Daniel Deen and Joel Oesch: The Lutheran Voice and Crosswise Institute


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

On August 21 - August 23, we will be holding office hours with Daniel Deen (@Philosurfer) and Joel Oesch (https://vimeo.com/156847083), an LCMS Lutheran Theologian and Philosopher.

They invited me to be a speaker at the CrossWise Institute this summer (https://www.cui.edu/academicprograms/christcollege/crosswise). The students were thoughtful and engaged, and I’m sure I was the first person that most of them had met that affirmed evolution. To introduce me they thought it would be clever to start out with a video from Micah Bournes on Evolution and Injustice. So we had this room full of homeschool / christian schooled high schoolers, almost exclusively white, contemplating racism and evolution together.

I responded by telling them I wasn’t there to change their mind on evolution. Instead, I talked about Jesus, and how the Gospel changes everything. I insisted we needed them to be better than their parents generation. They agreed. Seeing students like this gives me a great deal of hope for the next chapter of our society. Then came the questions, and they wanted to talk about racism and evolution, so we did. If we are lucky, @Philosurfer might be able to give us some video clips these interactions (is that possible?).

This high school camp was the best of Lutheranism.

Those following Peaceful Science will remember the constant appeals to Lutheran Theology. Our currently absentee YEC moderator is a YEC LCMS Lutheran. I’ve drawn attention to the (too) slow unveiling of the The Lutheran Option. I’m convinced there is a critically important and missing voice missing in the conversation. To get a sense of what it sounds like, look at my favorite post from the last Office Hours:

Regardless, in this office hours, we are hoping to have some interactions with the many Lutherans that lurk around here, like @J.E.S, @CPArand, @acuriousmind, @JustAnotherLutheran. If we are lucky, @TedDavis will also show up, who has given a few talks at their St. Louis Concordia seminary. To kick us off, I’m asking:

  1. How would you summarize the Crosswise Institute as a whole, and the small role I played in it? What was the aftermath like? What have they been hearing from students?

  2. Where does LCMS stand on young earth creationism and evolutionary science?

  3. Why would a denomination with so much controversy about the age of the earth invite me, a scientist that affirms evolution, to speak to their high school students? Why take the risk of bringing me (a non Lutheran) to speak to a group of your high school students?

  4. How does true Lutheranism depart from the fundamentalism? What are the Lutheran distinctives the rest of us (non-Lutherans) might benefit from as we engage with science and theology?

Looking forward to the conversation. See you guys soon!


Jeremy Smith: I Disagree with Dr. Swamidass
The Rise of the Podcasts
(S. Joshua Swamidass) #6

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #7

Looking forward to the conversation starting soon. Feel free to join in when the thread opens. Hopefully @J.E.S and @CPArand and @acuriousmind will join us too. Peace.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #8

This topic was automatically opened after 32 days.


(Jonathan) #9

Greetings!

To kick this off, I would like to quickly address question no. 2…

Here is the excerpt from the ‘Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod’ concerning Creation:

Of Creation

We teach that God has created heaven and earth, and that in the manner and in the space of time recorded in the Holy Scriptures, especially Gen. 1 and 2, namely, by His almighty creative word, and in six days. We reject every doctrine which denies or limits the work of creation as taught in Scripture. In our days it is denied or limited by those who assert, ostensibly in deference to science, that the world came into existence through a process of evolution; that is, that it has, in immense periods of time, developed more or less of itself. Since no man was present when it pleased God to create the world, we must look for a reliable account of creation to God’s own record, found in God’s own book, the Bible. We accept God’s own record with full confidence and confess with Luther’s Catechism: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures.”
https://www.lcms.org/about/beliefs/doctrine/brief-statement-of-lcms-doctrinal-position#creation

(@swamidass, thanks for the clarifying edit!)


(Daniel Deen) #10

Thanks Josh for setting this up. I’ll provide a few brief comments on your particular questions and let others pick up on threads they want to further discuss. I know Joel will be coming in soon and providing his own thoughts on a few of the questions.

Broadly speaking, I like to introduce Crosswise to people as the liberal arts meets Sunday morning youth group. It is a project that is housed at a university, so we treat the summer program as such. We are attempting to show high school students that conversations surrounding Christ and culture generally and science and theology specifically are often much more complex than first thought. We do this in a resurrection centered assurance that no matter how messy the details of the conversation may get, our identity is baptized into Christ . We have confidence to engage the culture in, as our website says, “risky, but rewarding” fashion. We can do this, I believe, because we have the backing of our various departments on campus to help us with providing excellent Lutheran professors who are professionals in their various fields. This last time around, we had professors from communication/rhetoric, biology, anthropology, and psychology leading break out sessions. The hope is that we are modeling and cultivating a better conversation for the youth as they become masks of Christ to others in the lives they live and the vocations with which they find themselves.

Your role, as I saw it, was to come in and illustrate how one can navigate the waters of undergraduate and graduate scientific education (practical MD and theoretical PhD) while remaining a confessing Christian. I learned about you through the article you wrote for Concordia Journal (Summer 2017). Your introduction was spot on as to why you practice science due to your identity in Christ. I knew you were also a practicing evolutionary biologist, so I figured that would spark plenty of conversations with our students as they processed your confident faith in Christ alongside your evolutionary commitments. The aftermath was positive. I distinctly remember one student commenting to me that your talk was the most challenging in that they expected an evolutionary biologist NOT to be Christian. Your clear pronouncement in Jesus and the non-wavering evolutionary views clearly got many of the students thinking through a position they have never encountered. This, coupled with the small group time the students had with resident theologians, really marked a high point in cognitive tension and resolution with out students. They grew.

As @J.E.S pointed out below, our Brief Statement on Creation is pretty clear that the LCMS is in tension with evolutionary theory. I would point out that the language in the Brief Statement is a little unclear as to the nature of evolution:

The statement seems to be thinking of evolution as a grand materialistic cosmic evolution in its reference to the “world” coming into existence and “developing more or less of itself.” This has been further clarified in Resolution-2-08A on teaching of evolution in our synodical schools:

WHEREAS, The hypotheses of macro, organic, and Darwinian evolution, including theistic evolution or any other model denying special, immediate, and miraculous creation, undercut this support for the honoring of life as a gift of God; and

WHEREAS, Any teaching that advocates the transition from one species to another, as opposed to maintaining the distinction of species “according to their kinds” (Genesis, Chapter 1), rejects the clear teaching of Scripture; and

Resolved , That all educational agencies and institutions of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod including early childhood programs, elementary schools, high schools, colleges, universities, and seminaries continue to teach creation from the biblical perspective; and be it further

Resolved , That no educational agency or institution of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod tolerate any teaching that contradicts the special, immediate, and miraculous creation by God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as an explanation for the origin of the universe; and be it further

Resolved , That the Synod’s educational agencies and institutions properly distinguish between micro and macro evolution and affirm the scriptural revelation that God has created all species “according to their kinds”; and be it finally

Note that there is no mention of age of earth in this resolution. However, going by our popular literature, radio interviews, and conference speakers, young earth creationism (YEC) is the going position that is promoted through official synodical channels. Which, makes that statistic of LCMS views of human evolution found by Pew research all the more disconcerting!

This is an interesting question and I think drives at the heart of what we at Crosswise and Concordia University, Irvine (as well as PeacefulScience) are driving at – better conversations. I’ll let the new readers here explore PeacefulScience a bit to see the sorts of conversations are happening. However, at Crosswise, we are trying to break a trend in high school textbook thinking about science as well as deepen the naïve youth group thinking about faith and reason/science often perpetuated in youth ministry. Concordia is a Liberal Arts University within the Lutheran tradition, thus we adopt Luther’s own words as our aim in education, “wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens” – the liberal arts is about producing liberal minds (not necessarily politically liberal!), but a mind that is open and flexible to discovering one’s God-given talents to better serve their neighbors. The Lutheran tradition aspect is to anchor securely students in the forgiveness of Christ. Hence, the play on words in our title, Crosswise. When one fears the Lord, becoming wise in the ways of the cross, then one is truly free to engage in science, philosophy, and theology in previously unimaginable ways. It is an identity thing. If your identity is bound to Christ, then nothing can separate you from His love and one is called to venture into any area required to serve our neighbors (including infiltrating brothels, money laundering tax organizations, and cleaning out the temple if we are to ask the question WWJD?). This is the essence of Luther’s notion of the “Freedom of a Christian.” It puts us in a paradoxical bind to be utterly free while completely bound to service to our neighbors, even when our neighbors are evolutionary biologists!

In my opinion, you were not a risk but the exact sort of person we at Crosswise are looking for to challenge our students. You provided a voice in a conversation that has not been present in a lot of our student’s past conversations. The dissonance you brought required a changing of gears for our students to grow intellectually and spiritually. I liked the way you challenged them to be better thinkers.

Seeing as this is already a long post, I’m going to “send it” and then reflect a little further on your question four, let Joel get something posted and see what people want to talk about!

Cheers all and I look forward to some conversation!


Daniel Deen: Thank God for Evolution
(Joel Oesch) #11

From the beginning, the Crosswise Institute was designed to challenge high school students to confront the more difficult questions that emerge from the Christianity-culture conversation. We wanted to resist two common impulses that naturally arise when we deal with complex issues: 1) Off-loading our responsibilities as thinking Christians to some esoteric position paper issued from our Church body (though these certainly have their proper use) thereby exculpating us from entering the fray, and/or 2) Avoid the conversation altogether for the purposes of “keeping the peace.” The Lutheran liberal arts mentality, when it’s at it’s best, openly confronts the world in all of its complexity. There can–and should be–an expectation that the world we encounter every day is full of surprises, tensions, and paradoxes. In the end, any earnest pursuit of truth drives us closer to the heart of God, not further away. Crosswise was built, in part, to invite students to participate in a life of examination–a life that acknowledges cultural complexity as but one of many gifts God provides for his children.

We invited Josh to speak about evolutionary/genealogical issues and their relationship to Scripture in hopes that his words would knock the students off-balance. In last year’s event, we invited an atheist transhumanist (Zoltan Istvan) to be the keynote speaker, thoroughly surprising and delighting the student crowd. Josh skillfully opened new vistas of thought without sacrificing his commitment to the biblical text, and the students were IN. I clearly remembered one student, a young woman, flatly stating that she had never been exposed to some of Josh’s propositions. Far from being turned off, however, she found that talking about such topics drove her deeper into the biblical text and further conversation with her peers. I call that a successful event.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #12

Thanks @Philosurfer, @joel.oesch and @J.E.S for joining in here.

For reference, @J.E.S has been a kind and gracious YEC, who is also part of the LCMS.

This is the best of Lutheranism, and exactly what I have experienced with you. Thank you so much for inviting me too.

Can you tell us some more about what was important in that article? What did you learn about me from it?

I must truly commend you for caring enough about students to challenge them. I’ve always been skeptical of Christian education institutions, because they often adopt the language “protecting” students from challenge. This over-protectiveness ultimately undermines confident faith. If we need our teachers to protect us from scary ideas, what happens when we enter the real world? You are presenting a better way forward. This the type of Christian education that could produce a confident faith in a scientific world.

Can you tell me more about the aftermath?

What sorts of conversations took place with the students and faculty in response to me? What sort of questions arose?

I also talked about racism and injustice, and most the students where white suburbanites, often home schooled too. How did they respond to that part of the conversation?


(Joel Oesch) #13

This is an important point, I think. For a sizable number of Lutherans, a disconnect exists between the church’s teachings on Gen 1-4 and the average parishioner’s actual beliefs. I can only assume that this disconnect will continue as church membership and monthly worship numbers tumble, as it is doing across a broad swath of mainline denominations. Perhaps there’s another reason… I think it’s entirely possible that our theological education all too often discourages the average high school student from asking the difficult questions that the biblical text raises in light of modern science. Quiet obedience becomes the game they’ve learned to play, surrendering their engagement to “an adult who knows what’s going on.” Then, when the student heads off to college, he/she is confronted by an avalanche of worldviews that undercut the narrative they’ve been told all along. They lack the tools/arsenal/conversational skills to fruitfully engage these competing beliefs. Instead, many give up the faith of their fathers for something else or nothing at all. I hope that, in some small way, Crosswise invites students to test their conservative Christianity against a bevy of competing voices and emerge on the other side, knowing that 1) their identity is forever preserved in Christ through baptism, and 2) they have the Christian freedom to ask the questions that don’t have easy answers. And then, when the dust settles, they enter the fray yet again as Christians of conviction and integrity.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #14

@J.E.S, thanks for raising this point.

It is important, because it exposes how your view on these issues is more grounded in fundamentalism than lutheranism. This statement does NOT constrain LCMS Lutherans from affirming to an old earth, or for affirming evolutionary science.

Let me explain a couple points, to show how my view of evolutionary science entirely consistent with this statement.

The “six days”, even if they are ordinary days, allows for the age of the Earth. Here is one of at least 3 ways to make sense of that: A Telling in Six Ordinary Days. Perhaps @deuteroKJ might pipe in too.

So this is not a description of the evolutionary science I affirm. What is described here is atheism, but I hold that God was involved, though I cannot say precisely how. So I agree with the statement in denying Godless evolution. This is the only form of evolution denied here, and every Christian should deny it.

I also confess that God has made me and all creatures.


Three more ways we know this statement allows for evolution.

  1. Most LCMS Lutherans actually do affirm evolutionary science.

  2. LCMS Lutherans place a high value on paradox, so embrace oft two apparently contradictory things can be possible.

  3. Your understanding of that statement, and perhaps the statement itself, is a product of Fundamentalism, not Lutheranism.

For those three reasons, alongside the wording of the statement, most LCMS Lutherans have not feel the need to reject evolutionary science. That is good news. You don’t have to remain in the @J.E.S unless you feel Scripture tells you different. Your doctrinal statements are entirely consistent with my position.

@Philosurfer and @joel.oesch, do I understand that rightly?


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #15

I suppose I take a different angle on this.

I’m curious your thoughts.

I should add that the wording in the resolutions is not a challenge either. I am, for example, not a theistic evolutionist.


(Daniel Deen) #16

The key quote is in your introduction to the article, "I follow him because God raised him from the dead. Through his act in history, God reveals himself to the world. This is how I know that he exists, that he is good, and that he wants to be known. When I encountered the living God, my entire world was reordered. Because of Jesus, I hold that the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and useful in all it affirms" (Swamidass 2017, emphases mine).

My entry into philosophy and eventually looking to the relationship between science and religion was via apologetics where I was drilled relentlessly on the importance of the historical argument for the resurrection. When I started down the graduate school track in philosophy at secular schools, I was amazed at how robust the conclusions of the historical argument are in the face of philosophical speculation. That history, is something that is able to be discussed, argued, debated, no-matter your disciplinary training. It provides an epistemological center common to any disciplinary conversations we may have even in the face of it being a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” to Jew and Gentile (i.e., everyone!) Thus, when you led of with that, I knew you were approaching your vocation as evolutionary biologist from a different starting point than most.

It isn’t that biology has much to say about Christ, but that Christ has everything to say about biology – not in practice necessarily, but perhaps in something like your ethos (not to be confused with our contemporary impoverished sense of ethics). Your epistemological ordering is centered on Christ and then flows outward to all other branches of knowledge. Correct me if I’m misrepresenting you. But, you had grasped the importance of what I take to be a key difference between Lutheran approaches to science and knew the discussion would be interesting to say the least.

I’m going to forward this one to @pmcelliott who led a “Table Talk” discussion with a group of students after your presentation. He was a bit more boots on the ground with students this time around than I or Joel was this year. He might be able to provide a little more of the “aftermath” reflection you are looking for.


(Paul Elliott) #17

I am a professor at Concordia University Irvine, and I led a “Table Talk” discussion with a group of students at Crosswise. The students with whom I spoke needed time to unpack and process Dr. Swamidass’s talk, since so much of it was foreign to them. Many of the students were uncomfortable with some of the ideas that were presented, but they were having difficulty articulating why. I tried to guide them through a dissection of Dr. Swamidass’s views (as I understand them) and my own views as a Lutheran and a Young Earth Creationist. Their most frequent question is “Why do you/we/they believe that?” I do not think that many students changed their views on the age of the earth or the origin of human beings. However, they had to contemplate the foundations of why and on what basis they hold those views.

What I have observed in the best of the Lutheran tradition is a sort of fearlessness in the face of controversy. That is to say, there is no trepidation that we might end up with the “wrong” answers if we allow our beliefs to be challenged. There is a confidence that our faith in Christ will not be undermined by an honest search for truth. This is in contrast with fundamentalism, which is often a fearful and reactionary position, one that often feels the need to provide definitive (and easy) answers in order to protect its own from the wrong ideas. The thing that I most admire in the Crosswise Institute is it models that fearlessness for the students, that extreme confidence that Christ will always vindicate himself and his Word.


(Daniel Deen) #18

This is what the Pew data shows, but it is not what I hear when I am speaking to the laity. It is also not a message that is being presented through official channels. You are correct to point out that the statement seems to emphasis a completely materialistic sense of evolution. However, the Resolution 2-08A I mentioned previously specifically resolves for official educational channels to reject “hypotheses of macro, organic, and Darwinian evolution.” Now, let’s not get bogged down in the rhetoric of “hypotheses” or trying to understanding what might be meant by “organic” – I suppose it is available for purchase at Whole Foods :smile:! The key take away is that at least for educational outfits of the LCMS, one is supposed to at least distinguish between “macro” and “micro” and “kinds”.

This is true. We ought not be quick to relinquish all “unknowns” to the realm of paradox, but Lutherans are very comfortable in living an intellectual life that doesn’t quite map perfectly between disciplines. I think the epistemological ordering I mentioned before is important here in that we don’t need nor desire to synthesize, integrate, whatever all science with all theology. Jesus didn’t square everything up when he visited earth between all the different academic fault lines, he rescued us and provided a glimpse of the new world that is to come where the fault lines themselves will be re-created.

Thus, traditionally, Lutherans have been very slow to bring on board or to reject various cosmological (we would now say scientific) and metaphysical implications of the various academic disciplines. As you well know, Copernicus is the classic historical test case. I provide a quote from Robert Preuss who surveyed early post-Reformation theologians to the rise of Copernican theory and concluded,

“But it is quite clear that they [early post-Reformation theologians] did not believe Scripture with its definite theological aim presented any unified world picture. And it is clear that they did not consider it incumbent upon them to favor or reject on theological grounds any of the cosmological hypotheses of their day.”

Is something like this a possibility in today’s intellectual climate regarding evolutionary biology? Food for thought…

I do not know about @J.E.S. I’ve never sat down and conversed with him. However, in relation to what I said in regard to @swamidass and paradox. It is hard not to feel that the LCMS has become “functionally” fundamentalist. Another way to say it, is something a colleague of mine mentioned to me after conversing about the Concordia Journal summer edition and its fallout. We can be professors and bowl a liberal arts game, but only if we bowl with proper gutter guards. What he meant is that we have a serious problem if, as a university, as a church body, we cannot even engage in a broader conversation about difficult topics. This is the very attitude we are fighting against at Crosswise.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #19

I really like this @pmcelliott. I call it “Lutheran confidence.”

Thank you also for being such a kind host to me. As I often explain, it is not my purpose to convince you that evolutionary science is true. I just want to be an honest witness of what I have seen, reassuring students that nothing in evolution threatens Jesus.

You are fighting the good fight. Whatever real merits there are in fundamentalism, the Lutheran Voice should rise again.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #20

@joel.oesch, I know you have done work on trans-humanism. Can you tell us about this in a nutshell?

@pmcelliott, we’ve discussed the Genealogical Adam a bit. What are your thoughts on it?


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #21

Not at all. You are articulating it just as do I. For me theology must begin and end with Jesus, or we should wonder if it is actually Christian theology. He is the One who reorders my world. We’ve talked about this in the past too…

This is one of the ways Lutheran theology has been valuable to me. It has made sense of these crazy instincts to root things in Jesus. Even though I am not Lutheran, you have emboldened me.


(Ted Davis) #22

@swamidass,

I’m in the room, but have little to add to this very interesting exchange. The challenges faced by LCMS scholars, vis-a-vis lay members of the denomination, are quite real and clearly articulated. My own comments can be only historical–indeed, pre-historical from the perspective of most LCMS members.

First, I note that a famous president of Concordia Seminary, Franz Pieper (died 1931), staunchly opposed Copernican astronomy. So did the late Walter H. J. Lang (died 2004), another prominent MS Lutheran. Among other activities, Lang led an organization called the Bible-Science Association that was also YEC. They published a newsletter, and at one point the (now) famous Christian writer Nancy Pearcey was involved with it.

Also–in the 1920s, the era of the Scopes trial, Lutheran ministers were collectively among the most conservative responders to a national poll about the beliefs of Protestant ministers in America. Here I’m assessing their views on Genesis and science.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #23

Do you know how the shift happened then? A recent poll shows 51% of LCMS affirm evolutionary science, alongside about 45% who are young earthers. Old earthers are almost absent.


(Joel Oesch) #24

Transhumanism (shorthand H+) is the belief that human nature is not fixed, but can (and should) be modified/augmented/improved through the use of reason and technology. Maybe another way to say this is: the human person has full freedom–even the responsibility–to change themselves by taking evolution into their own hands. Practically speaking, a H+ is comfortable with bodily modifications (e.g., biometric chips, bionic limbs) and/or mind modifications (e.g., memory enhancement, super-intelligence future techs) that transcend what they might term a “deficient” or “flawed” human body. The more extreme transhumanists out there, such as Google’s Ray Kurzweil, wish to jettison the body altogether in favor of an existence that is pure intelligence–existing either in the digital cloud or perhaps uploaded onto more durable substrates (i.e., a computer system).

As I mentioned earlier, Crosswise took on H+ and digital technologies as its topic of choice in last year’s conference. I think we were ultimately successful in engaging the students to think more critically about their own use of digital technologies and the philosophies that underwrite such use. When you’re talking about issues of body and mind, you inevitably encounter one of the great liberal arts questions of all-time, ‘What makes humans, human?’ I imagine the present discussion on evolution and human origins prompts the same question. And, for the Lutheran, we return to a christocentric view of the person. Better than asking, ‘What do I have to say about my own human nature?’ – I’m inclined to return to Jesus and ask, ‘What does the Incarnation tell me about who I am, in relation to: 1) God, 2) my fellow man, and 3) the natural world?’ Clearly, this is a theological approach and not a biological one, but hey, I’m a theologian. :slight_smile: