Sleepy little Goshen, Indiana is well known for its Amish community, but is now also a religion and science Mecca in that since 2001 it has been home to discussions in theology and science that highlight internationally known leaders in the ongoing dialogue on belief and scientific worldviews. Philip Clayton, George Ellis, John Haught, Nancey Murphy and Phil Hefner have each spent a weekend on the Goshen College campus.
Goshen College, an institution rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, may seem an unlikely host for one of the premier annual religion and science conferences in the United States. Much of this is attributable though to one man who spent much of his formative years with only occasional brushes with God along the way.
Carl Helrich, now a retired physics professor at Goshen and organizer of the Goshen Religion and Science Conference, says: “To be invited as speaker to the Goshen conference is apparently something of a plumb.” While Helrich’s humility and gratitude is evident in the opportunities afforded him through the conference, his life is one that is also full of gratitude and a heaping dose of humility to realize that some events in life happen for a reason.
Helrich grew up in Tennessee, and his parents both had ties to Swedish socialism. As Swedish socialists both sides of the family were separate from the church.
While his mother was born in Stockholm, his father was born here of Swedish parents. On his father’s side the family was well-known in the Boston Swedish community and Helrich’s father would ultimately end up serving as a young soldier in World War I and became an agnostic as he was drafted into the artillery. His mother’s uncle fought in World War II as a US Merchant Marine, but was a socialist as well.
This would all explain why Helrich at age 11 kept a secret. His family lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during WWII, where his father was a project manager for a construction firm. On a street corner was where Helrich would have his first encounter with God.
“I was hit by a car on that street corner and not expected to live,” says Helrich.
The hospital was a half-mile way, and one of his father’s friends was in his office window overlooking the street corner when the accident occurred. He turned to his secretary immediately and told her to call an ambulance. It turned out that Helrich had swallowed his tongue and was not breathing and time was short.
“I came out reasoning that God saved me and that I belonged to God,” recalls Helrich. “I told nobody that, however.” While his Christian friends in Tennessee all figured Helrich was a heathen, in reality he was a monotheist.
Getting an education
In college he had no exposure to religion. He was an engineering student at Case Institute of Technology and eventually went to Northwestern University for his Ph.D. with a simple monotheistic conviction. Helrich says, “Actually Christians used to bother me because they thought they were the only people who were right.”
While at Northwestern, he fell in love with a journalism major who was a Christian and involved with Campus Crusade for Christ. She had done an article on the Reba Place Fellowship, a Mennonite community in Evanston, Illinois.
One evening he told his girlfriend that he could see why God sent Jesus, but he didn’t see how it affected him. She challenged him to come up with Jesus’ teachings and he realized at that point he did not know. So he returned the next day and was lent a Bible after realizing that he did not know what the most important figure in history taught.
At this time Betty Jane, whom Helrich would later marry, was a friend and a graduate student in biology. Each morning on his way to breakfast on campus he would listen to Betty Jane tell of her problems with another biology graduate student she had fallen in love with, but unfortunately did share the same feelings. Lending a sympathetic ear, Helrich found out that she was no longer a Christian although she had been raised Methodist, but turned away from her faith in college at Randolph Macon in Virginia.
In his journey he wanted to know more about God. While reading Peter Marshall’s Mister Jones, Meet the Master, Carl felt God pointed out the times (more than just the accident at the street corner) when Carl personally had been saved. He then had the clear message that he must return to Reba Place.
But not sure how to get back to Reba Place without just knocking on the door blindly, he began by helping move people around the Fellowship and went to events related to the community. Beginning a Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount, he was confronted on pacifism and turned to the Bible and came back convinced. Eventually he was baptized and joined the Mennonite community. When asked a crucial question — whether he believed Jesus is alive today and present in the body assembled, Helrich recalls, “I said yes and would say yes with deeper conviction again now.”
Betty Jane and Carl kept in touch and remained friends throughout this time and a few weeks after his baptism a big snow in Chicagoland threw them together again. She was interested in talking Christianity again and in realizing this was just too much for him, Carl turned to Reba Place’s John and Louise Miller.
A meeting between all four of them followed. At the meeting, John Miller asked Carl to find out what he and Betty Jane meant to one another. A week later upon returning to Millers’ home, he had the happy news that he had asked Betty Jane to marry him. Later on Betty Jane too was baptized at Reba Place and a few months later she married Carl.
The couple has now been married for more than 40 years, but still marvel at their own story of finding the Mennonite community together at Northwestern. Most of all, they are thankful for learning to trust God together. Prior to moving to Goshen, the couple together spent Helrich’s early career at the University of Tennessee Space Institute, then the national laboratory in Juelich, Germany, then Bethel College in Kansas.
Living in Goshen
At Goshen, Helrich taught a Senior Seminar course with Marlin Jeschke on religion and science, which is still taught today. Helrich received a Templeton award for proposing a modification of the course and started going to Templeton conferences in order to learn more theology.
The idea to form the Goshen Conference on Religion and Science ultimately stems from Helrich’s being asked to become part of the Cosmos and Creation conference at Loyola University in Maryland. He says the idea that Goshen would be a great place to have a conference took root in the 1990s as the he taught a class along with Marlin Jeschke, now professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. The team taught course brought together physics professors and professors in religion.
As Helrich’s network of science professors with an interest in religion at other universities widened through conferences he attended, he found friends at other colleges centered in other denominations including Anabaptist, Seventh Day Adventist and Catholicism.
What transpired as Helrich began to organize the Goshen College Religion and Science conference was not only a place to discuss science and religion topics, but a place where students and faculty from differing Christian backgrounds and denominations can freely discuss the views of science from their traditions.
It also sparked the creation of a formal academic society. Six colleges now make up the Midwest Society for Religion and Science: Bluffton College, University of Saint Francis, Manchester College, Andrews University, Bethel College and Goshen College.
Much of this group’s work has won instrumental backing from non-profits. In 2000, the Miller-Jeschke Program for Christian Faith and Natural Sciences expanded its support in funding the first Goshen conference and was the culmination of a couple’s shared interest in religion and science.
Elizabeth Miller and Marlin Jeschke met through their work at the intersection of religion and science following the deaths of each of their spouses. This couple’s foundation was integral in getting the conference organized, and Helrich has also gained backing from the Local Society Initiative of Metanexus, which is also funding Helrich’s efforts at the Midwest Center for Religion and Consciousness. This Center offers fellowships to students to present papers on topics revolving around science, religion and the mysteries of consciousness. Students present their work at an annual conference in the autumn at Andrews University, to be held this year on November 6.
Helrich says that eventually a book will come out of the student papers and discussion. But the group has already covered plenty of ground with its well established Religion and Science conference held in the spring.
The Goshen Conference
Nancey Murphy, associate professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, was the first speaker to participate at the annual meeting in Goshen. She presented three public lectures dealing with human identity, the concept of a moral basis for the universe and evolution.
“Proposing a theory of divine action in and through natural processes, that is, of God’s cooperation with, rather than coercion or overriding of God’s created entities, I have argued is to propose an exhibition of God’s moral character, which serves as a model of human behavior,” Murphy concluded at the end of her public lecture.
Starting with such an all-inclusive viewpoint of God’s immanence, the conference has gone on to tackle a variety of topics related to different scientific disciplines. The lectures and weekend discussions are captured in a series of books published by Pandora Press, www.pandorapress.com.
In 2002, George F.R. Ellis was the Goshen keynote speaker. Ellis, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Capetown and a Quaker, spoke of “A Universe of Ethics, Morality and Hope.” His lectures dealt with how cause and effect operates in complex systems in the physical world, the origin and nature of morality, and the science and religion debate.
The following year Antje Jackelen, then director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science and an associate professor of systematic theology/religion and science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, spoke of the dialogue between religion and science. Her lectures brought together physics, philosophy and hermeneutics from a unique perspective of an ordained pastor in the Church of Sweden. Jackelen is now a bishop of the Diocese of Lund in Sweden.
From the Catholic perspective, Goshen attendees have heard lectures on a purposeful universe that embodies the restlessness that science teaches us is there along with the Christian message of hope. Well-known author and Georgetown University professor of theology John F. Haught spoke on cosmic purpose and evolution in three lectures titled: “Purpose, Evolution and the Mystery of Life.”
Cosmology was the theme in 2005, as theologian and physicist Robert John Russell took on the construction the Big Bang and steady state cosmologies in addition to the problem of “natural evil” — suffering, disease, death and extinction in nature. Russell is director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California.
Then Editor of the Zygon Journal of Religion and Science Philip Hefner discussed his Lutheran heritage as part of his lectures on the spiritual quest for meaning. In his initial lecture, Hefner described the work of religion and science as determining how well it expresses the meaning of the world, is scientifically understood and relates it to what is most important for the long-term future.
In 2008, sessions were a thorough review of the history of the religion and science pressure points through the eyes of Colorado State University distinguished professor and winner of the 2003 Templeton Prize Holmes Rolston III. Three public lectures tackled the questions surrounding the origin of life, human uniqueness and the series of three big bangs in the history of the universe culminating in human culture. He began by outlining looming questions in relation to the generation of life on earth. “Maybe you wouldn’t want to call life on earth a miracle, but it is hard to find a biologist that wouldn’t call it a marvel,” Rolston told attendees.
Goshen featured Noreen Herzfeld, professor of theology and computer science at St. John’s University in Minnesota in 2009 with the theme of “Limits of Perfection.”
In 2010, Philip Clayton, a theologian and philosopher from Claremont Graduate University and Ingraham Professor at the Claremont School of Theology, spoke of his writings and research in the area of emergence.
As for Helrich, he is still working on upcoming conferences and is now an emeritus professor at Goshen and still team teaches the Senior Seminar. He has a research program and is doing online courses for a medical physics program. Helrich has also done book reviews for the Zygon Journal in addition to writing a second text in physics.
Next spring will be Goshen’s tenth conference and the first time featuring one of its alumni. The speaker is Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard University and a senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. An alumnus of Goshen College Department of Physics, Gingerich is an authority on Copernicus and Kepler, but the series of talks will be on his recent work on evolution, according to Helrich.
Celia Deane-Drummond, chair of theology at Chester College in the UK and director of the Centre for Religion and the Biosciences, will speak at Goshen in 2012, while Gayle Woloschak, associate director of the Zygon Center of Religion and Science, is on deck for 2013.
As for Helrich, he has no plans to stop participating with the conference and plans to direct the 2011 proceedings.
Susan Barreto is a journalist who has been following religion and science since 2003 with articles appearing in various newsletters and The Lutheran magazine. She is also a deputy editor of a monthly hedge fund magazine owned by Euromoney Institutional Investor. Susan is a long-time member of Luther Memorial Church in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and son.