationship with God.
“That immediately puts us in relationship with one another,” she said. “So, when we turn to God in times of tragedy and turmoil, that also means we turn to one another, supporting those who are suffering and seeking that support for ourselves.”
“At Princeton, we had precept groups—we’d engage text and debate. That gave me confidence to have those conversations anywhere.”