'The Chicago School' and the origins of a scholarly faith/science dialogue

A 2015 lecture on Religous Naturalism featuring Lea F. Schweitz (Credit: skepticalview via Flickr)

Chicagoans interested in human origins often attend a long-running lecture series in Hyde park called “The Epic of Creation” at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science housed at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Little do many know that this corner of the world is one venerable and critical site where the U.S. modern faith and science dialogue has come to the fore.  (Since Covalence also has its origins here, I am interested in giving some attention to this site of faith and science history.)

Beginning in late 1980s, the Epic (as it has come to be known) was designed by physicist Thomas Gilbert, who quietly sat in the front row and allowed free-form questioning of any given evening’s lecturer. Occasionally he would add a few questions of his own just to break the ice.

Gilbert, who retired in the early 2000s, died in 2016.  He was a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and was an academic fellow at the Zygon Center. He was one of a number of scientists at Argonne who were also Christian and he encouraged his successor Gayle Woloschak to attend the Epic series, where she later presented and has now led since 2007.

It was the infectious curiosity of Gilbert and other long-time (life-time) students that allowed the religion and science dialogue to flourish in the hallways of LSTC over the years.

LSTC will once again be celebrating this rich faith and science legacy in welcoming back Rev. Dr. Antje Jackelén, who is now the Archbishop of Uppsala and Primate of the Church of Sweden. She will give a lecture on the Reformation entitled Reformation and Responsibility in the World. A long-time theology and science scholar, Jackelén headed up the Zygon Center for four years before accepting her election as Bishop of Lund in 2007, she undoubtedly will bring her own faith and science scholarship into her November 27 public lecture.

In attendance will be a number of luminaries from LSTC, but also long-time leaders in faith and science, such as those who are active on the board for the Center for the Advanced Study in Religion and Science, which is based at the school and includes Woloschak, astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase, religion-and-science author and scholar Carol Albright and Mladen Turk, who is the Niebuhr Distinguished Chair and associate professor of religion studies at Elmhurst College.

Also, likely to be in attendance will be Willem Drees, outgoing editor of the Zygon Journal, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016.

The discussion at the seminary will be thought-provoking as always and topical in relation to the intersection of theology and science as it stands today, which is very different than it was back in the early 1960s.

In 1965, the founder of what was to later become the Zygon Center, Ralph Wendell Burhoe, was seriously thinking about how to create a unique legacy in Chicago’s Hyde Park. Initially this began as he took a teaching position at Meadville Lombard, a seminary for the Unitarian/Universalist Church, which is just a few blocks away from where a new Lutheran seminary had just been built and a professor named Philip Hefner had been teaching systematic theology.

'The Chicago School' and the origins of a scholarly faith and science dialogue

2014 Common Good Talk featuring Dr. Phil Hefner (Credit: zygoncenter via Flickr)

Burhoe worked closely with Hefner and eventually Hefner was to take his place in leading the Center and also edited for many years the Zygon Journal of Religion and Science. Dr. Rev. William Lesher, president of LSTC, was also instrumental in moving the new center into the seminary. The center was one of the first of its kind to be housed in a denominational setting.

In setting up a center, he wrote: “The task of integrating the sciences with religion is very complex and delicate and involves many areas of the sciences and many aspects of life and man’s understanding of the nature of life. Most religions, cultures, and scientific systems have evolved to complexly integrated structures without people being very conscious of what is going on….” (Yoking Science and Religion, 1992, David R. Breed, pg. 91).

Other institutions have also flourished over the years, such as the Center for the Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California. But for many, the Chicago School of faith and science founded by Burhoe as the Chicago Center for Religion and Science will stand out from the rest. The center moved from Meadville to LSTC in the early 1970s.

Within the steering committee for the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, who publish Covalence, the connections to LSTC and the Zygon Center run strong. Dr. Lea Schweitz is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology/Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. Our liaison with the Office of the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Roger Willer, is an LSTC graduate and was active in the Advanced Seminar during graduate days at the U. of C.  Steering committee member Dana Hendershot earned her M.Div at LSTC with an emphasis on religion and science. John Albright has been a visiting professor at the school and Lou Ann Trost has also studied at LSTC.

Hyde Park has been home to a generation of influential theologians and even caught the eye of one woman who was to become Bishop of the Church of Sweden and an active promoter of faith and science on the world stage.

It is a unique legacy worth pondering and building upon for future generations.

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