Celebrated systematic theologian Westhelle remembered for faith/science contributions

Vítor Westhelle/By Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Vítor Westhelle, professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, died on May 13 after living with cancer since early 2017.
The LSTC community gathered to honor Westhelle on May 14 and 15 at prayer services that was followed by a celebration of life on May 17 at Augustana Chapel at LSTC.

Westelle’s impactful theology was remembered in the funeral sermon given by Rev. Dr. Kathleen D. (Kadi) Billman. “The first and last word in remembering the faithful life of Vítor Westhelle must be the opening sentence of this verse: “Beloved, we are God’s children now. Now. In all things, at all times—especially in times of suffering and grief. For that is what Vítor said over and over: God is especially to be found among the suffering ones, in the places God is most in danger of being unrecognized,” she said.

He was a prolific writer and editor who published works in English, Portuguese and Spanish including 14 books and hundreds of articles and book chapters.

Students familiar with his writing came to LSTC from around the world to study with Westhelle. His recent books included Transfiguring Luther: The Planetary Promise of Luther’s Theology, (Cascade Books, 2016).
Perhaps what is less known is some of his role within the faith and science dialogue. In 2001, he edited along with Ralph Klein a piece on Philip Hefner and the Created Co-Creator for Currents in Theology and Mission. He also wrote a number of articles for the Zygon Journal of Religion and Science, which has its editorial offices at LSTC. These articles include a piece titled, “Towards an Ethics of Knowledge.”

Much of his scholarly work is detailed on the LSTC website, but he also published and spoke in relation to two key conferences that were influential in spurring the ELCA to support a working group on faith and science. That working group was later to become the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, which sponsors this website.
Westhelle was born January 25, 1952, in Taquara, Brazil. He began his theological studies in 1972 at the former Faculdade de Teologia da IECLB, now Faculdades EST, in São Leopoldo, RS.

In 1977, the year he completed his bachelor’s degree, he participated in the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Westhelle received a scholarship to study at LSTC and earned a ThM in 1980 and completed his PhD in systematic theology in 1984 while teaching at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary (now Luther Seminary) in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In 1985, Westhelle returned to Brazil and served as pastor of a 13-point parish in Paróquia Evangélica de Matelândia and as coordinator of the Commission on Land in Paraná working with those struggling for land and justice.
Westhelle was also remembered for his role in a consultation is that is often referred to simply as the Cyprus Conference. Held in 1987 in Larnaca, Cyprus, the Evangelical Church in America and the Lutheran World Federation sponsored the event with the theme of “The New Scientific/Technological World: What Difference Does It Make for the Churches?”

The proceedings were published under the title, The New Faith-Science Debate, and included a chapter written by Westhelle on Latin America.

“The challenge we face in our subcontinent is not just an ethical one,” he wrote. “Our challenge demands serious consideration of what is at stake in an encounter of different ideologies and world views. If only a few strata or intellectual communities are involved in an encounter, the question is unavoidable: Whose interest is it to promote the world views of modern science?”

From 1989 to 1992, Westhelle was professor of systematic theology and ethics at Escola Superior de Teologia in São Leopoldo.

Following his return to LSTC in 1993, he was a plenary speaker at a second key conference in the history of the ecumenical faith and science movement in which the Lutheran Alliance has its roots. The national conference on the theme of “Science, Technology and the Christian Faith” was held at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minnesota. The event was organized by professor Per Anderson and helped foster personal and professional associations shared by current Lutheran Alliance members.

More recently from 2010 to 2016 he split his year between Chicago, Denmark and Brazil, serving as honorary professor of theology at the University of Aarhus and occupying the Chair of Luther Research at Escola Superior de Teologia as well as his role as professor of systematic theology.

“For me, one of the many remarkable things about Vítor was that he not only reflected the riches of global Lutheranism beyond a narrowly Euroamerican frame, but in turn contributed to that gift in ways that were always insightful, surprising, and graciously unsettling,” said LSTC President James Nieman in a press release statement. “Knowing him and his impact for my entire life in teaching and administration, I am very saddened by his untimely death, but also very hopeful that his impact on an emerging generation of scholars is enduring and profound.”

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