History

Philip Hefner Founder/Director of ZCRS from 1988-2003 Professor of Theology, Emeritus, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago Editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science

Philip Hefner
Founder/Director of ZCRS from 1988-2003
Professor of Theology, Emeritus, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
Editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science

In the years 1967-1988, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) supported courses in the science-religion field, conferences, and a program of visiting scholars.

The LSTC work built on the experience that Philip Hefner had accumulated since 1962, which in turn was informed by work that previous faculty members had done—Robert Tobias, Joseph Sittler, and Robert Bertram. This experience forms one of the two major streams that flowed into ZCRS when it was formed in 1988.

In 1967, Hefner and Ralph Wendell Burhoe began a close working relationship until Burhoe’s death in 1997.

Burhoe’s work constitutes the second major stream that shaped ZCRS. His work in religion-and-science began in his Baptist upbringing and continued within the Unitarian Church. Although he spent three years at Harvard College and a year at Andover-Newton Seminary, he was largely self-educated. He worked at Harvard’s Bluehill Observatory as a meteorologist prior to becoming the first full-time executive officer of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. There he developed his ideas of a “scientific theology.” He often spoke of his brilliant tutors at the Academy, who included Harlow Shapley, Kirtley Mather, Hudson Hoaglund, George Wald, Francis O. Schmitt, and Dobzhansky—most of them associated with Harvard and M.I.T. They believed that in the post-World War II era science had become alienated from society as a whole, and they worked to integrate science and values. The Academy acknowledged his efforts, forming the Committee on Science and Human Values. In the mid-50s, he worked with others to establish the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. In 1965, Burhoe joined the faculty at the Unitarian seminary in Hyde Park Chicago, Meadville/Lombard School of Theology. There he facilitated the founding of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science and the Center for Advanced Study in Religion and science (CASIRAS). Since 1989, ZCRS has housed the editorial offices of the Journal. In 1980 Burhoe became the first American to receive the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

Ralph Wendell Burhoe 1911-1997 Founder of the Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, Center for Advanced Studies in Religion and Science (CASIRAS)

Ralph Wendell Burhoe
1911-1997
Founder of the Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, Center for Advanced Studies in Religion and Science (CASIRAS)

Even though Burhoe’s work up to 1967 and mine shared many elements, certain distinctive characteristics of his work should be noted: (1) His work took place among largely secular scientists. (2) He involved many scientists of the very highest renown. (3) He not only grounded his work in the biological and evolutionary sciences, but took particular note of the neurosciences and the place of human evolution, including the evolution of human behavior; he pursued what we know today as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, since they were most relevant to his concern for human values and moral behavior. (4) He envisioned science and traditional religion to be the two most significant forces shaping society; he chose the term “zygon” as the name of the journal, because it means “yoke”—science and traditional religion must be yoked together in order to deal adequately with the great issues that challenge us today.

William Lesher President emeritus, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 1978-1997

William Lesher
President emeritus, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 1978-1997

Up until 1967, however, Burhoe had failed to interest representatives of traditional religion who would be yoked with the scientists he had recruited. The support of LSTC, through its president, William Lesher, provided the partner that he sought. Through Burhoe’s work and my own, the Zygon Center embodied his vision of science and traditional religion yoked together for the larger human welfare.

Burhoe had developed a sophisticated conceptual program that rooted religion within human evolution, which included for him also the evolution of culture. This program was recognized in the citation from the Templeton Prize committee. He worked closely with scientists who theorized about biology, evolution, culture, and values—the entomologist Alfred Emerson, the experimental psychologist Donald T. Campbell, and the emerging literature of sociobiology by George C. Williams, E. O. Wilson, Richard Alexander, and Richard Dawkins. This scientific material provided the ideas into which he believed religious wisdom must be “translated” in order to provide the credible scientific theology that was essential for the moral guidance of society. The Burhoe tradition is embodied in CASIRAS, which, together with LSTC founded the Center and constitutes the governing body of ZCRS.

This Burhoe program was prominent in the work of the Zygon Center, but it never became the explicit aim of the Center. The program of the Center has been to gather people—scientists, theologians, religious leaders, and other interested persons—for conversation and thinking about the major issues facing human society. The Center’s programs have sought out both secular and religious thinkers, and it adhered to the belief that the agenda could be set by the scientists. Theologians and religious thinkers have been challenged to respond to and contribute to the agenda set by the world; they did not have to determine the discussion. This stance is, of course, fully consistent with the leading Protestant Christian theologians and churches in the 1960s, including the World Council of Churches, who believed that the churches should accept the world’s agenda as their mission field. (See the work of Colin Williams and Harvey Cox.)

The style of the Zygon Center, thus, has been that of welcoming interested persons, whatever their agendas, and encouraging smaller groups to pursue their own interests within the field of religion-and-science. Creating a hospitable environment for scientists and theologians and students was the first priority, even though the emphasis was on biological evolution, neuro- and socio-biology, and on confronting the challenges to human living and morality.

Thomas Gilbert Founder/Director of Epic of Creation Lecture Series from 1989-2003 Physicist (Retired), Argonne National Laboratory Adjunct Professor of Religion and Science, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Thomas Gilbert
Founder/Director of Epic of Creation Lecture Series from 1989-2003
Physicist (Retired), Argonne National Laboratory
Adjunct Professor of Religion and Science, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

I cannot detail here the particular activities of the center during the first 15 years of its existence. They include the 15-year lecture series designed by physicist Thomas Gilbert, The Epic of Creation, which surveys the process of evolution from the origins of the universe to the emergence of contemporary culture, as well as the biblical stories of creation, and the theological interpretation of both science and Bible. The Epic has been a centerpiece of ZCRS activity. In 2003 molecular biologist, Gayle Woloschak, (Northwestern University) took over the Epic of Creation series, after Tom Gilbert retired.

Courses and degree programs, through LSTC, have also been central. Six Ph.D.’s have been granted in the field. Dissertations by David Breed, Eduardo Cruz, and Alejandro Garcia-Rivera have been published, and these scholars are now respected teachers.

ZCRS has organized a number of major conferences, including: “Year 2000: Mission Field of the Church” in 1989, for the bishops and churchwide leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; two symposia in which theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg carried on dialogue with scientists, published as Beginning with the End, edited by Carol Albright and Joel Haugen; in 1999, “Religion and Science: Resource and Challenge to Each Other,” at the Parliament of World Religions in Cape Town (published in Zygon, March 2001 and in When Worlds Converge (both books published by Open Court Press. The Center will take major responsibility for organizing programs at the next Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona, in 2004; finally, I note the interreligious project directed by James Moore, which focuses on a global ethic to meet the challenge of HIV/AIDS, which has resulted in annual conferences in 2001 and 2002, published in Zygon, March 2003 and in a forthcoming issue. For five years in the 1990s, the Center also served as the office of the midwest region of the Templeton Foundation’s Science and Religion Courses Program

These comments focus on the rich and important history of the Zygon Center, but the past is only prelude to the future. Our eyes are now pointed toward the future, which is marked by transition to new and younger leadership that will address new issues and offer new focus.