In his final note to the members of the Institute in an Age of Religion and Science listserv, Dr. Philip Hefner wrote, “It is time for my life to go back to the stars. I had a good life, and working with you and the others has been one of the high spots for me.”

As I sat at his bedside the week before his death, there was a plain wooden box (presumably to hold his ashes) with his name and the phrase “creatio ex nihilo.”  

From this core but rarely appreciated doctrine, Hefner critically retrieved a renewed understanding for contemporary Christian thinking, with special attention to what it means to be human in our world dominated by scientific and technological discovery.

Lutheran theologian and poet Dr. Hefner passed away on April 27, 2024 at the age of 91, leaving behind a rich legacy of exploration of how religion and science are connected to one another and how religion-and-science as a combined endeavor is essential not only to our understanding of the cosmos but also in providing a backdrop to our belief in God’s will for humanity.

According to his obituary, Hefner traveled to Tuebingen University in Germany as a Fulbright scholar in 1954 before beginning his studies at Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary in Maywood, Ill. Soon after ordination in 1962, Hefner began his life’s work of teaching theology to students preparing to be pastors initially at Wittenberg University’s Hamma Divinity School in Ohio, then ultimately in a tenured position at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) from 1967 on.

Hefner was instrumental in helping establish the Chicago Center for Religion and Science in 1989 – which later became the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. There he collaborated with others from the neighboring seminaries and the University of Chicago to establish lecturers for a unique course called The Epic of Creation, which sought to tell the story of creation from both the scientific view and that of religion. That course was my introduction to this important work centered at LSTC.

A conference that followed in the early 2000s was where I innocently asked: who should I interview to learn more about this religion and science thing? Don Browning, an ethicist and professor at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, simply pointed over to Dr. Hefner.

In one roughly two-hour interview with Hefner, I knew I had stumbled on something important – but who would listen? I pitched a story to the Chicago Reader on the topic of faith and science, and they turned me down. There was a pitch to The Chicago Tribune, which also declined.

Finally, The Lutheran, the ELCA’s own monthly print magazine at the time, was interested. Editor David Miller, a pastor and journalist, knew there was a story to be told. To be honest, for me it was one of the more difficult features I ever wrote, because to capture the breadth and depth of Hefner’s ideas and work in 1,500 words was nearly impossible task. I did it, but not without some assistance from a very engaged and enthusiastic Miller.

Even Hefner’s core contribution of humanity as a “created co-creator” has been misunderstood by so many and to be fair, I don’t think I fully grasped its significance for years after writing that story for the January 2005 issue. Using poetry and even sci-fi films, Hefner illustrated how we can view sin, God’s relation to creation and even our own anthropology with a keen sense of how “religion-and-science” should be engaged in constructive interaction.

“The challenge is to recognize the revelation of science, showing us what God has done, what God wants to do now and what God intends to do,” he said at the time. It took Hefner himself over 50 years, eight books, many essays and lectures to perhaps flush out some of the more important concepts that are left now for us to explore.

In his last set of essays on the topic for his 2022 book, Human Becoming in an Age of Science, Technology and Faith, he undertook a critique of the crisis of living in a technological age as well as the reality that artificial intelligence can be seen as a reflection of our culture and our work as created co-creators. This “yes and” brand of theology, that initially confounded me as a journalist looking for answers, is why the idea of our own ambiguity and ambivalence amid our own creating is so thought-provoking. It is captured well in this passage:

“Technology is intrinsic to the nature of Homo sapiens; it is the product of our brains, an element of our culture, as we go about doing what comes naturally to us, imagining alternative worlds and acting on that imagination. Technology as an overlay upon other systems of nature comes as naturally to humans as anything else about us….Technology is natural to us in this respect. It is not “artificial,” as some people say. Furthermore, it is a natural expression of our nature as creators. If we were not fundamentally creators, this crisis would not exist. If we look around carefully, we see that nearly every trouble we experience today has its origins in our culture and our difficulty in conducting our culture adequately.” (page 15)

Little did I know that over the course of numerous emails, meetings, webinars, and conferences that I would become deeply involved with a unique subset of dialogue that came with a sense of urgency, deep curiosity, and provided a certain kind of meaning to my life that I could not walk away from without exploring further of what was around the bend.

A good deal of what I learned over the years from Hefner, his students, and fellow theologians was a recipe for good conversation with fruitful dialogue. Covalence and the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology is an integral piece of this important work.

Hefner was very keen that pastors should understand religion-and-science as a shared enterprise. His education of pastors and scholars has widely impacted many an ELCA congregation, without those in the pews even knowing his name. It is my hope that Covalence and others will lift up his legacy by telling his story to others.

After all, he often referred to our shared calling to be that of “earth’s storytellers.” And that is where our work begins and ends, as only we were created to do.

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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